By giving the title "Chaos to Couture" to the punk fashion exhibition that opened yesterday, the curators of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute have announced a particular perspective and methodology. They re-tell a by now canonical story: enterprising art-school dropout Malcolm McLaren visits New York in 1973 and 1975, marvels at the spiked hair and torn clothing of Richard Hell, and adapts the style for his and Vivienne Westwood's London boutique SEX, where it is taken up by house band the Sex Pistols. After December 1, 1976, when members of the Pistols uttered obscenities on Bill Grundy's nationally televised talk show, the style filters down to kids on the streets of London and up to the fashion houses of designers like Zandra Rhodes and Rei Kawakubo.
Only one room of the exhibition includes non-couture looks: these are all from SEX. Maybe they should have called it "Vivienne Westwood: Chaos to Couture." (The t-shirts are also displayed at such a height as to render illegible the printed text.) Imposing video screens throughout the galleries show footage of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Patti Smith, but these flicker by too quickly to make an impression. The most punk thing is the shrill alarm that keeps going off when schoolkids get too close to the displays.
Punk fashion, says curator Andrew Bolton in the exhibition's catalogue, "became increasingly more prescribed and homogeneous from around 1979 onward." Subsequently, punk matters only as a reference for three decades of fashion collections by the likes of Stephen Sprouse and John Galliano. This approach, focusing on charismatic individuals with well-known intellectual credentials (Hell took his name as a reference to Rimbaud; McLaren studied Situationist theory), treats clothing as art rather than, well, clothing. "But clothes themselves," as Hell writes in the catalogue, "no matter how beautiful or interesting, are not great art."
An unintended irony is that, for all the curators' emphasis on punk individuality, they end up repeating variations of the same look, by now most often seen on runways: Union Jacks, tartan plaids, bondage straps, garbage bags, spraypainted or scrawled slogans, as well as "studs, chains, zippers, padlocks, safety pins, and other savage and sadistic trappings that punks exploited to imbue their fashions with an aesthetic of anarchy, violence, and even cruelty." Punk has always functioned as a uniform. Hell knew this -- that's why he chose to style his bandmates in matching tatters. So did the Ramones, with their matching leather jackets and jeans. In citing Dada to explain punk bricolage, Bolton only reifies the romantic ideology attacked by Dadaist Max Ernst as "the fairy tale of the artist's creativity." Or as Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat says in Steven Blush's American Hardcore, "The Sex Pistols were ultra-fashion; Sham 69's fashion was work-wear. They were Punk Rockers without the glam. My thing's been anti-fashion: bands like Sham reflected that -- a major influence in our direction." But anti-fashion can still be fashion, a fact the Met overlooks.
Punk didn't just materialize on the Bowery and the King's Road. As Dick Hebdige writes in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, "Punk reproduced the entire sartorial history of post-war working-class youth cultures in 'cut up' form, combining elements which had originally belonged to completely different epochs." Stewart Home has also emphasized "punk's non-intellectual origins in British street culture." Here are some of the styles of the (male-dominated) subcultures that led into punk, as well as some of the distinct punk styles that came out of it. While some of these groups distanced themselves from and even quarreled with punks, their uniform styles are bound up with punk as it was actually worn.
Teddy Boys (1950s)
Hebdige's study starts with the teddy boy, who "visibly bracketed off the drab routines of school, the job and home by affecting an exaggerated style which juxtaposed two blatantly plundered forms (black rhythm and blues and the aristocratic Edwardian style)." He defines their "shamelessly fabricated aesthetic -- an aggressive combination of sartorial exotica (suede shoes, velvet and moleskin collars, and bootlace ties)."
Rockers favored motorcycles and pompadours as well as the leather jackets and pinned-on patches that punks would adopt. You can see the style on the early Beatles, who would later poke fun at their transformation into more mod looks in a Hard Day's Night (a fan asks Ringo if he's a mod or a rocker and he says he's a mocker).
Rockers' famous nemeses, as described in Stanley Cohen's Folk Devils and Moral Panics. The connection between neatly-styled mods and outlandish-looking punks isn't obvious. Hebdige writes,
Unlike the defiantly obtrusive teddy boys, the mods were more subtle and subdued in appearance: they wore apparently conservative suits in respectable colours, they were fastidiously neat and tidy. Hair was generally short and clean, and the mods preferred to maintain the stylish contours of an impeccable 'French crew' with invisible lacquer rather than with the obvious grease favoured by the more overtly masculine rockers. The mods invented a style which enabled them to negotiate smoothly between school, work and leisure, and which concealed as much as it stated.
