The toilets are apparently too clean for those who can recall visiting CBGB’s back in the day, before the epicenter of New York’s punk movement closed its doors in 2006. I never did get to see, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but from what I’ve read and heard, it doesn’t sound like anywhere I would’ve ventured near, even if I had been fortunate to visit the Big Apple – or the club itself – during those heady days.
But the Met Museum’s Costume Institute has created a replica – albeit with less graffiti and a much more neutral smell it seems – of 315 Bowery St in NYC, where the Ramones once held a regular residency. The museum has also created a copy of the boutique that stood – and still stands – at 430 King’s Road in London, where Vivienne Westwood and husband at the time Malcolm McLaren sold their wares. That too, doesn’t escape scrutiny, as I overheard someone say, “it’s at least 10 times bigger than the actual shop.” But the exhibition explores these two folds on either side of the Atlantic, where punk played out – in Britain as more of a working class phenomenon, and in the US, more of a middle-class one.
The exhibition looks at the aesthetics of punk, and how those features played out in the clothes designed from the late 70s up until now (there’s a Burberry studded jacket that is dangerously delish). The garments are collected into four parts of the D.I.Y aesthetic – Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti and Agitprop and Destroy, with music playing overhead. So, as you peruse pieces from the Comme des Garçons 2013 collection, with the bits of suits that’ve been cut up and stitched to the waist of the dresses, images of The Clash play in videos ahead, creating an audio and visual accompaniment to the display.
But there are no mohawks nor original fashion-not-as-fashion items worn by the likes of Syd Vicious or Johnny Rotten on show. Curator Andrew Bolton says this was done on purpose, so as to “avoid the usual cliches and stereotypes associated with punk.”
“Today, when we think about punk fashion, we think about an iconic uniform of t-shirts, black leather studded jackets and skinny jeans, leather pants or bondage trousers. But this look was adopted late in the cycle, around 1979 when punk in its purest form was almost over,” he says. “The same can be said of mohawks, which we deliberately avoided.”
He acknowledged the contradictory nature of staging such an exhibition: “From the beginning I was keenly aware that punk, like any street style, loses its potency when presented in the context of a museum, so that was the main reason not to include any original garments from Syd Vicious or Johnny Rotten or Patti Smith or Debbie Harry. That is why they are only represented on film, where their fashions could be appreciated more accurately on the body and in performance.”
As for his comment on what punk’s main anarchists would make of this exhibition? “Punks may be appalled to have this as the focus of museum exhibition, but I believe they would have taken a perverse sense of pride and honour in this. Punks, like many innovators, challenged the boundaries of high art and low art effectively democratizing creativity and invention. They broke all the rules and allowed anything to be possible. We wanted to present punk in a respectful, even reverential, manner that shows punk’s impact, not just on the fashion but on the art in general.”
Wonder what the late Malcolm McLaren – the same man who said he was responsible for turning popular culture into “nothing more than a cheap marketing gimmick” – would have made of it all?
Punk: Chaos to Couture runs from May 9th to 18th August at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.