For those of us who remember the thrilling violence enacted by James Chance & the Contortions, the muted manifestations of "punk" at the Metropolitan Museum are outrage mediated, excitement without menace, and a study of how revolution passes into history. The crafted looks of Vivienne Westwood, Helmut Lang, Dolce & Gabbana, and others, including Guido Palau's bubbled fur head pieces are amusing, and unlike Costume Institute events of the past, such as the exceptional 2011 Alexander McQueen show, where art transcended function, these are not looks I recognize from that era. Maybe that's the point: a head trip, the Met "Punk" show offers many fascinations beyond the displayed facsimile of CBGB's latrine, but punk vibe isn't one of them.
At the crowded press opening, I ran into Gillian McCain. Of her partner Legs McNeil on the essential tome Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996), McCain said, Legs would never attend a gathering such as this, as he declared: "Punk wasn't about decay. Punk was about apocalypse. Punk was about annihilation." Pertaining to clothes, Ed Sanders, erstwhile Fug described the ethos: "Punks reminded me of armadillos: people whose attire was a kind of armor to protect themselves from the tentacles arising to get them from the iridium." We could agree; we remember, and it never looked like this. Couture, whatever its inspirations, is, well, still couture, never rising above the material.
As survivor, Richard Hell, provides some insight in the Met's fine catalogue for Punk: Chaos to Couture, but more in his recently published autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (Ecco, March 2013). A rocker who writes, Hell tells his own story, his origins in Lexington, Kentucky and call to music and poetry, amidst other punk icons: Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, The Ramones. On first hearing about the Sex Pistols from a magazine, he noted the name Malcom McLaren in the text: "His London clothing boutique was called Sex, hence Sex Pistols. Everyone in the band had short, hacked up hair and torn clothes and there were safety pins and shredded suit jackets and wacked-out T-shirts and contorted defiant facial expressions." Hell was flattered at the resemblance to himself. Bringing his ideas on the subject to the moment, he ends his catalogue essay, "'punk' couture: inside out," with a bit of wisdom that may sum up the Met exhibition, "There's something inherently sad about clothes in themselves, and fashion, no matter how lovely or effective. Clothes are empty."
At this year's New York Women in Film and Television Designing Women gala, a yearly event honoring the work of women who make up, coif and dress actors for the movies, awards were presented to Andrea Miller, Mandy Lyons, and Deborah Scott. Having invented a wardrobe for Titanic, Avatar, and The Amazing Spider-Man II, among many other movies, Scott said whenever anyone equates costuming with fashion design, she clarifies, it is just the opposite: fashion design is meant to enhance or embellish a persona; costumes invent characters.
As anarchy combined with self-invention, the definition of punk style may be somewhere in between.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.