Punk. A four-letter declaration that conjures up sights, sounds, and often stenches associated with three guitar chords and gravity defying mohawks. Quite the journey for a word that was never meant to be a label – let alone THE label - for underground music gestating on New York’s Bowery in the mid 70s. (Though depending on your definition, punk originated in NYC about 1974 or in London about 1975.)
In reality, the name referred to a street rag created in 1975 by Legs McNeil, John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn Jr. – imagine a twisted, Lower East Side version of MAD magazine. Originally titled Teenage News, the trio would ultimately opt for a name that had been a slang term coined for young hoods and hustlers. The magazine’s initial objective was also much broader than a certain musical style, let alone a fashion trend. Instead this new movement centered on a shared philosophy - a battle against complacency; a sharp reaction to the increasing blandness of post-hippie America. It’s also been argued that punk was one of the last vestiges of the American counter-culture.
Yet here we are on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a puzzling venue where uptown and downtown clash in the new Costume Institute exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture. The show examines the era’s impact on high fashion from the movement's birth in the early ‘70s through its continuing influence today. Responsible for spearheading the polished presentation is Andrew Bolton, better known for his intellectual approach to 2011’s critically acclaimed McQueen/Met showing, Savage Beauty.
With Chaos to Couture, the seven galleries are organized around the materials, techniques, and embellishments associated with the anti-establishment style. Themes include New York and London, which touches upon punk's origin story as a tale of two cities, followed by Clothes for Heroes and four manifestations of the D.I.Y. aesthetic—Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti and Agitprop, and Destroy. The series of rooms were cleverly transformed, presenting the show as an immerse multimedia, multisensory experience. Period music videos and soundscaping audio techniques are peppered throughout in the hopes of transporting the viewer to decades past.
But sifting through the frivolous exterior, it becomes clear that much of show was an afterthought. Approximately one hundred designs for men and women are on display, though only a relatively small amount of original punk garments are featured. Bolton chose to concentrate heavily on more recent, directional fashion to illustrate how haute couture and ready-to-wear borrow punk's visual symbols. In theory, connecting the relationship between the gritty concept of "do-it-yourself" and the couture concept of "made-to-measure" could have had remarkable results. Regrettably Bolton did not deliver.
Many are already aware that much of punk’s sartorial sense was steeped in controversy. Visual symbols such as the skull & crossbones, swastikas, pornography, animal bones, graffiti, etc., were appropriated and proudly displayed on old leather jackets and armbands (a few of these symbols would even go on to permeate the modern mainstream). And so rather than lacquer the gallery walls ebony or contort mannequins to flip the bird, why didn’t Bolton explore the anthropological side of the movement? Why were these images used? What was their significance? It would've been more stimulating to examine the darker elements of the scene, which eerily mirrored the times. But Chaos to Couture offers little context for the perversely stunning high fashion looks the era inspired. It doesn't spark discussion of the designers' intentions. And it certainly doesn't rationalize the co-opting of an anti-establishment aesthetic – ironically, for garments accessible only to wealthy cliques.
The original punks also took note of their surrounding political landscape, from women’s lib and gay lib to race riots and protests. In New York, the Ramones 'look' came directly out of the male hustler aesthetic. The Schott motorcycle jacket was part of a huge sub-culture in the gay scene; even their song “53rd & 3rd” referenced hustlers standing on said street corner in tight, torn jeans. Unlike some subcultures of yore, punk was interesting in that in initially embraced outsiders regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference. Another crucial piece of history seemingly overlooked by the exhibit was the harsh economic climate of the period. A recession that started in ’73 put an end to the general post-war boom in England, resulting in sanitation strikes, power outages and three-day workweeks. On the other side of the pond, Americans faced gas shortages and high unemployment rates. To top it off, in 1975 President Ford denied federal assistance to spare New York from bankruptcy. The infamous Daily News cover read: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” With this hindsight, the gown before your eyes suddenly doesn't look so provocative. In fact it's a tad desperate. At best it evokes Surrealism and high-end construction techniques. At worst, Hot Topic meets Madison Ave.
However this is not to say this highbrow homage was a total flop. With a certain degree of detachment, one can appreciate the craft and artistry that went into some of the modern creations. A bodice comprised of shattered porcelain and secured with copper wire, from avant-garde designer Martin Margiela, certainly channeled the do-it-yourself attitude. More than say, the $565 Givenchy T-shirts on sale in the museum gift shop. And almost four decades after outfitting Sid Vicious punk pioneer Vivienne Westwood is still going strong - and still stirring up controversy. However these days Westwood calls attention to topical issues by using wry slogans that read "Climate Revolution", “I Heart Crap” and "I Am Julian Assange" (a nod to head of the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks website who used his world stage to post thousands of documents in the largest leak of U.S. classified material in the nation’s history).
Though a minority, these designers continue to challenge the status quo and in doing so, are able to understand and interpret the original punk ethos through their work. Ironically, the era was so visually appealing because of the fact it went beyond visuals. It also had an intellectual edge. These now iconic (and many unknown) artists weren’t necessarily philosophers but they were interested in ideas, both new and old. Many were observant and analytical; they respected thought and insight. Writer (and then-scenester) Glen O’Brien perfectly distills what made that intersection of people, time and space so unique, "...all of them [punks] had true personalities with style that ran deep. They were their own creators, their own stylists and their own designers. They didn't buy a look or borrow one from a couturier, they conjured glamour out of thrift shops and thin air.”
With any luck there is still a trace of that magic out there, waiting to be torn from the ether.
Words by Daniel Alonso. Images via Metropolitan Museum of Art.