We’ve Been Punked

From the very beginning I was less than enthused about the Met’s Costume Institute’s Punk exhibition.  My biggest concern was that with all the wonderful objects within the Met’s costume collection, it was sad that they were yet again focusing on fashion from the past twenty or so years.  And then, before the Punk show opened, Malcolm McLaren’s widow made the claim that some of the objects were fakes.

This was not a new claim.  In 2008 McLaren himself had studied objects that had come from the same source as some of the Met’s punk items, and had found them to be fakes. Artist Damien Hirst had spent about $150,000 on punk clothing from Simon Easton, who was selling the stuff through eBay.  After the items were viewed by a former punk and seller of reproductions, Camden Jim, who recognized some of the designs as the ones he had sold at Camden Market,  Hirst became alarmed and contacted McLaren, who found that most of Hirst’s items were fake.

In the meantime Christie’s Auctions, who had some of the Easton material had concerns and called in McLaren to examine the items they had obtained from Easton.  Easton’s Ebay account was suspended.

To backtrack a bit, in 2006, the Costume Institute, in preparation for their Anglomania exhibition, acquired quite a few Westwood/McLaren punk items.  These were a prominent part of the exhibition and accompanying catalog.  When the Hirst fakes were exposed in 2008, it soon became evident that there might be some problems with the Met’s items as well.  At the time, Andrew Bolton, the associate curator responsible for the purchase and the Anglomania exhibition said that the pieces bought from Simon Easton would be reviewed.

At this point the story goes cold until February, 2013.  Malcolm McLaren had died in 2010, but his widow started questioning the validity of objects that were to be shown in that summer’s Costume Institute exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture.  She wrote to the Met outlining her objections to several of the items that were to be in the exhibition.  Along with Paul Gorman, who had worked with McLaren to try and establish the authenticity of many items, she gave detailed reasons why some of the objects were “wrong.”  A spokesperson for the Costume Institute replied that  “the provenance of all the punk pieces in our collection and in the upcoming exhibition have been verified”.

But now it appears as if they were not.  Paul Gorman, who examined the Met’s McLaren/Westwood holdings in May 2013 wrote a detailed report on his findings – a report that was not good news for the Met.  Not only did he believe that a large number of the garments were fake, others were suspect, and still others were misdated.  After the Punk exhibition came down, other experts were called in.  As a result, two bondage suits with the Seditionaries label were marked for de-accession. Both suits had been in the Anglomania exhibition of 2006.

However, the two suits in question are still on the Met’s website, but very recently the listing designation was changed to  “Attributed to Vivienne Westwood” and “Attributed to Malcolm McLaren”.  Around thirty other objects now have “Attributed to” in the item description, and photos of most of these items have been removed.

Just as disturbing is the faulty dating of objects.  Gorman gives the example of a pair of bondage trousers that were dated to 1976, but the trousers have the Vivienne Westwood Red label – a label that was established in 1993!  In his article on his blog, Gorman shows the museum’s page on the trousers (2006.253.18) which has a photo of them and the label.  When I looked up the page today, I see that the photograph of the label has been removed.

Update:  The label is still missing, but the date of the trousers has been changed to 1988–89.

You should read Gorman’s detailed blog post, and judge for yourself.  I  see some very shoddy scholarship in action here.  As a very small-time collector I can tell you that it is very difficult to always get dating and attribution correct.  But even with my limited resources I want to be as accurate as possible, and I am always willing to admit when I am wrong, no matter how much I want to believe otherwise.  Should not our institutions be the same?


Thanks to Sarah at TinTrunk for the Gorman article.


Filed under Museums, Viewpoint

22 responses to “We’ve Been Punked

  1. What amazes me about the whole idea of a ‘punk’ exhibit is that at the core, all of us who were real punks back in the day (and still are) know that there is no such thing as high art where Punk exists. The whole rationale for the aesthetic is that anything is art and an old housecoat could become evening wear, or the over used idea that safety pins are jewelry. Yes, I know who Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood are, but they are not the real visionaries behind the movement, it’s us the real people who lived it and wore it day to day. We came up with those ideas and wore it well. We didn’t pay big bucks for it and if we had, we’d have known we sold out.That was the fun, we could stir things up without spending a lot.
    I’m with you, Lizzie, it’s a preposterous idea in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much of the early McLaren/Westwood stuff were one-of-a-kind things they made from old clothes, and were very much “punk”. But I agree that the moment one becomes involved in manufacturing for the masses, then the original concept is dead, or as you put it, selling out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating – truly. I really enjoyed reading this post as I hadn’t heard a thing about this scandal until now.
    If I had bought the book that accompanied the exhibition I may have wanted my money back.


