The new exhibit on punk and its influence on fashion by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York may, naturally, raise questions, such as “What the fuck”? What is punk, with its emphasis on anti-establishment and disobedience, doing in the halls of this grand dame of culture? Would Sid Vicious hang out with the queen of England in her drawing room? Things get weirder if you start thinking about tonight’s gala and all the celebrities in ball gowns it will draw. Will they at least slash their Carolina Herreras with razor blades? One might only hope that Marc Jacobs will show up in plaid boxers.
Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibit, is very much aware of such questions and he went through great pains at this morning’s press conference to explain how punks might actually find being in a museum a pretty awesome twist of fate and how punk it is to display punk at the Met. Perhaps (though I don’t recall irony being punk’s major attribute).
Of course, to decry this blasphemy is to be nostalgic, since punk is just another of many genuine cultural movements whose form has been separated from its substance a while ago and whose disemboweled corpse can be seen today in Union Square where pretty girls strut in their cute little spike-studded boots, looking as punk as Tinker Bell.
Mr. Bolton, trying to avoid cliches, as he explained, went for minimal context. At the head of the exhibit (pardon the pun) you are greeted with a reincarnation of a men’s bathroom from the iconic New York club CBGB’s (If you really want to weep, the club is now a John Varvatos store). Additionally, there is a reconstruction of Seditionaries, Malcom McLaren’s and Vivienne Westwood’s shop on King’s Road in London. Also featured are some neat videos based on original footage, done by the photographer Nick Knight, whom Bolton hired as the creative consultant for the exhibit, and Ruth Hogben (she of the Gareth Pugh videos fame). I asked Knight about his involvement, and he said he was grateful to be a part of it and that he did his best to give the theme justice. “People may not realize the impact of what they are doing while they are doing it,” Knight said, “and that’s how punk was. When punk first started it was about twenty people. It was such a small scene that gradually grew, but the idea of self-expression, that you are fine as you are as an individual, I think that’s very current still and that’s why it’s so important.”
In any case, if you truly want to enjoy the exhibit – and it is enjoyable – you will have to do what Mr. Bolton had done – decontextualize. Disregard the cognitive dissonance and you realize you are looking at a pretty fantastic collection of fashion.
Punk has become fair game as one of many sources of inspiration for designers. It can be done from the heart, as in the three outfits by Ann Demeulemeester, or it can be done as a purely aesthetic exercise, as in Burberry’s Spring 2011 ensemble. Its influence, however, is undeniable, and, aesthetically speaking, punk can be an eerily beautiful proposition.
And so the first room opens with original outfits by Vivienne Westwood juxtaposed against similar ones by designers such as Junya Watanabe, Yohji Yamamoto, and Jun Takahashi, among others. Next room is full of garments from Versace (questionable), Givenchy (a sponsor) and Balmain (the most ersatz punk clothes in existence, aside from Hot Topic), none of which can wash off their obvious polish. But the room after, devoted to bricolage, is full of gems from the artisanal line of Martin Margiela, flanked by some ensembles from Alexander McQueen and the Hussein Chalayan airmail dress. In the middle stand a few garbage bag dresses from Gareth Pugh.
In the next hall, black as a tar pit and devoted to the graffiti aspect of punk culture, turn your back and pretend you never saw those Dolce & Gabbana ballroom gowns, and you will find yourself facing the most iconic Dior Homme item Hedi Slimane has ever produced – the white dress shirt with the gunshot wound rendered in red beading. Speaking of hommes – we are woefully underrepresented in the exhibit. This is strange, considering that most punk musicians were male.
Last but not least, the last room has a row of the weird and the wonderful creations by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons. But you expected that.
Back to those mishaps. Obviously, for a critic to see any exhibit is to wonder how he would curate it, which will inevitably lead to some griping. I understand that there are constraints and that curation is an exercise in editing down. Still, I did not see a single outfit by Rick Owens, arguably the most influential designer working today. There is only one outfit by Undercover, and we all know how incredible Jun Takahashi’s punk years were. Ann Demeulemeester, the Patti Smith of fashion, has less presence than the aforementioned Sicilian duo. There is not a single outfit from the early years of Jean-Paul Gaultier and he has done some fantastic punk gear in the late 70s and early 80s. There is a Chanel suit instead. You’d let it go because it’s only one suit, hidden in a corner, if it only wasn’t on the cover of the 2014 calendar that you can buy when you exit through the gift shop.
Still, go see and judge for yourself. The exhibit is free. I mean, how un-punk would it be if you had to pay for it?
“PUNK: Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York, from May 9 to August 14, 2003
All photography by Eugene Rabkin and cannot be reproduced without expressed permission.