Museums

God Save the Met and Their Fuckin’ Costume Institute

by Alexander Cavaluzzo on May 9, 2013

Junya Watanabe (Japanese, born 1961), fall/winter 2006–7 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Catwalking)

Junya Watanabe (Japanese, born 1961), fall/winter 2006–7 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Catwalking)

If there is but one cornerstone of “Punk” as fashion, it is what Dame Vivienne Westwood dubbed “confrontation dressing.” Swastikas, tampons, spray-painted swears, safety pins — these were the tools with which this particular postmodern machine of resistance, youth, and style were forged. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring costume exhibition, Punk: From Chaos to Couture, hovered over the essence of this defensive dress, but skirted the issues of subculture to champion superficial style.

Paul Cook, late 1970s (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Dennis Morris)

Paul Cook, late 1970s (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Dennis Morris)

In all fairness, this exhibition seemed doomed from the moment the title was announced. Several outlets raised their perfectly-plucked eyebrows at the thought of such an eminent, traditional, stingy institution dedicating its annual costume exhibit to the utmost grittiest of glamour. It felt like another in a long, long line of major cultural institutions “legitimizing” a counter-cultural movement, except in this case they were about 40 years late.

What could the Met possibly know about tit t-shirts? Or chicken bone tanks? It appeared incongruent.

Personally, I thought the initial critiques were too reflexively dismissive and a tad unsubstantiated. After all, two years ago I said that Dame Viv deserved a retrospective there, and this is probably as good of one as we’ll ever get. But after seeing it, I’m apt to side with the unfounded reactions that accompanied its announcement.

Facsimile of CBGB bathroom, New York, 1975 (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Facsimile of CBGB bathroom, New York, 1975 (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

We’ll begin where they do, with a facsimile of CBGB’s bathroom. Need we go further? All right, we shall. “Awkward” hardly embodies the gravitas necessary to convey the puzzling placement of this vignette. Bolton certainly tried to create atmospheres to accompany the mannequins in this exhibit — like the recreation of Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s original Seditionaries boutique on King’s Road (AKA SEX, Too Fast To Live, Too Young to Die, and now World’s End) — but at least they were woven into the fashions presented in the show. The bathroom might as well have had working pipes (or at least a few glory holes) — then it would’ve served a function in the exhibition.

John Lydon, 1976 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph by Ray Stevenson/Rex USA)

John Lydon, 1976 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph by Ray Stevenson/Rex USA)

Towards the beginning they boasted a nice array of original (one would hope) punk clothing, mostly donated from Westwood’s own archives. The tees, anarchy shirts, and bondage suits whet your appetite for a pleasurable punk panoply. Then you see the Versace gown Elizabeth Hurley made famous and nod your head, “Sure.” We’re gearing up for something more mainstream, which is to be expected.

Gianni Versace (Italian, founded 1978), spring/summer 1994 Vogue Paris, February 1994 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Satoshi Saïkusa

Gianni Versace (Italian, founded 1978), Spring/Summer 1994 Vogue Paris, February 1994 (courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph © Satoshi Saïkusa)

But then, naturally, the trajectory quickly spirals downward to recent runway raiment and household names who’ve made “punk”-like clothing, and the show begins to wane (or fall flaccid, you choose.)

They do boast an incredible breadth of beautiful designs from eminent designers like Zandra Rhodes and Martin Margiela, many hovering around an aesthetic we can call “pretty punk” or “downtown chic.” The exhibition design is slick and rich, and the head pieces created by hair stylist Guido Palau provide a nice through-line to the look of the show. The Nick Knight-directed videos of punk patrons like Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten add a nice ambience, but the focus of the show is too much on the appropriation of these figures’ styles, rather than an examination of the authentic look.

Maison Martin Margiela (founded 1988), spring/summer 2011 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph © Nathalie Sanchez for Maison Martin Margiela)

Maison Martin Margiela (founded 1988), spring/summer 2011 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph © Nathalie Sanchez for Maison Martin) Margiela)

Cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, who wrote a famous yet controversial ethnography of British youth subcultures entitled Subculture: The Meaning of Style, noted “Subcultures represent ‘noise’ (as opposed to sound): interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media.”

Joe Strummer, 1977 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Ray Stevenson/Rex USA

Joe Strummer, 1977 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph by Ray Stevenson/Rex USA)

The problem lies not with the fact that an uptown institution chose to authoritatively record a period of downtown culture — that is, for better or worse, one of the main functions of a museum — the problem lies with the fact that the Met removed the abject steam that powered punk. They focused on sound, not noise. They took the concept of punk and cleaned it, polished it, and presented it as a thing of stereotypical beauty, when its true appeal lies in its transgressive, “ugly” qualities. Punk was commercialized well before this particular period, and this exhibition heralds that Haute Topic sensibility. The street is a means for trickle up inspiration, not a jungle to explore and appreciate in its own right.

It would be pleasurable to see the Met break out of their limited view of fashion as high-end glamour, Condé Nast endorsement notwithstanding. They could’ve come close this time around, if only they broke free of their bondage.

Punk: From Chaos to Couture opens today and runs through August 14 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

Title Wall Gallery (all exhibition photographs © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Title Wall Gallery (all exhibition photographs © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Hardware

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Hardware

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Hardware, Zandra Rhodes (British, born 1940), Wedding Dress, spring/summer 1977 (courtesy of Zandra Rhodes)

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Hardware, Zandra Rhodes (British, born 1940), Wedding Dress, spring/summer 1977 (courtesy of Zandra Rhodes)

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Destroy

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Destroy

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  • thom thom

    Westwood’s clothing translated punk clothes through design. Then her designs turned around and informed the clothes punks wore. It is an interesting cycle. It sounds like the show highlights the “authentic” punk (if that is even possible) and the larger fashion world (that part that includes merchandising).

    You wrote: “The Nick Knight-directed videos of punk patrons like Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten add a nice ambience, but the focus of the show is too much on the appropriation of these figures’ styles, rather than an examination of the authentic look.”

    Fashion on all levels includes appropriation, and interpretation of course. You won’t find an original.

    I think you misunderstand the direction of this show. It looks like it is meant to show how a subculture influenced design and vice versa. Punks wore safety pins and Versace incorporated safety pins into a dress. We can see how a subculture traveled into some unexpected places. It’s a bit myopic to ask for only the originators (the punks and their clothing). Some people would like to see how fashion informed punk and punk informed fashion simultaneously.

    Incidentally, Margiela is about the closest thing you will find to punk sensibility within the fashion world. He is far from “downtown chic”.

  • http://twitter.com/NormaDesperate Jacquie Tellalian

    that they’re displaying the strapless, robot-painted, McQueen green graffiti dress AGAIN for this exhibit is beyond lame and shows how idiotic this whole exhibit is. it also shows how little imagination the curators have. punk was all about a DIY aesthetic and these high-priced outfits say nothing about the subculture, which was far more interesting than anything we’ve seen since and I’m sure, far more interesting than this exhibit will offer…

  • http://firstproofprints.com/ John Redmann

    Bet it doesn’t smell like the real thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rodneyladino Rodney Ladino

    why is recreating the CBGB’s bathroom fantastic? to look at? Maybe it would be if the people at the opening had to use it. then that would be great.

    • big T

      It’s fantastic for the memories, Rodney!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Gerry.Visco Geraldine Winifred Visco

    It woulda been a lot better if we could have used it at the Met to make it more like CBGB’s original lavatory!

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