From Chaos to Couture
May 14, 2013
By Alyssa Renck
The Metropolitan Museum’s most recent exhibit by the Costume Institute opened May 9, 2013, titled Punk: Chaos to Couture. This show explores the many aspects of the “punk” genre in relation to fashion with garments from the movement’s beginnings in the 1970s, to recent pieces by notable designers, in an effort to display the influence and impact punk has throughout the fashion industry. Additionally, the show appears to make a sort of social commentary on the throw away trend in fashion today. The ideas of repurposing and destroying that punk exudes are relevant to certain issues with sustainability today, especially in fashion.
The exhibit itself is divided into sections, which take the viewer through the evolution of the movement and its many different facets. Unfortunately, the overall experience depends on when you go, because the show is new and a highly anticipated one, it was crowded and hard to enjoy or experience to the full extent when I went. The video on the Met’s website which walks through the show with a narration by the curator allows for a much easier comprehension and more detailed viewing.
Organizationally, the show is very comprehensive and relatively easy to walk through. It begins with “A Tale of Two Cities,” walking through the beginnings of punk in New York and London, focusing on Vivienne Westwood’s boutique and the CBGB club. Next is the first section of D.I.Y., hardware, which looks like a sculpture hall, except the walls are made of Styrofoam. Continuing with D.I.Y. is the bricolage section with walls that look like vacuum-packed garbage. Next is the graffiti section, looking like a “bombed out building” with black walls that contrast with the neon painted and graffiti-ed clothes. The final section focuses on the destroy aspect of the punk movement and appears to have the most couture garments of the whole show. Each room has a video clip of a different punk icon projected on a wall and music that is supposed to support the punk concept, but was far from successful.
The roots of punk are shown with a replica of the dirty and graffiti filled bathroom at the CBGB club in New York and of Vivienne Westwood’s Kings Road boutique in London, both in the 1970s. In the center of the room are clothes by designers that embody the original anti-establishment ideals of the punk movement. Around the edges of the room are reconstructed t-shirts with anti-political and sexual references decorating them. Many of the pieces are clashing plaids and sweaters that are falling apart. This room has black walls, which contrast with the following room that is stark white.
In the sculpture hall “hardware” room, the dress forms are placed in arched niches divided by columns, which are made of Styrofoam. The Styrofoam has “graffiti” carved into it that is anti-establishment themed. All the hairpieces, which are the same large spiked puffball wig on all the mannequins is black in this hall. Additionally all the garments are only black and white and focus on hardware such as safety pins, spikes, and chains. At the end of the hall is a black and white video clip.
The next room has walls made of what looks like vacuum packed garbage, which is relevant for the bricolage section. The garments in this room are made from reused materials and garbage bags, but are made to look very couture with excellent construction detail and large gowns. This room has a pink glow, which is almost contradictory to the garbage concept.
Bricolage is followed by the blackened walls of the graffiti section. These pieces focus on writing and making statements with splatter paint. There is a combination of gowns and t-shirts with pants.
The final room is also black, but is organized like a runway almost with black garments on the outsides and white Comme de Garcons pieces in the middle. This section focuses on destroy and has much more recent designs. Many of the garments sport rips and gashes that are repaired or emphasized by couture beading. The Comme de Garcons garments look like suits and jackets and gowns cut apart and pieced together.
The show is impressive and exciting in its successful categorizing of garments from a multitude of designers and time periods. The recognition of different forms and embodiments of the punk movement and how it relates to haute couture fashion was well executed. The show was unsuccessful with regards to multimedia. All advertisements for the show included photographs of famous punk musicians in their original punk fashions, however those who hoped to see this aspect of the show were sadly disappointed. The few videos that are part of the exhibit were poorly chosen and are too short. The close quarters of the exhibit make the large-scale projections abstract and hard to see and therefore it is hard to recognize people or any other punk aspects whatsoever. The music choice, while professing to include famous punk songs was also disappointing because the recognizable songs were few and far between and the other music seemed to be just noise. Because the exhibit was so crowded, the experience was punctuated by loud beeping alarms when people got too close.
I found the overall concept of the designs, based on ideas from the punk movement, were very relevant to today and discussions about waste and sustainability that are growing more popular. Many of the clothes were repurposed, redesigned, or recycled, using materials including plastic bags, paper, and cheap bead necklaces. Some designs used repurposed clothing and t-shirts. There were plenty of couture garments that used expensive fabric, intricate beading details, and left behind a lot of waste in production, but the ideas of punk which were perpetuated, are very relevant to today. It even harkens back to the thrift shop movement, which continues on thanks to rap artists Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” song, but which began a few years ago, following the Green Movement and concerns about the Earth and Global Warming. Even the message on the wall in the last room, “No Future,” does not necessarily merely reference the song “Anarchy in the UK” by the iconic punk band the Sex Pistols, it is also making a statement about where the world is heading. It is important for fashion designers of today to take these issues into consideration when designing, in order to protect the future, and many companies and enterprises are acting against “fast fashion” and creating sustainable and charitable garments that support the world rather than destroy it.