Who Are You Calling Punk?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has a history of mounting blockbuster exhibitions in which the subject(s) or subject matter being honored, can be considered as non mainstream, rebellious, non conformist, and thereby challenging traditional notions of beauty, style, taste, and fashion. Some recent examples: Rara Avis: The Irreverent Iris Apfel, 2005; AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion, 2006; Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty, 2011; Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, 2012; and the most recent: Punk: Chaos to Couture, which opens on Thursday May 9th, runs through Aug. 14, and examines punk’s impact on high fashion from the movement’s birth in the early 1970s through its continuing influence today.

I attended the press preview on Monday morning and while it may have looked a bit ‘chaotic’ on 5th avenue directly in front of the museum (the workmen were adding finishing touches to the  red carpet, and there’s still construction going on right outside the museum), let me just say there is nothing at all chaotic about the organization, highly visual, tasteful (with the except of the recreation of the bathroom at CBGB- LOL), and oft times hauntingly beautiful presentation of the exhibit. Comprised of approximately 100 high-fashion designs (by Givenchy, Versace, Gareth Pugh, Vivienne Westwood, Balenciaga, Martin Margiela, Steven Sprouse, Rodarte, Yohji Yamamoto, Dolce & Gabbana, Karl Lagerfeld, Miguel Adrover, Thom Browne, and Zandra Rhodes among others) it is juxtaposed with music, original punk pieces and videos showing punk icons wearing their infamous looks.

Divided into seven galleries organized around the materials, techniques, and embellishments associated with the style, it’s focus is on the punk concept of “do-it-yourself” and the couture concept of “made-to-measure”. Themes include New York and London, (which will tell punk’s origin story as a “tale of two cities”), Clothes for Heroes and four manifestations of the D.I.Y. aesthetic—Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti and Agitprop, and Destroy.

Marilyn Kirschner & Zandra Rhodes

I was delighted to see Zandra Rhodes (whom I originally met when I was a senior market editor at Harper’s Bazaar covering the London collections). She doesn’t seem to have aged at all and is still sporting her signature fuchsia bob. She was being photographed and interviewed by members of the press as she stood beneath two of her iconic safety pin gowns (one in white and one in black). In the meanwhile, she was wearing a short neon colored dress, and admitted that she herself does not wear black. (Looking around at the mainly all black clad crowd, said she wished people would embrace more color). In remarking about the origins of punk, she commented that Elsa Schiaparelli can be credited with starting it all, thanks to her famous surrealistic Tear dress, which was on display at last year’s exhibit. As if to further link last year’s exhibit, with its unorthodox subjects, to this years’, Riccardo Tisci, one of the co chairs of Monday night’s gala, (in discussing fashion designers who have punk attitudes), singled out Rei Kawakubo and Miuccia Prada, who he hailed as “very bourgeois, but punk in her own way. Punk is really about the attitude for me”, he said.

Midway through the morning, there was a formal press conference held in a grand main hall on the first floor (coffee and Danish were served). The first to speak was Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “When Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibition,  first came to me with the idea of doing a show about punk, what sprung to mind were images from my youth and King’s Road, from the late 1970’s. And it was not always a pretty picture (this got some laughs). But in fact, punk’s legacy has had an enduring and amazing influence on high fashion and on the broader culture- often with a surprisingly beautiful effect. Punk’s  rampant mixing of references, like Dada and Postmodernism, are connected directly to the fundamental making of self expression in art”. “Today, the do it yourself individualism of punk not only permeates fashion but media itself, especially the Internet, where  anyone can create one of a kind content by appropriating, recording, filming, and posting their creative outlet. Punk’s motif and deconstruction have traveled from Johnny Rotten’s ripped and safety pinned t shirts to Chanel’s shredded suits and studded Givenchy gowns.

The journey we take in this exhibition is the extraordinary vision of Met curator Andrew Bolton, working with a remarkable team”. He thanked both “punk’s heroes” and the many fashion designers who lent their creations, “so that we can demonstrate punk’s enduring legacy”. He also thanked John Savage, Richard Hell and John Lydon (representing punk as a “tale of two cities: New York and London”).  “Of course, projects like this cannot happen without significant financial support and we greatly appreciate the support of our sponsor Moda Operandi, Riccardo Tisci, creative director of Givenchy, and finally, Anna Wintour who supports the Costume Institute with astounding enthusiasm. For the 16th year, her energy, spirit, and dedication will  create a benefit that I’m quite sure, will undoubtedly take our breath away in new and unexpected ways”.

He was followed by Lauren Santo Domingo, co founder of Moda Operandi, and Riccardo Tisci, both of whom kept their remarks short and to the point. FYI, both Lauren and Anna, (who did not address the crowd), looked undecidedly un- punky, as neither one had yet been transformed for the evening.

Last up was Andrew Bolton who admitted that immediately after reviewing the comprehensive history of punk last year, his focus was to “examine its impact on haute couture”. “Fashion designers have had a long fascination with punk, beginning with the mid 1970’s (the height of punk in London), as exemplified by Zandra Rhodes’s Conceptual Chic collection (She said she had grown tired of “good taste” and it featured rips, tears, safety pins, and chains. Along with her compatriot Vivienne Westwood, she was hailed as one of the chief proponents of punk).  “Good fashion, like good art, always challenges accepted notions of what is acceptable. Central to punk is the notion that beauty is not to be found in the haughty reiteration of social fashion, but in the enlargement of fashion ideas”.

“When I began researching the exhibition, the only thing I knew I was certain of was that I wanted to avoid all the usual cliches and stereotypes of punk. Today when you think about punk fashion you think about the iconic uniform: t shirts, black leather studded jackets, bondage or leather pants. I wanted to concentrate on the diverse range, originality, individuality, and creativity, which has become punk’s greatest legacy”. “From the beginning, I  was acutely aware that punk, like any street style, loses its potency when it’s presented in the context of a museum. It’s one of the main reasons I decided not to include any of the original garments by punk icons like Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, or Debbie Harry. Punk challenges the boundaries of High Art and Low Art. It  effectively democratizes creativity and invention. It has come to symbolize integrity and authenticity. Although punk rejected nostalgia, it has become a deeply nostalgic and even an idealistic movement.  Punk endures today because it reflects our longing for a time when originality and creativity were celebrated. A time when fashion was confrontational and provocative. And above all, a time when fashion championed the individual and self expression.”

Indeed, what resonates most about the exhibit, Punk: Chaos to Couture, is the celebration of punk’s inherent individuality, originality, authenticity, and self expression, and the refreshing way it rebelliously challenges the notion of good taste (Diana Vreeland may have been one of the original punks) as well as that “every hair in place” ideal of perfection that many people can’t seem to get away from. If you take anything away from it, it’s that yes,  rips, tears, holes, and decay, can add interest if not beauty; it’s okay to look a bit frayed around the edges; no, you need not always be perfect; and yes, authentic DIY can, and most often does, look better than head to toe designer (hey, I always knew that).

Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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