Flipping through the imposing art book that accompanies the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s spring exhibition, which explores punk rock’s influence on fashion, is like hearing your favorite Screamers song played in a mall. First, you feel bad—it’s more proof that everything gets sold out. Then you suspect that it’s some kind of dada trick. How else to explain sentences like this: “In punk’s spirit of revolution, Moda Operandi is the first online luxury retailer to offer unprecedented access to runway collections from the world’s top designers.” In punk’s spirit of revolution, my first instinct was to set the book on fire.
But arson isn’t the most fun you can have with the fashion world’s latest depredation of counterculture. Curator Andrew Bolton captured the spirit of the show in a video interview: “Even though [Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld] is playing with the idea of the aesthetic of poverty,” he says, fingering a Chanel jacket riddled with carefully hemmed holes, “it’s still very much about luxury.” Deterioration has never looked so good. He says that punk’s defining trait, DIY, “is almost beyond couture,” because when you customize your leather jacket, it’s one of a kind. With this plaudit, Bolton neatly dissolves DIY’s political aim of anticorporate self-reliance and reframes it as high fashion’s favorite titillation: rarity. Punks, to Bolton, had been heroes of individualism who dressed to distinguish themselves from the mainstream (like couture clients) and pushed fashion forward: “Everything became possible after punk,” he says.
Nothing on King’s Road in 1977—or the Bowery in 1975, for that matter—could compete with the clothes in this book for aggressiveness, poetry, and sheer devotion to hardware. For example: the exquisite Junya Watanabe jacket made from molded zippers and leather, punk-inspired fastenings that form a writhing mass of metal at the model’s throat. A floating Ann Demeulemeester dress embroidered with ethereal lines by Patti Smith: “Curious wishes feathered the air.” No punk ever looked as untouchable as Kate Moss luxuriating bare chested in a Balmain ultrastudded leather jacket, signature sneer broken by a cigarette. Punks created these looks out of cheap materials and trash while living in cold-water flats and burned-out buildings, but the couturiers bring such skill and resources to bear on their ideas that, despite the obvious stupidity of calling an expensive chiffon gown punk, one can’t help but admire the spectacle. In those of us with a tribal loyalty to the culture, this produces a giddy feeling: thrilling to the looks of a $6,000 jacket, while simultaneously despising its existence.
This kind of disorientation is the result of Bolton’s approach: He considers punk strictly as an aesthetic influence—on par with flappers, or pirates—on the tip-top reaches of runway haute couture. Its full dimension as a cultural rupture caused by the historical mating of youth, poverty, and loud music fades away.
Perhaps this is predictable. The Costume Institute is supported by the fashion business (Anna Wintour is a trustee), and the relationship between the Met and the fashion industry reaches back to the turn of the century. Back then, the Met opened its trove of historical rarities—“native” garb, antiquated fabrics, prints—to designers charged with keeping shoppers returning to department stores. At the Costume Institute, the museum’s connection to the commercial side of fashion has been formalized; it is a curatorial department of its own, reclining stylishly between art and commerce in the marble vault. Punk rock is just another native culture fed to fashion.
The show’s designers have mined the scattered punk archive with vigor. The mohair sweater with a weave loose enough to expose thin chests makes several appearances, notably in a photo of Johnny Rotten (shown chugging a beer), as does an enormous quantity of rubber and clingy plastic. Designers with a feel for performance take the torn and battered look of punk as an invitation to apply their considerable skill, artistry, and resources to a full-on deconstruction project. A Margiela vest is made of broken plates, strung together with wire. Galliano shows a gown with a vast train that mimics a sea of bubbling black garbage-bag plastic.
