Last month I excitedly made my way to New York to see the Costume Institute’s exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture, and I’ve finally collected and organized my thoughts thoroughly enough to share with you my experience. I had been very interested in going ever since I read Vogue’s special Met Gala edition which I believe is still available on news stands through the end of August. What interested me so much about this event and exhibit, is that it combined fashion with history. I love reading biographies and learning about the creators, their influences and what really went on behind the scenes. And although this exhibit was meant to encapsulate a generation, a movement, a “chaotic” era, the show seemed to point out two people specifically, Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, without whom, punk may not have been what we know it as today.
In 1971, McLaren and Westwood opened what is now referenced as the epicenter of punk rock, a small boutique at 430 Kings Road in the UK. Originally named Let it Rock, the store changed identities along with its owner’s evolving tastes, taking on name’s such as Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, before finally settling on the the simple yet iconic name, Sex. In 1974, the pair began creating their own designs, variants on the the 50’s teddy boy and eventually incorporating leather and rocker gear. The look was essentially vintage, classic clothing, which they heavily deconstructed. Sex also began selling fetish-ware along side their regular clothing for as Westwood stated, if we remove the taboo gear from the bedroom and place it on the public streets, what would be more “revolutionary than that?”. As the shop became a mecca for punk bands around the world, McLaren soon became interested in the musical aspect of the movement, eventually branding and managing (to the bitter end) bands such as the Sex Pistols and Adam and the Ants.
But back to the show. Upon entering, we were greeted by a huge floor to ceiling screen looping the image of a performing Sid Vicious, with a soundtrack by The Clash, Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks, The Damned and The Slits to name a few. As you turn the corner and enter deeper, you are confronted with the old CBGB bathroom and around the next corner, a model of McLaren and Westwood’s shop, Sex. The galleries seemed to break up the clothing into four categories, almost like a Punk Rock Style how-to: Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti, and Destroy.
HARDWARE: Comprised of anything metal you can stick to your clothing; most often safety pins, chains, studs, etc.
BRICOLAGE: Originating from the French word bricolage, it refers to the process of creation through found materials; in punk, most often through the use of plastic bags and newspapers
GRAFFITI/AGITPROP: Quite literally, graffiti-ing your clothes; specifically with propaganda
DESTROY: Ripping, slashing, cutting and mangling the material
Punk Rock, as a movement, has many recognizable icons. As a mid-twenty something so far removed from the era, even I can list a handful of people, places and imagery: CBGB’s, Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, biker jackets littered with safety pins. It’s easy to look at an old hazy photo of a 70’s punk, standing amongst New York City grit, and think, “that guy’s just wearing a bunch of trash, what is his outfit doing in the Met??” And in some ways, you’d be correct. That chaotic anarchy of spirit, against all things mainstream, the need to be the extreme antithesis of the establishment, the search for pure revolution through the dismantling of iconic fashions of the past; never has a movement manifested itself through its clothing more coherently. The punks wore their convictions on their sleeves, which is probably why we are celebrating their “garbage” attire in the Metropolitan Museum of Art along side such couture designers as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood herself. With an international movement such as Punk, there is always a question of where it began and definitely no right or wrong answers. But as I walked out of the dark exhibit back into the bright museum corridor, I couldn’t help but wonder what the punks would have looked like without the duo and their little shop on Kings Road. As Chrissie Hynde, of The Pretenders put it, “I don’t think punk would have happened without Malcom and Vivienne to be honest. Something would have happened and it might even have been called punk but it wouldn’t have looked the way it did. And the look of it was so important.”
Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute
Information and Photographs gathered from Punk Chaos to Couture Exhibition Catalogue