Punk: Chaos to Couture – A Dialogue Between Art & Fashion

Vivienne WEstwood

Detail of ‘Punk’ Fashion by Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) for House of Chanel (French, founded 1913) Vogue, March 2011 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by David Sims

Individual freedom, anti-establishment views, being retroactive, digging rock and being cool, Punk: Chaos to Couture, an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013, was all about an ongoing dialogue between art and fashion.

This well conceived show examined ‘punk’ culture and its immediate impact during the 1970’s, creating a movement that while subversive was progressive, that while outrageous to most of society, was cleverly created and constructed to provide a visual metaphor for an age of change. It has also had a continuing influence to the present day.

“Punk’s signature mixing of references was fueled by artistic developments such as Dada and postmodernism,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Richard Hell, late 1970s Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Kate Simon

Dadaism was an art movement in the early 20th century that emerged from the horrors of World War I.

It was anti-bourgeoisie. Postmodernism (1970-1990) ranged from fashion to folly, from the luxurious to the ludicrous, from theory to theatre as it spawned out of control consumerism. Combining the philosophies of the two makes for a dynamic duo and powerful fashion influence.

Punk fashion began with a new generation seeking to display an individual look, one previously never been imagined before. It swung wildly, emerging from the streets of tough neighbourhoods at either ends of the earth.

From a dingy basement in downtown Manhattan to an elegant Regency balcony in Belgravia at London; from the beach at California to the graffiti covered alleyways of Melbourne ‘down under’ and the sensual nightclubs at Rio, punk culture became a city grunge tale, one that moved inexorably to the sound of its own ‘punk’ music. Eventually, in many respects, like other fashion movements it would conform to its own normality.

At first it had a DIY ethic, where hair was coaxed and created into a crowning glory of spikes, that were then coloured with vibrant unnatural hues; safety pins that had previously kept this new generations cloth nappies in play, or the razor blades their fathers had shaved with pre the electric shaver era, ended up as jewellery.

It certainly wasn’t classy and at its worst, it reveled gloriously as it immersed itself in its negative ideas.

As it grew and gathered momentum it continued to shock parents, whose golden years of youth had been lost, spent in trenches and bombed out buildings in war torn Europe and England.

There they had been struggling just to survive, denuded and devoid of any sense of life or hope in a future, let alone any idea of just wearing crass clothing for fun. That was basically beyond their scope of comprehension.

Beauty was put onto the back burner; a black plastic bin liner became a dress and worn out clothing was embellished with rips and tears that gained pins and patches, prolonging its life causing mothers to scream in outrage. It was an anti-fashion that ended up becoming a fashion statement.

Being and embracing Punk was all about youth and its lack of patience with parents and governments. It was a movement born from boredom – anti-everything most other people in society stood for. It gathered purpose to the thumping torrid tunes pumped out by gritty grunge musical aficionados, including singer songwriter celebrity Richard Hell.

Today in his slightly more conservative middle aged years, he is actively involved with this exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, because he has become noted as the early innovator of the style. He certainly inspired the success of the band known as the Sex Pistols, whose music was an integral aspect of the style, borrowing from him their look and their attitude.

Their music, and the ongoing influence of individual members such as Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, the latter sadly dying from a heroin overdose in 1979, was profound.

Hell and his own group the Voidoids, produced the 1977 album ‘Blank Generation’ whose title song was eventually named one of the 500 Songs that shaped Rock and Roll. It helped to spawn a style of celebrity status, one that could be described as being ‘Pretty Vacant’.

Sid Vicious, 1977 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Dennis Morris – all rights reserved

Since its origins, punk has had an incendiary influence on fashion,” said Andrew Bolton, Curator in The Costume Institute. “Although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s aesthetic vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness” said Andrew. It reflected a type of despair that was palatable.

Like all such movements it swung from one negative extreme to another. There was no optimism, no positive thought, gone were frivolities and fancies.

