New York

View of “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” 2013.

View of “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” 2013.

“Punk: Chaos to Couture”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” 2013.

I basically have no real relationship with punk because (a) I was too young for its initial moment of truth, and (b) it’s so not my style. I remember buying those albums from the alternative record store when I was in college. I wanted them, but I didn’t want to listen to them. But punk is so transhistorical now; is it possible to pry punk sensibility, which is essentially timeless, from punk as a music lifestyle with material and historical specificity? Now, if I say, “You’re so punk rock,” I am being derisive—it’s like saying you’re so not punk rock; you’re so bourgeois. This doubling of negatives ran through “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” curated by Andrew Bolton for the Met’s Costume Institute, revealing an unstable moment in which the museum attempts to both display and digest the effects of an antiauthoritarian subculture.

Organized according to type of DIY customization (hardware, graffiti, etc.), the show juxtaposed punk-inflected high fashion from the 1970s to today—by designers such as Alexander McQueen, Thom Browne, Helmut Lang, and Zandra Rhodes—with vintage videos of band members dressed in classic punk gear. The exhibition’s desire to resurrect punk’s disruptive intention could be seen in the re-creation of the infamous CBGB bathroom, which was something of a centerpiece. Even unoccupied, this grouping of urinals, sinks, and toilets in a single cramped room without dividers evokes a transgressive mixture of sexual and bodily functions, which remains provocative. The exhibition’s ambivalence about the nastier possibilities of design history was evident in the unevenness of the clothes themselves, which ranged from fabulously edgy to boring, but was perhaps most evident in the evenly spaced rows of mannequins with faces and heads submerged in decorative matching wigs. A row of matching fluffy pink wigs lined up under cute lettering reading NO FUTURE linked the message of an absent future to a contemporary rather than historical moment dominated by the conventionality of uniforms as fashion. The Gap, which rebranded itself in the ’80s as a symbol of standardization as fashion, still carries in its name a reference to the hippie-era “generation gap.” The Gap is as old as punk, but the homogeneity of the Gap applied to punk sensibility is right now; that’s what the Costume Institute has given us in this show.

The individuality of couture or the specifics of a DIY style with any kind of radical intent are alive in relation to a moment. At this point, punk is as much a stylistic denomination as classicism or Romanticism, a label that functions conveniently in the popular language. Vivienne Westwood’s punk esprit, on the other hand, has led her to borrow patterns and techniques from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, and to lionize Clint Eastwood. If the Comme des Garçons clothes that fell apart and cost more because of it are linked to the photomural of a bombed-out Dresden that adorned Sex (later Seditionaries), the shop run by Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in ’70s London, perhaps it is because they convey a common experience of entropy. Things fall apart: clothes, people, beliefs, and cultures. Institutions are intended to be a bulwark against this process, but they, too, are ambivalent. Freud described the movement of organisms toward death as having a vacillating rhythm, with one group of instincts rushing toward this final aim and another pulling back toward preservation. If the couture of torn trash bags, damaged Chanel suits, and broken plates held together by silver wires has a message for us, perhaps it is that we are fascinated by the cyclicity of fashion because it echoes this vacillation.

David Rimanelli