The Impact of Punk
“PUNK: Chaos to Couture,” the spring exhibition organized by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art seeks to “examine punk’s impact on high fashion from the movements birth in the early 1970s through its continuing influence today.” The Punk movement started with the music scene in New York and London, as an aggressive rebellion against the 1970s culture. Quickly transformed into a broader social movement, Punk was clearly anti-establishment and affected all aspects of early 1980s culture, deeply affecting all those who contributed to its chaos and creativity.
Upon entering the exhibition, an introductory text panel, large video screen, and two mannequins greeted me. One of the mannequins wore an original punk garment and the other was dressed in a recent haute couture garment. These two mannequins were facing each other, and were likely intended to promote the connection between the original Punk movement and the more recent fashions it influenced. This introduction seemed designed to ease the visitors into the rest of the exhibition, not overwhelming them with numerous punk and punk-influenced garments at once, but instead showing how a moment in time influenced subsequent. Nearly one hundred designs for men and women were on display throughout the Met exhibition. While this did include original punk garments, these were mainly displayed in the first two galleries telling the tale of the birth of Punk, a tale of two cities: New York and London.
While the reproduction of CBGB’s famously foul bathroom was impressive, I was more interested in the clothing on display as well as the exhibition design. CBGB, a music club founded in 1973 and located at 315 Bowery in NYC, was a forum for American punk and New Wave bands such as the Ramones, Misfits, The B-52’s, Blondie, the Patti Smith Group, and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Patti Smith, who performed the final concert before CBGB closed in 2006, once said “all the action happened in the toilets.” Riddled with cigarette butts and graffiti, the CBGB bathrooms were notoriously unsanitary. As one of the birthplaces of the Punk movement, it was important to mention the club in PUNK and by recreating the CBGB bathroom, Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibition, found a unique and innovative way to weave history into the exhibition.
Over the years, I have come to expect a certain level of creativity and ingenuity regarding exhibition design and mannequin styling from the Costume Institute, and PUNK did not disappoint. Each mask and head treatment placed on a mannequin was designed by Guido Palau, who was also responsible for pieces in “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” and “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” For me, Palau’s work added an extra layer of enjoyment to the overall exhibition. As evidenced by the exhibition design and mannequin styling in PUNK, Diana Vreeland-esque spectacle within fashion and dress exhibitions has come back into vogue.
The layout of the exhibition, which was divided into sections pertaining to New York and London, Clothes for Heroes, Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti and Agitprop, and Destroy, effectively maintained my interest. Because the exhibition design was arranged in an easily digestible grouping of the garments, it was also a compelling and competent way to break down the influence of punk on today’s fashion for the general public. I had read other reviews of PUNK prior to attending the show, but was not personally disappointed in Bolton’s choices of garments for display. In an interview with the New York Times, Vivienne Westwood (who, along with Malcolm McLaren, originated punk fashion) criticized the lack of original garments worn by punk icons like Johnny Rotten and Debbie Harry. At the preview for PUNK, Bolton addressed this, and other criticisms of the exhibition. Bolton explains it had always been his aim to “present punk in a respectful even reverential manner” in an attempt to showcase its influence on couture.
It is important to remember that PUNK was not intended as a historical lesson in the Punk movement. As stated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the thesis of “PUNK: Chaos to Couture,” is to explore the impact the Punk movement had on subsequent fashion. By displaying garments by Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood (both closely tied to punk fashion), but also younger designer such as Alexander McQueen, Versace, and Gareth Pugh, Bolton was able to effectively link the Punk movement of the 1970s with contemporary fashion. By no means an authority on the Punk movement, I for one, did walk away feeling I had learned much about its origins, as well as its influence on today’s fashion.
Due to the large number of visitors in the exhibition, I found it difficult at times to linger in front of an exquisite garment or to fully read each room’s text panel. While this is something I have come to expect from the highly attended Costume Institute exhibitions, and I am not sure if there is any way to better accommodate the large crowds, I do think the exhibition would have been more enjoyable had I not been fighting (in a sense) to see various aspects of the show up close. In retrospect, the crowds inside the exhibition did lend a somewhat punk feeling to the show.
At one point, I witnessed a visitor managing to sneak photographs of the exhibition, something the Costume Institute does not allow. A gallery assistant promptly reminded the person that photography is not allowed, to which the visitor offered a heated response.
While this attitude is to be condemned in museum exhibitions, the exchange lent the show “PUNK: Chaos to Couture” a small dose of rebellion; a central attribute to the Punk movement otherwise missing within this setting.
PUNK: Chaos to Couture
May 9 – August 14, 2013
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 5th Avenue
New York, NY