Punk: Chaos to Couture, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The curtain has dropped on the latest clothing exhibition from the Met, and I’m just now getting around to sharing my thoughts.  That’s because I did not see it until last Tuesday, the day before it closed.  No photos were allowed, and I was too lazy to request them at such a late date, but you can see most of the exhibition at the Met site.

The exhibition has been controversial from the beginning, with Malcolm McLaren’s widow questioning the authenticity of many of the items on display, with questions about how big a role Conde Nast (which co-sponsored the show) and Vogue editor Anna Wintour played in the choices of exhibits, and with the lack of garments worn by major players in Punk such as Debbie Harry and Patti Smith.  Reviews have been mixed, with many reviewers being left with the feeling that something was just missing.  Still, attendance was good, perhaps aided by the heat wave.

The day I attended the show it was pouring rain, and the museum was packed.   The exhibition hall was crowded, but not overwhelmingly so.  There was no wait or line.

As you entered the hall, the first thing that one saw was a reproduction of the restroom at the Punk club, CBGB.  Was this to set the mood, to tell visitors that Punk was a down and dirty scene?  If so, they failed miserably.  I’ve seen scarier restrooms in public schools.

But the next room was the heart of the exhibition.  Here there were six juxtapositions of Punk outfits from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren with modern interpretations from Rodarte, McQueen, Balmain, Watanabe and Yamamoto.  It was a stunning display that clearly got the message across that yes, Punk is still a huge influence on fashion.  (There was also, inexplicably, a single mannequin wearing an outfit from the spring 2013 Burberry collection, with no historic reference.)

Also of great interest was a large collection of vintage Punk tee shirts, the ones questioned by the widow McLaren.  No matter.  They were quintessential Punk, and I’d even call them beautiful.

But with a few exceptions, that is where I began to question the “why” of the whole thing.  There could have been just that one central exhibit, and the message would have been clear, but instead, there were four more rooms of overkill.  Okay, maybe I’ve overstated it a bit, as I did enjoy seeing works by Zandra Rhodes, the famous Versace safety pin gown, the spray paint McQueen dress and an especially gorgeous gown from Ann Demeulemeester’s 2000 collaboration with Patti Smith.

But how many Maison Martin Margiela garments made from trash does one have to see to get the point?  And as stunning as they were, the exhibition was also heavily laden with work by McQueen (didn’t they “do” McQueen two years ago?).  Also on view was a Prada bottle cap skirt, similar to the one in last year’s show.  We were treated to an ensemble from the fall 2013 Saint Laurent collection, which I’d already seen, and hated, at Saks.

The last mannequin in the exhibition wore what can only be described as the back half of a dress, a 1998 model from Maison Martin Margiela (a gift from Barney’s, probably because it was unsaleable).  The mannequin was shooting us a bird, as final proof of how badass Punk is.  I thought it was silly.

What was missing was the feeling of the huge shift in what was shocking in 1976, to what is commonplace today.   The little bit of video and audio were confusing, and just added noise, not clarity.  I’m sure a lot of younger visitors were just left with a feeling that Punk was no big deal; that people still dress that way today.  Especially when they are greeted with this Punk display at Bloomingdale’s:

I did take a few shots of the gift shop outside the exhibition.  There might have been a lot of talk about dyi in the exhibition, but we all know that today it’s easier to just buy that Punk tee shirt.

Of course, if you are really Punk, you’ll add a bit of $8 safety pin Duck tape.

As a subject, I do believe that Punk fashion is valid, and is worthy of study and display.  But it really bothers me that the Met, with their stunning collection, has chosen for the past three years to showcase clothing from the past twenty years.  That might be okay if they were putting on more than one exhibition a year, but as it is , the last exhibition featuring purely historical fashion was American Woman in 2010.  I really hope that next year’s subject will treat us to some of the older delights of the collection.


Filed under Museums, Viewpoint

22 responses to “Punk: Chaos to Couture, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

  1. It is a shame when you think how much money are both invested and made from these exhibitions. Ultimately they need to get to the heart of the matter. x


  2. Fantastic, thoughtful post and you hit it right on the head–punk was not explored at all and the last 3 shows at the Met have been devoted to relatively recent clothing (with the exception of the Schiaparelli, of course). I hope they will do something historical next year but haven’t come up with anything specific that I would love to see, except Charles Frederick Worth, and I don’t think that’s a show they will do. I think they are still chasing the attendance numbers of the McQueen show but they have to let that dream go! As for the punk exhibit, I tried to enjoy the couture sewing because that’s what my takeaway was, all that lovely sewing! XO, Jill


    • Personally, I think they are just trying too hard. There are so many interesting topics to explore, but they seem to be more concerned with a gimmick to bring in the visitors than in presenting a concise exhibition that teaches and amuses.

