I say, “Picture a fashion show in your head,” and then I ask you to describe what’s going on. Let’s assume that your responses would be, “A catwalk; Anna Wintour and her blasé expression affixed to her face, and she’s sat next to this week’s Page-Six starlet; mini bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne with straws; the constant flicker of the cameras’ flash; thumping music; tall glamazons strutting down the runway in precise, perfected garb.” Everything and everyone are beautiful confections that you want to touch; to be.
I say, “Picture the punk rock scene,” and now we’ll assume that you’re picturing grit; torn clothing; safety pins piercing cheeks; chains; mile-high mohawks; mosh pits; cuss words; guitars; cigarettes; leather jackets; boots; booze. Hand sanitizer anyone? Of course after same touching; having been.
One might never have imagined these two worlds to converge aesthetically – punk being about anarchy, rebellion, and to quote Sex Pistols, that “There’s no future for you;” high fashion being about beauty, perfection, money and class; hierarchy and lineage. But considering how loud and energizing punk music is, it’s nearly impossible to ignore.
Featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until August 14, 2013, is the captivating, multimedia fashion exhibition about this aesthetic convergence of punk and high fashion. Mannequins’ heads are engulfed with afro-esque spiked hair indicative of Sid Vicious, and the clothes they display are credited with some of the fashion world’s most notorious names: Versace, Givenchy, Comme des Garçons, Thom Browne, to name a very few. But the clothing on display is hardly what one might see gracing the cover of Vogue Magazine, or might they? Chains tracing the seams of dresses to accent the figure. Spike-studded dog collars as invitational quasi-restraint. Golden safety pins barely holding some seams together. Other frocks have almost nothing to them as they’ve been torn and shredded to bits, leaving little to the imagination. A pair of trousers having a tuxedo sleeve jutting out from the rear as if he’s got an elephant truck back there instead of where you’d really rather he had it. Wintour would most certainly disapprove of the in-a-jam rendering of a plastic bag from the local grocer being turned into a makeshift tank top. I should hope that somewhere under her cropped hair she thought to herself, Smart.
It’s this “do-it-yourself” concept that really defines the convergence of punk and couture. We have to think about the origins of the punk movement, which essentially stems from disenfranchised youth. This music was created by young adults who were hardly from privileged backgrounds, and they probably were never going to receive the opportunity to do anything to overcome that circumstance. It was a reaction to having nothing to lose, throwing your arms in the air and saying, “Fuck it,” to anything and everything, including street-appropriate fashion, because life was always going to suck and it was never going to change, so why not reflect that through what you wear? It was a reaction to the pricy world in front of them, which they would never be able to afford, if they even wanted to in the first place. Thus, their irreverence was born, and it led them to do their own ‘mode’ based on what they knew of their world, which wasn’t anything founded in the high-class.
Much of the Met’s show, Punk: Chaos to Couture, appropriately credits Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren as having been the first primaries to bring punk fashion to the land of commerce, and let’s face it, fashion is, yes, fundamentally a means by which to avoid a charge of indecent exposure, then it’s utilitarian for warmth, armor, ceremony and the like, but finally, and most importantly, it’s about mainstream marketing and making a buck, which is ironic because, considering what punk is, punks have never had a buck or a quid to begin with.
It was McLaren and Westwood’s storefront, Seditionaries, formally Sex, that went against the grain of fashion, yet, through fashion, left the bourgeois world with razor burn. In the graffiti’d store (graffiti actually coming from the Hip-Hop rebellion, not Punk), T-shirts were printed with images of Mickey Mouse fucking Minnie Mouse missionary, the anarchy ‘A’ symbol cut into his right-circular ear. Tits were printed where a woman’s tits were shrouded under her T-shirt. From the waist up, two men in cowboy gear lit each other’s cigarettes while, from the waist down, their exposed, floppy man meat à la Tom of Finland almost headbutted like rams. With BDSM gear accentuating the fashion duo’s radical cuts of trousers, it wasn’t surprising that the boutique was formally called Sex, yet one might guess why the name was changed. The Met provides a fantastic facsimile of the store if you might want to reminisce on your rockin’ days in 1980’s Chelsea, London.
Another facsimile presented in this exhibit is CBGB’S bathroom. Why the bathroom was recreated is a curious mystery. CBGB’s sticker-invaded black interior was much more interesting to the eye than its plain bathroom, similar to probably every dive bar in all the five boroughs of New York City. Think of a contractor abandoning the construction of a bathroom mid-way – exposed brick and pipes – and that’s what you get. But it was a fun segue into what CBGB was all about. If Seditionaries was where you bought the punk clothes, CBGB was where you wore them. The films of Nick Knight can be seen, moving images of New York’s part in punk; folks like Richard Hell, the Ramones, Blondie, and Patti Smith.
From then on the exhibit shows the seeping of punk into couture through what the museum is calling the “four manifestations of the do-it-yourself aesthetic – Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti and Agitprop, and Destroy.” Bricolage is represented by garments made from trash bags and postal envelopes, but I might have thought that Bricolage, i.e., using whatever you can get your dirty hands on, would be the one to top the show as it’s really the umbrella from under which all the other manifestations dangle. You’re going to a rock show and you have to have a rockin’ look to set yourself apart, but all you’ve got to work with is grandma’s ugly muumuu. You slice that shit up (Destroy), take a paint brush to splatter some Pollock-y pattern on it and draw the anarchy A at the left chest (G&A), and then make some trio-tiered épaulets from whatever dog chains (Hardware) you’ve got lying around from Sharky, the family Rottweiler, don a German Reich-billed hat, and you’re ready to rock! This is what the essence of Punk was all about: you worked with what you had, and you simultaneously pushed buttons because that was all you had: nothing to lose. Save for rock ‘n’ roll.
It is this attitude and the thrill of punk music that made me walk away from the exhibit with a smile on my face, feeling better about just being me. It was further proof that when I hear some sappy one-liner from an inspirational article on the news, like “Never give up,” or, “Stay true to yourself,” they’re right. From punk, a movement spawned by outcasts, came inspiration to the billion-dollar industry that is the fashion world. But even in that world, these designers, like the punks, more so than not I presume, were the outcasts amongst their peers at some point in life; teased, or told that their ideas were bizarre or stupid because they were misunderstood or not taken seriously. With the force that is creativity also comes solitude. It is a force that draws judgments from others, but also from the self. However, with perseverance, it can all come together at a perfect angle, in a perfect light, and strike a chord that reverberates beyond boundaries. Though the show closes with the Sex Pistols quote, “No Future,” and features a scantily cald, no, barely clad mannequin flipping the bird at its passersby, I disagree that there is no future in nothingness. From nothing does come something, which was manifested in that mannequin’s middle finger. The attitude of “fuck it” can make anything possible when you’ve got nothing to lose.