Hard living is sexy. It’s rugged individualism, and freedom. It’s long nights and gnarly mornings. It probably requires a big dick (or at least acting like it’s big). That’s punk rock, and it’s a cultural phenomenon that touched most aspects of living in New York and London, particularly in the mid- to late-70’s.
It makes sense, then, that The Metropolitan Museum of Art would chose punk as a subculture worth exploring. Punk is a movement everyone can relate to. What makes less sense is that curator Andrew Bolton decided to focus solely on punk’s influence on couture, an art form that has little to say about the movement. To that end, he’s transformed their special exhibitions wing into what looks like a high-end SoHo shop. Room after room of mannequin rows, each dressed in 1970-s to present day, produce a kind of homogenized aesthetic no punk would stand behind.
To be fair, exhibition has its own allure. Two mannequins wearing blackened fluffy wigs and bright red punk couture stand on either side of a vertical screen. On it, stars like Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten perform silently. It’s the first installation of the show, and it sparkles with the kind of newness that makes you want to buy whatever it is the Met’s selling. One room in, we learn it’s the lore from a painstakingly recreated 70’s era bathroom at CBGB’s.
That story is hardly told, though. Viewers get a label explaining that the punk scene in New York began to develop at this music venue and bar, which hosted such bands and musicians as Richard Hell, The Ramones, and Patti Smith. One install later, we’re looking at more mannequins in wigs.
We also see a recreation of Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistol band manager Malcolm McLaren’s London boutique SEX As the wall labels tell it, the store is largely responsible for bringing modern punk into the mainstream, but the installation doesn’t function any differently than an image in a catalogue. We see a rack with a lot of T-shirts on it, one with an image of blue tits on the front, another with two drawn images of men, one without his pants on. Viewers can’t go through the clothes rack themselves, so the installation offers little more than a floor plan to the information presented on the wall label.
The rest of the exhibition is divided into four sections organized by do-it-yourself processes. “DIY Hardware” presents a hallway of ridiculous gowns. Huge gold safety pins hold together a black Versace dress, providing a prime example of punk-gone-rich. The only thing rude or aggressive about this is its garish display of wealth, and much of punk’s aesthetic came out of extreme poverty. Two Zandra Rhodes gowns filled with tasteful holes ribbed with zippers suffer from the same problem, but they’re nothing compared to the Dolce & Gabbana nonsense at the end of the hall. It’s a fluffy black chiffon dress complete with a lock-and-key chastity belt. It’s unclear what influence punk had on this garment, if any.
“DIY Bricolage”, a room of fashion that resembles Duchamp readymades, is arguably the strongest in the show. In the far corner, there’s a paper bag t-shirt dress, a dress in the shape and materials of an envelope, and a plastic bag bodysuit; each are defined by designer house Maison Martin Margiela’s inventiveness with materials. Even the dress made of cellophane looked sexy enough to make me want to wear it.
Granted, he’s no Alexander McQueen—the Met may never top his 2011 show—but he’s a essential inclusion in what might otherwise be a boring show. Here, even McQueen himself falls flat; his famed splatter painting dress shown just two years ago, has no life in part because the show fails to include the video that shows its making. The video though, might reveal the truth; punk didn’t influence the making of this dress much. It just happens to fit in the room dubbed “DIY: Graffiti/Agit Prop.”
The final room, “DIY Destroy”, is arguably the most disappointing of them all. A dress by Comme Des Garcons attaches a stuffed snail-shaped piece of fabric to the crotch of a coat dress. It’s ornate but doesn’t exactly breathe the inventiveness-from-necessity for which punk became known. Another coat by the same designers is transformed by piles of other coats sewn onto it. It smacks of work produced by a designer burdened by a looming deadline.
Overhead, Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus rings out complete with horns and a choir. It’s the first time we hear music in the show, and in keeping with its missteps, it tells us little about punk.