Punk: Chaos to Couture — Met Museum

Richard Hell, Adam Ant, Sid Vicious… at the Met?

That's right. And Dior, Givenchy, Versace…

Yes, all in the same place.

The premise of this show as it is smartly set out in the initial wall text intrigues: that couture fashion draws inspiration from the punk aesthetic, and moreover that the one-of-a-kind "made-to-measure" concept of couture is closely aligned with the highly individualized, custom-made nature of punk creations.

John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols), 1976. Listen to the Sex Pistols on Spotify.
Junya Watanabe, fall/winter 2006–7. All images courtesy the museum website unless otherwise noted.

Seven galleries feature approximately 100 designs, arranged thematically around the aspects of the punk visual language that inspired them. While the punk "look" is well-known and probably does not require constant illustration, I nevertheless hoped to see a more continuous reference between the displayed couture fashion and its punk counterparts. Archival video footage included in each gallery is an effort in that direction, but because of its abstraction (increased by the large size of the screens) it doesn't quite provide the historical grounding I have in mind. I think a photograph, here and there, would have done the trick. I have a fantastic book entitled Blight At The End of the Funnel featuring photographs by Edward Colver. His works convey a tremendous amount of energy and anger, even as his lens captures and preserves a single, static moment: a paradox imbuing his images with a tension that utterly captivates the viewer. The strategic placement of even a few such gritty images throughout the show would provide a concise but much more profound appreciation of the chaos that fostered [these examples of] couture.

Wasted Youth. Photo by Edward Colver. Listen to Wasted Youth on Spotify.
Black Flag. Photo by Edward Colver. Listen to Black Flag on Spotify.

That said, the staging of the show—and I use the word "staging" quite deliberately—is absolutely fabulous. Like the couture fashion it showcases, the settings present chic, dramatic versions of grimy "underground" inspirations. The design hearkens to the Met's 2011 Alexander McQueen exhibition, and rightly so; in addition to the Met's Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton and photographer Nick Knight, the show involved exhibition design consultant Sam Gainsbury, who was creative director of the McQueen show. The theatricality of Punk derives in part from the talents of Gideon Ponte, a set and production designer for photo shoots and feature films like Buffalo 66 and American Psycho. Together, what a ride they give us!


Proceeding from the white entrance "teaser" gallery (above) into a black room with one wall populated by blinking television screens, visitors are transported right out of the hallowed walls of the Metropolitan Museum into a decades-old realm of visually (and physically) aggressive independence. This space and the next serve to distinguish between the styles and ideological aims of the American and British versions of the punk movement. In the second room, vintage Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren creations underscore the more fashion-conscious British approach, and introduce the theme of punk's influence on couture. These classic creations are paired with more recent designs clearly impacted by the originals.

My favorite aspect of the show may well be—and I realize this could nullify my academic cred—the recreation of the pretty much repulsively filthy CBGB bathroom, complete with cigarette butts installed beneath urinals and muffled music overhead to suggest that the viewer had popped downstairs in the middle of a Ramone's concert. Did not see that one coming. Kudos, Metropolitan!


I also thoroughly enjoyed the treatment of one long corridor, the design of which plays on the conventional sculpture gallery and thus reiterates the theme of questioning the definition of art and its inclusion of found objects or everyday wears (this space is called "DIY Hardware"). With graffiti scratched into the walls and visible hot glue oozing from the chunks of styrofoam comprising the architecture, the entire enterprise seems as DIY as the punk aesthetic it displays.


The "Bricolage" room follows. Just in case, according to Merriam-Webster, bricolage is a construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also: something constructed in this way. The walls here are an amalgamation of shoes and bottles that resemble a Jannis Kounellis construction (below), but with contents that more appropriately convey the themes of consumerism and waste that pertain to this gallery. They are the more kitschy for a) their resemblance to plastic and b) their uniform pink color.

Jannis Kounellis, a site-specific installation for Cheim & Read's booth at this year's The Art Show. Image courtesy Cranky Gallery Girl.

A few pieces in this room merit your particular attention. After viewing several gowns constructed of trash bags and grocery bags from designers Gareth Pugh and Maison Martin Margiela, one encounters a few by ‎McQueen. That shown below is included in the show, but is not quite a mere continuation of this theme of reuse and assemblage; it is made not of everyday materials, but of fabric manipulated to emulate trash bags and bubble wrap. In good punkish form, McQueen perverts our expectations.

Alexander McQueen, Fall 2009 RTW. Image courtesy New York Magazine.

I won't outline every gallery in its entirety, because the diversity and surprise is part of the fun. Several of the rooms incorporate arrangements suggestive of a fashion runway, and the consistent use of spiked wigs, though varied in subtle ways, serves to visually unify the works on display. The looped videos playing on large screens and the slightly de/reconstructed versions of punk music and verbal anecdotes (what the website calls "soundscaping audio techniques") adds to the Blade-Runner vibe permeating the show (and reinforces the sense of disconnection and hopelessness that gave rise to punk in the first place). By exhibition's end, however, I mentally made a note to mention that those with epileptic tendencies should steer clear. The continually and drastically flashing screens can make it very difficult to appreciate the works, especially those installed closest to the videos.

Do keep an eye out for the subtle "parting message" at the culmination of the show. It drives home the exhibition's intention to emphasize the common underpinnings of the punk mindset and the bold innovation of couture. When all is said and done, however, the uniqueness of each of the displayed pieces is perhaps a bit lost when viewing them in close proximity, and removed from the context of other runway fashions contemporary with their unveiling. This is unfortunate, as their singularity forms part of the argument for the connection between couture and punk in the first place.


A "multisensory experience?" Yes. A "groundbreaking" exhibition and a high entertainment factor? Yes and yes. But I wonder.

I have written much more regarding the exhibition's overall presentation than about the actual fashions on view. The nature of my blog prescribes my focus, and the Met gave me a lot to run with here, but will the general public be more greatly impacted by the "show" of the show than by its contents?

On the other hand, I was inspired to pull out my Buzzcocks and Discharge.
(No, no, they're bands. Minds out of the gutter, folks.)

Punk: Chaos to Couture is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 14, 2013. Located on 5th Avenue, the museum's main entrance is at 82nd Street. Hours are 9:30am-5:30pm Tues-Thurs and Sun., 9:30-9:00pm Friday and Saturday. On July 1st the Met will be open 7 days a week, with Monday hours 9:30am-5:30pm. Museum admission is always pay what you wish; suggested prices are $25 for adults, $17 for seniors (65+), $12 for students. Free for members and children under 12.

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