“Punk:Chaos to Couture” A crowd-sourced review

McQueen Bubble-wrap ensemble (2009-2010)

During my very busy trip to New York last week, I was able to squeeze in visits to two fashion exhibitions. FIT’s RetroSpective (briefly reviewed here), and the Met’s Punk: Chaos to Couture.

Much has already been said about the Met’s show – what it has, and what it doesn’t have, what it should be, and what it is not. But many of those reviewers were allowed access to the show in a special media-only preview, without the ‘common man/woman’ present. One of my favorite parts of seeing a fashion exhibition is hearing the reactions of lay-people to shocking designs. Punk: Chaos to Couture, is nothing if not a showcase of extreme styles.

The introductory text reminds viewers of the key elements of punk that have been adopted by couturiers, notably the “sexual and political energy” and the “do it yourself legacy.” Curator Andrew Bolton also acknowledges that “the ethos of punk is at odds with couture” and that “punk caused a breaking of barriers between production and consumption.” This introductory text was read by only a handful of people while I was there – a Wednesday early afternoon. The exhibition drew people from many different walks of life: young, old, men, women, New Yorkers and visitors. It wasn’t overly packed, but it wasn’t empty either.

Facsimile of CBGB bathroom, New York, 1975 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As I came upon the first major ‘wow’ of the show, the recreation of the infamous CBGBs bathroom (with toilet seats up and cigarettes on the floor), two twenty or thirty-something blonde girls snarked, “Really?” and wandered off towards the first gallery of couture. Sure, at first glance, one might not immediately see the connection to fashion. But later rooms reveal that the distressed, deconstructed, graffiti-ed bathroom is easily referenced in the organization of the show – and seems to provide the guiding outline for the rest of the show.

As I walked past the requisite Westwood t-shirts (the 1%ers), saw the quote from journalist Caroline Coon that called Malcolm McLaren the Diaghilev of punk, and the recreation of the Seditionaires shop, I came to the Rodarte knitwear in the “Clothes for Heroes section. I am a sucker for couture knit and crochet, and this 2008 red and black dress over tights (in synthetic, itchy-looking yarn), caught my eye. An adult woman supervising some pre-teens  said to her charges, “I could see you in something like that” – perhaps as a way to engage them. But I wondered about the seemingly innocuous comment.

I was engrossed in the DIY hardware section – Zandra Rhodes, Versace, and Givenchy, with the always-clever Moschino (but secretly I wondered where the Donna Karan hardware dresses were). Focused on my own thoughts in this long hall, I didn’t overhear much (especially given the loud disruptive beeping that was surprisingly audible over the equally loud music and video-loops).

D.I.Y.: Bricolage Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I immediately liked the D.I.Y. Bricolage featured in the next room, with the softer textured pink walls, and equally softened clothes. As I was noticing the differences from the last room,  I heard an older man say “I like this room, I like this lighting.” I noticed others nodding and relaxing here – though the clothes had volume, there was less volume in the music, videos, and lighting – as the gentleman pointed out. In particular, I liked the fluffy Pugh trash bag dresses (2013-2014), and the Margiela jackets. As I noticed the Moschino plastic shopping bag dress, I wondered if that might be a historic piece now that plastic shopping bags were being banned in California (and perhaps elsewhere soon). I crushed hard on the McQueen Bubble-wrap dress (2009-2010) as I left the room.

Designs by Ann Demeulemeester

The graffiti room held more famous McQueen’s, and beautiful painted Dolce and Gabbana ball-gowns (2008) but I was intrigued by the Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester. As I was checking those out, an older woman in a wheelchair said “these are fantastic” and had her assistant push her closer so that she could see more detail in the dark room with dark walls.

Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, 2011

The next room (D.I.Y. Destroy) somehow reminded of the Vivienne Westwood show at the V & A, and of the Gaultier show at the de Young. As I walked down the lines of static mannequins, I came upon what turned out to be the signature piece of the show.

Some young girls guffawed out loud at the sight of the distressed Chanel suit from 2011. I had mixed feelings that I couldn’t nail down. I could see the humor and irony of finely-made couture being torn to shreds, but there was also something very wrong about such fine craftsmanship being distressed to meet a passing trend. It seemed desperate and didn’t match the well-established Chanel tradition.

Ultimately, that might be my feelings about the whole show – clever, but trying too hard. I don’t know – I’m still sorting it out. Interestingly, the people whose comments I heard were all positive – I like this, that’s beautiful, I could see wearing this. What I don’t know is what those people thought of the show overall. Did you see the show? What did you think?

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  1. I saw the Met’s Punk exhibition this morning, going in with a preconceived opinion after having read the earlier reviews. Certainty not a show for everyone, but worth seeing. The installation was great, although the musuc a bit too loud. The loud beeping was visitors getting too close to the objects. One couple, about age seventy, asked me what D.I.Y. meant. Glad I could give them the correct answer, even though I’m only about ten years younger in age. Wish the didactics would have included more information about the shoes that were exhibited on the manequins.

  2. Heather,

    I have not seen the exhibition and probably won’t make it to NYC again until next December, but I really enjoyed your review. Would love to see that CBGB bathroom installation!

  3. The thematic route with Punk: Chaos to Couture was a splendid idea. You should take into account that bringing together Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli’s archives in 2012 and mounting a groundbreaking retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s work may take a lot of time and creativity to surpass both their achievements, and I say the MET brought all in the table, lay it out opened to be judged and possibly standout.

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