I discovered that clothes had huge social power, and so might count as art, on a subway platform in Montreal one February day in the late 1970s, when two old ladies edged away from me. Their flight had nothing to do with who I really was—an über-nerd with a taste for Middle English and Old French. It had everything to do with what I was wearing: black vinyl bondage trousers that hobbled my legs at the knees, an ancient military jacket covered in safety pins and, over top, a Sam Browne belt that evoked the Gestapo. I wasn’t a punk, really. On the King’s Road in London, where punk had its roots, the technical term for my kind was “wanker.”
The movement belonged to Britain’s disenfranchised lower class, not to toffee-nosed gits like me. But that winter, I was eager to try on what punk stood for: the power to disturb the status quo, to frighten the easily frightened and, most weirdly, to turn utter vulnerability—a specialty of mine—into a simulation of threat. (Montreal weather so stiffened my trousers’s vinyl that I couldn’t run even with the tether unclipped; my insanely pointed winklepickers kept my feet frozen solid. Richard Hell, godfather of New York punk, famously wore a T-shirt that read “Please Kill Me.” I made the job easy—those old ladies could have taken me out in a second.)
Punk: Chaos to Couture, a show organized by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and opening in New York on Thursday, manages to survey punk and its progeny while barely hinting at the movement’s true S&M energies. Vivienne Westwood, who partnered with Malcolm McLaren in the boutique that launched the King’s Road scene, once said that they believed that “the best way to confront English society was to be as overtly obscene and pornographic as possible”—to “put a spanner in the works.” This show avoids any true sign of such confrontation: it manages the amazing feat of turning the virulence of punk into just another way of cutting clothes, as though bondage pants were the equivalent of Edwardian spats or flower-child flares. The Costume Institute could easily be the Met’s most sophisticated, forward-looking department, dedicated to exploring the full social contexts of our visual culture. (The Met comes close to that goal in its current show on Impressionist dress—which was organized by a paintings expert.) Instead, Costume Institute curators seem more wedded to surface appearance than any connoisseur of Old Master oils could be.
Worse, with this latest exhibition the institute seems determined to confirm its well-established reputation as a shill for the fashion industry. A number of the outfits on view were actually worn by punks during the movement’s heyday: there are T-shirts printed with anarchic slogans, plaid micro-minis (somewhere, there must exist a Ph.D. on the relation between revolution and tartan) and a sufficiency of studded leather. But far more of this show’s ensembles are quite recent couture copycattings from punk that, in the process of upmarketing the original style, also manage to emasculate it. One safety-pinned outfit, cut from black calfskin and goat and released by the House of Balmain just two years ago, is actually more clichéd in its punkiness than what it sits next to: an original, all-leather outfit put together precisely 40 years earlier by Westwood and McLaren. I can only hope that, at the grand Costume Institute Gala that launches this exhibition on Monday night, the evening’s fashioneers will be cringing at how utterly derivative and trivial they’ve been shown to be. In an idea-deprived fashion world, punk has become just the latest way station in an infinite retro-regression.
Within a year or two of punk’s birth, a British designer named Zandra Rhodes had already crafted the first high-fashion riffs on the style, in the form of elegantly slashed silk gowns cleverly held together by toilet pull-chains. In the exhibition catalog, John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) writes that those gowns always felt “parasitical, like a big, fat leech on your back.” I wish he’d pronounced on all the exhibition’s derivations from the derivations from the derivations from Rhodes’s first, wittily derivative gesture.
Or maybe the problem here is actually more profound—and vexing—than fashion’s current addiction to retrospection. It feels to me as though the appeal of punk-inspired couture to today’s 1 percent (to the one tenth of 1 percent) is built around a desire to empty punk’s original gesture of meaning and threat. In a statement that opens the catalog, a show sponsor named Moda Operandi talks about how “in punk’s spirit of revolution, Moda Operandi is the first online luxury retailer to offer unprecedented access to runway collections.” So that’s the revolutionary spirit the Pistols were singing about. I never could make out their lyrics.
The 1970s were just about the last moment when the idea of a healthy working class had any purchase on our collective ideals, and punk represents that moment’s death rattle. Four decades later, high fashion still needs to make sure it’s not heard.