      And I agree about the sewing. Seeing couture Chanel is always a delight, holes or not!


  3. vastlycurious.com

    Wish I’d known ! I would have gone!


  4. I totally agree what the punk fashion scene really does deserve attention, but there is a question of validity regarding who is doing the display and exhibit of. Also, is it simply too early? I think it is, honestly. I think that punk is still evolving, and it should be looked at in a historical and style influence manner. As you said, punk is almost an “every day” thing these days. I think that the every day influence needs to be looked at and evaluated. I wish I would have been able to go to this! While I may not know a lot of the names, it is still very fascinating to me!


  5. Timing is everything. I saw Punk at the Met and was also underwhelmed. Those “modern interpretations” felt like they were made just for the show. The crowd shuffled silently past the exhibits without pausing much. “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” (that’s a mouthful) was also showing on exhibit. To my surprise and delight it was amazing— scholarly, beautiful and entertaining. That’s quite an accomplishment. The visitors were reading, examining, and talking about what they saw. I wished I had the foresight to ditch the punk and spend all my time with Degas, Manet, Monet, Tissott, Seurat, et al and the accompanying gorgeous finery and frippery. That show finishes its run in Chicago through September 29. See it if you possibly can.


  6. Irene

    I went a while ago, and honestly, found it quite disappointing and even kind of silly. “I’m sure a lot of younger visitors were just left with a feeling that Punk was no big deal; that people still dress that way today.” This is precisely how I felt, being in my early 20s and having been quite involved in alternative fashion as a teen. A lot of it was presented in the same way you’d see in a modern store selling “punk” (or even goth) fashion. I wish they had focused more on the historical importance of punk as a groundbreaking moment in fashion, instead of the commercialization of it as a $10,000 dress. More authentic clothes and less random inspired high fashion. The merchandising for the show, all the stationery and even “DYI” style (!) items just made me cringe. I have to confess I was happy about the McQueen dresses though, I was so sad I missed on the exhibit devoted to him.


  7. Bah. As a former punk kid (I guess I’m still a little punk rock), I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything by not seeing this. It sounds maybe as if the Met feels the need to represent a range of brands for purposes of getting funding or something. And the promo tie-ins are so NOT punk rock, but I guess you can’t really do an exhibit at the Met without them. None of this surprises me…the Met just isn’t the place to get a real feeling for what punk was all about, I don’t think.

    Thanks so much for going and sharing your thoughts, Lizzie!


  8. Thank you for your take on the Punk show. The reviews were such that I didn’t feel the need to make a trip to NYC. You should come see the Hippie Chic show in Boston, which probably had nowhere near the budget. It avoided the pitfalls of that you mention. It is just one room, where each piece is exquisite and the text panels thoroughly explain the influence of hippie style on designers. It only includes fashion from the late 60s and very early 70s.


  9. It seems as if it would have been much more interesting to have the first room of the exhibition be filled with mainstream ’70s fashion, to put the viewer in the right mindset – and then round a corner into the wall o’ punk. If it doesn’t give you a jolt, you’re not starting from the right place.

    That said, I couldn’t be more with you on the desire for more historical exhibits. I realize that they need more to hang an exhibit on than “awesome antique pretty dresses” (although that would do it for me). This summer was the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, a big deal in many circles – how about an exhibit based around that? Did they ever do any kind of tie-in with the tremendous popularity of Downton Abbey? How about the 200th birthday of Pride and Prejudice, celebrated this year? I know the Met had a special screening of The Great Gatsby, with attendant red carpet; where the heck was the attendant exhibit?


  10. Great review! I missed the show but bought the catalogue and after thumbing through it then, I haven’t picked it up since because it was boring. My impression from the catalogue was the same as your review of the show – it lacked the history and how the setting and meaning of punk was so shocking at the time. It was just about the style of punk – messy hair, safety pins, ripped T-shirts and black leather… and that is boring.


  11. Pingback: Fashion Journal – Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Met | The Vintage Traveler

  12. Pingback: Fashion Exhibitionism | The Vintage Traveler

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