Punks picked up their devotion to style, then, from mods, but turned the style inside out.
Quietly disrupting the orderly sequence which leads from signifier to signified, the mods undermined the conventional meaning of 'collar, suit and tie,' pushing neatness to the point of absurdity.
Mods were drawn to the driving sounds of American R&B; eventually those who were less interested in hippie fashion split off into the hard mod scene, which Cohen defines as "wearing heavy boots, jeans with braces [i.e., suspenders], short hair."
Skinheads (late 1960s)
Hard mods eventually gave rise to skinheads. Hebdige again:
Aggressively proletarian, puritanical and chauvinist, the skinheads dressed down in sharp contrast to their mod antecedents in a uniform which Phil Cohen has described as a 'kind of caricature of the model worker': cropped hair, braces, short, wide levi jeans or functional sta-prest trousers, plain or striped button-down Ben Sherman shirts and highly polished Doctor Marten boots.
Hebdige also emphasizes overlooked aspects of black culture in skinhead culture: not just reggae, but also such garments as the crombie, a three quarter-length overcoat also popular with so-called "rude boys." The style would later be revived by late-'70s oi! bands like the 4-Skins, as well as by the neo-Nazi band Skrewdriver.
Glam (early 1970s)
Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren got his start in the music industry by managing the androgynously-dressed New York Dolls, but glam went beyond their SoHo chic and David Bowie's otherworldly charisma. U.K. group Slade might provide a good case study for the intersections of these varying subcultures. For one thing, they came as close as anybody to predicting the sound of punk: four-on-the-floor beats, singalong choruses. (Frank Kogan has described the influence of New Orleans R&B, via Jamaican ska, on Slade's sense of rhythm.) Initially marketed as a skinhead group, Slade's glam phase saw a popularization of the tartan plaids that punk would soon reclaim. (Other glam groups like Mud dressed in a retro Teddy Boy style.) Hebdige underlines the common ground between punk and glam: "Punk claimed to speak for the neglected constituency of white lumpen youth, but it did so typically in the stilted language of glam and glitter rock -- 'rendering' working classness metaphorically in chains and hollow cheeks, 'dirty' clothing (stained jackets, tarty see-through blouses) and rough and ready diction."
After the initial explosion of punk described at the Met, different punk niches arose with their own distinct looks.
Street punks (early '80s)
In My So-Called Punk, journalist Matt Diehl describes the "'leather, bristles, studs and acne' style of metallic street punk favored by British band like GBH and Discharge." These bands, sometimes known as "UK82," formed in the wake of the Sex Pistols, taking to the next level both the Pistols' aggressive sound and their spiky hair.
2 Tone (early 1980s)
The Specials' keyboard player Jerry Dammers imitated an old Peter Tosh album cover to create the character (known as "Walt Jabsco") on the label of his band's 1979 single "Gangsters," the first release on their own 2 Tone Records. The music was a punky update of '60s Jamaican ska; the look was black suits with straight legs short enough to expose white socks. The sound and style caught on with other bands like the Selecter and Madness; now there's even a 2 Tone museum in Dammers' hometown of Coventry.
Crust punks (mid-1980s)
Crust punks are, according to Punks: A Guide to an American Subculture, often homeless and devoted to anarchist ideals. In an essay collected in Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium 1, Brandon Stosuy recalls seeing a "crusty punk girl with long multicolored dreads and spikes and leather and she was just like a total metal-crust pinup." More common than the leather are black denim vests covered in patches.
After the initial flowering at CBGB's, US punk became the louder, faster hardcore. Steven Blush defines the look in American Hardcore: "All regional looks were variations on the working-class Punk thing: jeans, flannel or t-shirts, boots, maybe chains. Everyone had a worn-out leather jacket. Onstage it was either dirty jeans or used work wear. Rugby and Oxford shirts were not uncommon." (Pictured: Black Flag.)
Youth Crew (late 1980s)
A subset of New York hardcore, youth crew takes its name from the vegetarian straight-edge band Youth of Today, whose singer Ray Cappo has described the accompanying look as "Tony Hawk meets Leave It to Beaver." Crew members, devoted to physiological purity, dressed like high school athletes in crewcuts, varsity jackets and hi-top sneakers.