Review of PUNK: Chaos to Couture at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Review of PUNK: Chaos to Couture at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Punk was an attitude and an aesthetic, a movement which provoked anti-establishment with exhibitionist flair. According to John Lydon (Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols), “Punk was like nothing anybody had seen before, like nothing. Punk was fearless. Utterly fearless.” With this fearlessness came its unabashed fashions, its intended chaos of cut-offs and chains which has been captured and appropriated by high-end designers into relics of couture. PUNK: Chaos to Couture, at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, nods to the birthplaces of punk before progressing through a series of four Do-it-yourself themes of punk fashion.

Punk originated concurrently in New York and London around 1974. The Met showcases the particular breeding grounds of the movement through dioramas of the filthy, graffitied bathroom of the Lower East Side New York club CBGB’s and Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s London boutique, Seditionaries. Within the black rubber lined walls of the first gallery and under a multi-sided television screening videos of slummy Sid Vicious by Nick Knight and Ruth Hogben, mannequins encircle a central platform wearing combinations of original 1970s punk garments from fashion designer Westwood and late Sex Pistols manager McLaren paired with a more recent couture twist on the item of clothing. The raw, hastily finished early designs are juxtaposed with the haute creations of Burberry, Balmain, Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto.

The exhibition leads into an all-white hallway for “DIY: Hardware”, featuring black and white evening gowns displayed on high pedestals in Classical-style arches made of styrofoam. Designs by Gianni Versace, Christopher Kane, Riccardo Tisci, and Zandra Rhodes are strewn with brass metal rings, metal safety pins, gold studs, and literal balls and chains, whilst a fantastical tulle and lace Dolce & Gabbana gown is donned with a wide metal belt fastened with a padlock and key.

An amalgam of cast relief trash and bottles cover the walls in a bubble-gum pink glow in the “DIY: Bricolage” gallery. Gareth Pugh has fashioned garbage bags into gowns resembling 18th-century court dresses, which pays homage to a deeper history of punk and Marie Antoinette, one of the first to embody the punk mindset. McQueen utilised black synthetic fabrics to resemble plastic and bubble wrapping, yet with refined quality; as broken plates, Paris Metro posters, and newsprint form Margiela’s statement vests and jackets.

The following gallery is “DIY: Graffiti and Agitprop”, which takes place in a black-painted imitation of an old-theatre-style venue. This section is one to be expected, deflating the energy and luster provided by the previously seen glamorous garments alongside the flashing films and loud music from punk’s original players. With paint-splatters and scrawl littered across t-shirts and tea-party dresses, it’s less Pollock and more of a polluted plethora of graffiti-like patterns adorned with neon-coloured spiked wigs.

The show ends, fittingly, with “DIY: Destroy” in an apocalyptic aesthetic. Ripped, slashed, burnt, banded and taped, designers such as Commes des Garcons have beautifully crafted ‘deconstructions’ as couture. The “no future” ideology of punk, spelled out on the walls, now ironically re-incarnated.

While definitions of “punk” have been debatable, as has whether or not this exhibition represents its “true” spirit, the antithetical essence of the movement has been sewn into the fabrics of high fashion and illuminated by the fine-art establishment of the Met.

Ashton Chandler

PUNK: Chaos to Couture, 9 May until 14 August, Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York City, NY 10028.


1. Jordan, 1977, Courtesy of The MetropolitanMuseum of Art, Photograph from Rex USA. – See more at: