Punk: Chaos to Couture is an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum that chronicles the influence that punk culture has had on high fashion. I read Jonathan Van Meter’s article about it in Vogue, of all places, and it stirred up quite a bit of nostalgia. Then again, pretty much any article mentioning Philly’s Zipperhead will do that for me.
The exhibit itself is incredibly artful. There is a beautiful mix of media: installations of iconic punk landmarks, couture dresses draped on mannequins, performance footage cast on the huge walls set to a classic punk soundtrack. Original t-shirts from Sex circle the room, as high fashion styles directly influenced by Vivienne Westwood’s earlier designs sit gorgeous in the center. As you walk through the exhibit, the walls are either a stark black or white, creating a striking contrast to the installation in the previous room.
It’s highly intellectual and creative. The components of punk style are divided into themes, like deconstruction or graffiti, and then portrayed in current examples of couture fashion designers. The correlation is crystal clear, and goes beyond the simple fascination with leather and studs.
But for all of its beauty, the exhibit felt supremely sanitized. I was not the only one who commented on how the installation of the CBGB’s bathroom was much nicer than the original version. It’s also oddly surreal and disappointing to see a facsimile of a place that you’ve both been to, and a place which could still be standing if it weren’t for the ongoing drone of gentrification in all parts of Manhattan.
Maybe I missed the point, or maybe I felt too close to the issue, but the juxtaposition of high fashion and Johnny Rotten’s explanation of why they used safety pins in their clothing at the time seemed like a major disconnect.
Tears, safety pins, ripped over the gaff, third rate tramp thing, that was poverty, real lack of money. The arse of your pants falls out, you just use safety pins.
Worse, though, was walking through the entire exhibit only to come to a gift shop selling back these punk rock goods: postcards of Sid Vicious, Manic Panic hair dye, CBGB’s t-shirts. Albeit unintentional, it was a great metaphor for what happens to all good things. I remember going to CBGB’s the week it was closing to get one last visit in and, yes, to buy the last t-shirt I’d ever own that came from the original institution.
It’s a lucky thing that I was able to do that, and it’s likely that I feel too close to the topic to have really enjoyed the show. But when you see planned graffiti on the walls of a museum exhibit about punk and rebellion, whilst simultaneously being told, “No photos!” something seems just a little wrong.