Picture Book of the Week: Punk – Chaos to Couture

How D I Y went high fashion.

The story goes that Malcolm McLaren plucked John Lydon off the street to audition for his new band after seeing him strut past in a Pink Floyd t-shirt, defaced with a scrawling “I hate”. It was 1975 and that band later became the Sex Pistols.

For 40 years, punk and fashion have been as inseparable as two strips of Velcro - each goading the other towards a more vibrant and more urgent vision of itself. When punk spoke anger, it spoke in speared belts, torn denim and heavy boots. Simultaneously safety pins, badges, flags and black leather earned new identities on the backs of disgruntled youths.

Fashion clung to punk's sweaty chest and devoured its energy. The punk look became a fantastical assemblage of noise, attitude, working-classness, crisis and resistance. In Britain, as Dick Hebdige asserts in his 1979 work Subculture and the Meaning of Style, the movement's “decisive break” with its “parent culture” made fashion a powerful shorthand for belief in punk ethos. “The punk ensembles," he writes, “did not so much magically resolve experienced contradictions as represent the experience of contradiction itself in the form of visual puns (bondage, the ripped tee-shirt etc)… the sensibility which punk style embodied was essentially dislocated, ironic and self aware.”

Punk’s appropriation by mainstream fashion has been ravenous and total. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last week launched Punk: Chaos to Couture, an exhibition counting Anna Wintour and Beyoncé as honorary chairs and which opened on the eve of the museum’s annual costume gala.

One hundred men’s and womenswear designers – John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Miuccia Prada, Karl Lagerfeld and Dolce & Gabanna, to name a few – exhibit collections which “extend the visual language of punk”, carrying on from looks established by punk heroes like Blondie, Sid Vicious, Richard Hell, Patti Smith and Vivienne Westwood. Influential garments from the mid-1970s will also be on display.

A book of the same name by curator Andrew Bolton accompanies the show, with an introduction by Jon Savage and prefaces from Richard Hell and John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, £30). In his introduction, Bolton says that the focus of the exhibition is on punk as “aesthetic” rather than “attitude” – how has haute couture borrowed from punk’s D I Y manifesto?

Acknowledging the inherent contradictions of "do-it-yourself" designer clothing (I imagine it would be tricky to whip up a Versace gown in one’s Brixton squat), Bolton says: “Although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s aesthetic vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness.” Some have cringed at the juxtaposition (“A tough, mythical New York punk wouldn’t see herself here,” wrote Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker) and Chaos to Couture will undoubtedly take fire from punk purists. Though it's worth noting, perhaps, that haute couture was historically defined by the "custom fit". And punk fashion was nothing if not personalised. 

Punk: Chaos to Couture is on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 9 May to 14 August.

 

(John Lydon, 1976. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Richard Young/Rex USA)

 

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

 

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

 

(Karl Lagerfeld, Vogue, March 2011. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by David Sims)

 

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

 

(Hussein Chalayan, spring/summer 2003. Dazed and Confused, March 2003, Photograph by Eric Nehr)

All images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, Vogue, March 2011. Photo by David Sims.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.