I didn’t actually want to go the Punk: Chaos to Couture Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I know nothing about the subject and I don’t have a punk bone in my body (I dress like Audrey Hepburn and prefer opera and ballet). Nor is punk within the sphere of my interest or research (Exhibitions like Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity are more my thing). And yet, because I am in the process of crafting a Phd proposal and/or a book on fashion in the museum, I knew that I should visit exhibitions that I might dislike or don’t appeal to me, (including this show at the Met as well as the Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture at the Bata Shoe Museum). Plus I wanted see what the Andrew Bolton could match or surpass the McQueen exhibition. Fashion exhibitions are in fashion, and the Met has the talent and the budget to set the standard and then raise the bar.
What makes the exhibitions at the Met so appealing to me is their theatricality. Step into the galleries and you have entered another world, in this case, the run-down overblown grandeur of a stately mansion created out of plastic and styrofoam by exhibition designer Sam Gainsbury, who also created the brilliant setting for the McQueen show. The moody Goth/Glam atmosphere invoked, for me, an atmosphere of rebellion and resistance, themes that seem to be consistent with the punk movement.
“Punk’s signature mixing of references was fueled by artistic developments such as Dada and postmodernism, so it makes sense to present this exhibition in a museum that also shows the broader output of those movements. Indeed, that dialogue between art and fashion is what makes The Costume Institute so singular. “ said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art during introductory remarks.
Conceived and curated by Andrew Bolton, the Punk exhibition, in the Museum’s second-floor Cantor galleries, features about 100 designs for men and women, most of which are examples of haute couture and ready-to-wear garments incorporating interpretations of the aesthetic themes of punk. Although there seems to be an inherent conflict between punk’s do-it-yourself ethos and couture’s craftsmanship and made-to-measure credo, “both are defined by impulses of originality and individuality”. The exhibition is thematically organized around the materials, techniques, and embellishments associated with punk which were curatorially defined as: Do-It-Yourself Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti & Agitpop, and Destroy.
At the preview, curator Andrew Bolton made a point of addressing some of the criticism that was voiced prior to the show’s opening, including some from the grand dame of punk herself Vivienne Westwood in the New York Times. Bolton clearly stated that he deliberately decided not to include original garments worn by punk icons like Debbie Harry or Johnny Rotten. Instead his intent was to “present punk in a respectful even reverential manner” and “to highlight its influence on couture”. Designers’ works on display in thematic groupings include: Christopher Bailey, Hussein Chalayan, Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen, Stephen Sprouse, Gianni Versace, Yohji Yahamoto, Zandra Rhodes (who attended the preview) and Vivienne Westwood. My eyebrows were raised when I noticed several outfits from very recent collections, including a punk-inspired Burberry outfit from Spring/Summer 2013, but there is no doubt that savvy designers pay attention to what is on the calendar at the Costume Institute. And those that didn’t make it into the Met are well represented in the nearby windows of Bergdorf Goodman, including items available for purchase from Alexander McQueen, Burberry, and Gareth Pugh.
For me, a good fashion exhibition is both engaging and thoughtful, with a depth of research underpinning its conception. Since I wasn’t expecting to like this exhibition, I was surprised by its effect on me. It was an immersive experience into another world. I listened to music that I loathe; I saw garments that I would never wear; I marvelled at the artful craftsmanship and use of non-traditional materials; and I liked it. Call me old-fashioned and out of touch, but I did not find it “dull”, and I left with a deeper appreciation for the lasting influence of the punk movement on couture in usurping traditional representations of beauty and fashion. Plus, I was amused by the symbolic re-creation of grimy and gritty toilets of the 1970s East Village club CBGB and the crazy wigs by Guido Paulo, and I was inspired by what you can do with staples, safety pins, and garbage bags. There was an aesthetic coherence to the show that worked for me, if no one else.
There has been some sharp criticism rendered in the press and this surprised me (in the New Yorker and New York Times no less). Andrew Bolton clearly stated his intent was not to provide a historic framing of the subject, and yet has been taken to task for not doing what he said he would not do. It must be demoralizing, especially with such an emotional subject that invokes memories and nostalgia for many. Perhaps all the negative press will fuel the crowds to judge for themselves. The exhibition runs until August 14, 2013.Punk: Chaos to Couture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cantor Exhibition Hall, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York May 9 – August 14, 2013
Note: This review is the my opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any other contributors at Worn Through.