In their place, and at its hardest edge it embraced hard-core attitudes, violence, the darkness of depression and in some cases, total despair. Many young people went about looking dazed and confused, helped by drugs that befuddled their brain and they became part of a punk world scene, whether in a basement or on a Park Avenue balcony.

There were however other young adults who embraced a positive view. Some were emerging from Universities and Swiss finishing schools while others came from hard working backgrounds with a hunger for success. They called on a whole new wave of designers and began to take on the ‘punk’ aesthetic, seeking to refine it and elevate it to an aristocratic class of its own.

While they embraced ‘current’ trends and the whole punk scene to some extent, they also learned how to step outside the square when they needed to.

They re-invented the world scene by infiltrating the establishment through manners, decorum and by offering respect for old values and sophisticated fashion while being and remaining completely individual.

They especially embraced ‘pop art’ led by the king of people’s perceptions Andy Warhol, who deliciously enjoyed the idea he was fooling everyone, while inducing an epiphany of what art is or was not.

Interestingly in the end we could say that he also became a conformist in some respects, although we would qualify that by saying  that it was always on his own terms.

This all-new boomer generation wore clothes that were embellished with chains, some silver and gold plated. Instead of grunge clothing, they were draped decorously on silky sleek Italian leather instead. Belts became embellished with studs and spikes. Make up went from being black and smudged to being caked, creative and carved. Boots – well they took on a whole new dominating look of their own.

Punk fashion is all about human frailty, an inability to cope when things are beyond comprehension.

It is all about endeavouring to seize the moment and to stand up and be noticed in a crowd.

When we are young this feeling can seem completely overwhelming. It is also about a rejection of the views and fashion dictated by one generation in favour of one invented for them alone.

Like all such movements Punk eventually burned itself out gradually by the early eighties, at least on the surface. For all the die-hards that remained, they took the movement underground.

There it became a subculture for those unable to cope with change, a place where eventually bullies reined supreme, people moved about in packs and where individualism was not encouraged but stamped on and repressed.

Punk finally became a place where all hope was seemingly gone…they perhaps didn’t realize it, but they had emulated their parents at last and were all suddenly middle aged.

Youthful change was in the air again; the increasing optimism that came with the growing of world economies in the late seventies and early eighties became the original punk’s nemesis, its Waterloo.

If it was going to survive it would have to embrace change.

The rise of corporate culture, fueled by the slick success of slippery advertising men on Madison Avenue who would oversee sophistication to ensure it became the new goal and a new aim for another age of people for whom large hair, large shoulder pads, large houses and gardens and large cars said it all.

Rodarte (American, founded 2005) Vogue, July 2008 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by David Sims

A bigger middle-class cross section of people than ever before now had access to cash and credit, and plenty of it.

They also found out that the more they had, the more they wanted.

They also discovered that their soul deprived of beauty for too long also needed nourishment and they turned to the traditions and trappings associated with the aristocracy.

Fine art, the decorative arts, the performance arts, design excellence and learning how to mind their p’s and q’s, became important.

They admitted that they really did want a house in town and a house in the country too, like their eighteenth and nineteenth century aristocratic counterparts.

They wanted designer jewellery, designer fashion, designer swimming and lap pools, jet travel; business class or first class, not down the back with the plebs.

In getting to the top they conformed to a whole new norm, one based on tradition and their own set of values.

Gaultier Punk

John Paul Gaultie, Punk

They wanted to enjoy success, to dress up, wear a dinner suit, a glamour dress while they were standing about looking spiffing in a boiserie-panelled room in a French Chatéau, or the John Fowler designed drawing room of an English Country treasure house.

They wanted to fill their houses with oriental rugs, eighteenth century furniture, Chinese ceramics and crystal chandeliers.

Above all they wanted to drink real French champagne and enjoy carefully created cuisine designed and produced by a culinary master.

They basically traded one look for another…but then realized they would not arrive at the top until they could converse at an intellectual level. And so academic prowess became an important aspect of this whole new game. If they couldn’t play it they made sure their children could, and would.

