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PUNK: Chaos to Couture

Fashion shreds itself at the Met Museum's summer exhibit with curator Andrew Bolton

Punk is all around us. As much as some might like to believe it is confined to the spikes and studs of the tattered street militias, it was born from a visceral desire to identify and overthrow the status quo; to establish self sufficiency and personal liberties amidst a sea of bureaucratic excess and indulgence. This anarchy lives on in every challenge of authority, every dismantling contribution made to redefining power dynamics or to incite political awareness and independence. It's not surprising such liberation was alluring to high fashion, our cultural beacon and social barometer, where it's important to remember that before it was a ripped denim jacket or a handmade shirt, punk was an idea. Ideas, like clothes, should change shape with the passage of time, and if the intention is strong enough the sentiment remains the same, though the stage and the stakes will change. This sentiment is what curator Andrew Bolton hopes to convey with the Costume Institute's latest exhibition Punk: Chaos to Couture, now open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; a show whose catalogue features a selection of photography commissioned by Dazed. We spoke to Bolton about his love affair with punk and where he believes its power to be.

Dazed Digital: How did the idea for the show come together?
Andrew Bolton:
We did an exhibition called Anglomania in 2006 which had a punk element, but it took on punk more as an attitude rather than punk as an aesthetic. It had me thinking about the impact of punk on high fashion, and the more I thought about it the more I fell back into high fashion. From May 2006 onwards, almost every designer that I looked at had in one form or another looked at punk, sometimes on a very formalistic level and sometimes on a more intellectual level, like Rei Kawakubo. I felt that was interesting; how it seemed, more than any other counter culture movement in the 20th century, that punk has had this extraordinary impact on high fashion. I think part of it also was I saw that punk was such an extraordinary moment, culturally speaking, not just in fashion, but in terms of highlighting this Do It Yourself attitude and also introducing post-modernism, particularly into fashion. I felt as if it would be nice to remind people of a time when fashion was so powerful it changed the face of culture, along with music, obviously, but also the fact that fashion was being used, in a way, to provoke and confront rather than just be aspirational. I think part of why I have such a long standing love affair with punk is that part of it was also personal, and the extraordinary, immense way it changed the face of culture forever.

DD: Was it difficult combining a world of anarchy with the museum world?
Andrew Bolton:
I think often when high fashion, particularly couture, co-opt any counter culture movement, the meaning changes completely, and I think it also often sanitizes it or neuters the original meaning. When you look at any counter culture movement it really does have it's biggest impact on the street; that's what it was designed for and that's where it really was meant to shock and provoke. When it comes into a museum often that is negated because it's being seen in a different context. I think what i found surprising, though, was looking at the original garments, which we have a great collection of at the museum, and about how shocking they still seem, even by today's standards. When you think of the t-shirt with the swastika on it or the t-shirt with the naked boy smoking; they're still really, really potent by today's standards, perhaps more so because we live in such an age of political correctness. I think that its potency may even be higher now than in the 1970s when political correctness wasn't really an issue.

DD: What are your favorite pieces included in the exhibit?
Andrew Bolton: I think one of my favorite sections is Bricolage, which are designers that have incorporated found objects into their clothing, like Martin Margiela and Gareth Pugh, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen. There's a rawness that I think still resonates with, or at least reflects, the original idea of Do It Yourself in the 1970s. They all have an effective presence, almost humanistic, because they are actually found objects like broken plates or posters that have been recycled from the street and made into a waistcoat. I've found their thinking really punk in terms of the aesthetics or in terms of the attitude, and I think that rawness very much reflects upon what punk's original intention was. There's also a section called Destroy which looks at Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamato, and again Margiela. I think perhaps one of the lasting legacies of punk on high fashion and the zeitgeist is deconstructionism, which is another manifestation of Do It Yourself.

DD: It seems a little bit like a re-definition project too, as well as a reference project... 
Andrew Bolton: Yes, I think so. I wanted to start off with the origins of punk, to ground it in historical components. So we start off in what I've called A Tale of Two Cities, focusing on where it started off in New York and then becoming sort of codified in aesthetic, which would be London. After that it focuses on what I think is the greatest legacy of punk which is the aesthetic of Do It Yourself – there's four manifestations in the exhibition of that, four themes. One is Hardware, which looks at designers who use, more formalistically, an object, like safety pins or zippers; people like Versace, Givenchy or Balenciaga. Then Bricolage, which I mentioned earlier, Destroy, which is deconstructionism, and one called Graffiti: Agitprop. I think that, as well as Do It Yourself, the other legacy of punk is the idea of provocation and confrontation which is primarily, now, used in reading t-shirts, like Westwood, Katharine Hamnett, Moschino, Margiela; all are designers that have used their t-shirts as a billboard to express various political or environmental concerns. The main thing I hope to engage is the idea that fashion is a very powerful tool and can be used to upset the zeitgeist, to be challenging and reflect key concepts sometimes. Fashion, more than anything else, because it's so accessible, and so democratic, is such an incredible tool because it becomes a vehicle to express not only a self identity, but group identities.