It’s been more than 35 years since the heyday of punk rock and for most people of a certain age the movement is likely little more than a memory of a curious era. And yet attending “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” the latest creation of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, got me thinking about why punk matters to your wardrobe today.
No, I’m not advocating for the return of spiky collars as accessories or that you use Sid Vicious’s tragic girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, as a fashion muse. But the exhibition did put into focus again for me why punk mattered.
Punk’s continuing allure was evident in the range of people at the show. Old punks (one still hanging onto his ragged leather jacket and edge even though his body showed signs of succumbing to gravity’s pull), fashion students, middle-aged tourists from Middle America, parents and their kids, neo punks more baby-faced than Justin Bieber, and Fred Armisen and Vanessa Bayer from “Saturday Night Live” were all in attendance during my visit.
The exhibition’s title accurately describes its focus, but short-shrift is given to the “chaos” part of the equation.
The most startling part of the Met’s nod to chaos occurs at the entrance: a re-creation of a beyond squalid, cigarette butt-strewn and graffiti-blanketed restroom of the Bowery’s legendary CBGB nightclub, one of the seminal birthplaces of punk. (While I felt almost nauseated looking at the toilet, the 50-something behind me sounded almost tearful when he reminisced about it to the woman he was with).
Otherwise the chaos quotient is also represented with a re-creation of the London boutique of the pied piper partners of punk, Vivienne Westwood and the late Malcolm McLaren, called Seditionaries during the punk era, some of their politically charged T-shirts and background on how McLaren created and costumed the Sex Pistols.
Other Westwood-McLaren designs from the era are shown alongside similar more recent creations from other designers.
The rest of the exhibit is devoted in variously themed galleries to punk’s influence on high-end fashion, from ’80s sensation, the late Stephen Sprouse, to today’s design darlings Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte.
While I must admit I enjoyed seeing up close the safety-pinned Versace black gown from 1994 that launched Elizabeth Hurley as a paparazzi princess, I think the elite emphasis misses the point on punk.
Ultimately punk was a force of creativity even while it celebrated destruction. Punk in the UK was largely inspired by widespread youth anger at the poverty, unemployment and other social inequalities of the period. (In more economically stable Canada and the U.S., punk was less fuelled by anger and more an expression of a desire for change in music and fashion and other symbols of the status quo).
So it is more than slightly ironic that the majority of the show focuses on clothes available only to the one percent. As Roberta Smith in a New York Times piece on the exhibition wrote about a particular ensemble on display: “…would anyone buy a classic Chanel suit full of tiny holes like cigarette burns if she didn’t already own several intact ones?”
The missed message
So the show fails to represent punk’s influence on the rest of us. And that influence, regardless of what you think of safety pins and duct tape as decoration, is significant.
If you look past the Mohawk dos and the chains, a lot of what punk preached was DIY invention. As a quote from Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistol’s displayed in the show reminds us:
“Tears, safety pins, rips all over the gaff, third rate tramp thing, that was purely really, lack of money. The arse of your pants falls out, you just use safety pins.”
Punk meant taking risks, and while I was much more influenced by its gentler off-shoot, New Wave, without it I don’t think I would have dared to wear a paisley pajama top, stirrup pants or questionable costume jewellery to high school. (Not that these were always successful style choices…).
Today we barely give a second glance at purple hair highlights or green nail polish, and a teen with an “anarchy” button on her jean jacket seems quaint rather than threatening. All of that’s thanks to punk.
Even if you’re not a fan of these style statements, at least they’re reminders that conformity isn’t the only option, even if you’re long past your teenage angst years.
So while they don’t play the music, I’m happy that Rihanna, Pink and Lady Gaga are carrying the banner of punk style in pop today. And that designers Vivienne Westwood, Betsey Johnson and Patricia Field (all in their early 70’s) and musicians Debbie Harry and Cyndi Lauper are still rocking elements of their punk selves.
While I won’t be dyeing my hair pink anytime soon, I’m thankful to the movement for inspiring so many people to dare to dress differently. And when I look at my current wardrobe and its collection of six virtually identical black cardigans, I realize how easy it is for all of us to let things get stagnant. Which is, I think, why punk matters to your wardrobe today.
“Punk: Chaos to Couture” runs until August 14.