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God Save McQueen

By Greg Garry

The very ethos of punk was meant to be anti-fashion, anti EVERY-thing, so a fancy museum show about its relationship to high fashion seems like an oxymoron, and blasphemous to all the Blitzkrieg Boppers out there. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s PUNK; Chaos to Couture opens May 9, and hopes to duplicate the two-hour long lines their Alexander McQueen retrospective had a few years back.

The rumor mill has it that all the original punk players—like Johnny Rotten and Patti Smith—refused to cooperate or loan any clothes. And the annual Gala had Beyoncé as honorary chairwoman and Korean sensation PSY and Kanye West as the main performers. How the fuck are they punk? Sid Vicious must be pogoing in his grave! Watch out: This could all end in tears, and lots of spitting.

The exhibit itself starts off promisingly, with a replica of Vivienne Westwood’s legendary London store SEX (pictured), ground zero for punk style circa 1976. The entire show should have solely been a retrospective of this maverick’s career. She’s the real deal, and you see her influence on all the other designers on display. Her quote during the Gala’s red carpet was telling: “I like my part of the show, and I’ll just leave it at that.”

To rep the New York City scene, there's a funny grade-school diorama of the legendary CBGB men’s bathroom, but it wasn’t half as foul and filthy as the original. There’s no blood, vomit, or shit on the walls for one, and these toilets (unlike the originals) all have seats.  

SLIDESHOW: Punk My Ass: Images of the Exhibit and Gift Shop

Things get a little schizophrenic once it leaves 1977 behind and goes fancy, with mannequin after mannequin in the same fluffy fright wigs, all wearing high-priced rip-offs of the original punks’ party clothes. So you get Joe Strummer’s hand-stenciled shirt done by Helmut Lang (pictured below), Richard Hell’s ripped t-shirt by Hussein Chalayan, and Johnny Rotten’s safety pinned jacket by Versace (pictured at top). The overly cited and revered safety pin dress worn by Liz Hurley in the '90s is there, alongside a rather tacky gold-buckled Versace number that’s more tranny hooker than punk.  

The whole point of punk style was that you were broke and made your own looks from actual garbage, the stuff the rich clothes horses threw away. Your own unique persona emerged from that DIY moment. To merely show that aesthetic alongside the expensive designer versions that sell for 10-grand is a little offensive, and too simple a curation job.

We live in a cut-and-paste world, and what we need is the new punk to come along. Some very beautiful clothes—by McQueen, Margiela, Rodarte, and the adorable Zandra Rhodes—are on display. But wait until you exit through the gift shop and see they are selling bedazzled CBGB tees and Manic Panic hair dye!  

The rooms at the Met start to feel like a slightly subversive and very expensive mall store, where they sell a fucked up and slashed Chanel suit even your granny can love. Let's call it Hot Topic haute couture. Suzy Menkes destroyed the show in the New York Times, deeming it  “bloodless,” which is very apt. Like the parttime punks on St. Marks Place in NYC (who really live in Connecticut with their parents), it might have some of the right clothes but not a drop of the proper attitude. Fashionistas and the ladies who lunch will eat this shit up, but real punks might want to stick to the gutter. It’s about as punk rock as Avril Lavigne.  

The exhibit opens May 9 and runs through Aug. 14 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

SLIDESHOW: Punk My Ass: Images of the Exhibit and Gift Shop

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