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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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