What to Expect from the Met's Punk: Chaos to Couture Exhibit

"PUNK: Chaos to Couture," the latest exhibit organized by Andrew Bolton for The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opens to the public tomorrow. The press got a first look today. And I have a feeling reactions will be mixed. (The International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes already panned the exhibit for being too "sanitized and bloodless.") Here's why:
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Leah Chernikoff
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"PUNK: Chaos to Couture," the latest exhibit organized by Andrew Bolton for The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opens to the public tomorrow. The press got a first look today. And I have a feeling reactions will be mixed. (The International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes already panned the exhibit for being too "sanitized and bloodless.") Here's why:
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PUNK: Chaos to Couture, the latest exhibit organized by Andrew Bolton for The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opens to the public tomorrow. The press got a first look today. And I have a feeling reactions will be mixed. (The International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes already panned the exhibit for being too "sanitized and bloodless.") Here's why: Punk as a movement is inherently opposed to being exhibited (let alone the $1000 and up fashions it inspired) especially within the sterile environment of a museum like the Met. Punk is about anarchy, rebellion, and individuality--it seems at odds with the commercialization of punk codes as co-opted by luxury labels.

This is something Bolton acknowledges. “Although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s aesthetic vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness," he says in a release. In his remarks to the press today he was careful to note that the exhibit is not about a comprehensive history of punk, but merely an exploration of the way punk has influenced current fashion from the '70s on. This is why, he says, he chose not to exhibit garments worn by punk's icons--like Sid Vicious, Debbie Harry--and why he asked hair stylist Guido Palau to create hair pieces that weren't clichéd Mohawks and liberty spikes. Instead all the mannequins sport spiked brightly colored puff-ball wigs and you'll only see or hear Sid Vicious (and the rest of the Sex Pistols), Debbie Harry, The Ramones, Patti Smith and more in the music pumped through the exhibit and in video mash-ups created by Nick Knight, who served as creative consultant.

The bathroom at CBGB, recreated for the exhibit

The bathroom at CBGB, recreated for the exhibit

The exhibit opens with recreations of punk's epicenters--the bathroom at CBGB in New York (Patti Smith once famously remarked that everything important happened there) and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's boutique Seditionaries on 430 King's Road in London. The first gallery, all black, pays appropriate homage to the creations of Westwood and McLaren ("God Save the Queen" and "Anarchy in the UK" tees included) with some more contemporary looks from Balmain, Burberry and Rodarte thrown in.

From that "chaos" the exhibit segues into "couture." The next room is a grand white hallway flanked with punk-inspired looks from Versace (including that famous safety-pin number Liz Hurley wore to the 1994 premiere of Four Weddings and Funeral--the mannequin really doesn't fill it out like she could), Dolce & Gabbana, Givenchy, Moschino and Christopher Kane to name a few. This room is meant to emphasize the DIY "hardware" aspect of punk style--other galleries focus on the DIY bricolage and DIY graffiti/agitprop styles seen in punk.

The DIY-ness of punk is the aspect the exhibit seems to focus on the most. The introductory text of the exhibit reads:

While the punk ethos might seem at odds with the couture ethos of made-to-measure, both are defined by the same impulses of originality and individuality. If anything, the punk ethos of do-it-yourself results in fashions that exist almost beyond couture in their singularity and inimitability.

In his remarks to the press this morning, Bolton stressed the relevancy of punk's DIY ethos on today's internet culture where "people are owning and driving cultural production, giving rise to an immense network of passionate amateurs more interested in creating than consuming."

But I can see where the DIY emphasis gets problematic. Punk was about individuality, and many of the looks on display--a shredded Chanel jacket, Hedi Slimane's torn jeans for Saint Laurent--are made for the (very rich) masses. Maybe that 40-foot styrofoam statue of a naked Vivienne Westwood on a distressed mattress that visitors could project graffiti onto using their phones--an idea of Bolton's and Knight's that was nixed by Met director Thomas Campbell and Anna Wintour, according to the New Yorker--would have made the experience more immersive and DIY.

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Still, fashion lovers will relish in the chance to see these clothes up close. One hundred looks are on display including one-of-a-kind pieces from Westwood, Zandra Rhodes, and Stephen Sprouse as well as a handful of last season's trash bag dresses from Gareth Pugh, loads of Comme des Garçons, and Margiela. And if it's not your thing, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is right next door and it's fantastic.

PUNK: Chaos to Couture is on view from May 9 through August 14 at the Met. Click through for a sneak peek.

Photos: The Metropolitan Museum of Art