So, I went to New York yesterday and spent the day at the Met. It was a good, if epically long, trip. I saw everything my feet could bear. One show I even went through twice, Punk: Chaos to Couture. I was trying to “get” it.
Punk got a lot of hype in the NYer and the NYT but it was the least imaginative installation in the Museum. Oh, so what about the CBGB bathroom! If we had to walk through it to get to the gallery, now that would be something. Instead, the bathroom and the “store” are offset, afterthoughts to the main drag, which is a drag.
The galleries main attractions are mannequins lined up as if on a catwalk, above us, so couture, so not punk. Rainbow colored spike wigs do not make Gianni Versace punk. Or, honestly, Vivienne Westwood at this late juncture, let alone Zandra Rhodes. I found the mannequins trite, and the clothing uninspired and only vaguely reminiscent of what I remember of punk.
As for the store: I never shopped at Clothes for Heroes, or even Trash & Vaudeville (I had to send my Dad for my Johnson’s motorcycle boots) but I did buy Trash & Vaudeville label and band t shirts at Wax Trax, in the back. I wore the zip minis and fishnet stockings (real stockings) and vintage from the AmVets. I made my own tshirts, with spray paint, markers, and my dad’s castoffs. And even in 1980 Chicago, even at The Exit or Lucky Number or the Cubby Bear, I knew I was ersatz. I knew I was not really punk.
The Met show shines with the Alexander McQueen dresses. They are by far the most interesting and best made pieces. They’re clearly genius. Everything else, save for Rei Kawakubo, is merely derivative.
The sections of the show, Hardware, Graffiti & Agitprop, and Destroy, make sense. Yes, safety pins, chains, spikes and belts (hardware) were typical. Slogans and hand-made clothes, also typical, as well as shredded (purposeful or not, often not, but worn), are fitting descriptors or sub-genres of the punk aesthetic. But the clothes displayed disappointed and dismayed, a grand “So what?” And why?
Maybe it’s Andy Warhol, Mr. Anti-Punk in my mind. But I think it is the great postmodernist movement, where by at this point anything once ironic or referential is now merely self-referential. Punk could have a sense of humor. With few exceptions (Kawabuko, mostly) the clothes in this show lack the intelligence for humor, let alone politics.
Am I glad I went? Yes, absolutely. Because now I know there are bigger risks to take installing shows, and I’m ready to think about what they might be. I’d put a couple of those Kawabuko black-sleeve dresses, or McQueen’s black “bubble-wrap” gowns on display with over in Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, and see what happens. That’s when chaos and couture would really meet.