PUNK: Chaos to Couture by Andrew Bolton

Andrew Bolton, PUNK: Chaos to Couture (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013). 240 pp., 293 illus. £30 (Hardcover) ISBN 978-1-58839-489-7 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) ISBN 978-0-300-19185-1 (Yale University Press).

Gallery view of the Punk exhibition at the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The ‘D.I.Y.: Grafitti & Agitprop’ section. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This catalogue is published in conjunction with the Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (9 May-14 August 2013) and distributed by Yale University Press. The exhibition charts, in seven galleries, the influence of Punk on haute couture, uniting clothing from the Punk era with that of fashion designers inspired by it, including Zandra Rhodes, Gianni Versace, Franco Moschino, Karl Lagerfeld, Junya Watanabe, Rei Kawakubo, Katharine Hamnett and Alexander McQueen, whose posthumous retrospective exhibition, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, drew huge crowds to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011.

Punk originated in New York around 1974 and in London about 1975 and the exhibition begins here at its sources, re-creating the filthy bathroom at CBGB’s, the Lower East Side Club where New York Punk was born and also the retail space of the London boutique, Seditionaries, that sold the creations of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols pop group. While the intention of featuring these two venues was to distinguish between Punks in the USA and Punks in the UK, both groups essentially ‘shared a frustration and dissatisfaction with the state of hegemonic culture’. After the two dioramas, the exhibition moves through a series of galleries on themes which the catalogue follows: ‘Clothes for Heroes’, ‘D.I.Y.: Hardware’, ‘D.I.Y.: Bricolage’, ‘D.I.Y.: Graffiti and Agitprop’, and ‘D.I.Y.: Destroy.’

‘Clothes for Heroes’, the slogan under which Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren marketed their clothing, explores their designs for their boutique at 430 King’s Road, London, and their influence on contemporary fashion designers such as Junya Watanabe, whose cobweb-like mohair sweaters from her Autumn/Winter 2006-2007 collection are very reminiscent of those worn by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols - photographs of both prominently featured side-by-side in the catalogue. ‘D.I.Y. Hardware’ focuses on the decorative embellishments of Punk such as studs, chains, zippers, padlocks and safety pins. Haute couture’s most celebrated appropriation of a Punk ornament is Gianni Versace’s safety-pin dress, famously worn by actress Elizabeth Hurley in 1994. ‘D.I.Y. Bricolage’ explores the political and social conditions of the Punk era such as the refuse-collection strikes in Britain during the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978, a catalyst for the adoption of rubbish-bag inspired ensembles. This idea was re-interpreted by many fashion designers, most notably by the enfant terrible of Italian fashion, Franco Moschino. Punks were fond of wordplay, their primary vehicle for its display, the slogan or protest T-shirt. The tradition was continued most successfully by the fashion designer, Katharine Hammett when she wore her ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ T-shirt to a reception hosted by Margaret Thatcher during London Fashion Week in 1984. ‘D.I.Y.: Destroy’ examines the Punk practice of ripping, tearing and slashing of clothing, signifying themes such as urban decay and poverty, the concept of deconstruction embraced by the fashion designer, Rei Kawakubo

While the catalogue is of a cumbersome, clumsy shape and size (12 ½ x 12 ½ inches), there are many delights within such as the insightful essay of John Lydon (Johnny Rotten). In my reviews, I have often criticized the catalogues of the Costume Institute (Poiret, Chanel, Alexander McQueen) for their lack of documentary material; I am pleased to see that this catalogue has an excellent bibliography and a fine index. ALICE MACKRELL

Gallery view of the Punk exhibition at the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The ‘D.I.Y.: Hardware’ section. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.