Punk-Chaos to Couture

By: Shoshana Bachrach  |  August 26, 2013

Fashion is a curious thing. To many, the cycle of styles and never-ending shuffling of silhouettes is entirely disparate from reality, buoyed not by the people and their interests but by the whims of designers more concerned with beauty and luxury than cultural relevance. In actuality, fashion is heavily influenced by social movements and political clashes, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. This concept is beautifully represented by the Met’s latest fashion exhibition “Punk: Chaos to Couture.”

Half history lesson, half serious closet envy, the multi-roomed showing winds visitors through the social protest origins of punk clothing to its absorption into mainstream couture, whether glamorized by the likes of Gianni Versace or subversified by the likes of Commes des Garcons and Gareth Pugh.

The punk scene rose out of the disillusionment of British youth in the years following World War II. Dissatisfaction with economic recessions and high rates of unemployment led to a culture of anger and alienation among the working class youth, and with it, a rejection of polite society. The mood is set by the Met’s cleverly designed space, with replicas of legendary punk scenes such as the club CBGB and the groundbreaking punk boutique SEX. Early-punk style designs, both vintage and current, on mannequins with Suess-like fluffs instead of heads are set against dark walls and TVs showing loops of creepy films. A pervading, nervous silence settles on visitors as they examine the spidery knits, combat boots, and lewd t-shirts of the early movement,

The exhibition continues to use its space brilliantly throughout its five sections. The second section, entitled “Hardware,” presents the beginning of mainstream acceptance of punk looks. Focusing on the metal detailing designers lifted from the punk scene, this section leaves the angst and darkness of the previous room behind, displaying instead artful rips, golden safety pins, and, of course, Valentino’s iconic pyramid studs. The implied glamorization of the punk movement—moving from ratty Rodarte to iconic Versace—is reflected by the pristine white walls and display stands. The following section, entitled “D.I.Y.: Bricolage,” examines the extension rejection of social norms and a concern with social issues, two classic punk themes, to the use of unconventional materials for garments. Impressively constructed coats made out of garbage bags by Gareth Pugh and clear plastic dresses by Maison Martin Margiela are set against lumpy pink walls that, upon closer inspection, are actually embedded with various random objects, recycling at its finest.

The dank black walls of “D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop” emphasize the brightly colored pieces of punk’s return to the political and the abstract, with Vivienne Westwood gowns printed with anti-war slogans and Dolce and Gabbana watercolor gowns inspired by the avant-garde movement Dada. A personal highlight of the section, having missed the Met’s 2011 exhibit on the late Alexander McQueen, was the iconic dress from his 1999 show that was spray-painted, while on model Shalom Harlow, by a robot during the show (strangely, this was one of the very few McQueen pieces shown, despite the fact that his work was heavily influenced by punk sensibility).

The final section was a bit of a stretch, claiming avant-garde to be punk’s ultimate successor. Multi-sleeved jackets and severely torn tops, clothes beyond the point of wear-ability, were displayed in “D.I.Y.: Destroy.”  The implication that rejecting social norms eventually creates entirely new conceptions of norms altogether makes sense in theory. However, in practice many of the pieces seemed out of place, holding little to no resemblance to the Vivienne Westwood of the room before. Despite this, the room serves as a fitting sum of the exhibit with its defiant display of bulbous garments. After all, punks never did give a damn about what anyone else thought.

The exhibit has been criticized for a display of largely unwearable and ridiculously expensive clothing—many were particularly affronted by thousand-dollar trash bag coats and dresses in “D.I.Y.: Bricolage”—but the exhibit does not bother to address these complaints, choosing instead to join the ranks of Sid and Nancy Vicious in raising a middle finger (as the final mannequin literally does) to those who just don’t understand.