NEW YORK, United States — Punk and high fashion can now share the same stage, and a new Costume Institute exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Punk: Chaos to Culture," celebrates that influence.
It's an enduring irony that probably makes punk's rebellious originators cringe — and might make those wearing expensive couture dresses with heavy hardware and sexy slashes a little uncomfortable, too.
But when you rip back the shock value of dresses made with garbage bags, others held together by safety pins or staples, skirts with strategic slashes and T-shirts fronted with provocative sayings, punk largely stood on the principles of individuality and authenticity, both so greatly valued in a DIY, Internet-savvy culture.
"Despite its best intentions, punk has come to symbolize integrity and authenticity," said Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibit, at a preview Monday. The exhibit opens to the public Thursday.
Punk was born in the 1970s out of a movement that embraced anarchy, and its fashion reflected that.
"Punk fashion started from the street and percolated up, and suddenly couture seemed out of touch and not relevant," said Hamish Bowles, Vogue's international editor at large. "Designers had to find a way to get in on it."
By now, the Dolce & Gabbana graffiti-splashed ballgowns or Burberry leather jacket covered in ultra-sharp spikes worn over a delicate lace cocktail dress would be very much at home on the catwalk or in the pages of Vogue.
And as the collective eye has adjusted to some of the distressed looks that seemed so revolutionary then, leading designers of the day, including Vivienne Westwood, who with partner Malcolm McLaren put naked men on shirts that gave literal meaning to graphic Ts, have since designed Oscar gowns for the likes of Helen Mirren.
What might be more unsettling to exhibit visitors is how nostalgic they might feel for the accoutrements that dot the recreated Westwood-McLaren's Kings Road shop, Clothes for Heroes, in London, including a heavy-handset telephone, cassette tape and big-box TV set.
And the site of a recreated — and dirty — rock club CBGB's bathroom inside the hallowed Met is equally impactful and interesting.
Bowles said punk was the forerunner to grunge, which also made some tastemakers cringe when Marc Jacobs first put it on the runway in the early '90s. Just look at where the flannel shirt and henley T — and Jacobs' prestige — are now, however.
"Punk was so potent and powerful, it was a movement that just clicked," said Bowles. "Even if it was subliminally, it changed how we all think about dressing, even to people who might have been revolted by it at the time."
Bolton said he wanted to represent the two driving forces of punk fashion: the angrier, political statements coming from London punks and the more music-centric, club-kid predecessors in New York. They eventually came together to wear leather garments that played on the themes of peace, love, war, pornography and bondage; hardware decorations such as grommets, studs, zippers and spikes that made them seem tough and untouchable; chaotic silhouettes that put pants where the sleeves should go, fronts where the backs belong and bare spots where one is expecting a little coverage; and materials that quite literally came from the street, including plastic trash bags, discarded newsprint, even mailing envelopes.
Again, there's a paradox in that the rebellious punks could have inspired all the politically correct slogans that remind us to "reduce, reuse and recycle."
Top designers certainly tapped into them, too, with Gareth Pugh's dress that uses bits of garbage bags for a featherlike effect, John Galliano's Christian Dior newsprint dress and the bubble-wrap looks from Alexander McQueen's 2006 Rubbish Collection.
Overt sexuality certainly was part of the punk culture, and how could dramatic designers resist that?
Gianni Versace's safety-pin dress practically made Elizabeth Hurley a household name in 1994, and the red harness gown that Hilary Rhoda wore in the Dior 2007 haute couture show also on display certainly turned heads. Then, there is the barely there finale look by Maison Martin Margiela. To call it minimalist doesn't do it justice.
Rhoda hosted the joint red-carpet report by Vogue and the Met for Monday night's fundraising gala that gave a sneak peek of "Chaos to Couture" to celebrities, designers and top models. She said she tried to go with a punk-inspired look, a sheer sparkly top and leather pants by Wes Gordon, that would capture the edgy spirit of punk without looking like a costume.
Singer Debbie Harry of Blondie and designer Westwood, both key punk players, attended, and both were represented in the exhibit inside. (Harry wore a studded Tommy Hilfiger jacket and a skull hair accessory. Westwood was dressed in a pastel ballgown and cape covered with a "Truth" pin of Bradley Manning, the army private involved in the Wikileaks espionage case.)
"Some people, including punks, would probably wonder if this (exhibit) belongs here in the museum, but it has had an enduring impact on fashion and everything in the arts, so they're here, even if they're kicking and screaming," said Bolton.