Today these T-shirts rest neatly on black shiny headless mannequins in a gallery on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Punk: From Chaos to Couture” showcases fashion’s appetite for appropriations of underground culture. After 30 years, the anti-establishment movement that morphed into high fashion has landed in the pantheon of high culture.
The exhibition navigates the cornerstone of fashion’s relentless plundering of punk, a storm that started with Zandra Rhodes’s 1977 evening gown (beaded safety pin and metallic ball chain), and continued with Martin Margiela garments of plates, imitation pearls, and newsprints in the late ‛80s, Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti dress circa 1984, and Miguel Adrover’s mini-dress in 2000 (which was simply an old, long ‘I Love NY’ T-shirt with added ruffle sleeves).
Punk’s natural propensity to shatter established rules was perhaps its greatest and most enduring influence on modern fashion. Its DIY ethos (self-cut, self-made garments with hand finishes) and destroy and disorder mentality led to a postmodern era of fashionable deconstruction. But while high fashion glamorized the materials associated with punk, the Met’s fishnets, mohairs, tartans, and studded leather displays offer little of the anti-conformity primary to The Clash, Johnny Rotten, Jordan, Gary Wilson, Sid Vicious, or Siouxsie Sioux.
In repurposing punk ideals, high fashion stripped them of their meaning. The safety pins, for example, that symbolized the poor economic status of punk kids on London’s streets are worlds apart from the Medusa-embossed gold pins on Elizabeth Hurley’s black Versace couture gown.
Designers have the propensity to absorb any aspect of underground culture—be it punk, glam rock, or grunge—as a way to lend narratives to an essentially commercial enterprise; in that sense, punk was a gold mine. Its outsider voice provided an easy assimilation, a sort of escape route, for many designers who fastidiously espoused the current zeitgeist instead of creating one.
Modern fashion continues to steal from pioneering music talents who employed fashion as a means of self-expression. But since the grunge era, fashion has been deprived of one of its main sources of inspiration, as very few substantial underground music movements with particular taste and manner have emerged since the late ’90s.
Consequently, the roles have been reversed; instead of fashion designers taking a cue from music, music has taken directives from fashion. And the switch hasn’t seemed to benefit the music industry; take the bling-bling era, the closest approximation of music and fashion working hand in hand in recent years. Hip-hop moguls tried to sustain their newly arrived status by buying into mega-brands as if the latest designer wares were substitute for art, and air waves sounded more like a department store announcement than meaningful verse.
Today one is pressed to find underground music movements whose practitioners display a particular sensibility towards personal expression in music and in choices of clothes. Musicians depend on designer fashion houses to augment their styles and demonstrate their grasps and acceptance. That can leave musicians with senses of style that originate from within, and fashion designers with plenty of consumers, but little to mine for inspiration. Perhaps we should all return to Rick Astly’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”