Punk Needs More Meat

Two weekends ago I flew to New York City. The whole trip revolved around seeing Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I took in other shows as well while I was there. In two days, I saw six fashion exhibitions. Some were more high brow than others, but they were good overall. Unfortunately, Punk fell short of my initial expectations.

Punk: Chaos to Couture title wall gallery, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I first found out the show would be curated by Andrew Bolton, I decided I really wanted to go. He’s created some of the best exhibitions at the Met in my opinion. Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century, Anglomania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion, and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty were all his. With that kind of track record, I wanted to see this show. But then the less than stellar reviews started rolling in.

The reviews had two major problems with Punk: first, it was a show about high fashion appropriating punk, not a punk show, and second, there was a lack of contextualization. The first point is indeed true. Bolton and the Met never set out to make an authentic punk show or mislead people about what they would see. It was always going to be about high fashion co-opting the aesthetics. So if you don’t like high fashion’s blatant use of punk imagery, well, you probably aren’t going to like this show. I personally don’t mind that basic premise.

The second point about contextualization was the one I was skeptical about. I’ve read reviews of Bolton shows before, and so many of them complain of a lack of written contextualization. Well wake up folks, I wanted to say. Contextualization doesn’t always have to come in the form of the written word. It can be done through the exhibition design setting the scene. It can be done by showing period sketches or photographs in a case in the same room as a period garment to demonstrate that garment’s background. Audiences are smarter than you think. Give them a little credit that they can infer connections without everything being spelled out.

However, in this show the contextualization argument may be right. I left the show feeling like I hadn’t learned anything. I had just seen a bunch of cool looking clothes. The question “what was the point?” has been nagging me since I saw it.

Clothes for Heroes gallery, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

The small amount of clothes that were contextualized in the first gallery space was pretty cool, seen in the photo above. Authentic 1970s garments sold in Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren’s shop in London were paired up with contemporary high fashion versions. The “real” stuff was fascinating to see. Their fashiony doppelgängers took on an elevated meaning standing right next to the authentic items. I saw an “Anarchy Mask” T-shirt reputedly worn by Johnny Rotten and the “God Save the Queen” T-shirt.

D.I.Y.: Bricolage gallery, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

But then things broke down to purely superficial aesthetic details in the following four gallery spaces. Not only were there a lack of references about how pieces were inspired by punk — other than they fit some vague approximation of what punk looked like and there was very loud music playing to hard-to-watch videos of punk imagery — but there were few details about the garments themselves. No descriptive labels for individual garments, no pictures of the clothes on the runway or worn in everyday life. The exhibition design left me wanting more. I wanted to know what it was like to sew Gareth Pugh ruffled gowns out of garbage bags (seen in the photo above on the center platform). There was no video of the infamous graffitied McQueen dress from spring/summer 1999 getting spray painted live on the runway by robotic machines. No insight into the minds of any of the designers when they were conceiving of these clothes.

430 King's Road Period Room, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

My first walk through of the exhibition was a treat however. My friend Sarah Scaturro, head conservator in the Costume Institute, took me through. She pointed out things I would have never noticed on my own — every element in the replicated Seditionaries shop is archival (seen in the photo above), the single garment owned by the Met in a particular gallery was standing on the only pedestal that didn’t house a speaker, a T-shirt that said “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING” was the real punk deal. That was very exciting getting an individual tour. So I have to say a big thank you to Sarah for taking time out of her day to walk through it with me.

D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop gallery, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

The garments in Punk were really cool, and they were a treat to see, especially that graffitied McQueen dress (seen above at left) — I had a sacred moment when I saw it in person. The show was a visual treat and mounted very well. But I felt the exhibition could have taught me more, could have pushed beyond the superficial aesthetics. It lacked the heart and soul Bolton’s other shows are known to have. I wanted something a little more meaty, but I didn’t get it.