Friday, June 14, 2013

Punk, Politics and Power

It's been a week of punk - the look, the idea, and the difference between the two.

I finally had a chance last weekend to get to New York to see the Met's latest show from the Costume Collection, Punk: Chaos to Couture, whose opening gala was endlessly and breathlessly covered by the entertainment press, and the show itself rather less so.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of haute couture designers who have adopted the esthetics of 70's punk as part of their endless churn of revisiting and reinventing the styles of decades gone by, against the designers who are the intellectual descendants of punk, looking for ways to express ideas of disillusionment, deconstruction and protest through clothing.

The visual distinction between the two can be somewhat subtle, but the intellectual one is not. There just isn't all that much to say about a dress with giant gold safety pins by Versace or a belt with locks by Dolce and Gabbana, other than that they found a way to take design elements that were originally intended to be agressive and shocking, and sanitized them just enough to make them beautiful and a bit titillating. It's barely worth talking about, at least not any more than any other wave of high fashion trends. On the other hand, deconstructed and found-object pieces by Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela don't look like anything in the punk film clips projected on the walls, but the ideas they represent are a natural continuation and extension of the ideas Macolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood were trying to convey through original punk culture. This is real clothing with a political purpose.

The show makes no distinction between the two, however. For every slogan t-shirt about climate change ("Save Our Sea"), there is at least one pure cashmere sweater dress that was carefully shredded by trained artisans, and both are treated as equal successors to the fetish wear from the Sex/Seditionaries shop in London. This seems like a missed critical opportunity, a chance to challenge the viewer to consider the consequences of adopting visual symbols without the intention behind them. That kind of cultural literacy is exactly what the Met should be seeking to teach in a show like this. It reminds me of how punks and some of their successors in the 80's wore rosaries as necklaces, as a statement of rebellion against the Catholic church. Now I see young people in my neighborhood wearing them who apparently seem to think they're just nice cross necklaces. A rosary is a devotional item, meant to be held in your hands when in use and sometimes worn at the waist by priests and nuns - it is not now and has never been a necklace, and I'm always astonished when people don't know that. But for the Met, I suppose when the main sponsor of your exhibition wants to sell clothes inspired by it, you can't be too critical of the pretty stuff.

Speaking of deliberate challenges to religious symbolism, HBO released a new documentary on a much more recent case of iconoclasm, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. If you somehow missed the story last summer, these young women who are alternately called guerrilla performance artists, a punk band, and political activists, made headlines for an extremely brief but highly forbidden performance of a blasphemous song at the altar of an important cathedral in Moscow. The doc is largely the story of their trial.

Here again we can talk about their style of dress as the inheritance, not the imitation, of punk. They're well known for their DIY balaclavas, dresses, and tights all in very bright colors. DIY is punk for sure, but hot pink isn't, at least on the surface. But Pussy Riot's clothes are chosen for specific political impact: from what they wear, we know with certainty from a great distance that they are women, and for the performance in the cathedral, their arms were exposed. This became a factor in the trial - not just that they entered a space they weren't supposed to enter and said words they weren't supposed to say, but that they did it with bare flesh exposed. That exposure was specifically cited as part of what offended the victims in the trial. The clothing was part of the political message, and that's totally punk.

Whether you wear fur or vegan leather, bare arms, turtlenecks or hijabs, my advice to you in politics is always to dress with intention.