Wednesday, May 8, 2013

If you needed more proof that Punk is dead...

As you may have heard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute is currently running an exhibit called PUNK: Chaos to Couture. According to the press release on the museum's website, the exhibit "will examine punk’s impact on high fashion from the movement’s birth in the 1970s through its continuing influence today." I'm fairly sure that this is the basic formula for these kinds of exhibits, but apparently no one involved in the exhibit has any sense of irony. Why? It's just depressing.

Here's more from the press release: "Focusing on the relationship between the punk concept of "do-it-yourself" and the couture concept of "made-to-measure," the seven galleries will be organized around the materials, techniques, and embellishments associated with the anti-establishment style. Themes will include New York and London, which will tell 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. Presented as an immersive multimedia, multisensory experience, the clothes will be animated with period music videos and soundscaping audio techniques."

I'm going to make a running leap into Assumptionville and assume that everyone reading this has a basic understanding of what Punk is. If you don't, let's listen to some Sex Pistols to get in the mood.

What are the central tenants of Punk that we can get from this song? Anger, anti-establishment, messy, powerful, and driven. That is what Punk is, and that is exactly what the Met seemed to mention, but then completely forget when curating the exhibit and the guest list for the Gala. 

Besides the fact that the relationship between DIY and Couture is as simple as "they are different except when the latter appropriates the former," the whole exhibit gives me hives. As with everything they can get their grubby little paws on, high fashion grabbed punk by its studded belt and made off with it in the complete wrong direction. By aping Punk looks, Couture is erasing what Punk means. Since Punk is not just a street style, but a political anti-establishment message, they missed the entire point. If the Met's exhibit had any sense of irony about the situation (which I guarantee you it doesn't) it would have been fine because they could have documented how silly it is for the establishment to glorify those who wanted to escape it.

However, the Met doesn't just document this unfortunate homogenizing of a vibrant, passionate movement, but it glorifies it. And then it sticks examples of "high fashion Punk" (well, there's a contradiction if I ever saw one) on mannequins with very silly wigs. They're not even punk, they're just silly.

Of course, the exhibit itself has some "actual" punk items on display. I'm interested to know how they got a hold of these items, but it's nice to see them preserved somewhere, even if the entire institution that preserves them is contrary to their purpose.


Part of their exhibit is showing the direct influences on high fashion that Punk has made, and I'll admit that that part is actually pretty interesting. You can see online here some examples of what they think Punk street fashion is and how it relates to high fashion.
>On May 6th, the exhibit was the focus of a star-studded (haha, I'm so clever) Gala Benefit, which enraged even more people than the exhibit itself. The attendees at the Gala were not related to the Punk scene at all. Pop stars and actors and celebrities with no ties to Punk. The honorary chair of the Gala? BeyoncĂ©. You know. So punk.

In keeping with the theme of this rather bitter post, let's look at some of the fashion travesties committed in the name of Punk at the Gala Benefit:

(If you don't think that it's funny that Donald Trump's daughter came to an exhibit on Punk we can't be friends.)


Pop stars in dresses worth thousands of dollars with mindless cliches (fishnet and studs prime among them) tacked on. So Punk.

There were two looks, however, which I thought were passable. The first was by Madonna, who flaunted the red-carpet dress code by wearing a studded jacket with many belts, a dog collar with a padlock on it, fishnets, and shoes that didn't match at all. As far as "high-fashion Punk" (sigh) goes, she did pretty well. Even if she's pretty much the mother of modern pop music.

The second is Zandra Rhodes, English fashion designer who went all out in a "frumpy" black dress with red sash, pink...thing, her standard bright pink locks, messy makeup, and safety pins all over. It looked messy, unfashionable, frumpy and thrown together. It doesn't capture Punk's effortless style, but it flaunts convention in a way that no one else did. Rock on, Ms. Rhodes.

Let us also praise Grace Coddington, former model and creative director of Vogue magazine, for being a goddess:


So, in summary, I'm dubious of the exhibit. The lead curator of The Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, says that Punk "has had an incendiary influence on fashion" and that "Punk's democracy [ahem.] stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s aesthetic vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness." Well, that's all well and good, Mr. Bolton, but when you unironically support this misunderstanding of what Punk is, then you've got me a little upset.

If you're still interested in seeing the exhibit (and paying the Met's exuberant price tag to do so), it will be running from May 9th to August 14th.

For the rest of us, here's some Siouxsie to put us in a better mood:

What do you think about the exhibit?


  1. It sounds like it probably SUCKS. As someone with a master's degree in Anthropology whose main interest is in working in museums, I find this pretty atrocious, but also extremely typical and unsurprising. What better way for the establishment to attempt to squelch an anti-establishment movement than by mainstreaming it? And the couture world is notorious for stealing DIY independent fashion statements and making thousand-dollar outfits for the rich out of them. Yawn.

    I have to agree with your assessment, and also with your praise for Madonna and Zandra Rhodes; at least Madonna knows what punk IS, and Ms. Rhodes appears to follow the spirit of punk, if not quite its style.

  2. I haven't looked into it much, but from what I hear the whole thing sounds pretty funny (though it would be much funnier if the Met would point fingers at haute couture designers and just sort of spend the exhibit giggling at them thinking they're punk.) I've never really personally identified much with punk though (much as the movement/aesthetics influence and fascinate me). I resist calling it "dead" because of people who seem pretty much the same as the 70s/80s punks who insist it's not, but I've never felt like it's something that's applicable to me because of my age. I wouldn't mind seeing a lot of those garments in person, either, regardless of what they're called. I doubt I'd be willing to pay the entrance fee, though.

  3. Although I won't elaborate on my sentiments toward the exhibit because it is conflicted and convoluted at best, I do have information on how they got their hands on at least some of those vintage pieces. PunkPistol, a famed collector/archivist of Seditionaries and other vintage punk clothing, has several pieces on loan for the exhibit. I wish I had a number, but it is likely not small. There is also an interesting comment posted on the PunkPistol tumblr, "Regardless of the myth peddled by media, Vivienne Westwood & Malcom McLaren were NOT creating cheap clothing for working class people. If Seditionaries exhisted today it would be no different, pricewise, than shopping in PRADA."

  4. This is pretty funny, but no different than how the haute couture designers recycle goth fashion every five years. Fashion has always started in the street. It IS democratic in that way, including punk and goth fashion: someone will start wearing oversized or billions of visible safety-pins, then more people think it's cool and do it, and they identify as punks... then designers see it and "invent" it on the runway, and then hundreds of mass-producing, lower-cost retailers start churning out "punk" goods for the girl-next-door. They all agree on what "punk" is,,, until punks agree that there's nothing authentic left and start wearing three-piece suits. Which happened.
    Isn't fashion entertaining?

  5. Dude I totally agree, it's so depressing how subcultures are misunderstood & recreated by designers for their own purposes :-/

  6. I completely agree. I live in NYC and am planning to check out the exhibit (mostly cos I can get in for free w/ my student ID) but the whole thing has put a bad taste in my mouth. But it's been like that here--St Mark's, which used to be the epicenter of punk here, now mostly just has Chinese restaurants and one "punk" used clothing store where you can buy someone else's already-made battle jacket for like $600.

  7. It's too bad that they managed to miss the whole point of punk. Still, I find myself wanting to check it out. Good thing I can't really travel to New York right now because I'd probably end up leaving crying and screaming on the inside.

  8. Well, I was 17 in 1977...for me the whole spirit and point of punk was DIY.
    In a way fuck Malcolm et al; it was never about a shop front if you catch my drift.
    Still you're right it IS sick inducing.
    Ah Siouxsie...great clip!

  9. This is just saddening really.

  10. I cringed when I heard about this and especially Entertainment Tonight's little story on it. The only redeeming thing I found was the New York Times article which had a few random photos of NY punk bands like the Heatbreakers and some old street punk scenes. But it was mostly high-dollar horrors like your examples. The usual overpriced couture dresses with safety pins, plaid stuff, Vivienne Westwood. Not even remotely DIY.

    I'm old and I need a little lie-down.