by Alex R. Travers
Can’t speak for purveyors of punk or high commanders of couture, but for someone like me, who’s been religiously visiting museums and in recent years has found it almost impossible to stumble upon an above-average fashion exhibition, “Punk: Chaos to Couture” may be the savior of the genre. It’s raw, stimulating, and highly controversial; there will surely be public blowback. But that’s a big part in what makes this exhibit a ride worth taking over and over. In fact, the Met’s Costume Institute curator, Andrew Bolton, makes observations with such vividness that something happens when you walk through the galleries. You see how punk’s conventions were embraced by couturiers but wonder if these pioneers of punk, who thrive on chaos and anarchy, will accept the results.
Admirers of haute couture have reason to get their hopes up about “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” The multi-room exhibit, which features approximately 100 designs for men and women, is pure pleasure. Organized thematically, each of the seven galleries has footage of designated punk icons who embody the broader concepts behind the fashions on view. In the fourth gallery, for example, there are elegant dresses by Versace, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Christopher Kane, each situated on manikins in raised niches like Donotallo and Ghiberti statues at Orsanmichele. The garments here embody couture-like fits but use elements such as brass-metal rings and beaded safety pins to draw on elements of punk culture. At the end of the long, narrow hall of the fourth gallery, a film by Nick Knight, starring the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, watches over the space with vehement disdain.
“Punk’s signature mixing of references was fueled by artistic developments such as Dada and postmodernism,” Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us in the press release, “so it makes sense to present this exhibition in a museum that also shows the broader output of those moments.” His words ring true, and you can’t help but think of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” when you glare at the facsimile of CBGB’s filthy bathroom in the second gallery.
There are other galleries that feature the images and slogans that punks wrote, painted, and stenciled onto their clothes. “All the stuff about Pollock was a veneer. What happened was that Berine [Rhodes] rented a warehouse in Camden Town [in London] and we painted it. We didn’t have any overalls, so we got all covered in paint,” reads a quote from Clash drummer Joe Strummer. Explore that room carefully.
Besides the Vivienne Westwood pieces, most of the garments in the exhibition were made well after punk’s heyday—a lot of them are statement pieces from the 21st century using deconstructivism to pay homage to punk’s do-it-yourself style. Undoubtedly, many of these garments are stunning. Yet, if you wore them to CBGB, you’d probably get your ass kicked. The second gallery, however, features Vivienne Westwood shirts with names like “Rape,” “Vive le Rock,” and “Tits”—most of them made between 1976 and 1980. These had provenance: “worn by Adam Ant.” The third gallery is actually a recreation of 430 Kings Road, a sex boutique run by Westwood and Michael McLaren. This is where punk feels most at home. But what’s really special is watching Westwood draw on her own punk girlhood; her Spring/Summer 2007 ensembles carry rebel DNA that the others just can’t match.
With “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” Bolton and the curators at the Met mine down the details and comparisons of punk and high fashion. The exhibit wins praise not by taking sides but by capturing the visual thrills created both by do-it-yourself and made-to-measure. I bow to all the artists in this show, but punk is about defiance, danger, and angst you just can’t pin down.
“Punk: Chaos to Couture” will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 9 – August 14, 2013.
For more information, visit metmuseum.org.