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Punk at the Met: For People Who've Never Had to Safety-Pin Their Clothes

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art takes on punk, with mixed results.

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In spite of being fashion-world-centric, the main theme of the exhibit is DIY. Don’t be alarmed, though. This is no Conceptual art show, so you won’t leave saying, “I made better art in third grade.” If you can manage to DIY even a fraction of the clothing on display at this exhibit, then you are definitely in rare company and you might well be the next Alexander McQueen. Sure, trying to relate such unattainably high fashion to punk is like imagining a bunch of squatters on amphetamines attempting to construct a Fabergé egg, but in terms of displaying a collection of beautifully constructed fine art apparel, the Met succeeds mightily.

Even the most seemingly pedestrian pieces, like the Balmain ripped jeans and American flag T-shirt ensemble in the final DIY Destroy room, are truly works of art. Forget the perfectly positioned tears and rust stains; that tattered flag tee is no cotton blend—it’s linen!  Understated as old money, and in the shape of working-class fortitude, this shirt is where radical anarchy, rustic Americana and the filigree lacework of a tobacco habit weave seamlessly into one another. It’s excellent. 

The other DIY rooms are dedicated to Hardware, Bricolage and Graffiti & Agitprop. The exclusively black-and-white heavy contrast of the DIY Hardware room immortalizes Sid Vicious in grey-scale LED light, illuminating a hallway of black-and-white apparel adorned with flowers of safety pins and staples that could pass for bugle beads. The DIY Bricolage room makes recycling glamorous (as well it should be), with bottle cap masterpieces from Prada and Helmut Lang, as well as the juxtaposition of Gareth Pugh’s 2013-2014 real trashbag designs with Alexander McQueen’s 2009-2010 faux trashbag ones. 

But it seems to me that the Bricolage room would have been one step closer to divinity if it featured  Imitation of Christ, as this label in so many ways embodies a more recent expression of the punk ethos in fashion, and certainly the Bricolage theme, with its slash-and-sew resurrection of thrift store gems. Also, the radical activist-style spectacles that Imitation’s runway shows inevitably became, and the way that the label spontaneously combusted onto the scene and stumbled into obscurity just as quickly—all this would have made it an even more ideal design house to feature in an exhibit devoted to all things punk. I could have easily seen one of Tara Subkoff’s earlier works, or the dress made of cell phone bills that she created this past February, on display here.  It would have added something just a bit more authentically punk to the spirit to the space. 

In the DIY Graffiti & Agitprop room, T-shirts were king—though the paint-splattered Marie Antoinette gowns from Dolce were most assuredly queen. But overall, it seemed that the shirt showings could have been more radical. The Maison Martin Margiela T-shirt stating, “There is more action to be done to fight AIDS than to wear this T-shirt but it’s a good start” from the Spring/Summer 2009 collection—which Margiela himself probably had little to do with since he formally left the fashion business later in 2009—would have been a lot more radical 20 years earlier. 

I’m thinking of the “I’m HIV positive” T-shirts that were being worn by members of ACT UP as early as 1987 to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic at a time when no one in government or elsewhere wanted to acknowledge it. This is a case in which the fashion was the action, and it was a big deal. Activists wearing those shirts on the New York City subway or in the street in the '80s both frightened people and made them think, because no one was entirely sure how you got the disease then, so the extent to which people with HIV were stigmatized was tremendous. It seemed like this section of the exhibit could have had a lot more of that type of punch—a greater focus on outlining the designers’ activist actions, which in the case of designers like Vivienne Westwood are plenty.

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