Art of the Day

29 May

Fashion Design by Karl Lagerfeld (born 1938)  for Chanel. Seen in March 2011 issue of Vogue. Photograph currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Punk: Chaos to Couture.”

Notes about exhibition from

Andrew Bolton [curator of exhibit]: For several years I wanted to do an exhibition on punk, its origins, but primarily punk as an aesthetic and how that aesthetic has impacted on high fashion. In a way punk introduced a language of postmodernism into fashion: the idea of eclecticism, the idea of deconstructionism, the idea of mixing different stylistic references into one ensemble actually evolved from the punk aesthetic of the 1970s.

We always felt that punks were heroic. They were these brave characters, and its impact, not just on fashion, but on the cultural landscape in general is so enormous that we wanted to showcase it and give it its authority with prestige that we feel it deserves.

In the entranceway, we see a video of punks pogoing, which was a dance that was jumping up and down. It’s basically punks in the mosh pit. And straddling the video on either side is an original punk garment by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.
And on the other side is an ensemble by John Galliano for Christian Dior haute couture. I think more than any other designer, John Galliano has taken on the mantle of punk, in terms of his clothes being about provocation, being about confrontation. It’s really about
a story from the sidewalk to the catwalk.

The punk ethos of do-it-yourself does seem, you know, on the surface, at odds with the couture ethos of made-to-measure, but I think both are defined and driven by these impulses of originality and individuality.

The first three galleries are an origin story, and the tale of two cities where we focus on the origins of punk in London and New York.

The first gallery you enter is New York, where we’ve re-created the toilets at a club, CBGBs. The toilets were always “a place that  all the action occurred,” in a famous quotation by Patti Smith. And CBGBs was really the center in which punk rose up, with bands like Television, the Ramones, Debbie Harry, and Patti Smith. The focus was music, rather than fashion, and it had more intellectual and artistic underpinnings than it had in London. The seeds of the look of punk very much were germinating in New York at the time. And Malcolm McLaren took it back to London and gave it much more of a British spin.

After CBGBs we go into a gallery called “Clothes for Heroes,” which also has another period room—430 Kings Road, which was the boutique owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. In New York punk very much centered around a club, CBGBs, and nighttime sort of movement. In London, people lived and breathed punk in the daytime. You saw them on the Kings Road, these extraordinary characters with their tribal makeup and tribal hair and tribal body piercings. They were these extraordinary peacocks.

To me, the look of punk, or what we know as the look of punk, very much was crystallized in London. So in a way I wanted the first fashions you saw in the exhibition to be those created by the designers Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

Hair and makeup was something we thought about long and hard. Hair artist Guido Pilau came up with this extraordinary haircut based on Sid Vicious and Debbie Juvenile—again this idea of do-it-yourself, getting scissors and hacking at your hair.

And on the perimeter of the gallery we have T-shirts with overt sexual and political imagery and slogans. Punks used T-shirts, about sex, about politics, as a deliberate provocation and deliberate confrontation. Punks were, in a way, very brave. They were these people who didn’t really care. They broke all the rules in terms of age or gender or even sexuality. So I think that punks became these sort of rebellious heroes, these anti-heroes.

In “Clothes for Heroes” there is a sixteen-foot monitor showing Jordan, in a way, the queen of punk. A highly original dresser, and she was also the main shop assistant at 430 Kings Road. She certainly had a huge influence on how punks looked in London.

After “A Tale of Two Cities” we now have a suite of four galleries in which we have four different manifestations of the do-it-yourself aesthetic that was created by punks in the mid- to late-seventies and its impact on high fashion. “Hardware” is actually presented
as a sculpture corridor made out of Styrofoam, where we look at designers who have co-opted the spikes, the safety pins, the studs, the chains, the hardware of punk, and adapted it into haute couture and high fashion. In a way, punks originally adopted this sort of sadomasochistic, rather brutish hardware as a symbol of violence, even of cruelty. And of course, whenever fashion co-opts street style it inevitably sanitizes the origins and the meanings of its original manifestation.

I think with designers like Versace, Thom Browne, Givenchy, they’ve adopted these trappings in a way to imbue their fashions with a sort of youthful rebelliousness. I think perhaps two of the most famous pieces in this gallery, the dress by Versace from 1994, forever going to be known as the Liz Hurley dress, as she wore it to premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. And it’s a sheath dress with large safety pins in gilt running down the side of it. It’s this couture version of the safety pin.

And the other dress, two dresses actually, by Zandra Rhodes. Zandra Rhodes was the first designer to co-opt fashion for the runway in 1977. It was part of a conceptual chic collection and it was very much influenced by punks on the street, but it also referenced dress history, it also referenced renaissance slashing, and also the famous tear dress by Schiaparelli that she created in the late thirties.

