LOS ANGELES – Last week’s Met Gala – the annual Vogue magazine-sponsored fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute – celebrated the opening of an exhibition called “Punk: Chaos to Couture.”
For days people buzzed about the red carpet parade: Miley Cyrus’ spikey hair, Nicole Richie’s grayed-out pompadour and pregnant Kim Kardashian’s gloved Givenchy get-up.
Of course, there’s much irony to the whole thing – the fashion world’s most exclusive evening with every entitled celebrity on the planet gathered in the name of punk, an anti-fashion, anti-establishment movement of working-class heroes. And with Miley, Nicole and Kim trying to mimic the spirit of a DIY-based movement about subversiveness by wearing priceless designer gowns, kooky hairstyles and black eye shadow.
But let’s face it, punk was appropriated by the establishment long ago. That includes the luxury fashion industry, which has been using safety pins and slashes to sell cool for decades.
The exhibition curator Andrew Bolton explains it this way in the “Punk: Chaos to Couture” catalog: “Punk has had an incendiary influence on fashion. Although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s visual vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness,” he writes. “Rather than looking at punk as an attitude, [the exhibition] looks at it as an aesthetic.”
All of it got me thinking about an interview I did with Vivienne Westwood, who with Malcolm MacLaren believed they could wage a social war through fashion with their shop Sex, on Kings Road in London, in the 1970s.
But ultimately, even they gave up.
“Punk was a heroic attempt at confronting the establishment,” Westwood told me. “But ultimately it failed.” To explain why, Westwood paraphrased her manager, Carlo D’Amario, who said, “The establishment is a car going 100 miles an hour. You can throw blips at it and try to stop it, but you won’t bring it to a halt. It will only go faster with your energy.”
The Met Gala is a fast-moving machine all right. And this year’s event had to be a tough one to dress for. Some ladies seemed to confuse punk with hard rock and Goth (Gisele Bundchen in a slinky black Anthony Vaccarello minidress and Anne Hathaway in black lace vintage Valentino circa 1992). Vogue editor-in-chief and gala co-chair Anna Wintour steered clear of the theme (thank God) and wore a Chanel couture floral gown. And Gwyneth Paltrow was uncharacteristically covered up in a long-sleeve, hot pink Valentino gown.
I did like Madonna’s tarty look — which involved a belted plaid jacket over torn fishnets with a chain wrapped around her body and dangling a cross below her right buttock. It hinted at the DIY, bondage aspect of punk, though it might have been more fun if she’d just broken out one of her old “Like a Virgin” ensembles to remind us that she really was a punk in her own way. I also liked that Gwen Stefani wore Maison Martin Margiela, one of the outsider/agitator designers featured in the exhibition.
Personally, if I had been invited, I would have worn a “God Save the Queen” T-shirt with Anna Wintour’s face on it.
“Punk: Chaos to Couture” is scheduled to be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through Aug. 14.