Fashion before the nineteenth century and expansion of the ‘middle classes’ opened up what was once purely the prerogative of ‘gentlemen’ and ‘ladies’. Previously they were the only ones with money to afford to indulge custom made clothing, especially outrageous fashion statements and arrangements. There were no shops to purchase clothes for the majority of people, who made what they wore themselves on a daily basis as they went about their working lives.

The idea of wearing something for enjoyment, fashion or fun happened gradually, gaining momentum and outcomes for a wider variety of people with the arrival of ‘department stores’ during the nineteenth century, when ready to wear apparel also finally arrived.

Fashion for centuries before that was about status and society and for a long time if you could afford to fit into society you needed to wear what they were all wearing to ‘come out’ or ‘stay in’. If  you weren’t already a wealthy aristocrat, you had to at least come from the ‘upper classes’ and have a pocketbook full of the ready necessary and have embraced the style to do so.

During the late eighteenth century a group of young men, who were interested in extreme fashion formed the Macaroni Club. They were called Macaroni’s because this was the period when Italian pasta first appeared in London. Their style was matched only by the Incroyables, another eccentric group of young men whose ‘heads rested on their cravats as if on pillows’.

Both groups were idle scions of wealthy families determined to convey, through their bizarre dress, a complete contempt for conservatism and a total rejection of ‘good taste’. They were also dissolute and didn’t want to conform to what their parent’s wanted, what the government dictated, much like their ‘punk’ counterparts.

Macaroni’s painted, wore two watches and carried pretty nosegays. Male vanity and modern effeminacy reached hysterical levels, focusing on the figure and head of the Macaroni, the overdressed and effete man about town who was both delicate and completely contemptible.

Posh Punk, Victoria Beckham in Milan Italy, 2009

For many commentators, the Macaroni’s illustrated a recurrent phenomenon – a younger generations’ radical, provocative rejection of ‘good taste’ in dress.

“Taste” in all matters relating to the arts, including fashion is in many ways an unsatisfactory word. However it does remain perhaps the only single word, which expresses an immutable quality of discernment, criticism and perception

Punk style was re-invented for a brand new day during the 1980’s and 90’s with a newly found freedom of expression as economies boomed around the world in the age of Postmodernism, which was also about cultivating an attitude of mind, not just a ‘look’, although that helped too.

Punk style in its earlier heyday had started at a grass roots level, endeavouring to turn all the lessons history had provided upside down. From now on it would only be all about a ‘celebrity’ look.

Today, two decades later, the new style of punk fashion sweeping all before it is purely decorative. In 2013 it joins into, and is part of two extremes currently in fashion, based on historical design styles.

The current Gothic revival and ‘Baroque’ style in fashion swings from being dark and mysterious on one side, to being extravagant and gregarious on another. The greatest difference today is they are both glamorous, too and do not really relate to their original intent either.

From the Macaroni’s of the eighteenth century to the pure punk style of the 1970’s, then on until today –  the new style of ‘aristo’ punk fashion that is sweeping all before it is purely decorative!

The golden mean between is Aristo-punk, where the past and present live together; giving life to a new fashionable femininity embraced by both men and women.

“My aim is to make the poor look rich and the rich look poor – Vivienne Westwood, who borrows from the past to invent the fashion of the future

Jordan, 1977 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph from Rex USA

Jordan, 1977 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph from Rex USA

As it changes in this century and for this generation, fashion now must become an attitude, a way of life we choose because today fashion is more than a frock. There is a point in our lives, no matter who we are or whether we are at the top or the bottom of society, that we think we know it all.

However the lessons in life learned offer us an insight; that unless we embrace humility, have worked out our own philosophy of life, one we can believe in, that we have regard for our fellow human beings and respect for the courage of our own convictions, then we can and will risk losing it all.

“Since its origins, punk has had an incendiary influence on fashion,” said Andrew Bolton, Curator at The Costume Institute, The Met New York.  “Although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s aesthetic vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness.”

Punk fashion has finally arrived at a place where it has attained celebrity status; it has also become, albeit with a little give and take, the level playing field on which we can all play the game of life together.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

Leave a Reply