Punk goes high brow in new NYC museum exhibit

D.I.Y.: Destroy, a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit "PUNK: Chaos to Couture." Metropolitan Museum of Art

From its origins in London and New York in the 1970s, punk has always been characterized by an anti-establishment, DIY ("do it yourself") attitude -- not just in the music by the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones, but also in the style of dress: leather jackets, tattered T-shirts, bondage trousers, chains, razor blades and safety pins. And while punk faded by the dawn of the 1980s, its impact on pop culture continues to live on in today's haute couture, with famous designers like Gianni Versace, Miuccia Prada, Alexander McQueen and John Galiano incorporating elements of the style into their own fashions in over the years.

How punk evolved from rebellious statement to high-end fashion is the subject of a new Costume Institute exhibit, "PUNK: Chaos to Couture," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that opens Thursday and continues through August 14. It displays about 100 designs, going back to the 1970s seditious clothes of Malcolm McLaren (the then-manager of the Sex Pistols) and Vivienne Westwood, to more recent outfits from contemporary designers Gareth Pugh and Christopher Kane.

"I wanted the exhibition to underscore punk's continuing relevance," Andrew Bolton, the curator of the show, said on Monday at a press conference inside the museum. "It's this ethos of do it yourself, which is punk's greatest legacy. And the exhibition explores its impact on high fashion. Punks may be appalled at the idea of being focused at a museum exhibition. But I also think they would have felt a perverse sense of pride and honor."

"Punk has come to symbolize integrity and authenticity," he continued. "Punk endures today because it reflects our longing for a time when originality and creativity were celebrated, a time when fashion was provocative and confrontational, and above all a time when fashion championed the individual and self-expression."

The exhibit is divided into seven galleries, the first two devoted to the historic punk scenes of the 1970s, represented the legendary New York venue CBGBs (whose famous bathroom has been recreated, complemented by graffiti and cigarette butts); and Seditionaries, the boutique on London's 430 Kings Road ran by McLaren and Westwood that sold punk clothes; among their works include a ripped T-shirt with "God Save the Queen" emblazoned on it.

The other galleries showcase designers from the last 30 years, borrowing from the visual symbols of punk and reinterpreting or deconstructing them for their own unique fashions. For example, a Gianni Versace dress from 1994 is decorated with gold metal safety pins and crystals; a Stephen Sprouse dress circa 1984 is covered with graffiti along with sequins; a Helmut Lang silver jacket is adorned with metal bottle caps; and an Gareth Pugh ensemble from 2013-2014 consists of a stole and skirt that incorporate trash bags. More recently, a Vivienne Westwood design from 2006 features a T-shirt with the words: "I AM NOT A TERRORIST, please do not arrest me," echoing punk as a vehicle for protest.

Adding to the flavor of the exhibit are giant video screens featuring archival film footage depicting punk rock heroes Patti Smith, John Lydon, Sid Vicious and the Clash, along with music from the period by the likes of Richard Hell and the Voidoids and others.

"I love it," iconic British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, whose designs are featured in the exhibit, told CBSNews.com about the show. "Although it's still hard-edged, it's a different form of decoration. If you look at Elizabethan clothes where they use slashing and cutting -- we've just taken a different form of decoration of what it would do...You just see the link because we're together on this whole thing. I think it's very clever to see the link."

Perhaps the most telling visual reminder of "PUNK" is a decked-out mannequin gestured with a middle finger extended. Now that's what punk is really all about.

  • David Chiu

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