Punk: Chaos to Couture
On ViewThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 9 – August 14, 2013
In the mid- and late 1970s, a small group of young men and women in London and New York created a remarkably individual style of dress and music. The punks believed that by D.I.Y. (do it yourself), they could provoke revolutionary change. “I did not see myself as a fashion designer,” Vivienne Westwood said, “but as someone who wished to confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition traces the effects of punk street fashion on couture, showing how punk styles moved into high fashion, often, so Thomas Campbell says in the catalogue, “to surprisingly beautiful effect.” It is impossible, one learns, to understand the recent garments of Comme des Garçons, Alexander McQueen, and Westwood without considering how the punk employment of base objects—pins, lavatory chains, razor blades, garbage bags—made this upscale style of clothing possible. What started as working-class nihilism became a dress style that, when it migrated into the fashion industry, transformed how we understand beauty.
After a gallery devoted to the origins of punk, which includes a facsimile of the CBGB bathroom in New York and “Clothes for Heroes,” a reconstruction of Westwood’s store at 430 King’s Road, London, the exhibition presents videos and clothed mannequins that recount the story in four parts: “Hardware,” “Bricolage,” “Graffiti & Agitprop,” and “Destroy.” All of the rooms are filled with loud music—an effect particularly striking in the last two because the displays are dark—as befits the theme. Driven by their passionate drive to break the rules as bricoleurs, the punks created something new from objects found in everyday life. Concerned with graffiti and agitprop, they incorporated such diverse influences as Julian Schnabel’s paintings and political slogans into fashion. Once detached from their status as cultural icons, the punks ripped and tore these images to make their garments.
The impact of the punk sensibility on couture is a very interesting topic, a concern, one might think, relevant only to historians of youth culture and fashion specialists, but this exhibition, devoted to a seemingly esoteric theme, astutely illustrates what the curator Andrew Bolton describes as “punk as an aesthetic,” a notion that became wildly popular. On my three visits to the Met, the galleries showcasing PUNK were packed, while the nearby and newly rehung galleries for European master painting were all but deserted. I understand the pleasures of this fashion (I too enjoy, now and then listening to The Sex Pistols and The Clash), but what attracts the larger public, who does not wear couture fashion to this exhibition?
Some 15 years ago, the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas published a book with a surprising title, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. In it, heargues that the self is:
not a given but a constructed unity. The materials for that construction are supplied, at least in the beginning, by accident—by the views and events that are due to the particular circumstances in which one finds oneself.
Here, of course, the art critic will think of Baudelaire’s great essay, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), with its praise for fashion, that:
taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-á-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain as a sublime deformation of Nature […] some kind of approximation to an ideal for which the restless human mind feels a constant, titillating hunger.
Writing with reference to Socrates, Michel de Montaigne, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Michel Foucault, with no discussion of Baudelaire, Nehamas doesn’t link his argument to fashion. But when he says:
To become an individual is to acquire an uncommon and idiosyncratic character, a set of features and a mode of life that set one apart from the rest of the world and make one memorable [. . .] for who one was.
Does he not describe both the lumpen proletariat punks as well as those who can afford to wear couture?
Clothes themselves, Richard Hell opines in the catalogue, “are not great art; they remain decoration, unless they’re actually worn…Clothes are empty.” Is punk and punk-inflected couture a legitimate art form? Does this show belong in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? The Art of Living doesn’t answer these questions. Neither, in truth, does “The Painter of Modern Life,” for all of Baudelaire’s exhilarated talk about “the acrid or heady bouquet of the wine of life,” which he found depicted in Constantin Guys’s drawings of the modern world. Under the spell of Andy Warhol, some critics have treated clothing as an art form. Like art, fashion too demands a sense of elegance, grace, and personal style; and like Pop Art, it proposes to blur any distinction between life and art. My sense, still, is that although high-end fashion stores may not look unlike the grander art dealers, the upscale garments on display here are obviously different from the works of art found elsewhere in the Metropolitan.
* On this topic, Andrew Bolton’s marvelous video is very revealing: metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/collections/ci/punk-gallery-views