  3. vastlycurious.com

    Really interesting as ever. I will read his blog! Thanks ! I was wandering around a Vintage clothing store today and was thinking about you.


  4. This is the type of British mystery I love! The most interesting aspect of it all, as it relates to the MET, is the implication that their historical apparel is just there for its entertainment value, if we are to believe that they knowingly continue to showcase online faulty and questionable artifacts. Shame on them!


    • Something that is really ironic is that in the Diana Vreeland film, Harold Koda (Curator in Charge at the Costume Institute) laughingly recalled how historical scholarship was not Mrs. Vreeland’s thing, and how she often changed things in exhibitions to suit herself rather than to be historically accurate. Of course by doing that he was implying that would never happen today.


  5. On a number of occasions, I have had respected and experienced vintage sellers tell me that a piece was older than it obviously was but you really do not expect the Met not to do their homework. There is now such a proliferation of information related to fashion history that this kind of mistake is shocking especially since it with acquisitions of such recent provenance. The curators should have known that an exhibition of items from recent fashion history would be subject to a higher level of scrutiny both in vision and accuracy.
    Jen O brings up an interesting point with museums valuing their collections for entertainment over creating a cultural record and an opportunity for scholarship. Other areas of the Arts are struggling with the same pressure to programme what is popular and bring in audiences over innovation and creation. It seems that economics, and the need for every cultural institution to justify its existence, may erode such institutions’ reason for being. In the museum world, will the ‘entertainment pressure’ create such sloppy research that the institution becomes irrelevant?


  6. Worrying indeed. I’m looking forward to reading Gorman’s blog. An interesting article as always. xx


  7. I found the whole idea of the Met’s punk exhibit kind of hilarious, for reasons that jilldeville already stated above. It’s very worrying that people at the Met could get so much recent history wrong, and certainly makes you wonder about older items.

    I have two friends who work/have worked at the Met, and I feel for all the people of great integrity who work there and whose jobs seem perhaps to be at the mercy of others who are making very bad decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. As a historian, I am really appalled by this. Surely a museum should recognize that the garments are another kind of primary source and that they should do all they can to make sure that the sources are authentic. Would they display forgeries of documents?

    Liked by 1 person

    • For years fashion historians have struggled with the knowledge that their field was not always taken seriously by other historians. Well, small wonder with stuff like this happening. As Gorman put it in one of the articles I linked to, there does not seem to be the same standard of research applied to costume as you would expect to see in other disciplines. I do think that part of the problem is the tendency of some people at the Costume Institute to over-intellectualize – that ideas and theories are put ahead of historical fact.


  9. one last comment: while McLaren was able to give his input into the veracity of the pieces, I can’t see where Westwood has been consulted at all. Wouldn’t the artists be consulted when creating a collection of their work by a museum? Or even more to the point, wouldn’t they be brought in to validate those pieces in question?


  10. That’s pretty amazing, particularly considering that there were plenty of people still living who could have confirmed the origin of the garments. (Although they may have been too wasted back then to remember…)


  11. Jonathan Walford

    As a clothing collector and someone who is old enough to have lived during the punk scene (although I was not a part of it myself) I realized twenty years ago there was FAR too much punk on the market for the number of actual punkers who who consider buying commercially-made punk clothing. Seditionaires was little more than just a London T-shirt shop before the founding musicians of English punk were dead. The vast majority of punkers that followed wore their own slashed and faded jeans, hand painted their own leather jackets, bought thrift store army boots and sneakers, and even did their own hair cuts and piercings. Real Punk had a non-commercialized self-made aesthetic that was created by an impoverished, disaffected anti-establishment youth, not fashion designers. In all the years I have collected I have found very few authentic punk pieces and when I cracked open the catalogue from the Met to see an homage to designer labels I knew the show was off on the wrong foot.


  12. A bit late to the party, but I was just reading (and thoroughly enjoying!) this post. I want to add 2 things: a) Why was Westwood not asked to authenticate the items? and b) — which may also be the answer to a) — There is a LOT of bad blood between Westwood and McLaren’s widow, who is constantly slamming Westwood even after all these years.
    The plot thickens !
    PS; I adore your blog.


  13. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany – November 6, 2016 | The Vintage Traveler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.