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PUNK: Chaos to Couture

Curator Andrew Bolton introduces the exhibition PUNK: Chaos to Couture, on view May 9–August 11, 2013.

Andrew Bolton: I'm Andrew Bolton and I'm a curator in The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I'm curating the exhibition PUNK: Chaos to Couture, on view from May 9 to August 11, 2013.

One of the main reasons for staging an exhibition on punk is to explore the huge impact punk has had on high fashion, on couture, and directional ready-to-wear. I think in the last thirty-five years punk has had perhaps one of the largest impacts on fashion, in terms of its aesthetic. And the exhibition explores the impact of punk on high fashion, focusing primarily on the aesthetic of do-it-yourself, which was a major tenet of punk music and punk fashion in the seventies.

The show will start with an exploration of the origins of punk and looking at the differences and interchanges between New York punk and London punk. It's generally accepted that punk as a music phenomenon began in New York, primarily with bands that played at CBGBs and Max's Kansas City—bands like Television, Patti Smith, Blondie. It was more of an artistic and intellectual underpinning to punk in New York, whereas punk in London was more based on a political and economic response to the cultural climate.

So the show almost begins as a tale of two cities, the cross-pollination of ideas and aesthetics between New York and London. And the bridge between these two cities is 430 King's Road, which was a shop that was owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who are the two individuals that codified the aesthetic of punk that we know today.

When designers look to punk for inspiration, a lot of them look to the works of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, with various clothing: bondage suit, T-shirts with provocative images and provocative statements, and the parachute shirt, the mohair sweater. These were objects that were inspired by both the New York scene but also the streets of London, particularly the Bromley contingent, who are a group of individuals who had a big impact on the aesthetic of punk.

Punk had an impact on high fashion as early as 1977, through Zandra Rhodes's conceptual chic collection. And she really was the first designer to look at the aesthetic of punk and create a new language for the catwalk.

In terms of high fashion, I think that the legacy of punk is really the aesthetic of do-it-yourself, which was a major aspect to punk music and punk fashion in the 1970s. And the exhibition will be divided into galleries that show different manifestations of the aesthetic of do-it-yourself, such as the hardware that's associated with punk clothing such as safety pins, studs, zippers—which is an aspect of punk that I think most designers look to—the formal aspects of punk.

Designers also look to the idea of rips and tears, clothing that was torn both deliberately or sometimes out of necessity. And designers would look to these particular phenomena and, in a way, morphed it into another idea of punk, which is deconstructionism, la mode destroy.

Other aspects of the aesthetic of do-it-yourself, which I think designers look towards, is the idea of graffiti or slogans, particularly popularized by the British band The Clash. And I think that the idea of looking to trash culture, or consumer culture, for objects—for found objects—and incorporating them into your clothes, which was anti-capitalism but also a political statement to the economic climate of the 1970s.

What's interesting about punk, particularly when it comes to the hardware, is how designers such as Karl Lagerfeld—designers who are associated with the couture, Balenciaga, Balmain—have looked to punk and replaced the traditional embroideries of the couture, such as feathers or paillettes, with zippers or with studs, with safety pins. One of the most well-known examples of the co-option of the punk aesthetic in high fashion is Gianni Versace's safety-pin dress that was most famously worn by Liz Hurley, and that will be included in the exhibition.

I think what's interesting about the relationship between punk and high fashion or couture is the fact that both really rely on hand-crafted skills for the aesthetic. So in a way punk clothing is haute couture—usually only one person in the world would be wearing a jacket that was self-customized by the individual. Even though the aesthetic is often widely different between haute couture and punk, the ethos behind it is very similar.

So throughout the exhibition there will be original punk garments from the 1970s, primarily designed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, juxtaposed with high-fashion examples to create this tension, but also this ongoing relationship between the aesthetic of punk then and the aesthetic of punk today.

One example is a sweater that was created by Malcolm McLaren, a mohair sweater with a loose knit, a garment that has inspired many designers—Jean Paul Gaultier, Rodarte, Alexander McQueen. The designers in the exhibition are primarily directional—couture designers or ready-to-wear. People like Karl Lagerfeld, Riccardo Tisci, Alexander McQueen, and now Sarah Burton for McQueen, Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe. It's interesting how different designers have used the language of punk for different purposes, and it's usually to create new ideals of beauty or new definitions of fashionability.

Once you walk through the exhibition, hopefully you'll realize how punk has had such an explosive effect, both on the music styles and fashion today, but also an approach to culture in general.

The exhibition is made possible by Moda Operandi and additional support is provided by Condé Nast.

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