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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.

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