Punked Up Frocks

Punked Up Frocks

Just as the final mannequin in the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York gave us the finger, wearing Hussein Chalayan S/S 02 bare-all dress, it was sort of predictable that there'd be fingers being thrusted back up at the Met, lambasting the exhibition with comments like "WTF?", "Fashion, by definition, is antithetical to punk" and "Punk isn't about what you look like!" (Guardian commenters I'm looking at you…).  What punk is or isn't is contentious stuff and the word means very different things for different people.  A dissident cultural movement born out of the frustrations of the working class (in the UK at least…), a groundbreaking musical genre, a handy catchphrase for the media to round up the anti-establishment or the more romantic notion of a nihilistic and rebellious attitude – how then to marry such a loaded word with gowns that cost ¬£5,000 and upwards, attached to fashion houses, which make millions in profit.  

What I found interesting in the ensuing chit-chat about the exhibition in the media, was what constituted the look of punk – who were the "real" punks and who were the "pretend" punks, hampered by the fact that the word and the look was parodied and cliched six months in the media after it had begun.  If fashion was antithetical to punk, getting the look certainly wasn't, judging by this round-up of "real" punks whose hair antics defined their stance.  Image certainly mattered but to what extent?  On BBC's Woman's Hour, you had fashion historian Caroline Cox talking about being a young punk in Derby.  She criticised Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's clothes for being prohibitively expensive and accused the people who bought their clothes of being "pretend punks", who had more money than sense.  To Cox, dressing up in charity shop garb and putting together outfits with imagination represented the true spirit of punk.  She also put a downer on punk leitmotifs like the safety pin or the garbage bag dress – to her, that was all "Top of the Pops Punk" or punk for fancy dress.  In John Lydon's essay for the accompanying Punk: Chaos to Couture book, he cites the safety pin as a symbol from his childhood when he wore diapers/nappies and was a way of constructing clothes without sewing.  According to Lydon, the rubbish strikes in London, where garbage bags were piled high on street corners, also prompted DIY garbage bag dresses and became part of punk's uniform.  You'd be more inclined to believe John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon but who's to say that talking up the look of punk in the 21st century, doesn't in fact serve to maintain his own legacy in pop culture.  Then there are those who also like to point fingers at the originators of the look of punk – Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren – the central point of comparison for the beginning of this exhibition entitled "Clothes for Heroes", where outfits by Junya Watanabe, Alexander McQueen and Rodarte are pitted against almost-identical c. 1976-80 ensembles from Westwood and McLaren's Seditionaries store.  Cox sees Westwood and McClaren as punk "svengalis", who moved with trend-led zeitgeist from teddy boy gear to fetish wear to anarchic t-shirts.  Lydon in his essay said Westwood and McLaren didn't like it if customers mixed and matched their clothes with other pieces, as they wanted to prescribe a total look, something which pissed Lydon off.  Who's right and who's wrong?  Who has the final say about this dispirate movement that was crushed as quickly as it came about?  

Therefore it's no wonder that the curator of the exhibition Andrew Bolton turned to what would be the most direct and upfront way of talking about punk,which would sit well within the Costume Institute's remit.  You can harp on about the semantics of what is "punk" but what's undeniable is that above all subcultures in the past 20th/21st century, the appetite for punk's associated aesthetic is unsatiable.  Why is it that in fashion vernacular, "punk" has become an adjective?  Anything studded, ripped or graffitied is immediately "punk" but on the flipside, a houndstooth drape jacket doesn't say "teddy" to most people? As an investigation of the mere aesthetics of punk, (and whether the "real" punks like it or not, there was an aesthetic…), this exhibition is comprehensive in its gathering of everything from the most banal results of punk-inspired fashion to exquisite pieces that transcend any cliches and go above and beyond what the likes of Richard Hell would have imagined at the time when he was wearing a ripped-up t-shirt with insouciance.  The exhibition makes no attempt to link up social upheaval, political change and cultural context with the garments on display, and that's ok so long as you accept that this is an exhibition that looks at the pure surface of punk – why it has been so enduring within fashion as a tried-and-tested inspiration point.  No point in moaning about the fact that Christopher Bailey of Burberry, most likely wasn't thinking about the "No Future" mentality of early British punks, when he was liberally studding up his S/S 13 leather jackets.  Better to question, why it is that physical traits seen in the galleries themed under "hardware", "bricolage", "graffiti and agritpop" and "destroy", are still so pervasive – turning up time and time again in collections by both independent designers and large fashion houses?  Ultimately specifics and semantics don't matter so much when what we're really looking at here is fashion's desire to rebel, or at least appear to rebel, even if the results are far and away from the ideology of punk.    