The use of garbage bags refers, nominally, to more than provocative luxury. When Johnny Rotten wore a trash bag in 1978, it transformed him into something nauseating: a representation of the strife in Britain that came to be called the Winter of Discontent. He has described his inspiration this way: “People were extremely absurd and still stuck into flares and platform shoes and neatly coiffered longish hair and pretending the world wasn’t really happening. . . . There was also a garbage strike going on for years and years and there was trash piled ten foot high. They seemed to have missed that. Wear the garbage bag for god’s sake, and then you’re dealing with it.” If trash-bag fashion sought to force stinking reality under the upturned noses of the bourgeoisie, the exhibition’s title glosses over this contradiction without irony. Indeed, 1970s punk was born out of chaos, and was co-opted into couture, and now exists comfortably at the other end of the wealth spectrum, as an evening gown in the tony province of Anna Wintour. So the death of punk hasn’t been exaggerated—which is fine. Strip the body bare and turn its leather gimp suit into ankle boots.
Punks squatting today in East New York will surely scorn this exhibit (if they notice it at all). And Bolton wouldn’t think much of their skinny ripped jeans and band T-shirts. The show isn’t about punk as the living tradition that still inspires dissatisfied kids and provides an entrée into anti-establishment politics—it’s about which shade of nostalgia will be the new black.
A couple of the designers included here participated in the invention of punk and have garments that fit at both ends of the time line. Vivienne Westwood, most notably, now designs couture, but her boutique, SEX, dressed the Sex Pistols and much of the British punk scene. She notoriously sold the “Two Cowboys” T-shirt: two cowboys standing and talking, naked from the waist down, nearly touching. Wearing the shirt got a friend of Westwood’s, the artist Alan Jones, arrested in Piccadilly Circus.
It’s hard to imagine what sort of T-shirt could get you arrested in Piccadilly Circus now, or how any fashion, punk or otherwise, could stir some action without being immediately subsumed into the trend cycle. Still, Westwood has continued the consciousness-raising project with a recent line of T-shirts. One reads, “I am not a terrorist, please don’t arrest me,” in protest of proposed detention legislation. If Westwood wanted to jolt tube riders out of their drone-guarded complacency today, she could design a Richard Hell–inspired update: “I am a terrorist, please kill me.” Back in CBGB’s heyday, when punks were more worried about muggers than cops, Hell made a T-shirt with a bull’s-eye on it and the plausible invitation “Please Kill Me” (his bandmate Richard Lloyd wore it to a show, and eager-to-please fans said they’d oblige him).
Punk remains influential because of such confrontational moves. Those of us who came to our politics through punk want to burn this book because each lavish page reminds us that the once-radical aesthetic that allowed us to flip off the suburbs is, like everything else, easily converted into entertainment for the rich. As Hell’s essay puts it, “It’s futile to fight the reality that even the best art will be a status symbol.” Clothes, he writes, “remain decoration, unless they’re actually worn, vivified into soul plumage, by an artiste of personal appearance. There’s something inherently sad about clothes in themselves, and fashion, no matter how lovely or effective. Clothes are empty.” He captures the discomfort of admiring DIY fashion deracinated from social context: Locked so far away from the beating heart of punk, the clothes, no matter how dramatic, are soulless.
The last photograph in the book to catch my eye was one in a set depicting women modeling trash bags. (By page 125 this seems normal.) Gareth Pugh’s model is wearing all black, lots of plastic and metal—yet another example of fashion as menace. But the model’s head is wrapped completely in a black plastic bag, tied off on top. No face, no identity, no goofy sneer. The most instinctively disconcerting—and, indeed, dangerous—fashion these days doesn’t assert your identity so much as make you illegible. Recently, a new fashion line called Stealth Wear was launched, featuring the slogan “New Designs for Countersurveillance.” One offering is an antidrone hoodie that reduces the wearer’s heat signature. As always, fashion speaks to our anxieties. If it is no longer conformity we must resist but surveillance, perhaps the ripped T-shirt has been replaced by the hidden face. Clothes may be empty, and punk may be dead, but moving bodies can’t be entombed in a museum.
Sarah Leonard is an editor of Dissent and the New Inquiry, and coeditor of the forthcoming book The Future We Want: Radical Solutions for the Twenty-First Century (Metropolitan Books).