By Jody McCutcheon
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently hosted its annual Costume Institute Gala. After discovering this year’s theme was punk, I struggled mightily to reconcile seemingly dissonant concepts, vis à vis “Met Gala” and “punk.” Predictably, I failed.
It was inevitable, really, the appropriation and exhibition of punk subculture. Early punk subculture, that is. Because that’s the endearing—sorry, enduring—image: leather and studs, spiky hair and sneer. Oh, did I just describe Sid Vicious? No, that would be the fashion industry describing Sid Vicious, not long after Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, the first pair to realize the commercial value of punk, dressed him and the rest of the Sex Pistols in London, circa 1975.
While Westwood and McLaren have been hailed as the two of the ‘founders’ of punk, what they actually did was latch onto an existing rude, crude, anti-establishment movement, and converted into into what would eventually become punk’s ready-to-wear, stock images.
The defining quality of the punk subculture, a staunch Do It Yourself ethos, underlines punk’s earliest incarnations, which were musical, and perpetrated largely in America in the mid-to-late 60’s. Bands like the Voidoids and the Stooges could barely play their instruments, yet they delivered music that was engaging and potent and above all honest. If they could get up on stage and bash out their ecstasies and frustrations, anyone could.
Music, record labels, ’zines—punk subculture did everything itself, fuelled by people fed up with hippie culture, bloated rock scores and inflated concert prices; a demographic that felt marginalized, bored and devoid of meaningful cultural currency. Clothing especially epitomized the DIY ethos. Recycled, deconstructed, repurposed, fashion was a way for people to reinvent themselves, as Richard Hell famously proclaimed. Some of the sartorial expressions—fetish leather, ripped clothes, spiked hair—later found their way to London with McLaren, who visited New York City twice in the early 70s, mingling with the New York Dolls and later with Richard Hell.
And so began the English appropriation and devaluation of punk subculture. According to John ‘Johnny Rotten’ Lydon, “Malcolm and Vivienne were really a pair of shysters; they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto.” And sell they did. Their shop, SEX on the King’s Road, was the boutique for wannabe punks.
Scenester Zandra Rhodes soon followed with her Conceptual Chic designs, consisting of torn dresses in black, pink and bright red, accessorised with chains and jewelled safety pins. The came the true fashion luminaries like Versace, Rei Kawakubo, Rodarte, and even Karl Lagerfeld, all of whom have since followed suit in appropriating punk’s aggressive discord. As Dylan Clark eloquently states, “the ‘bad boy’ has been reconfigured as a prototypical consumer.”(1)
One can even say the Green movement has reached the mainstream fashion industry. Household names such as H&M, Puma, Edun and Vero Moda are rated highly by Rankabrand for their strict sustainability policies, for example, and even luxury brands like the Gucci group have grand plans to become completely carbon neutral by 2016. And of course this is all excellent—for the planet, and for the planet’s countless communities fostering a growing understanding of interconnectedness. The genuine appropriation of green values to mainstream culture can only amplify their importance, which is a good thing for us all.
The anarchic, anti-social rebelliousness of punk movement, on the other hand, was completely neutralised by its incorporation into mainstream media, music and fashion. When popsters like Avril Levigne are sold as ‘punk’; when uber-bourgeois Chanel starts showing ‘punk’ clothing on the runway; when mohawked teens become a quaint London tourist attraction (as they are in Camden Market), you know the movement is truly dead .
Which brings us back to that potent symbol of centricity, the Met Gala.
The Gala was actually for the exhibition of: PUNK: Chaos to Couture, at the Costume Institute. The stated objective of the show, outlined in the $45 book about the exhibit, is to demonstrate “punk’s enduring influence on high fashion.” With tickets for the event at $10,000 per person and with most guests attending the event in clothing that cost at least the same amount, it seems that what the book calls “haute couture’s appropriation of punk’s avant-garde ideology” couldn’t be further from the truth–the show’s emphasis is clearly very heavy on designer fashion and very light on the punk’s “avant-garde ideology”. This dichotomy is literally illustrated in the exhibit’s book, which juxtaposes original DIY punk outfits with the eye-wateringly expensive couture pieces they inspired.
So exactly how did the the Costume Institute’s exhibition and the ensuing Met Gala get punk so wrong? Well, maybe it’s because fashion is inherently exclusive, and punk is naturally inclusive; or because a punk-themed Met Gala carries the stench of a hegemonic hunter proudly displaying the trophies of trapped, extinct animals. Or perhaps it’s because the Met Gala represents money. And there is certainly no ‘punk’ in money. But as the culture and fashion industries have proven, there is still plenty of money in punk.
All Met Gala images from Vogue magazine