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.
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.