At the end of the corridor we have another large screen showcasing Sid Vicious, actually the very last performance that the Sex Pistols performed in San Francisco in the seventies. And it shows him bare chested with his famous lock and chain that was used
by several designers, particularly Dolce & Gabbana, as inspiration.

After you walk through “Hardware,” we come to a gallery called “Bricolage,” and the idea of bricolage in a way strikes at the heart of what punk is all about. A bricoleur was an amateur who found objects from everyday life and created something new from them.
And the architecture of this space is vacuum-packed trash in this sort of Pepto-Bismol pink.

Punk appropriated objects, often from domestic contexts. Punk was about artificiality; it was about creating looks from trash culture, from consumer culture, really as a critique of it. And this gallery looks at designers who are also known for recycling everyday objects and creating new fashions out of them. Martin Margiela in a way is the consummate bricoleur in terms of using objects like broken plates, found posters on the street, cheap necklaces, paper, and creating extraordinary fashions out of them, in a way as a critique of the excesses of fashion.

And the hero of this gallery is Wayne County, now Jayne County, who was known for wearing found objects and incorporating them into her fashions.

After “Bricolage,” we come into a gallery called “DIY-Graffiti and Agitprop,” and it looks at the images and slogans that punks incorporated into their fashions, which in a way is the most self-evident expression of do-it-yourself.

The gallery itself is like a bombed-out building. In terms of the whole suite of galleries it looks the most like a club. In the center of the gallery are four ball gowns by Dolce & Gabbana which were actually inspired by Julian Schnabel’s paintings. In terms of the
manifestation of the do-it-yourself aesthetic, graffiti was certainly in a way the most political.

While many types of graffiti were popular among punks. One of the most famous was a splatter or flicker painting. And in this gallery we have designers who have looked to these punk scrawlings and incorporated them into their clothing, people like Alexander
McQueen. A dress that was worn by Shalom Harlow in the collection called No. 13 in which she rotated like a doll and she was sprayed with acid green and black paint by a Fiat car-sprayer.

And we also have people like Stephen Sprouse, who’s very well known for incorporating graffiti into his clothing, less politically, more as an aesthetic expression.

We also have designers who have used the T-shirt as a vehicle for propaganda. People like Vivienne Westwood and Moschino, Martin Margiela. Punks often used T-shirts and their clothing as banners, and designers have continued that tradition, often for political and environmental purposes.

The final gallery in the exhibition is called “DIY Destroy” and I wanted to end the exhibition with this concept. I think perhaps more than any other aspect of the punk ethos of do-it-yourself, it’s the practice of destroy or deconstruction that’s had the greatest impact on fashion. And for punks this practice manifested itself in rips and tears. These slashes became the ultimate emblems of urban dereliction or disaffection. And there are designers—Hussein Chalayan, Martin Margiela—who have taken on the political underpinnings of rips and tears, where it is a political statement about poverty, about disaffection.

On the whole the designers in the exhibition, it’s more about an aesthetic of poverty. And you think about the Chanel suit by Karl Lagerfeld, in a way the ultimate symbol of bourgeois fashionability. And by slashing it he turns that idea on its head, but at the
same time he still retains the symbols of the Chanel suit. But Lagerfeld is a postmodernist in the fact that he constantly looks back into the history of Chanel and reinterprets it with a very modern sensibility.

The ultimate deconstructionist is Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. I think more than any other designer, Rei Kawakubo constantly changes your eye in terms of her collections. She’s also somebody who offers a critique of platonic ideals of beauty. She
turns them all on its head to present new definitions of beauty, new definitions of fashion, and that really is what punk was all about—to expand the parameters of fashion and to question fashion in general. Rei Kawakubo is as brave and as heroic in her creativity as punks were. In a way nothing has come since then that’s been as radical, which is probably why designers still look to punk, because of its innovation.

My comments:

It’s interesting to think about whether fashion is actually art or just an artistic form of expression. Is it simply art that happens to be wearable, or does its primary purpose of function make it fall more in the realm of design rather than art making? I’m not completely sure. While some clothes are made purely to be worn and cover up the body, some clothes are made as something to wear, yes, but mostly as something to make an important expressive statement. But in both situations, the clothing expresses something about the person who wears it. Because it is expressive and because it is also visual, it’s almost like sculpture that happens to be very interactive, one might argue.

I really hope that I get to see this exhibition because the punk aesthetic is something that appeals to me personally although I’ve never considered its history. It’ll be interesting to see how the Met deals with the irony of what appears to be a fashion movement that was built on clothing that’s made personal by the people who wear it (via ripping jeans and shirts, adding paint, sticking on studs, what have you) being incorporated into the couture of high fashion houses, who make the clothes in their entirety for clientele who then wear them right off the runway.

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