Punk this: NYC’s Met Museum celebrates rebel-influenced fashion

Holly Bailey

When the legendary downtown music club CBGB closed its doors in New York City in 2006, its many obituaries were quick to pay homage to its infamous bathrooms—facilities so vile even rock stars, who presumably have seen everything, struggled to find the right adjectives to describe their disgust.

“Legendarily nasty,” David Byrne of the Talking Heads once politely declared.

The dungeon-like restrooms, with their missing doors and walls covered floor to ceiling in graffiti and other substances that would make a health inspector cringe, seemed to be a vivid metaphor for CBGB’s status as the place where the anarchic world of punk rock got its start in America in the 1970s.

Still, it may be surprising to some to see a recreation of CBGB’s bathrooms, right down to the toilet grime, about 80 blocks north in the rarefied world of Manhattan’s pristine Upper East Side. It's the opening centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newest exhibition: “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” which examines the movement’s influence on high fashion.

The show, which opens to the public on Thursday and runs through Aug. 14, combines punk-era artifacts like the CBGB re-creation with clothes from designers like Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood, who have been credited as the first designers to translate the punk aesthetic to fashion.

The exhibit then transitions into more recent designs seemingly influenced by punk over the last four decades, including creations from Christian Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Burberry.

About 100 different designs are on display, many of which showcase what the museum touts as punk’s “do it yourself” ethos, including dresses made out of trash bags and clothes constructed with other unusual materials like wire, metal chains and other hardware.

“No other movement has had a more enduring influence on high fashion,” Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, said during a preview of the exhibit on Monday. “Punk was all about celebrating individual creativity and not being afraid. It was about being brave and challenging the status quo, elements that have been embraced by the fashion world.”

For the celebrity obsessed, one of the most recognizable items in the exhibit is Gianni Versace’s safety-pin dress, which made a star out of model/actress Elizabeth Hurley. Hurley made headlines when she wore the gown to the 1994 premiere of “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” starring her then-boyfriend Hugh Grant.

The clothes are accompanied by music and videos of old concert footage from the defining musical artists of the era, including Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Blondie and the Ramones.

While the artists have been widely credited for their influence on rock music, Bolton said the Met’s goal was to also honor their style and how it shaped the fashion world.

“We always wanted the show to be about treating punks heroically and with the reverence they deserve in the history of fashion,” Bolton said. “When you look at Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten, they are extraordinary in terms of their individuality and their heroism [in terms of style]. We wanted to create almost altar pieces to them with the show.”

But the Met’s show has prompted mixed reactions among veterans of the punk movement who see the irony of a fancy museum paying homage to a genre that found its genesis in rebelling against the establishment and rich people.

On Monday, the punk exhibit was the central theme of the Met’s annual Costume Institute Ball, which was organized by fashion luminaries, including Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and attended by dozens of celebrities and society types who turned out in expensive frocks allegedly inspired by the punk aesthetic.

It was an event that seemed to be the antithesis of everything the punk movement rebelled against during its early days. Ahead of the ball, Legs McNeil, a legendary rock writer who created Punk magazine in 1975, raged against the exhibit and the ball in an interview with the New York Times, calling it a “masturbatory fantasy for Anna Wintour and Vogue,” whom he accused of trying to co-opt a style that the fashion world once rejected.

In a review of the show published Monday, Times fashion critic Suzy Menkes gave the exhibit a lukewarm review for its “sanitized and bloodless version of punk’s origins and influences.” Among other things, she criticized the exhibit for ignoring the Mohawk, a hairstyle that came to life in the punk era, in favor of outfitting mannequins with frizzy wigs.

But Bolton has pushed back against his critics, insisting it was never his goal to offer a “comprehensive history” of the punk movement but rather to examine the “impact” of punk on couture over the last 40 years.

“It meant many different things to people, and it still does. People feel an ownership of it, even those who didn’t live through it and experience it directly,” Bolton said.

He added, “Punk began as an impulse, as a feeling. It’s this emotional connection that makes it so difficult to define or identify or characterize. What we tried to do was show how it engaged and inspired the imagination.”