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Inside the Met’s New Exhibit, ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’

Richard Hell meets Chanel in controversial new display

Chaos to Couture

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nothing says "punk" like the Metropolitan Museum of Art; this should go without saying. However, the famous New York art hub endeavors to remind us with "Punk: From Chaos to Couture," a new exhibit of the volatile music genre's influence on high fashion. On view from May 9th through August 14th, "Punk" is presented by the Costume Institute, a curatorial department of the Met and a sort of fashion Freemasons (Vogue editor Anna Wintour spearheads their annual gala).

Rolling Stone attended the press preview of the exhibit and appraised the arrangement of approximately 100 safety-pinned, rudely-printed, ripped-to-shreds works of clothing. Was the exhibit a successful conversation between the dirtiest, grimiest movement of the Seventies and haute commercialization, or was it a less-than-gorgeous disarray? Click through to see the key pieces in the collection and how they (maybe) rock the Met.

By Stacey Anderson

Paul Cook in the late 1970s; Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), spring/summer 2006

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Dennis Morris; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Catwalking

Both Sides of the Pond

Entering "Punk: From Chaos to Couture," viewers are greeted with a verbose message from the curators that explains their project: it is an appeal to celebrate punk's "corpus of sexual and political imagery that was intended to shock, provoke and confront," linking its trajectory from the grit of CBGB and King's Road to the most-high end (and high-priced) designers' creations. In fact, a detailed replica of the CBGB bathroom sits just off the front collection room, though the various repugnant odors of punk's infancy are mercifully absent.

Punk began in the mid-Seventies in either New York or London, depending on who is asked and where they shopped. In New York, CBGB and its famous shirt (replicas of which are now sold in the Met's gift shop) stood for punk's chrysalis period: the Ramones, the Dead Boys and Television stomped that East Village club's boards. In London, Kings Road scenesters Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood operated the clothing boutique Sex, which outfitted the Sex Pistols and Chrissie Hynde with the bondage-, S&M- and gay-thematic gear that would come to define the movement. (Sex also gave various punk musicians employment behind the register.)

Seen here: Paul Cook, drummer of the Sex Pistols, in the Seventies; a look by Comme des Garçons from their spring/summer 2006 collection.

John Lydon of Sex Pistols in 1976; Junya Watanabe (Japanese, born 1961), fall/winter 2006–7.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Ray Stevenson/Rex USA; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Catwalking

Hung to Dry

"Punk: From Chaos to Couture" is careful to give its fashions an irreverent display to match their counterculture origins. Mannequins have wildly feathered heads and spiky accessories, and X-Ray Spex and others boom from the speakers. Still, it is very odd to see the ripped, bottomless cowboys of Vivienne Westwood's most famous T-shirt hung up at the Met, millions of dollars' worth of lighting really setting their depravity aglow (she still sells a variation of it). Quotes from the punk heyday abound: McLaren sings Richard Hell's praises as a "wonderful, bored, drained, scarred, dirty guy."

Richard Hell never spent $2,000 on a Burberry leather jacket with spikes, but maybe that's why he was bored. The quotes seem a twofold device, a nod made by the Met to the institutionalization (and inherent uncoolness) of any subculture set to its staging, and it is a very artful display, but the discordance never leaves the viewer or asks necessary questions about the nature of either entity.

Seen here: Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten in 1976; Junya Watanabe look from fall/winter 2006–7.

John Lydon of Sex Pistols in 1976; Gianni Versace spring/summer 1994 Vogue Paris, February 1994.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Ray Stevenson/Rex USA; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Satoshi Saïkusa

Pin It Down

The effort of contextualizing, of establishing linear narrative from the gritty origins to the couture catwalks, is labored at the Met: next to Westwood's tattered shirts are thousand-dollar, artfully tattered dresses and jackets from Burberry, Junya Watanabe, Zandra Rhodes and other high-end designers. This dress by Versace is presented as a significant fashion moment; Johnny Rotten's well-circulated quote that safety pins could be used to keep "the arse of your pants falling out" doesn't make an appearance next to it, but some of Westwood's deconstructed looks do.

Here is the central conflict of the "Punk" exhibit experience for each Met attendee. If he/she looks at the reappropriation of safety pins on a thousand-dollar dress and finds the juxtaposition fascinating, it will be a fulfilling exhibit. However, if the response is apathy or condescension, the entire exhibit will reveal itself similarly. And given the ubiquity of these once-shocking pins and scrawls, the latter is understandable.

Seen here: Johnny Rotten in 1976; Gianni Versace look from spring/summer 1994, seen in Vogue Paris, February 1994.

Joe Strummer of The Clash in the late 1970s; Riccardo Tisci for House of Givenchy , spring/summer 2008 Vogue Italia, March 2008 .

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Pennie Smith; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Glen Luchford, art partner

The Future Is Unsewn

The Italian designer Riccardo Tisci, leading voice of Givenchy, champions the use of sharp details and sheer effects in his upscale designs. His were some of the more gothic looks in the Met's display, and that comparably dramatic staging channeled back to the Costume Institute's most successful exhibit to date, "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" of 2011.

Tisci's skin-baring inclusions seem to link directly to the statement recently given by Andrew Bolton, Curator of the Costume Institute. "Since its origins, punk has had an incendiary influence on fashion. Although punk's democracy stands in opposition to fashion's autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk's aesthetic vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness."

However, as Beth Ditto and Karen O can attest, being "punk" by nature can come with designer clothes nowadays. Punk clothing is pretty incidental to the music.