The thing is in many cases, it may not have been the original designer's intentions to even touch what has become such a cliched and parodied style genre.  Certainly when you look at a chain dress from an early Nicolas Ghesquieres for Balenciaga dress or a ring-and-lace number from Christopher Kane's S/S 07 collection, the hardware aids construction integral to the piece rather than it being a reference to sadomasichistic DIY ensembles.  In some cases, contexts of the brand itself elevates the visual language of destruction and DIY – like for instance a Dolce & Gabbana ballgown splattered with paint.  It ain't exactly punk but paint splattered anything in Dolce & Gabbana's razzle-dazzle world is certainly a refreshing change.  Same goes for holes expertly burnt into a Chanel jacket.  You might say that artfully destroying anything is pointless but there is something amazing about the fact that a house like Chanel can get away with selling a holey-jacket for top dollar, not only because of the way it was crafted (and it is beautiful in person) but also because of its attached brand value.    

I personally didn't take away anything new from the exhibition itself other than a re-affirmation of fashion's tendency to appropriate subculture – some doing it better than others.  I certainly don't have a problem with it when the results say resonate in ways one wouldn't have expected – Rodarte's A/W 08-9 beautiful collection of Japanese horror film-inspired mohair knits, which prompted girls to get knitting to DIY their own versions of cobwebby tights and jumpers.  There's a touch of that imaginative "punk" spirit that Cox was talking about perhaps.  Fashion will continue to co-opt, adopt, interpret and be inspired by the visual language of punk – genuine or not – but at least here, we got to see the clothes, ladened with safety pins, studs, paint splatters and holes, which stand the test of time and exist, not to please punks but fashion enthusiasts.  

IMG_0337Hussein Chalayan S/S 02

IMG_0159John Galliano for Dior haute couture A/W 06-7

IMG_0164Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren parachute jacket and bondage trousers from Seditionaries period

IMG_0168Recreation of CBGB bathroom in New York c. 1975


IMG_0195Recreation of Seditionaries boutique on 430 Kings Road London

IMG_0172Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren t-shirts from SEX/Seditionaries period

IMG_0182Burberry S/S 13

IMG_0175Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren "Bondage" trousers and mohair knit from Seditionaries next to Junya Watanabe A/W 06-7

IMG_0201Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren sweater from Seditionaries and "Bondage" trousers from SEX next to Rodarte A/W 08-9 ensemble

IMG_0187Vivenne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren sweater from Seditionaries next to Alexander McQueen A/W 01-2 skull dress


IMG_0214Versace S/S 94

IMG_0216Zandra Rhodes S/S 77

IMG_0219Christopher Kane S/S 07

IMG_0222Balenciaga A/W 04-5 // Givenchy A/W 07-8

IMG_0225Givenchy Haute Couture A/W 09-10

IMG_0231Viktor & Rolf A/W 08-9

IMG_0244Thom Browne A/W 12-3, Givenchy S/S 11

IMG_0276Gareth Pugh A/W 13-4

IMG_0249Helmut Lang S/S 04, Prada S/S 07

IMG_0259Maison Martin Margiela Artisanal S/S 06

IMG_0260Maison Martin Margiela Artisanal A/W 08-9, S/S 90

IMG_0271John Galliano S/S 01 

IMG_0268Maison Martin Margiela Artisanal S/S 11, A/W 08-9, Maison Martin Margiela S/S 09

