Chaos to Couture
at the Costume Institute
In January 1978, the Sex Pistols came to Dallas, Texas (my home), and played a concert in an eclectic, edge-of-downtown, barnlike venue called the Longhorn Ballroom. According to a trusted acquaintance who was there (Jeffrey Liles, who’s still involved in music and nightclubs all these many years later), maybe as many as a thousand people were present, but that was less than half the capacity of the place. Oddly, the number seemed to grow as time passed. In the early 80s, the Pistols’ show began to acquire the patina of legend, and more and more people claimed to have seen it.
As I headed into the Metropolitan Museum’s Punk: Chaos to Couture show, I half expected to find that fashion had glommed on to Punk in the same after-the-fact manner. Au contraire: the show reminded me that packaging had always been involved with Punk, in a couple of ways. First, the look was part of the message. Defiant slogans and gestures, spiked hair, graffiti-like splashes of color, ripped or degraded fabric sometimes held together with safety pins, collars and other objects borrowed from bondage wear, outfits decorated with or even built from garbage bags: this was Punk to many people. The look was a marker of group identity, a rejection of other youth-culture styles such as the Hippie look and the glitter of Disco (fashion writer Amy Fine Collins pointed this out to me in an email), an expression of feeling damaged or cast off, a flip of the finger to the social order and the ruling class.
Second, especially in England, marketing and design played a role in Punk from the start. Two figures dominate this part of the story. Malcolm McLaren, a musician, producer, impresario, and all-around spirit of the age, who was regarded as a hustler by some and a genius by others, influenced almost every aspect of the Sex Pistols; as the band’s manager, he booked it on that American tour in 1978, which ended with the band’s breakup in San Francisco. McLaren had earlier joined forces with designer Vivienne Westwood; the two of them pretty much created the look of British Punk and sold it through a London shop on King’s Road.
The Met’s Costume Institute show, which was curated by Andrew Bolton, displays many of Westwood and McLaren’s creations, but seeing them all on mannequins leaves the Punk period (roughly 1974–79) feeling less than fully fleshed out. Photos supplied to the press do it better, just by capturing Punk styles on people such as John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Richard Hell of Television and other bands, and Gary Wilson, a musician and performance artist who used dry-cleaning bags in his look. (You can see these, paired with modern versions on models, here.)
Considering the title’s reference to chaos, this exhibition might also seem to be lacking in grime, disorder, and vomit. Critic Suzy Menkes complained (in an IHT review here) that the Punk background it presents is “sanitized and bloodless.” It’s odorless too, and as James Wolcott recently reminded Vanity Fair readers (see article), CBGB was a decidedly odoriferous place. But I’m unsure how much we’d like to be reminded of any of that.
What do we have of Punk’s origins? There are many rebellious T-shirts by Westwood and McLaren and a few of their ensembles using bondage pants, furry sweaters, and the like. Also on display are a couple of 1977 Zandra Rhodes dresses that strike a lovely balance between distress and composure; Rhodes stationed herself in front of them for interviews during the press preview. Punk’s original habitats are evoked by two physical spaces that recall the Metropolitan’s other period rooms: a recreation of the CBGB bathroom from 1975 (sans odor), and a duplication of Westwood and McLaren’s boutique on King’s Road. The CBGB urinals remind others of Marcel Duchamp; I thought the scene needed a note reading “This is not a bathroom” (à la René Magritte). Rounding out the source material are video excerpts from various period films, including footage from that Sex Pistols show in Dallas, running on screens placed throughout the exhibition. But all the video is silent—the music we hear comes from other sources—and has a hard-to-read, throwaway feel. (Presumably the figures shown, and the rationale for which gallery they appear in, are more recognizable to others than they were to me.) In the DIY: Bricolage room, one of the large video screens worked better as a garish light source than as anything to ponder.
Where the curator has harvested a real bounty is in the recent borrowings from Punk. Spread through the galleries are dozens of pieces, both ready-to-wear and haute couture, for men and women. Knowledgeable commentary on these works is easy to find elsewhere. I’ll just say that it’s surprising how many design responses can be traced to the short-lived outburst that was Punk.
There’s an energizing tension between the look and the feel of the show. The gallery layouts are symmetrical, classical (some use Roman-style niches), elegant, composed… almost serenely seductive. But when a crowd is on hand, the music is pumping, and ever-changing light dances from the videos, the show can feel like a nightclub—which, in case you don’t know me, I mean as a good thing. The experience is a fantastical one, in which you the viewer mingle, on entirely comfortable terms, with the chicest of the chic, who remain on their platforms like Patience on a monument.
Indulging the club feel will be a mistake if you fail to balance it with careful observation. I know I missed things in my larking about. The gunshot-wound shirt by Hedi Slimane is eye-catching; less so is the intricate detail work in a mohair knit-and-crochet ensemble from Rodarte and the delicate beauty of Ann Demeulemeester’s “quotation dress” (my term), embroidered with Patti Smith text. The parting nod to Punk’s defiance is obvious too; more obscure is just where one could wear this mannequin’s barely-there evening dress, from Maison Martin Margiela.
The show concludes with a fine irony: the “no future” declaration, which originated in a Sex Pistols song, now marches proudly across the wall of the last gallery, negating itself by its very presence. Punks either died or moved on, but their style had a future—it’s here.
Through August 14, 2013, at the Metropolitan Museum: metmuseum.org/punk
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