By: Nicola Storey
No style of movement quite says F*** YOU to society and it’s social sanctions like Punk. Not only is punk all about empowerment through rebellion against society, but the original British movement belonged to the disenfranchised lower class. It was about disrupting the status quo, breaking rules, rebelling against the government, punching slut shaming in the face; it was (un) fashion. So when the exhibit entitled “Punk From Chaos to Couture” made its debut at the Met, The Closet Feminist decided to get an inside look to see if it could live up to all the hype.
The exhibit notes that, “through their political and environmental exhortations, they [the designers] seek, not only to build awareness but also, like punks, to bring about social revolution by questioning and threatening the status quo.” Now, while the collection’s narratives succeeded in putting into words what “punk” represented, the very idea of designers creating high-fashion punk outfits is, in its essence, consumerist and simply un-punk. Indeed, the exposition featured what I can only assume were silver-plated safety pins for many garments, an idea that conflicts with the reality of the lower classes that brought punk to life; as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols explains, “Tears, safety pins, rips all over the gaff, third rate tramp thing, that was poverty really, lack of money. The area of your pants falls out, you just use safety pins.”
Indeed, the exhibit did get the hardware right, featuring everything from studs to safety pins, garbage bag dresses to cigarette burned garments, and even a boob shirt or two. My personal favourites included Christopher Bailey’s spiked and studded hardware leather jacket for Burberry, the infamous “God Save the Queen” T-shirt, Gareth Pugh’s garbage bag dresses, and a disgustingly accurate replica of the toilet at the iconic CBGB in New York. This being said, the exhibit seemed like a whole lot of eye-candy: lacking real depth, yet narrating the foundation of punk views while featuring the music, style and quotes from punk icons such as Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry with accompanying videos of their performances (edited by Nick Knight, a fashion photographer and film-maker.)
Mick Jones of The Clash once stated that punk in its purest, original form only lasted for 100 days at the Roxy Club in London before the media got behind it and transformed it into its modern counterpart. The first punks didn’t buy their looks, but found objects and ascribed to them new meaning, creating a physical identity made up of objects and individual craftsmanship. While the exhibit was aesthetically pleasing and portrayed an accurately “punk” look, it lacked the anonymity of these punk innovators and their DIY creations. Instead, the exposition focused on the work of designers who, while recreating the punk look, were far from punks themselves and ironically represented the type of consumerism which the movement fiercely fought against.
Keeping this in mind, it is therefore unsurprising that the exhibit has been thoroughly critiqued for draining punk’s original movement of meaning by much of the media, including the New Yorker, The Irish Times, and The Daily Beast. The idea of “punk couture” is fundamentally problematic because ‘couture’ implies high society, while punk advocates for classlessness: the rips and tears normally attributed to the impoverished and unfashionable becoming a symbol of empowerment. It wasn’t about consuming a fashion trend but about creating your own aside from the realm of money.
Speaking of which, The Met stayed true to punk on some fronts; the exhibition is open to the public, making it universally accessible to all classes. Furthermore, suggested prices allow you to choose how much, or how little you pay, meaning the viewership (and therefore the ownership of the exhibit), was not confined to the upper class in the same way that only the upper class owns couture.
Considering it was called Punk from Chaos to Couture for a reason, the designers seemed to paying homage to the style of punk by highlighting what punk had in common with couture. Yes, couture is surrounded by consumerism (which any true punk would hate), but what it has in common with the chaos of punk is that it creates unique, one-of-a-kind pieces. The curator of the exhibit, Andrew Bolton, explained, “this show is more about punk as an aesthetic… I’ve always felt there is such a strong similarity between haute couture and punk; punk was about creating one-off pieces. You might buy a jacket from a store and customize it; you’re the only one in the world with that jacket. So with Riccardo Tisci’s [creative director at Givenchy] work, I looked at pieces that, instead of using traditional haute couture embroidery or feathers or lacework or leather, are using punk materials and hardware.”
Ultimately, while this idea seems to have merit at first, the difference between punk and couture is found in the accessibility to each form, and what each represents. There is a gaping separation between an unemployed nobody creating their own DIY piece of clothing (say, drawing a pair of tits on a t-shirt or wearing a condom outside a pair of pants) as a big ole’ F*** YOU to consumerism and the status quo, and a designer creating an expensive, one-off couture piece: one form answers to no one, and the other is an ideal consumerist product that is bought to fit into a certain bourgeois ideal. As a couple audio clips at the exhibit explain,“freedom is the idea that I’m outside of society’s or anybody’s idea of how I should look.” Being punk is being “uninterested in the prescribed ideals of beauty based on purity, perfection and symmetry.” As for me? I took a cue from Debbie Harry of Blondie, leaving the exhibit feeling like I could conquer the world in my skivvies.
Nicola Storey is a freelance writer based in Montreal. Follow her on Twitter @shortStorey.