Seen here: The Clash's Joe Strummer in the late Seventies; Riccardo Tisci for House of Givenchy look for spring/summer 2008, as seen in Vogue Italia, March 2008.

Gary Wilson circa 1977; Maison Martin Margiela (founded 1988), spring/summer 2011.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Roberta Bayley; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Nathalie Sanchez for Maison Martin Margiela

Do It Yourself

Maison Martin Margiela figures prominently into "Punk: From Chaos to Couture." The Belgian designer Margiela came up in the radical late-Seventies Antwerp scene and once worked for Gaultier. He factors heavily into the "D.I.Y. Bricolage" room (celebrating construction from, essentially, whatever's lying around the factory floor) with his mostly-Eighties works made from broken plates, strands of beads and shredded paper.

Margiela is a welcome inclusion because he has a radical element to his designs that is separate from familar punk tropes. He is not copying Sid Vicious et al. when he justifies a typically cheapening gesture (ripping, pinning) as bold, with a price point to match. His use of plastic textiles actually feels as though it could have been a significant avant-garde moment in itself, unlike the haughtily distressed gowns.

Seen here: Gary Wilson circa 1977; Maison Martin Margiela look from spring/summer 2011.

Patti Smith in the late 1970s; Ann Demeulemeester (Belgian, born 1959), spring/summer 2000.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Caroline Coon, Camera Press; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Catwalking

Women’s Punk

Ann Demeulemeester, a designer in her 50s who usually shows at Paris Fashion Week, has long been celebrated for her adept hand with androgynous styles – a completely direct nod to Patti Smith, who wore menswear while speaking (then singing) her poetry at CBGB and around bohemian New York in the Seventies. Women's punk fashion is mostly represented in this vein.

Seen here: Patti Smith, late Seventies; Ann Demeulemeester look from spring/summer 2000.

Joe Strummer of The Clash in 1977; Helmut Lang (Austrian, born 1956), fall/winter 2003–4.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Ray Stevenson/Rex USA; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Catwalking

What Time Is It?

Twenty-six years after the Clash emblazoned their shirts with the year of punk's breakthrough, the minimalist designer Helmut Lang celebrated his own milestone.

Rooms in the Met are grouped by punk "heroes," and the superbly cool Joe Strummer factors prominently into that. Direct homages of the Lang variety are exceptions, not rules; reimaginings play a more central role. An example: one of the few new designs, Viktor and Rolf's suit from autumn/winter 2013-14 (so it just walked the runway) is jacquard with ripped, gill-like slits that are beaded intricately. Strummer would have probably eaten the beading when he got bored.

Seen here: Joe Strummer in 1977; Helmut Lang look from fall/winter 2003–04.

Sid Vicious of Sex Pistols in 1977, Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel in Vogue, March 2011.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Dennis Morris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art/ David Sims

Viciously Chanel

The doomed Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious pops up like a cough throughout "Punk: Chaos to Couture," but one of the main images of the exhibit's advertising campaign only appears at the end: a sullied 2011 suit by Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel. That garment would have, even by inflation standpoints, cost more than successful therapy for Nancy Spungen.

Seen here: Sid Vicious in1977; Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel design in Vogue, March 2011. 

John Lydon of Sex Pistols in 1976, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons in 1982.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Richard Young/Rex USA

Lifers

Comme des Garçons, established in 1969, is still a terribly trendy label with lots of whimsical influences (heart-shaped, wide-eyed figures are a trademark). In fact, most of the labels in "Punk" have been around for decades but maintain relevance; they embraced these messy designs after punk's boom, though, and in that, they differ from Vivienne Westwood.

Another veteran of the scene, Punk magazine founder Legs McNeil, had pretty scalding words about the exhibit recently. "Getting these high-fashion designers, what does that have to do with punk?" he demanded of the New York Times. "So rich people could go slumming? Come on, give me a break . . .  [It's a] masturbatory fantasy for Anna Wintour and Vogue."

Seen here: Johnny Rotten in 1976, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons look in 1982.

Jordan in 1977; Rodarte (American, founded 2005) Vogue, July 2008.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rex USA; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/David Sims

Youth Fetish

The major flaw of "Punk: Chaos to Couture" is that it does not feature enough punk-influenced, exciting work by rising new designers of today. The repeated pointing to Chanel/Comme/Margiela/Watanabe ages the entire effort, furthering the icy institutionalization. It makes the whole affair less populist when it aims for the opposite. Hotshot young designers Rodarte and Gareth Pugh are included, seemingly to fill a quota for representation by decade, and these brands still come with exceptionally high price points in the thousands. These are not young, of-the-streets designers; they are institutionalized themselves, already.

"Punk" seems to argue that the trajectory for punk's stylistic evolution held firm in the Eighties and stopped dead in the Nineties. And if it did, why celebrate it now?

Seen here: Seventies fetish-film star Jordan in 1977; Rodarte look in Vogue, July 2008.

Richard Hell in the late 1970s, Hussein Chalayan (British, born Cyprus, 1970), spring/summer 2003 Dazed and Confused, March 2003.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Kate Simon; Eric Nehr

Fare Thee Poorly

That said, the very last look of the exhibit is a Margiela evening dress that is essentially a sheer black chiffon cape; it leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination in the front, aside from an inch or so of torso that is covered with a strap. The mannequin is flipping off the room.

If Richard Hell would approve of anything here, it would be issuing a less-than-gracious farewell.

Seen here: Richard Hell, late Seventies; Hussein Chalayan look from spring/summer 2003 in Dazed and Confused, March 2003.