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Punk: From Chaos to Couture

2013 July 1

Last weekend, I went to the Met to see their new exhibit, Punk: From Chaos to Couture. We had a friend in town who was interested in seeing it, and I usually really enjoy the Met’s costume exhibits. The Alexander McQueen exhibit a couple of summers ago was totally breathtaking–I still haven’t gotten over that one.

However, I found this particular exhibit disappointing. I’ll admit that punk–the music, the attitude, and the aesthetic–just isn’t my thing. It probably couldn’t be further from my thing, in fact. But I can appreciate the art behind the attitude, and I was hoping to see some of that in this exhibit.

Punk is a kind of mythic story, featuring an assortment of anti-heroes ranging from Johnny Rotten to Iggy Pop to Debbie Harry. It’s a story of rebellion against authority and what society deemed “right.” It’s a rejection of tradition and rules. It’s basically an angry middle finger aimed at the world. Or, at least, it was.

More than celebrating the ethos and history behind the Punk movement, or even the figures who made it what it was, the Met exhibit highlights how the fashion industry essentially co-opted the movement and copied the look, selling torn dresses adorned with safety pins and ripped leather jackets for tens of thousands of dollars. While I don’t dispute that this fashion movement is interesting, I thought that the exhibit would have been far more enlightening and meaningful had it featured photographs of punk icons wearing the real “fashion” of the times, at the very least.

There were a few nods to authentic punk culture, such as a display of t-shirts designed by Vivienne Westwood and popular in the punk movement in the 70s, but beyond that, everything was facsimile, including a model of the famous CBGB’s bathroom.

Another noteworthy omission from the show was the MUSIC. The music of The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, the Clash–they defined that era and they defined what punk was all about, more so than anything else. So why was the music so absent from the show? We theorized that perhaps Met patrons wouldn’t enjoy the loud, offensive, crashing noise of rebellion, but….isn’t some art made to be provoking and unpleasant?

In the punk spirit, I thought I would include a few photos of some punk icons, looking decidedly awesome. Have you seen this exhibit? What did you think?

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren

Debbie Harry

Grace Jones

Joan Jett

Patti Smith

Siouxsie Sioux


*top two images via The Met

One Response Post a comment
  1. Raquel permalink
    July 1, 2013

    Balls to the Met. This whole exhibit perplexed and disgruntled me, as we discussed. This blog post explains it all much better than those hoity-toities curating this thing did. Especially your point about how designers who co-opted punk fashion for their own overpriced duds were doing something completely antithetical to the movement: taking something inexpensive and totally DIY and turning it into an art piece worth thousands of dollars–more than anyone who was an actual punk could ever afford. Not to mention that anything–clothing or otherwise–involving thousands of dollars was antithetical to the movement. IRONY, thy name is this exhibit.

    In case anyone is actually interested in learning more about this stuff, “England’s Dreaming” by Jon Savage is a fun and readable primer to the movement, including the fashion (as well as the politics behind all of it). It tends to focus a lot on the Pistols, but there are some other folks in there too.

    The oversized coffee table book: “Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution” actually comprehensively illustrates the actual players in the punk story that the Met exhibit apparently decided were too vulgar to include.

    Also, I still don’t understand why they replicated the bathroom of CBGB’s rather than any other part of the club. Maybe it was their nod to Duchamp? Maybe as a subtle commentary on the nature of the exhibit itself?

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