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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser