The theme of punk was a stretch to begin with. After all, the Metropolitan Museum is the very embodiment of Establishment, the pinnacle of artistic achievement, a revered institution whose vast collection of art and antiquities is beyond reproach and unmatched anywhere in the world (arguably) and whose Board of Trustees rubs shoulders with the cultural and political elite. Needless to say, when the announcement came down that punk — punk! — would be the subject of the Met's great fashion spectacular of 2013 and, by extension, the Met Gala, it was met with much skepticism.
Still, the Met's punk-by-proxy Alexander McQueen show of two years ago, Savage Beauty, was a runaway success, a bona fide blockbuster that spurred museums the world over to revisit their fashion collections, which are notoriously difficult to maintain. And the Met's Prada-meets-Schiaparelli show last year was a more moderate hit, but a hit nonetheless. If anyone could tackle the radical, contrarian — if at times ham-handed and unintelligible — punk spirit, and trace its metastasis across contemporary fashion collections, it would be the Met's Costume Institute. The exhibition would be called, succinctly, "PUNK: Chaos to Couture."
At a press preview earlier this week, the show's curator Andrew Bolton articulated the rationale for choosing punk — to a degree probably not considered by the original punks of the mid-'70s, who at that time were reacting to the status quo through music and less interested in launching a rich visual ouevre. "Fashion," he said, addressing a bright, sunlit room that included Anna Wintour and Suzy Menkes, "was first to welcome the outcast to its midst," starting with the English designer Zandra Rhodes' "Conceptual Chic" collection of the late '70s. The scrupulous Brit then broke down punk's trademark DIY look into four subgenres: Hardware (spikes, zippers), Bricolage (applied bits, trash bags), Graffiti and Agitprop (verbiage, paint splatters), and Destroy (holes, rips).
Fashion is indeed something of a magpie. However, the attraction was not mutual. Punk, at least the first wave, had little desire to be embraced by fashion or anything resembling the mainstream. The mother of punk, Vivienne Westwood, has said repeatedly she didn't consider herself a fashion designer when she was assembling those first angry slogan tees. There is, after all, a reason why the Sex Pistols boycotted their own induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, calling the Cleveland museum a "piss stain." Punk's raison d'être was the annihilation of anything organized.
That year, 2006, was also the year the Met staged its other punk-related show, AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion, whose starting point was 1976, when punk exploded onto the music scene in London and New York. A surge of bands — The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the New York Dolls — was inflamed to "sing" about anarchy, flouting authority, and aspiring to "no future," a prevailing mantra at the time. In his preface in the show's accompanying book, Bolton explains the new, second exhibit is like a sequel to the first, focusing more on the punk aesthetic than the punk attitude. Which, of course, immediately begs the question: Can and should they be separated? More importantly, is the aesthetic without the attitude a compelling enough argument for holding a second exposition of punk fashion? Has punk become so diluted and decontextualized that it's a tenable means of institutional sponsorship?
So it's with a sense of déjà vu and defeatism that this new punk show arrives. Sure enough, Vivienne Westwood accounts for many of the exhibition's early examples. A rather engaging facsimile of her original punk store with Malcolm McLaren, Seditionaries (formerly SEX) — where the visual codes of stencil graffiti and ripped tees were born — is both the beginning and end of any real conversation about punk or its intersection with fashion. As for the aesthetic, nowadays DIY is mostly done for you somewhere in China. But if a chuckle is what you're after, CBGB's famously foul bathrooms — lit with a single bare bulb — are also recreated, sans stench. It's a clever sight gag lasting all of ten seconds, long enough to take an Instagram.
But the rebel yell of these tableaux soon turns to an acquiescent snore. Aside from sensational punk footage taken by a young Nick Knight (his subsequent move into fashion photography was somewhat accidental), what one finds in the rest of the five or so small rooms, some with distressed-looking walls, are designer co-options of the punk look. Don't call them knock-offs; they're merely "influenced by." In one corner there's the requisite paint-splattered Alexander McQueen strapless dress (1999), while in the Destroy room sit ripped yarn ensembles by Rodarte (2009). Studded Givenchy (a sponsor of the show) and spiked Versace pieces are put on pedestals in the colonnade room. Dior Homme men's shirts with blood spots formed from red sequins (2002) lead to Miguel Adrover's reappropriated "I Heart NY" tee (2000) that sits unremarkably on a faceless mannequin.
Bolton was quick to clarify that the show was never meant to be a comprehensive survey of punk fashion. Indeed there are no actual punk garments, as in those worn on stage, which by now have become the sweaty detritus of performative disdain. But without a visceral connection to punk's potency, the show itself comes off as staged. But you can feel better about the non sequitur by buying any number of limited-edition, one-off, punk-inspired collections whipped up specially for the occasion. Oh, and CBGB? It's now a John Varvatos store. Why riot when you can shop?