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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.

The new “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is sort of like its very own Costume Institute Gala co-chair, Rooney Mara. You know: the type who’d sport some fake tattoos, a new haircut, a blank look, and pretend to be a hacker anarchist within the glamorous context of cinema, when in actuality her family owns the New York Giants and she’s probably never dipped so much as a pinkie toe into the Pirate Bay to acquire what she can’t afford to buy, let alone honed her skills to hack it like Anonymous.

And that’s what this exhibit at the Met is: “punk” for people who never had to safety pin anything themselves. Perhaps this fashion spectacle is what Guy Debord—famed Situationist thinker and influence on Malcolm McLaren in his molding of the punk movement—was talking about all along: a world of spectacle where "all that was once directly lived has become mere representation." We’ve come to the Met to see “Clothes for Heroes,” as promised on the door of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s 1970s London shop at 430 King’s Road, but what we get are clothes for rich people. Really stunning ones, though.

At the entrance of the exhibit, we are presented with a confrontation: one mannequin, clad in revolutionary-red bondage pants—a staple of the Westwood/McLaren shop in the 1970s—faces off with a second mannequin in head-to-toe glitzy Dior from the 2006-2007 collection. The Westwood/McLaren mannequin gestures lewdly at her Dior adversary. The audio is the Sex Pistols versus Rossini. Clearly, this means war.

This confrontation between '70s punk and modern couture sets the tone for the displays that follow, and it’s worth noting that throughout the exhibit, pre-runway Westwood/McLaren ensembles are the sole examples of punk’s “then” in the then-now comparison, or I suppose the “Chaos” part of “Chaos to Couture.” There is no display of actual DIY clothing from actual punk individuals of the late 1970s to represent the bulk of punk’s adherents, who existed outside of the fashion business. The works of these nameless creators might have stood in sharper contrast to the inventions of the couture fashion houses that adopted punk’s DIY ideas and spun them out, but this exhibit prefers to compare fashion with fashion. 

While Westwood and McLaren started out clothing punk rock’s brightest stars, instead of runway models and social elites, they were marketing what was, and still is, a fashion business. There was little chaos about it; in fact, their marketing seems to have been pretty direct when you consider that the style and aesthetic of the clothing, as well as the careers of some of the punk rock stars who wore the clothing, were both under McLaren’s management.   

So “Chaos,” as it is applied to this exhibit, is a misnomer. To confuse the alternative marketing strategy employed by Westwood and McLaren with chaos is like confusing anarchy itself with chaos, when in fact, the lack of formal government does not mean the same thing as chaos, or disorder, at all. Even Guy Debord and the original Situationists, from which Malcolm McLaren derived much of his inspiration as the impresario of punk, were not proponents of chaos. And McLaren, as impresario, by definition and by his actions was an organizer of spectacle, not a disorganizer of it. One man’s disruption is his seditionary’s well-strategized plan, and for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, the SEX/Seditionaries shop was always a boutique business with a street look. Those vintage Westwood duds in the exhibit’s main room have silk fringe and mohair knits. Boutique to Couture: this is the real comparison. And there’s nothing wrong with that, so why not call it what it is?

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