“PUNK: Chaos to Couture” opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Thursday

book cover - chaos to coutureThe Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s new book, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, is an LP-sized tome, so I suppose it makes sense I’m listening to The Roxy London WC2, an LP that compiles many of the early punk bands performing live in their native environment.

The LP’s a deluxe reissue on Earmark, with 180-gram vinyl, a PVC protective sleeve, and all manner of accoutrements. It’s dressing up something that was most likely originally kicked around, beaten up, scratched, and treated poorly in all manner of extras befitting proper art, rather than something tossed together to entertain and shock — much in the same way that the fashion presented here uses high-end fabric to recreate or hearken to something once made in a rush before heading out for the night.

The exhibition, Chaos to Couture, opens this Thursday, May 9, at the Met. The exhibition looks to “examine punk’s impact on high fashion from the movement’s birth in the early 1970s through its continuing influence today.” The accompanying book presents in dramatic visual terms exactly how closely prêt-à-porter fashion can take its influence from the punk styles of the late ’70s.

In addition to striking imagery (such as a cackling punk painted up like something from Pagliacci opposite a model wearing 2012 Versacci), Chaos to Couture makes use of white space (although, really, it’s black space — and how appropriately nihilistic is that?) to great effect. The sheer amount of ink gives the book a heady, hefty scent, which veritably wafts off the pages when you first lay the book open.

Left: Sid Vicious, 1977. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Dennis Morris – all rights reserved
Right: Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) for House of Chanel (French, founded 1913), 2011. Vogue, March 2011. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by David Sims.

The written essays which presage the visual one are from punk luminaries. You’ve Jon Savage, author of England’s Dreaming, focused and precise on how Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood lifted New York punk’s style, vis-a-vis Richard Hell, and their t-shirts became part of the London style. Much has been made of how much the “You’re gonna wake up one morning and know which side of the bed you’ve been lying on!” shirt became part of the Clash’s aesthetic early on, and it nicely sums up the SEX shop’s goal of creating a sort of “cultural putsch.”

Speaking of Hell, in his essay, he engages in a bit of restrained, modest boasting. He acknowledges that he came up with the t-shirt and safety pins look, as well as the spiky, mad haircut, but certainly gives credit to McLaren and Westwood for taking “those styles much further.” He describes it as a calculated approach to things which others had done casually, and that really describes all of punk, doesn’t it?

While punk seems an odd choice for what is, essentially, a coffee table book, the essays make this invaluable reading for any fan of fashion or the genre, and the imagery really brings to home the way London punks really had an idea of how to shock that makes the studded leather jacket and mohawk of so many modern punks seem positively tame.

More information about PUNK: Chaos to Couture can be found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.