Thursday, 9 May 2013

Punk: from Chaos to Conformism

On monday I got depressed upon witnessing that travesty of a punk celebration that was the Met Ball. Seeing that gang of self-important celebrities parading around in six-figure outfits and smiling through their flawlessly whitened teeth made me feel, as Leonard Cohen would put it, like the war was over and the good guy lost. Welcome to 2013, where doublethink is as current as in Orwell's 1984 and we honor punk by placing a bunch of clothes in an official building and then letting one of the most powerful women in the world host an expensive party and invite a bunch of mainstream idols for a lovely politically correct black tie ball. The irony is endless.
I've heard all kinds of anecdotes about that evening. From Madonna stating that punk is not caring what anybody thinks while sporting a Givenchy look that surely took several weeks to put together, to Vivienne Westwood being cut off in an interview because the journalist wanted to speak to Hilary Rhoda instead, to Kate Upton saying in a Zoolanderish tone "I don't think I fully understood the theme". It all seemed like a colossal joke. Kristen McMenamy was one of the few guests who got it right, laughing "this is the antithesis of punk. Punk is not putting it on. Punk is angry. Punk is not pretending. Punk is real. This is like a costume party for punk". After which she proceeded to spit on the red carpet - subsequently becoming an absolute goddess to my eyes. 

Fashion advice for red-carpeters from Siouxsie Sioux and her friends.

And what about the exhibition itself? "I had a little look and I liked some of my stuff..." said Dame Viv, "and we'll leave it there". Curated by Andrew Bolton with the help of photographer Nick Knight and filmmaker Ruth Hogben, it had everything to be fantastic; but in a 21st century where political correctness, advertisers and antibacterial gels rule the world, it turned into a toned-down, antiseptic version of punk. Apparently all references to drugs (except for the Ramones song Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue) and swastikas were wiped out. And that's where the fashion industry - generally so obsessed with aesthetic perfection - fails to understand that punk is not about being fabulous; on the contrary, it's about filth and trouble and ugliness. And that's the beauty of it (and no reconstruction of Seditionaries or CBGB's bathroom can entirely make up for it, although those were definitely cool ideas).

The Swastika was decontextualized and widely used by punks for obvious shock value but also as a reflection on the boundaries of freedom of expression. And for the zillionth time, this doesn't mean punks were nazis.

Dame Viv & friends showing their stuff. I hoped something like this would happen at the Met Ball. How could I be so deluded.

Punk was all about trouble, see? Here's Malcolm McLaren (my least favourite punk- read John Lydon's autobiography to know why) all thrilled at being arrested after the Jubilee boat trip incident.

Sid Vicious injecting himself with heroin in 1978. Punk is sometimes also about drugs. Why act like it never happened?

This is punk too, but I guess Anna Wintour and her sponsors wouldn't approve.

Sid said it: "I'm not chic. I could never be chic". And that's the problem with this whole Punk: From Chaos to Couture thing. It aims to be a high fashion exhibition, therefore a chic affair, yet when Vivienne Westwood established Sex in King's Road with Malcolm McLaren she was hardly considered a high-end designer.Of course I understand the importance of punk in the history of fashion and its enduring influence (and actually studied it quite a bit at Central Saint Martins with the amazing Peter Towse, who witnessed the punk years firsthand), but I think studded Burberry trench coats or Versace dresses decorated with gold safety pins are purely anecdotic. Also, as someone very cleverly pointed out to me, original punk clothes were meant to be worn. The rest of the clothes in the exhibition (all the numbers by Galliano or Margiela or Slimane) were conceived for the catwalk and for editorial purposes. They were not lived in. And what is fascinating about punk (at least for me) is that it's all about stories, about how people lived and about the spontaneous narrative of their styles.

Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry, king and queen of cool. 

Dee Dee Ramone being cute. Also, check out Joey in the background being a total style god.

I definitely understand how challenging it must have been for Andrew Bolton to conceive and put together the exhibit from a 100% fashion point of view. Maybe it should have been about more than just fashion (but would it have its place in the Met then?). It is doubtessly a privilege to be able to see original Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett T-shirts (some of them had not been seen in years), but from what I've seen the exhibition feels kind of lifeless.And punk was all about energy! Someone (I don't remember who) was defending the retrospective on Twitter stating in an outraged way that "of course it is about the clothes! What other outlet did the punks have to express themselves? Just music". "Just music"? For a start, I don't think music was secondary to style for most punks. And I do think they had other outlets: they spat, they provoked, they hung out together. Okay, they did not focus on creating beautiful sculptures or brainy avant-garde films. And why? Because punk was not about those things! If it is called "punk" it's because it's all about being a punk. 

CBGB's was an art form in itself.

DOA had the right attitude.

One of the anecdotes that depressed me most about the Met Ball was the one about the punkish-looking boys and girls who were "hired" to stand on the stairs and give the grandiose Met a bit of a subversive feeling to counteract all the (hideous) satin ball gowns. Anna Wintour told one of the boys "you look very handsome", to which he politely responded "uh... thank you. You look beautiful too". I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person in the planet (designers of the world, I'm looking at you) who would have loved to see a real punk adress Ms Wintour in a typically punk manner. But as the great Grace Coddington said, "I don't think real punks have been invited". 

This is what I mean by punk behaviour. You have to adore Johnny Rotten being all impretinent yet repentant like a school kid when he says the word "shit".

So was the whole thing a complete failure? Actually I don't think so. It was openly commercial and shamelessly anti-punk, and it has gotten me and countless others exceedingly upset upon noticing how full of utter crap our society is. But it also got many people thinking about the true essence of punk, and discussing it - in a very 21st century way - through social networks. As a matter of fact, ever since monday night all I see on my Facebook and Twitter feeds are really interesting discussions about the importance of the punk movement, what it stood for and why we have to still be punks at heart. You gotta hand it to the Met Ball's glamourous clique: by making us violently react to them, they have brought true punk back in fashion. 

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with this! As soon as I saw the pictures of the outfits from the Ball I was like "really?? This was a punk theme?" Most people didn't even make a slight effort, it was such a false representation of punk as a whole, if punks were to ever been actually invited to one of these events there would be havoc, and it would be incredible! I was so disappointed. I'm half-glad I don't live in NY so I won't see the exhibition at all...



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