Review of The Punk Exhibit at the MET
Dim lights, blaring music, and a huge screen flashing bright colors (that would undoubtedly give an epileptic a seizure) engulf me. Where am I?
At the much anticipated MET Punk: Chaos to Couture Exhibit! This trip has been long overdue. I recall writing about the exhibit at the end May and have just got around to viewing it in the middle of July.
The Punk Exhibit left me in total shock. It expanded my imagination beyond what I believed was possible. The creations and pieces were the epitome of haute couture and avant-garde fashion, but I am not necessarily sure they fell under category of punk (we will touch upon that flaw later).
I stood dead still at every mannequin for at least ten minutes. The exhibit to me seemed rather short; it consisted of 5 showrooms that were packed with the most inconceivable, mind-altering pieces. I was begging for more, even after spending an hour and half of starring in awe at these objects of the most intense and highest art. The normal person probably spent anywhere for twenty to forty minutes. But, I was entirely engrossed, astonished, confused, and uprooted from this world. I was certainly in another realm of life. Every article of clothing that graced the mannequins seemed to contradict reality and to be entirely implausible; the clothes appeared so fragile and complex that it was difficult to conceive of how the curators got the clothing on the mannequin. I was amazed at how the clothing managed to remain intact; the creations were just so unworldly that it didn’t seem they would be able to endure this world. This may be why there was no photography, and why a loud alarm would go off if someone was within a certain radius of the mannequin.
I surely set off the alarm more than once, as I moved in closer to get a good glimpse of what I expected to be bondage suits, parachute shirts, string, mohair sweaters, and t-shirts with offensive slogans, or, in other words, quintessential punk attire.
But, what I received was somewhat far from authentic punk attire.
The closest to actual punk clothing was Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren with bondage trousers from their Seditionaires 1976-1980 collection. Westwood was a designer who truly lived, breathed, and thought punk. Unlike the other designers, she didn’t try to replicate or glean inspiration from punk; she herself was punk. Vivienne makes explicit her contribution to punk culture; “I did not see myself as a fashion designer but as someone who wised to confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed…even this sequence of ideas culminated in punk.” Few other well-known fashion designers played an active role in the punk movement like Westwood did. Westwood is different from other designers, such as McQueen, House of Balmain, and Burberry, because she fueled the styles of the movement instead of using the movement as inspiration for her designs like the other designers did.
After the first room with Westwood and Mclaren’s bona fide punk pieces, there appeared a large quote plastered on the wall before the preceding rooms. It read: “More than any other aspect of the punk ethos of DIY the practice of destruction and deconstruction has had the greatest and most enduring influence on fashion.” And that quote sums up the following four showrooms. All of the designs are not genuine punk, but rather pieces that are inspired by punk style.
Case in point: Versace’s A/W 1992 top of black nylon mesh with black silk satin that was paired with a skirt of black leather that was embellished with silver crystal studs. To further demonstrate the exhibit’s lack of pure punk attire, take for example, Versace’s S/S 1994 silk satin black dress accentuated with golden safety pins and crystals, or Ghesquiere’s A/W 2004 jacket of ivory cashmere felt embroidered with gold metal discs and silver crystals.
Besides the Swarovski crystals, tulle, lace, and silk that was most likely not used by punks, some pieces in the exhibits did purely use materials that the movement used. Punks favored articles associated with trash and consumer culture. They would use the basest items such as tampons and lavatory chains as ironic statements of the political and economic times.
Appropriating the most common consumer product like a true punk, Gareth Pugh came up with a brilliant creation of a black dress made out of plastic trash bags for his A/W collection. Hussein Chalayan in 1999 was resourceful as a punk and used white airmail envelopes to create a dress (although I’m not sure a dress of envelopes is actually something a punk would wear).
Though I have been bashing the Chaos to Couture show for not being legitimately punk, I loved the exhibit with its flaws included. My favorite piece was one that was ironically not the least bit punk, except for the holes in it. I spotted the iconic tweed Chanel suite that lingered at the end of the show from a distance. This creation of ecstasy was a House of Chanel S/S 2011 jacket and skirt of navy metallic and cotton tweed with holes in it. Of course, a classic double strand of long black and white pearls hung on the mannequin’s neck to complete the Chanel look. And there you have it: a typical Chanel tweed jacket suite punctured with tiny holes and a pearl necklace = Punk Chanel.
There will be a second trip to this stupefying and overwhelming exhibit. The pieces were so involved and intelligent that you really need to see it again to even grasp a rudimentary understanding of the details. The Punk: Chaos to Couture will be by far the best exhibit I see in New York. But, I am just not sure a Versace silk satin dress with golden safety pins and diamonds falls can be categorized as punk.