The Met Goes Punk
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “PUNK: Chaos to Couture” examines the ways in which fashion, culture, and punk rock have informed each other over the years.
The Met upheld its reputation for detailed atmospheres, appealing to the senses with authentic punk audio and visual elements. Exploring beyond the garments themselves, the exhibition presented 1970s footage of musicians such as Sid Vicious and Patti Smith, a comprehensive lesson on the distinction between London and New York punk history, and scrawled graffiti on the walls. Rather than limiting the content to punk culture of the 1970s, the show related the roots of the movement to contemporary fashion and commercialism. It was a thorough presentation of punk sights, sounds and history in the Met, a vessel of elegance. The ripped clothing and reproduced CBGB toilets seemed somewhat at odds with the refinement of the Met rooms, illustrating the tensions of the partnership of chaos and couture.
I overheard one visitor telling his friend that a garment on display was “not really punk,” making me wonder how and if he could hold his ground against fashion historians. This show centers on a culture that aimed to challenge social norms, so naturally, spectators with varying ideas of “punk” have challenged the authenticity of the designs presented. A controversial part of the exhibition is the relationship between street style and high fashion, especially when the street versions are part of a punk philosophy. Anticipating criticisms, Andrew Bolton has already responded: “People seem to forget that punk really was a commercial movement. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, in a way, created what we know as the punk look. And they commodified it” (Style.com). It is sometimes difficult to determine whether a creation is inspired or just a product of misunderstanding, but the show seemed true to its title in how it fused an unpolished subculture with the designers’ personal interpretations, precise craftsmanship and sophistication. Whether or not the visitor I overheard made an accurate remark, the purpose of the exhibition is to provide an account of punk rock history and how the fashion world saw value in it. These designers have honored punk styles without simply replicating them. A memorable example was the Johnny Rotten-inspired Junya Watanabe mohair sweater.
The best aspect of the show, for me, was its inclusion of Alexander McQueen’s spray-painted dress from the museum’s “Savage Beauty” exhibition two summers ago. Several of McQueen’s other pieces were displayed alongside the works of Thom Browne, Christopher Bailey (Burberry), Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana (Dolce and Gabbana), Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), Helmut Lang, Kate and Laura Mulleavy (Rodarte), Miuccia Prada, Hedi Slimane (Saint Laurent), Riccardo Tisci (Givenchy), and many others. “PUNK: Chaos to Couture” is on view from May 9 through August 14.