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.

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From Victoria Wood to Prince: how radio handles celebrity deaths in 2016

You have to listen to Front Row, and then Today, and see how they are covering it, what’s left to do, a ­different angle...”

“So I got a call at 6pm saying, ‘You’ll never guess who now . . .’” Fiona Couper, editor of the obituary programme Last Word (Fridays, 4pm), tells me about what happened just as she got home on Thursday, having left the show ready for the following afternoon’s broadcast. Naturally, they’d gone big on Victoria Wood, but the sudden news of Prince’s demise sent her scurrying back in to work. “Then you have to listen to Front Row, and then Today, and see how they are covering it, what’s left to do, a ­different angle...”

Fortuitously, Last Word’s presenter, Matthew Bannister, had been among a small audience invited to see Prince at the BBC Radio Theatre in 1993.

We heard archive of the singer walking on to the stage that night and saying tenderly to the crowd: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” and then playing so rambunctiously, while doubtless wearing a cheerful little hat (he did often make everybody else look like the Traveling Wilburys), that the whole event “interrupted Radio 3’s broadcast next door”. News hadn’t yet filtered through of the reality of his life aged 57: that his hips were killing him, that he was frequently vomitous with stage fright (I also have it on good authority, btw, that he loved Coronation Street). Instead, mention was made of how prolific he was: all the rumoured ­unperformed songs, thousands of them falling off him like seeds, like Schubert, a whole ocean of stuff.

A little later in the same programme, the item on Victoria Wood was as memorable, simply offering close analysis of the various key changes in her song “Let’s Do It” and pointing out the ways in which Wood’s influences as a songwriter were as much jazz as music hall. Both obits – by accident as much as design – underlined forcefully just how awed and attracted we are as human beings to those who can put lyrics and a tune together and play. The ne plus ultra of art.

It’s quite a programme to be working on right now, I suggest to Couper: that strange sensation of watching an odometer moving jerkily. She sighs. “We’re just about holding on,” she nods. “That’s how we feel most weeks at the moment.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism