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

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?

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.

So, in spite of the beautiful garments and the stylish video and sound design accompanying them, such thematic weaknesses leave the astute folks who came for more than the hemlines wondering what this exhibit is trying to say. Is it somehow flaunting the truth: that consumerism swallowed up even the ethos and spirit of a great non-consumerist, DIY production-oriented movement? That in so much swallowing up of the past, there really is “No Future,” just like the Sex Pistols said? The wall of the final room, DIY Destroy, states this:

 “Through its ethos of do-it-yourself, punk not only de-established the authority of the designer, but it transformed it to the wearer. Once and for all, it rejected the concept of the designer as unique creator. Effectively, punk democratized creativity and invention. It broke all the rules and allowed anything to be possible.”

Anything, that is, except touching or photographing the exhibit.

And this is where, in spite of itself, “Chaos to Couture” does manage to capture the essence of punk in ways that none of its creators could have expected. As alarms go off to reprimand those standing too near the mannequins, museum employees engage in a hypnotic, if threatening, chant of “No photos! No video!” They’re making sure there won’t be any Brian Eno action on those CBGB replica urinals at the front of the exhibit…or anywhere else. This is no Temporary Autonomous Zone. 

The Met, simply by being the Met, has created a police state environment that tells us “No!” at every turn—no touching, no photos, no standing too close—even as we stand amidst the larger-than-life images of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, glittering spikes and staples and spray-paint. Is it an accidental act of détournement? Or just a bit of cheeky irony? With the roar of those alarms sounding off in the name of upholding museum law, it might be enough to propel even the most docile among us into an act of sedition. With so much flash and noise, they might make punks of us yet. 


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