I was a 6th grader when I first heard the Clash. The lead singer, Joe Strummer, bowled me over with his voice and lyrics, leaving me with a pain in my core, a first heart-aching crush.
I was so taken with the band that I painted their portraits in art class. What an ironic contrast- all the other girls were painting unicorns, rainbows and their pedigree pets. I found NJ suburbia stifling and had nothing in common with my classmates. I needed an outlet and needed it badly.
I aspired to become a punk rocker, shave the back of my head, shred my clothes and scribble the names of my favorite bands on my red Chuck Taylors.
Music was my constant companion and solace in the wilds of New Jersey. My introduction to the punk rock music scene was a revelation. My eyes were opened to social and political injustice in the world and I was finally given the freedom to break out from the constraints of conservative suburbia.
After all these years, I still have a soft spot for punk music. I was overjoyed about the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit Punk: Chaos to Couture from May 9-August 14. My calendar was marked when the announcement was made.
What do you wear to a punk exhibit? Graffiti Chanel scarf wrapped around your head, St. John leather jacket and a sneer.
The focus of Chaos to Couture is about the origins of punk fashion and its influence on couture over the years.
The exhibit was comprised of seven galleries. Though it was crowded in the middle of the workweek, visitors parted as I rolled in to the exhibit.
Gallery One traced the origins of the punk movement in the mid-70’s in New York City and London. In London, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s punk apparel shop, “Seditionaries” was the epicenter of punk aesthetic. Meanwhile, New York City’s headquarters was CB-GBs and OMFUG where bands like Blondie, Televsion, Ramones and Patti Smith were headliners. In NY, the music was paramount and clothing was more about self expression.
CBGB’s was the mecca of punk music venues in the 70’s through 80’s. It was so integral to the punk music scene that a facsimile of the bathroom from 1975 was created for the exhibit. In the same room you will also find a loosely knitted mohair sweater designed by Malcolm McClaren displayed alongside similar designs created years later by Rodarte and Jean Paul Gaultier. Next was a Balmain ensemble with an excessive use of silver spikes which could be transformed into armor ready to be worn in a Mad Max sequel.
The next two galleries explore the origins of punk. The viewer is transported back into Vivienne Westwood’s original London shop as mentioned above. Hanging on racks and displayed on mannequins are punk’s most blatant, vocal and rebellious manifestations-tees with bold political slogans. I love this provocative side of punk, wearing something incendiary sprawled across the chest, unabashedly!
The last four galleries explore the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) aspect commonplace among punk rockers. Metal, raw hardware and trim such as safety pins, spikes, zippers and chains defined the punk look. Quoting Johnny Rotten of the band the “Sex Pistols” : “Tears, safety pins, rips all over your gaff, 3rd rate tramp thing, that was poverty really, lack of money. The arse of your pants falls out you just use safety pins.”
I was tantalized rolling into the first DIY gallery,”Hardware”. The long hallway was flanked by mannequins dressed mostly in black couture gowns, all coiffed in black spiked, fringed wigs. In the white walled hall, each mannequin was elevated on a pedestal against a stone backdrop much like a classical Roman statue. The couture houses took inspiration from the originators of punk fashion by incorporating hardware into their garments. However, the designers sanitized the rawness of the hardware to make it palatable for the privileged couture customers. Most amusing was the juxtaposition of a huge video screen of punk’s most notorious avatar, Sid Vicious of the “Sex Pistols”, among these punk goddess-like mannequins. He is snarling at the viewer, and probably wondering why the hell he is hanging in a room full of garments that his comrades would have tossed into a pyre, in the middle of a mosh pit during a performance.
The final DIY rooms: DIY Bricolage, DIY Graffiti/Agitprop and DIY Destroy conclude the exhibit.
Bricolage explores the application of customization in fashion by the incorporation of recycled objects such as garbage bags and bottle caps. This gallery wowed me in its use of neon pink lighting and walls covered in relief imprints of scrap plates and other found objects. What impressed me most were the dresses designed by Gareth Pugh, made completely of endless rows of tiered plastic garbage bag rectangles which had a feather-like quality. The impeccable craftsmanship of these gowns blew me away and I wondered: What the hell is going to happen when plastic bags eventually become obsolete? What will designers use? My suggestion: Time to hoard plastic bags galore!
The final room, DIY Destroy, explored punk’s rip-to-shreds aesthetic. The exhibit was ambitious with 8 Comme des Garçons mannequins swathed in deconstructed pieces of coat dresses, cotton twill and elastic straps. They looked like something the creators of A&E’s show “Hoarders” could have used to parlay into a new fashion inspired show sensation called “from Riches to Bags, Bag Ladies, Bags Found in Every-Land-Fill and then worn all at once.”
The Costume Institute’s curator extraordinaire, Andrew Bolton, curator of the Prada/Schiaparelli and Alexander McQueen shows, delivered a magnificent and dramatic show. The use of video screens, music, narratives from Patti Smith and Sid Vicious looping in the background and mood lighting transported me to an early 80’s punk rock club reeking of cheap beer and sweat.
The Met fashion exhibits are funded by corporations such as Condé Nast, Moda Operandi, LMVH among others. Major funds are raised from the Met Gala for the museum. Due to this corporate support, it is understandable why so much of this exhibit focused on the couture side of punk fashion and not its gritty roots. After all, the likelihood of homeless punk squatters raising money through Kickstarter to bring such an extravaganza to the spotlight is nil.
There were many inspiring pieces from this exhibit, but the one that stood out most was Martin Margiela’s 1990 plastic shopping bag vests. Look closely and they are wearable shopping bags.
As a fashion blogger who has taken on DIY challenges, I felt compelled to make my own shopping bag vest with the help of NY fashion designer, Jamie Kreitman. She took a lowly A&P plastic bag, smoothed it flat on a table and carefully slit the bottom seam to create an opening. She turned up the raw edges 1/4″ and taped it to secure. The bag handles became the shoulder straps. She cut out larger armholes (10″ length) by extending the curve of the bag strap on both sides. To further “punk” it up, she attached safety pins and a lightweight chain strategically. She created a punk’d t-shirt to layer underneath for the complete look. Jamie asked me to source the bag locally which meant that I had to dumpster dive behind my local A&P supermarket to score a bag. With such an easy DIY project, I will need a wardrobe of various supermarket vests and will have to resume hoarding more plastic bags!
To complete my look I scoured the internet for hairstyles which would complement my new A&P shopping bag vest. Bingo! I found the claymation character of one the best Christmas tv specials ever–Mr. Heat Miser of the “Year without Santa Claus.”
Have you ever wanted to belt out a song in a public place that is really mellow? Say, a museum, church, library or coffee shop? I do all the time. What is stopping you? So what if people stare? It is hilarious. Sit at your local coffee joint and just start belting out a tune. (Mouse over the video and hit the red “X” for the sound).
These are some of the “punk” items I would buy for my closet.