By John Curley
There could be many arguments made that something as noncomformist as punk fashion does not belong in an exhibition at an august space like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. On the other hand, New York City (along with London) was ground zero for the punk explosion of the mid-to-late 1970s, so the exhibition could be seen as perfectly at home there. Opened with a gala benefit on Monday, May 6th and running through Wednesday, August 14th, PUNK: Chaos to Couture has certainly received much attention in the press. And that attention is well-deserved.
Curated by Andrew Bolton of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and made possible by Moda Operandi with additional support from Condé Nast, PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibits the scope of punk fashion from the ripped, slogan-covered T-shirts of the 1970s to high-fashion gowns with punk touches of today. In a press release about the exhibition, Bolton stated, “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.”
Designers whose work is featured in the exhibition include John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld
(Chanel), Alexander McQueen, Miuccia Prada, and Gianni Versace. The designer whose work is most prominent in the exhibition is also the one most associated with punk fashion, Vivienne Westwood of London.
The exhibition is divided into seven galleries, each of which feature video footage on large screens of the punk personality or personalities who best represent what is on display in that particular gallery. The first gallery features the now-defunct New York City club CBGB, complete with a re-creation of the club’s filthy, graffiti-covered men’s rest room. New York City is represented by Blondie, Richard Hell, The Ramones, and Patti Smith. Opposite is a gallery that deals with London and includes a fantastic facsimile of Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries boutique, which was located at 430 King’s Road in London and was in business from 1976 to 1980. Sex Pistols music plays on a radio in the shop. Between the New York and London galleries is Clothes for Heroes, which looks at designers that emphasize the visual language of punk. A placard in the Clothes for Heroes section discusses how Malcolm McClaren, when he was in New York City in the mid-1970s, was inspired by Richard Hell’s look and how McClaren built on that look when he returned to London.
The other four galleries explore different facets of Do It Yourself or D.I.Y. Having designers create looks labeled D.I.Y might seem to be something of an oxymoron, but the pieces featured in the D.I.Y galleries are visually arresting. These galleries feature clothing that uses punk items such as safety pins and razor blades; recycled items like bottle tops; spray paint and graffitied slogans; and rips and tears as a fashion statement. Personalities highlighted as exemplifying the D.I.Y. spirit include The Clash and The Sex Pistols’ John Lydon (Johnny Rotten).
The music that plays in the galleries is a real treat for anyone that is a fan of the classic punk era of the mid-to-late 1970s. In one gallery, “New Rose” by The Damned, The Buzzcocks' “Boredom,” and “Blank Generation” by Richard Hell and the Voidoids played in succession.
One negative aspect of the exhibition is the eardrum-shattering alarms that are set off whenever someone gets too close to one of the exhibits. One of the galleries was very crowded and exhibition attendees that were merely trying to walk past others were setting one alarm off after another, drawing repeated admonishments from museum security. Perhaps it would’ve been a better idea to place those exhibits behind glass.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is located at 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028-0198. The museum’s hours are Sundays, Tuesdays-Thursdays 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. There is no additional charge above the museum admission to see the PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibition.
For additional information and in-depth features on the exhibition, go to www.metmuseum.org/punk.