Punk fashion at the Met

Exhibition at New York’s Met takes a stab at punk rock’s fashion legacy, writes Richard James Havis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 6:20pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 6:20pm

It’s not every day that an august institution such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art puts on a show dedicated to me and my teenage friends. But that is the case with “Punk: Chaos to Couture”, an exhibition that focuses on punk rock’s influence on fashion.

On display in the opening room are classic T-shirts that we wore to concerts in Britain during the mid-to-late 1970s. There’s a T-shirt bearing graphic designer Jamie Reid’s ironic “God Save The Queen” design, made in 1977, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, for the Sex Pistols’ banned anti-monarchy track of the same name. There’s also Vivienne Westwood’s “Anarchy in the UK” T-shirt, named for the Sex Pistols’ single that started it all off.

Also on show is a shirt depicting a pair of bare breasts so that the wearer looks topless – a design once worn by Siouxsie Sioux – and what used to be known as the “gay cowboys” T-shirt, perhaps the only one that would still have some shock power this year. Back then, none of us could have foreseen that one day these T-shirts, along with other punk favourites such as bondage trousers and tartan kilts, would appear in an establishment like the Met.

What’s more, if we had known, we would have hated the idea.

That’s because although punk was never a political philosophy, it was rooted in anti-establishment feeling. It was a demonstration of working-class pride and solidarity. People were always trying to tell you what to do if you were working class in the ‘70s, and punk rock was a way of sticking your fingers up to the lot of them. Anything to do with the establishment was considered the enemy. We would have hated the thought of our clothes being shown in a museum in the future, as that would have been seen as a betrayal of what it was all meant to be about.

We would have hated the thought of our clothes being shown in a museum in the future, as that would have been seen as a betrayal of what it was all meant to be about

So in a sense, the Metropolitan Museum exhibition is testament to the failure of punk rock – and a reminder that the movement failed very quickly, too, about three years after its genesis. Its rebellious roots were quickly absorbed into the mainstream, which quickly rendered it impotent by commercialising it and turning it into a style devoid of any meaning – more of which later.

Still, there’s some consolation in the fact that The Met show does not attempt to delve into the sociological roots of punk. It simply – and sensibly, considering that is showing far from the UK in America – limits its analysis to the influence that punk clothes had on high fashion. The clothes are the things in the museum, not the ideology. It would be sad to see punk rock historicised in a museum, but it’s quite funny to see your old clothes in one.

History distorts and memories decay with time. The orthodox view of British punk rock style today is tall mohican (actually mohawk, as in the Native American tribe) hairstyles, safety pins, and studded leather jackets. Safety pins were there from the start, but the leather jackets and mohicans look didn’t really come to the fore until about 1980, by which time many of the original punks had moved on to other genres of music.

The original punk look was do-it-yourself. Anything was acceptable as long as it was old and ugly – like an ancient and mouldering raincoat – or ripped and torn. You could go to a gig in a black plastic rubbish bag with holes cut for the arms and head if you felt like it. Straight jeans replaced flares, and these quickly went mainstream and became available in high street shops. Jewellery was a cheap padlock and chain from a hardware store.

One good thing about the Met show is that it gets this right. Thankfully the mohicans – which ended up becoming a uniform, the antithesis of the punk ideal – are absent. There’s even a section that looks at the influence of D.I.Y. fashion on high fashion. But “Chaos to Couture” focuses a bit too heavily on the clothing that Westwood designed for the Seditionaries (formerly Sex) boutique in London’s Kings Road, which she co-owned with the late Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager.

Westwood’s style was extremely influential, but not as all-encompassing as the show makes out. The Pistols wore it proudly, but it played less of a part in the look of many of the other big punk bands. The Jam, for instance, wore sharp suits and looked like mods. Like most mass movements, punk fashion, and the music, was more varied than history remembers.  A lot of the clothes came straight from the street, with no designers involved at all.

The fashion part of the show is neatly curated. Some designs show obvious references to punk, such as a Versace black dress with a seam held together with safety pins. Gareth Pugh’s fuzzy clothes, partially made from black garbage bag material, hark back to punk D.I.Y. The spiky-haired wigs which top off nearly all the costumes are way too long for 1970s punk – they are more like the hairstyle popularised by designer Zandra Rhodes in the 1980s – but succeed in an impressionistic way.

Other items on show, such as dresses by minimalist designer Martin Margiela seem to have a coincidental likeness. Alexander McQueen’s clothes are outrageous, but too beautiful to have drawn on punk. Japanese designers like Yoji Yamamoto drew their idea from a quite different philosophy of fashion, and don’t really have anything to do with punk at all. Its spirit lives on, unsurprisingly, in Westwood’s contemporary designs.

The exhibition intelligently comments on the salient rock critic topic of who invented punk rock – the Americans or the British? While punk as we know it is definitely a British construction, it’s generally agreed that a lot of the British punk bands were inspired to form after they saw New York band The Ramones play in England in 1976. (The Ramones did wear leather jackets, and had a pop-art look that endured for two decades.)

To represent the US, the curators have recreated the New York punk club CBGB’s legendary graffiti-covered toilet from that time. The life-sized model is accurate, based on photos by “official” CBGB photographer Godlis. But the US punk look probably could have had a bit more of a showing at the Met. After all, Blondie’s striking Debbie Harry was a source of many a teenage sex fantasy, and was an icon on both sides of the Atlantic, and the black suit and skinny tie look favoured by the rest of the band also had its adherents. The Ramones’ look could have been represented, too, especially as leather jackets are back on the catwalks this year.

George Melly, a British jazz singer and cultural commentator, wrote a prescient book called Revolt Into Style: The Pop Arts in 1970, and the contents sum up the Met show. He noted that rock fashions, in music and clothes, always spring from rebellious teenagers on the street. When they become popular, corporations notice them, appropriate them, remove any rebellious content and then sell them back to the people who originally invented them. Capitalism turns revolt into a style.

That would have been an apt title for the Met show.