Punk at The Met

By Lisa Hunter on July 02, 2013


D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Punk at The Met is like a rock star with a knighthood. All the bad-boy rebellion gets cleaned up and respectable. Here, the fashion stylings of Sid Vicious are paired with Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. It’s disconcerting and hilarious—especially if you came of age in the late ’70s or early ’80s.

The exhibition Punk: Chaos to Couture explores how fashion designers, even 30 years after punk’s heyday, keep turning to that iconic, rebellious look. Vintage clothes and photos are shown alongside the posh couture they inspired. You’ll see ripped skirts, bondage wear, graffitti’d dresses, clothes made from found objects—all the studs and safety pins you’d expect. 

Some of the Museum’s ensembles were made by angry kids; others by the likes of Helmut Lang, Rodarte, Junya Watanabe, and Comme des Garçons. What they all have in common is that they’re handcrafted—it’s DIY versus made-to-measure. The pairings are intellectually intriguing, but there’s an inescapable irony in seeing anti-fashion turned into luxury gowns. 

Back then, punk artists challenged The Met’s “pay what you wish” entry fee by brazenly offering a penny. The Fifth Avenue ladies rolled their eyes, never dreaming that someday their daughters would get all dolled up for a gala in honor of these louts. Could anything be more sock-it-to-the-bourgeoisie than couture made from trash bags?

Punk starts provocatively by re-creating the graffiti-covered bathroom of New York’s legendary CBGB club, which the sly curator surely knows is now a John Varvatos store. Four miles downtown from the Met, the club’s original teen-punk graffiti is archivally preserved next to $2,000 leather jackets.


Facsimile of CBGB bathroom, New York, 1975. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So maybe nouveau-punk couture by Galliano and Versace is just part of the zeitgeist. Even punk icon Vivienne Westwood now sells $600 Union Jack throw pillows. The Met is astute enough to notice that punk has gone upscale.

But how did punk, of all things, become co-opted by luxury brands?

New York has never gotten over its nostalgia for the era. While British punks were nihilistic and mad at Thatcher, New York punks were more like children when the teacher’s back is turned. They were literally drawing on the walls. It was fun.

The Met exhibition explores the link between punk music and fashion; but in the late ’70s, that DIY freedom carried over into art forms, too. You didn’t need approval from art school or record labels or Hollywood. You could paint, write, take photos, start a band, shoot Super 8 movies, or make dresses out of Bubble Wrap. Whatever you wanted. And there was plenty of time to make art, because New York was cheap enough to survive on a part-time job. (The dirt and the danger kept out anyone who actually listened to their parents.)

Who could take such an art scene seriously? It was too entwined with punk rock and nightclubs, with ’50s kitsch and late-night Putt-Putt Golf parties. Surely real artists didn’t listen to the B-52s. But maybe that’s what Paris in the ’20s looked like, too: a bunch of drunk, manic kids keeping the neighbors awake.

By the mid-’80s, though, it was over. The grown-up gatekeepers were downtown in their limousines, sorting everyone into Mozarts or Salieri also-rans. Suddenly you couldn’t just rip a Keith Haring drawing off the subway wall, laden with cockroach eggs. Basquiat wasn’t just that cool guy doing the SAMO graffiti. Nothing kills DIY spirit more than seeing your rivals on the cover of New York Magazine.

Most ex-punks would describe what happened next as simply growing up. The recession ended. Real jobs offered a respite from the bohemian poverty of sketchy neighbourhoods and potato-chip dinners. At the time, it probably felt like a windfall, not a surrender. Now here they are, 30 years older, standing in line to buy a Sex Pistols tea towel, and they didn’t even like that band. 


Top Photo: D.I.Y.: Hardware. Left: Zandra Rhodes (British, born 1940), Wedding Dress, spring/summer 1977. Courtesy of Zandra Rhodes. Right: Zandra Rhodes, Dress, spring/summer 1977, Courtesy of Zandra Rhodes. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art  /  Bottom Photo: D.I.Y.: Hardware. Left: Gianni Versace (Italian, 1946–1997), Dress, spring/summer 1994, Courtesy of Gianni Versace. Right: Gianni Versace, Dress, spring/summer 1994, Courtesy of Gianni Versace. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As the Punk exhibition shows, designers are happy to indulge the nostalgia. Maybe they even feel it themselves. In creative professions, you have to make deals with the devils in Prada. How fun it must be to play in the punk sandbox, to make dresses out of safety pins—as if you too were free to tell the world to go to hell.

Punk is freedom. That’s why we all want it.

Punk: Chaos to Couture is on view at The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, until 14 August 2013 

By Lisa Hunter| July 02, 2013
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Lisa Hunter

Lisa Hunter

Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.

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