We’ll never get to the bottom of who ripped the first T-shirt and wore it as an anti-fashion statement. Or who first pierced flesh with a safety pin and claimed it as an accessory of opposition. Or who first spiked his hair in defiance to wearing it “straight.” Truth is, in the Punk movement none of this matters anyway. Sure, there is something identifiable as “Punk Fashion,” but one’s manner of dressing is only an external marker for an internal attitude, a way of living that might best be summed up like this: “Fuck The Establishment.”
And so the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current show “Punk: Chaos to Couture” is a bit of a conundrum. Couture is about as far away in its sensibilities from Punk as Luciano Pavarotti is from Joey Ramone. Punk is subversive, it’s about turning the world on its head. Punk is born of rebellion and the sheer creative joy of fucking up the norm. Couture, well…. Couture is the absolute highest end of fashion and elitism – it’s exclusive, it’s expensive, it caters to la crème de la crème, and it is, for all its finery and particularity, consumer fashion. It is The Establishment to the nth degree. It is not, nor will it ever be, Punk.
That being said, the Couture clothing on display until August 14 is beautiful and provocative and clearly owes an extensive debt to the influential rips and tears and hardware and edgy de/re/con/struction of Punk. After three small introductory galleries attempt to tell the history of Punk -- mostly through looped film and soundtracks of the era’s seminal bands along with reconstructions of New York’s CBGB men’s room and London’s protopunk clothing store Sex -- the several galleries of the show are divided into various aesthetic categories: DIY Hardware; DIY Bricolage; DIY Graffiti and Agitprop; and DIY Destroy. DIY, of course, means Do It Yourself, and here’s the conundrum again: no single person who ever donned one of these outfits did anything about it him/herself except wear it, if anyone beside a model wore any of this clothing at all. Punks create their clothing themselves to be worn in everyday settings, they do it themselves for themselves and for purposes equally utilitarian as aesthetic. Would I wear any of the clothing on display? You betcha, in a heartbeat. There are leather jackets with crazily inlaid zippers; shirts made of interlocking gold-tone chain and safety pins; luxe organza and tulle ballgowns hand painted with swaths of rich jewel-tones; dresses and pants and skirts and tops adorned with staples and studs and spikes. Would I consider myself Punk if I ever got to slip into one of these wonders? No, I’d consider myself rich and lucky. Punk is a look that you earn and create, not a look that you purchase.
The most intriguing of the galleries is the third portion of the introduction. On the center dais are fashions created by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren for Sex in the 1970s paired with contemporary outfits that mirror and echo the original. Careful examination exposes the cheaper fabrics and more slapdash construction of Westwood’s looks, while the newer clothes have a much heavier hand in their design. The placement of pins and zippers and straps and holes is carefully considered, and the fabrics are top quality, but the homage is clear and loving. The newer designs seem not to be merely rip-offs of the originals.
And that’s exactly where and how the exhibit flounders. Even with the Punk music blaring in the background and the gallery that was designed to feel like an underground club, even with all the messy spiky wigs on every mannequin, even with the final mannequin of the show giving the exiting crowd the middle finger, the show seems to merely display how yet another original anti-establishment movement was co-opted by the establishment.
Thankfully, it’s on this point that the book that accompanies the show so fabulously succeeds. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a catalogue look so little like the show itself, but thank goodness for that in this case. The book Punk: Chaos to Couture, published by The Met and distributed by Yale University Press, does exactly what the show does not, excepting that one small gallery: it places side-by-side original Punk style with contemporary Couture design. The book is chock full of period photos from the 70s paired with runway and editorial shots of the fashions inspired by the originals. The newer designs now feel less like a rape and rip-off and more like unrequited love. Couture will never be Punk, but, Lord, does it love it and does it want to be. The newer fashions now look both nostalgic and fashion-forward, something the galleries at the Met missed, no matter how loud the music or spiky the hair or dirty the model of the CBGB bathroom (which is, by the way, way off the mark – that model looks pristine compared to the real deal).
I’m not sure why the Met didn’t use any of these early photographs in the show, but they make the loving connection between these two widely disparate worlds that Couture fashion on isolated mannequins does not. Perhaps that’s another way the book succeeds: in the photos the fashion is worn by people. Even on the runway, as outlandish as some of the looks are, what we’re looking at is people in clothing. The outfits are meant to be worn (well, most of them anyway), not isolated, fetishized, analyzed. As Richard Hell says in his essay in the book:
But clothes themselves, no matter how beautiful or interesting, are not great art: they remain decoration, unless they’re actually worn, vivified into soul plumage, by an artiste of personal appearance. There’s something inherently sad about clothes in themselves, and fashion, no matter how lovely or effective. Clothes are empty.
See the show, marvel at the fashion, and be prepared for its emptiness. Then buy the book and be vivified.