When Punk Became High Fashion

Published May 9, 2013

A John Varvatos shop now occupies the location of legendary music venue CBGB. Rows of boots, denim, and t-shirts have replaced the club’s unimaginably revolting bathrooms. Punk is dead.

As part of the Costume Institute’s new exhibit, “PUNK: Chaos to Couture,” CBGB’s bathrooms have been recreated in all of their sickening glory within the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This unappealing shrine to the New York punk mecca dominated conversations following Tuesday’s press preview of exhibition, which opens Thursday and runs through August 14.

It is hard, however, to ignore the 100 or so magnificent punk garments that accompany the installation. The first gallery focuses on pioneering designs by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, such as a 1976 Westwood t-shirt depicting Mickey Mouse shagging Minnie. Modern interpretations by Balmain, Rodarte, Balenciaga, Chanel, and Gareth Pugh follow. The DIY mentality is emphasized: safety pins, rips and tears abound, and couture pieces illustrate that if you do not care to do it yourself, you can always pay someone to do it for you.

“The beginning of the exhibition looks at where punk emerged and teasing out the manifestations of punk within these two cities,” curator Andrew Bolton explains. However, Bolton stresses that the main goal of the exhibition is to examine “the high fashion connotations of the punk aesthetic.”

The clothes are punctuated by the reverberating sounds of punk’s reigning heroes, as well as monstrous screens depicting footage of mosh pits, Patti Smith, and Johnny Rotten created by the exhibit’s creative consultant, photographer Nick Knight. Mannequins sport spiky coifs by Guido Palau, and one cheekily flips visitors the bird as they exit.

Though Bolton is no stranger to punk music—he notes his favorite punk bands are X-Ray Spex and, of course, The Sex Pistols— the exhibit focuses on fashion. It is not an attempt to capture the arguably uncapturable movement in its entirety. While many critics have lashed out against the exhibit, in the words of Johnny Rotten, “Sometimes the most positive thing you can be in a boring society is absolutely negative.”

“PUNK: CHAOS TO COUTURE” OPENS TODAY, MAY 9, AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART IN NEW YORK.