IMG_0273Maison Martin Margiela S/S 90

IMG_0285Viktor & Rolf S/S 98

IMG_0286Alexander McQueen S/S 09

IMG_0291Vivienne Westwood S/S 07

IMG_0295Dolce & Gabbana S/S 08 

IMG_0298Katherine Hamnett 1984 dress, Moschino S/S 95 bathing suit

IMG_0303Ann Demeulemeester S/S 06


IMG_0329Comme des Garcons S/S 13

IMG_0312Miguel Adrover, 2000

IMG_0333Rodarte A/W 08-9

IMG_0325Chanel S/S 11 // Viktor & Rolf A/W 13-4

Just as I was catching the beginning of the Punk exhibition, I saw the tailend of the brilliant, if not more so – Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibition, where works by key Impressionists and their contemporaries are shown alongside period costume, accessories and fashion plates to highlight a relationship between fashion and art.  I got to indulge in Zola's observations in his novel about the rise of the department store Au Bonheur des Dames at this marvellous exhibition, where the gowns depicted by Tissot, Renoir and Monet, are presented as pieces which are just as important as the subjects themselves.  Up against realistic photographs or intricate fashion plates, Impressionists sought to depict the stylish ladies and gents of their time in a way that put focus on the frocks, corsets and accessories.  The exhibition has sadly ended but the accompanying book is really quite an indepth read about the the changing role of attire and dress in society at the time.  In contrast to the Punk exhibition where my imagination couldn't really run wild within the confines of ideology, he-said-she-said semantics and rigid collections, here there's still mystery to an unrecorded relationship between artist, subject and dress.  Plus, I like big bustles and I cannot lie.  I might even try and catch it again when it hits the Art Institute of Chicago in June.   

IMG_0339Promenade dress 1865/68 (English) in front of close-up of Claude Monet, Camille, 1866



IMG_0349James Tissot, Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, 1866 with sample from Marquise de Miramon's peignoir, 1866



IMG_0356Claude Monet, Bazille and Camille, 1865 with Day dress 1862/4 (American)


IMG_0362James Tissot, The Two Sisters, 1863 with Dress 1864 (American)


IMG_0365Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Lise – The Woman with the Umbrella, 1867 with parasols c. 1860-9


IMG_0371Albert Bartholome, In the Conservatory, 1881 with original 1880 summer dress worn by Madame Bartholome 


IMG_0374Paul Cezanne, The Promenade, 1871 inspired by an engraving in La Mode Illustree entitled "Toilettes by Madame Fladry", 1871


IMG_0380James Tissot,July: Specimen of a Portrait, 1878 with Day dress 1878/80 (American)


IMG_0394Edouard Manet, Before the Mirror, 1876 with various corsets 1877-80


Leave a comment
  1. jessie

    2013-05-29 at 6:19 PM

    Very informative….thanks……

  2. Welson Prado

    2013-05-29 at 6:26 PM
  3. alex

    2013-05-29 at 8:09 PM

    The Impressionism show did manage to be both a feast of delectable bustling goodness and also a scholarly investigation. Very clear information (beautifully presented) about the beginnings of the modern age and the love knot of fashion/photography/celebrity/mass production and shopping which was wrought by the industrial revolution.

  4. milex

    2013-05-30 at 1:51 AM

    It’s better than I would excepted

  5. Sofia

    2013-05-30 at 8:47 AM

    I saw the same exhibition in Paris last year, it was called ‘L’impressionisme et la mode’…
    Here there’s the link where I commented it:

  6. emily marlow

    2013-05-30 at 11:48 AM

    what amazing collections! I love the juxtaposition of the punk against the period pieces

  7. Denise

    2013-05-30 at 12:01 PM

    That was brilliant, Susie. It seems an impossible challenge to please all when punk has deep emotional roots for some, with those being unique to each individual, and then for others it’s purely an aesthetic or a mood. Maybe it’s ‘punk’ that not everyone plays together well on the issue.

  8. M

    2013-06-01 at 12:38 PM
  9. IndigoMemoirs

    2013-06-04 at 4:50 PM

    It seems an absurd idea, but I guess what they have achieved is bringing punk to fashion – but not the other way round; to bring fashion to punk would somewhat contradict itself! I had an interesting study of this idea whilst staying in New York: http://www.indigomemoirs.com/punk-art/
    Love your photos by the way, and a great article 🙂

  10. billy bye

    2014-08-20 at 4:50 PM

    hey i was married to a young punk in derby a long time ago … i remember some of it…anti pasti[ good mates ] etc. especially very holey mohair self knit jumpers bizarrelly, they were always a quick new outfit option, loved going into traditional knitting shops with the then mrs. with her multicoloured backcombed hair and multi peirced ears [ outrageous then] buying single rolls of mohair ! funny what you remember!

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