Is it an attitude or a look that defines punk? And when luxury fashion brands use studs and safety pins to be edgy, are they missing the point? Maya Singer deconstructs the chaos in couture.

Talk about punk, and you’re liable to start an argument. It’s been forty-odd years since Legs McNeil plastered downtown New York City with posters reading, “Watch Out! Punk is coming!”, and still, the history and the meaning of punk remains bitterly contested. Was punk a musical phenomenon? An attitude? A Situationist riposte to the all-encompassing grimness of 1970s Britain? Did Malcolm McLaren invent punk? Did The Ramones? If a squatter in present-day south London covers a beat-up jacket with studs, that’s punk, right? But what if Karl Lagerfeld puts studs on a $5,000 Chanel jacket? Is that punk, too?

These questions, and others, are raised by the opening of Punk: From Chaos to Couture, the new show at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition is one of the highlights of the Met’s year. According to Andrew Bolton, the curator who conceived the show, the museum is anticipating attendance on par with its blockbuster Alexander McQueen exhibition two years ago. And the influence of From Chaos to Couture has already been seen on the runway, with mohawks at the Fall ’13 Fendi show, tartan everywhere from Versace to Junya Watanabe, and biker jackets pretty much ubiquitous. Bolton and his team have made the weather, fashion-wise.

But does the punk aesthetic still have force? That was the question that kept recurring to me, as all those punk-inspired looks made their way down the catwalk. I posed the question to Bolton: Does a studded jacket mean anything, in this day and age?

“I think it depends on how you define punk,” Bolton says. “If you define punk as a political phenomenon that emerged at a particular moment in England, then of course, it’s lost that meaning,” he says “I doubt that anyone looks at a studded jacket now, and thinks of garbage strikes,” he adds, referring to the wave of industrial action in 1970s Britain that left rotting rubbish to pile up in the streets.

As for Bolton, he defines ‘punk’ in terms of how it looks. From Chaos to Couture catalogues the key formal elements of punk, and documents their influence on high-end fashion. That’s all. The show is agnostic on its larger meaning. As a breakdown of those formal elements ¾ the DIY and the destruction, the use of found materials and hardware such as safety pins and studs ¾ the show is rigorous and interesting. But it’s not very helpful if you’re wondering whether a studded jacket can still be considered subversive. Or if you suspect that subversion is the essential thing about punk, aesthetics be damned.

Anarchy in the UK

If, as Bolton says, we all have to define punk for ourselves, then here goes. With all due respect to the legends mooching around New York club CBGBs in the early seventies, I’m going to define punk British-ly, because it was in Britain, and particularly in and around Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shop Sex on the King’s Road in London, that punk obtained coherence as a confrontational stance against the mainstream. Punk music, punk fashion, and punk politics spoke with one voice. It was a bottle smashed in the face of convention, and what’s remarkable is how much of the early punk fashion still has the capacity to provoke.

“Look at that T-shirt Malcolm and Viv made, of the two cowboys,” notes the British jeweller Tom Binns. In Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s famous image, the cowboys are naked from the waist down, save for their boots. “Imagine, today, you’re walking down the street and you see someone in that shirt. You’d still be shocked! They were really going for it back then.”

Binns started making jewellery in the shadow of punk in Belfast in the mid-seventies. In his recollection, punk empowered people who lacked formal training and access to fine materials to go out and create.

“That’s how I started,” he notes. “Just trying to make the ordinary more interesting. I didn’t have any money, all I had was my wits and whatever junk was around. Today, that probably seems normal, but it came about because of all these people who were questioning, in a hardcore way, everything that had come before. And that was political,” Binns adds. “Politics framed the whole thing.”

If creation was a political act, so too was deconstruction. In its most primitive form, punk deconstruction meant dressing in clothes that were coming apart – ripped, torn, unraveling. Wearing a jumper with a hole in it was a statement about poverty, because it forced poverty to be seen. Some middle-class punks may have ripped their T-shirts because that was a trendy thing to do, but it was a trend in solidarity with the authentically poor. It’s more than a touch ironic, then, that deconstruction has been the punk element most thoroughly de-politicized, and best adapted to luxury fashion.

“It’s in deconstruction that you see punk continue to evolve,” says Bolton. “Those rips and tears have taken on their own momentum. When you look at a garment with safety pins, or something made from a garbage bag, the aesthetic is still very much located in ‘punk.’ But deconstruction has developed its own force, its own context.”

Grandma’s ‘spiky jacket’

To put that another way, conceptual designers such as Martin Margiela decided to stop thinking of deconstruction as ‘punk,’ full stop. Their evolution of the idea of imperfect clothes never assumed an attitude. And by detaching from the punk’s postures, by not pretending to its sneer, they gave deconstruction a new life and a fresh relevance.

Which brings us back to the matter of Karl Lagerfeld, and the hypothetical $5,000 studded Chanel jacket. Is that punk? Bolton would say yes, because the jacket shares in the formal attributes of punk. Binns would say no, because, as the product of an established atelier and made from luxury materials, the politics of Lagerfeld’s jacket are the reverse of punk.

But that’s a clear-cut case. I think that Lagerfeld, with that hypothetical jacket, would be trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He’s not interested in the politics of punk, but he likes the attitude, the subcultural frisson. He wants the women who wear his jacket to feel just a bit like rebels.

But what about the girl squatting in south London, who plunders a jacket from a skip, and on some boring afternoon, decorates it with studs, safety pins, what-have-you? Here, politics and aesthetics have aligned, but after nearly forty years, do they add up to anything?

I decided to talk that over to the two designers working today who are most punkish in their approach. London-based designers Edward Meadham and Ben Kirchhoff don’t reference the look of punk in their clothes very much, but their engagement with themes such as the tyranny of beauty and bourgeois uniformity make their collections feel unusually norm-challenging and dangerous. So, I asked them, is my made-up squatter a punk?

“If you’re talking about studs and rubber,” Kirchhoff posits, “then obviously, that’s not shocking. It’s all so commonly available.”

“You see grown-up, conservative people with blue hair, black nails, fishnet tights,” Meadham elaborates. “Middle-class women leave the house looking like dominatrixes. Everyone in Manchester has a mohawk, and they’re not even referencing punk.”

“It’s like, your grandmother has a spiky jacket,” adds Kirchhoff.

So what is punk, today?

“When I look at punk, I see it as mainly about self-expression and creating an alternative reality,” says Meadham, echoing Tom Binns. “I think there’s a lot going on in the world that has that intent, but it’s not a movement, necessarily. It’s more about, something happening in one person’s individual world.”

And theoretically, maybe, our squatter girl is doing just that, self-curating in a way that’s fundamentally subversive, and deeply punk? Kirchhoff or Meadham aren’t dismissive of that possibility, but neither are they entirely convinced.

“Hmm,” says Meadham. “But is it subversive? For me it’s almost more subversive to do the opposite, and be neat and clean.”

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