Punk is more than just a style. It is more than just ripped-up denim, studded leather and garishly colored hair. Punk was — and still is — a way of life, an attitude embraced by those seeking to provoke and outrage the bourgeoisie tastes and convictions of their contemporaries. Just as the harsh tones and anti-establishment lyrics of punk rock groups like The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones were meant to provoke and disturb, punk fashion was meant to repel and disgust.
This year, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual spring exhibition delves into punk fashion with Punk: Chaos to Couture.
Despite anticipation surrounding viewing the exhibit, it fails to fully examine punk fashion’s cultural significance. While the Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton gave powerful meaning to the garments displayed in past shows like Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011) and Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations (2012), he fails to do so with the ensembles in his latest exhibit. The show focuses on the couturiers who adopted punk aesthetics into their runway shows, but delves little into the cultural connotations of the fashion itself.
The exhibit opens with a Tale of Two Cities, displaying two different locations that were significant in the early punk movement of the mid-seventies. The first is the bathroom at the infamous New York City club CBGB’s. The other is the interior of the seminal punk boutique Seditioners, run by Vivienne Westood and Malcolm McClaren, in London. Both locations were meccas for disenchanted youth whose bleak outlook spawned the punk aesthetic.
In the first gallery, Bolton displays a circle of mannequins wearing ensembles from Seditioners. There are the trademark plaids, Doc Marten’s, safety pins and torn material. In the center of the room is another circle of mannequins wearing contemporary, punk-inspired outfits. This room makes obvious the influence that the punk style had on the fashion runway. Many of the runway looks displayed have adorned the pages of Vogue within the past few years, which goes to show how the power of punk is still alive and kicking in our generation, at least in the fashion industry.
From there, the show focuses on how couturiers adopted various aspects of the punk D.I.Y aesthetic into their collections. Bolton utilizes four galleries to harness four different perspectives. D.I.Y Hardware showcases evening gowns embellished with studs and safety pens all created by the likes of Versace, Zandra Rhodes and Viktor & Rolf. The next room, D.I.Y. Bricolage, pays homage to the couturiers as bricoleurs — those who used objects that might be considered more akin to trash than fashion accessories in their couture concoctions. Martin Margiela uses broken plates, Miuccia Prada uses bottle caps and Gareth Pugh makes the most of trash bags. While the outfits may sound like something from Zoolander’s Derelicte runway collection, they are stunningly beautiful. D.I.Y. Graffiti features frou-frou Dolce & Gabbana ball gowns splattered with paint, as well as Vivienne Westwood and Martin Margiela T-shirts, which became means of protest for many punks.
The final room of the exhibit is D.I.Y Destroy, which shines a spotlight on Rei Kawakubo’s work for Comme des Garçons. This room also features the most incongruous garment in the punk exhibit: a distressed tweed Chanel suit. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld, the iconic bourgeois fashion ensemble is peppered with holes; however, in order to maintain the destroyed look of the garment, the seamstresses sewed in an invisible netting under the holes to prevent it from unraveling. The suit is only superficially punk — after all, what true follower of punk would drop the thousands of dollars for a pre-distressed Chanel garment? The aesthetics of D.I.Y. were anti-establishment, but the couturiers took these styles and made them apart of the mainstream look.
While the show is visually stimulating, it does not offer a new understanding of the punk movement and it makes only minor references to the political and musical histories that were so integral to it. Anyone can see the huge impact the punk aesthetic has had on fashion through the scores of zippers, safety pins and distressed embellishments on today’s clothing. However, while the fashion mimics elements of punk style, it is contrary to the punk spirit. Do-it-yourself and couture are two mutually exclusive sensibilities. As a counter-culture movement that aimed at spurning the prevailing social norms, punk was a reaction to anything that was expensive, exclusive or status-driven. While punk eschewed couture, couture embraced punk. Were the couturiers responsible for making punk obsolete? This is a question that the exhibit calls to mind, but fails to answer.
Before punk, designers created the trends that trickled their way down into the mainstream street fashion. This show focuses on how punk influenced high fashion from the bottom up. However, it does not address how high fashion impacted punk by making the subculture’s nonconformist aesthetic a conventional look.
Viewing the couture is a treat in itself and the latex walls, the club-like lighting, and Sex Pistols background music and videos add to the grand spectacle. Whether you want to see a greater meaning behind the designer clothing or not, the show, which runs until August 14, is still a great exhibit to visit on a summer trip to New York City.