Fashionably Anti-Establishment: ‘Punk: From Chaos to Couture’

For those who approach Punk Fashion from the context of Punk Music (not the other way around), there’s a lot to love in the fashionable but unsafe Punk: Chaos to Couture

Punk: Chaos to Couture
Andrew Bolton
Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 2013

Having been a Sex Pistols fan my entire life, I have no true qualms about pissing off Sex Pistols fans by pointing out the truth of their origins. Although often seen as obnoxious and wild seminal progenitors of a bad-boy (and girl) genre, the Sex Pistols were actually created as a tie-in with and promotion for a counter-culture boutique at 430 King’s Road in London. The owners of the Pistol’s sponsor shop, known as SEX, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (the latter of whom claimed, without irony, to have invented Punk Rock, albeit long after its actual debut) have admitted as much over the years. McLaren even cited clothing design inspiration from the look of New York’s Richard Hell.

The band’s notorious Sid Vicious actually replaced Glen Matlock due to his looks and frequent use of the regalia that SEX sold. In some ways, the manufactured Sex Pistols were something more akin to a profane version of a boy band, with more tears and safety pins in their clothes and more makeup, to boot. If you doubt the connection, note that the Sex Pistols’ biggest singles were promoted, in part, by the sale of “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen” T-Shirts. Sure that is common enough today but at the time? Marketing genius.

I mention this not as a slam on the Pistols, but as a validation of the purpose and mission of the new coffee table volume called Punk: Chaos to Couture. The book itself is a tie-in to an installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and is, primarily, a collection of full-page fashion plates in black and white and color, tying together, not the music, but the style and fashion of Punk Rock with the styles and fashions that it inspired in later generations on the catwalk. In brief, this book is much more SEX than Sex Pistols and much more Couture than Chaos.

Credited to Andrew Bolton (Curator in The Met’s Costume Institute), Richard Hell (Punk musician), Jon Savage (Cambridge-educated Punk historian) and John Lydon (The Sex Pistol’s singer, “Johnny Rotten”), this tome begins with essays (read “intros”) to the photography that is to follow. These essays, particularly from lead editor (read: curator) Bolton, initially come off as something of an antithesis to the music they are discussing on the whole.

There’s an artistry and even high-minded pretension to the essays that begin this volume, which may seem to be completely at odds with the music of profanity, outrage, counter-culture and rebellion. But then again, Punk: Chaos to Couture isn’t about the music itself, but about the fashion that accompanied it. The safety pins, smeared makeup, mesh shirts, exposed nipples, tie-in t-shirts and anti-establishment anger, if not anti-capitalism intent.

That said, the essay from Bolton is more than the connection between music and culture and more about the antecedents of the Punk fashion movement, discussing not only SEX and the designs the shop adopted and sold, but the fashions from decades and centuries before Hell’s debut that informed the fashion plates of the ’70s and today. On that same (distorted) note, Bolton explores the connections between the evolution of this fashion through designers like Chanel and Dior, who took the tools of the trade and made great fortune therefrom.

In that Bolton is, of course, the Curator of the Costume Institute at the Met, he is uniquely qualified to discuss the fashion surrounding the movement. But the movement is, as it should be, based on the music itself.

This is where Hell’s essay/ introduction comes in. While the book on the whole tends to minimize the impact of New York Punk (which is ironic, considering its publication by and installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Hell’s introduction focuses on the New York Scene, much deeper than merely his impact thereon. Hell’s intelligent and historically accurate essay explores the intentional cartoonishness of the Ramones and their proto-punk roar in contrast to the art and politics of punk on the whole.

However, Hell’s own realistic analysis of the trend is summarized in his comment that “Clothes are empty.” In this singular sentence, Hell brings the “movement” back out of the fashion he helped to inspire and into the music that inspired the fashion. The music is what Punk is all about, not the visuals.

If any “character” of the Punk scene could be said to be a prime witness besides Hell (and the long-deceased Sid Vicious), it surely must be Johnny Rotten. Hence John Lydon’s essay “A Beautiful Ugliness Inside” is both exemplified and contradicted by his own fashion plate photo. In glorious black-and-white, the then-Johnny Rotten is standing in a Jesus Christ Pose with leather pants, a spiked belt, and a “Destroy” t-shirt, featuring Queen Elizabeth II on a stamp and an inverted crucifix with visible penis and a faint smirk that decries commercialism, government, religion and politics all at once in a single image so perfect it cannot possibly be genuine. If any word applies to the photo, essay, or tome, on the whole, it is the word “Posed”.

Without shame, Lydon both trashes and supports Hell and explains the image of each of the Pistols, one at a time with nary a commentary on their thrashing guitars, subversive lyrics or anti-establishment attitude. The book is about “look”, Lydon’s words are about “look”. This “depth” is especially poignant when “Rotten” is discussing looks he found offensive (like the swastika or a shirt representing a rapist), but he would “wear it anyway because it represented a disownership and a disenfranchisement with society.”

Unsurprisingly, the most intellectual essay is from Jon Savage (the pen name of Jonathon Sage), which isn’t afraid to call English Punk like it was (at least in his eyes). Was it counter-cultural and anti-establishment? Absolutely. Was it also rooted in the fashion industry and the need to sell t-shirts? That’s in the eye of the beholder, with the easiest answer being “yes.”

Savage isn’t afraid to shine light on the influence of the Ramones, the New York Dolls or Richard Hell on English Punk or its fashion, but is also embracing of the trends that made UK counter culture unique and fashionable in its own right. In this same light, Savage explores the rebellion of the years-before-the-internet era when “The Fonz” was an icon (not just a notable guest star on season four of Arrested Development) and when the Ramones adopted Marlon Brando’s costume (and Paul McCartney’s pseudonym) made them unique among conformist musicians of their day. Best of all, Savage talks about the music, which is the true core of Punk and even the fashion that followed it. One may minimize the influence of the Ramones on the Damned and the Sex Pistols, but Savage himself knows better.

The remainder of the book is beautiful and somehow continues what both Savage and Bolton have been trying to say in their introductions. And these introductions are just that, constituting just 35 pages of this 240 page picture volume. These pictures show us that the chaos and counter culture of this wild, noisy, oft-off-key music did have a decided influence on the fashion of the day and that anti-establishment fashion did, in turn, influence the mainstream design of the coming decades. Each page in black and white and color compares and contrasts the avant garde style of the past with the high-priced merchandise of the imitators. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Chaos to Couture emphasizes the evolution of the style, not the sell-out of Punk, and Curator Bolton does his level-best to bring in the witnesses and participants of the past (in photo and word) to lend perspective to this entire process.

Real Punk fans, not weaned on the punk hand-me-downs of Green Day or the Offspring, will either embrace this work as a part of punk or reject it as out of context. To those, I recommend a box set of music CDs like 2003’s No Thanks! The 70s Punk Rebellion or to rely on the vinyl collection and memories, I’m sure they… we… all have.

However, for those who approach Punk Fashion from the context of Punk Music (not the other way around), there is a lot to love in this fashionable (but not safe) coffee-table volume. This isn’t a book to leave lying around (the slight nudity alone is worth keeping the youngsters away from it) but at worst, the Met’s Punk: Chaos to Couture is guaranteed to break the ice at parties even (and especially) for those who have long since traded their hooptie for a Cadillac and have still kept their Anarchy sticker on their rear window.

Yes, we all have our soccer appointments with the kids, but every once in a great while we might reach up to our left earlobes and remember that hole was made by a safety pin while listening to End of the Century. Even though we’re well into the next century, we can still remember, layer by layer.

RATING 6 / 10