The punk aesthetic has always solicited strong reactions, for it seems that the music, the fashion and the lifestyle thrive only in moments of internal or external adversity. The latest exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has incited cries of both praise and protest, and it is these conflicting reviews that hint at the possible success of PUNK: Chaos and Couture.
It is worth noting that this exhibit not about the history of punk. It is not about the fascinating individuals behind the movement, it is not about the music, and it is not about how punk impacted society. This is a fashion retrospective, one that primarily illustrates how the punk movement inspired haute couture. The exhibit documents the elevated use of safety pins and of found material, as it illustrates the mimicry that will always exist in the fashion world. What is surprising is the beauty that the punk movement inspired – multiple decades of creation inspired by destruction.
Viewed at the right pace, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, fades into the memory as a brief, pulsating music video – predominately black and white, with spatters of neon color and a blurred, creative focus on calculated carelessness. From the music to the facsimile of CBGB’s restroom (at its height of sordidness), sound and texture are an integral part of the exhibit. Walls of draped vinyl play the supporting role to many of the designs sold in Sex and Seditionaries at 430 Kings Road. With names like Brutal, Rape, and Sperm, the tee shirts are a strong reminder that the punk aesthetic was not always a welcome addition to the runway. As the grainy video violently changes, images whip across the screen, diverting attention from some modern interpretations of punk design by Balmain, Burberry, Wantanabe, and others. These sweaters and jackets in decorated plaids and uneven stripes have risen to couture standards with careful tailoring and fine fabrics; these haute couture garments are a successful combination of elements of punk fashion and the creativity that is found in the learned craft of clothing construction.
The use of high contrasts continues into the second space, a temporary temple to studs, chains, and asymmetry. The hall is mock-grand, with pillars and enclaves carved from Styrofoam, and etched with pseudo-graffiti that exposes the fragility of the design. In this room, Versace’s golden safety pins and Givenchy’s cashmere and studs replace the rips and tears of original punk fashion. Rebellion is again contained in couture finishing techniques and the loveliest of leather. This coupling of punk references with more successful elements of formalized fashion design is the dichotomy that provides the aesthetic with a lasting appeal.
Over time, studs, chains, pseudo-bondage have evolved to become a harmless representation of anger – a rebellion packaged as sexy and dangerous with a hint of forbidden passion. These clothes allow others to play a role and to safely express emotions that can be shed as easily as a coat or unzipped as easily as a dress. Designers have captured the creativity of the punk music; they have removed the wrath, but have left a sprinkling of seduction and rebellion in the form of a raw edge or possibly indecent show of skin. Fashion is a pivotal part of the performance!
In the next gallery, white Styrofoam changes to shining, molded plastic walls – the backdrop for recycled fashion or bricolage. By far the best display of creative work, this collection of D.I.Y. artworks includes pieces by Maison M. Margiela, Alexander McQueen, Comme de Garcons and other designers who have transformed broken porcelain, plastic bags, pearls, paper mache and paper into truly interesting and sensuous works of art. One has to actively resist touching the materials of these pieces – just listen to the ever watchful guard! Most notable is Margiela’s minimalistic bodysuit constructed from a white shopping bag, with handles lying close to the chest like two, hard plastic pendants. The elegance of this bodysuit, the pearl vest, and the porcelain necklace seem to be an incongruous extension of the many of Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s ideas; while their inclusion in the show is questionable, it is appreciated.
The exhibit ends with a collection of painted garments and a mangled mass of useless, extra sleeves. Comme de Garcons’ elegant statement pieces are lost among the paint splatters and politically charged slogans, confirming that this setting may not be the best stage for Kawakubo’s work, which usually has a more powerful presence. Throughout the exhibit, the most effective pieces are the subtle reinterpretations, the minimalistic designs that provides a brief respite from the rapid pace of the music and the strobe-like, large-scale videos.
PUNK: Chaos and Couture celebrates rebellious fashion, embracing an anthem of “no future” in one of the finest, historic art institutions in the world. It is this tension between tradition and rebellion that makes many of the garments on view interesting. These garments are not pure punk, but instead are subtle jabs at the industry – a poke of a safety pin, perhaps. Or maybe a brush against a metal stud.