Hard living is sexy. It embodies rugged individualism and freedom. It involves long nights and gnarly mornings. It probably requires a big dick (or at least acting like it’s big). In short, it'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-70s.
It makes sense, then, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would choose to explore punk as a subculture—lots of people can relate to it. 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 the museum's special exhibitions wing into what looks like a high-end SoHo shop. Room after room of rows of mannequins, each dressed in 1970s to present-day fashion, produce a kind of homogenized aesthetic no punk would endorse.
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 which stars like Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten perform silently. It’s the show's first installation, 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 of a pain-stakingly recreated 70s-era bathroom at CBGB’s. That story is hardly told, though. Viewers can read 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 installation later, we’re looking at more mannequins in wigs. We also see a recreation of Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistol bandmember 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 catalog. 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 drawings of men, one without his pants on. Viewers can’t go through the clothes rack themselves, though, so the installation offers little more than a floor plan to the information provided 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, as much of punk’s aesthetic came out of 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 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 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 that 2011 show—but he’s an essential inclusion in what might otherwise be a boring show. Here, even McQueen 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 the most disappointing. A dress by Comme Des Garçons 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 designer is transformed by piles of other coats sewn onto it. It smacks of work produced by someone 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.
Richard Hell, late 1970s Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Kate Simon