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This Is Punk?

If a movement known for rage, rebellion, and adolescent id becomes the focus of a high-fashion celebration, is it the final studded nail in the coffin or proof of everlasting life? What punk means now, and what it meant then.

One of the 100 self-identified punks (some of whom may not see the others as bona fide fellow travelers) in New York who participated in our poll.   

Punk rock has always had an easy time living up to E. M. Forster’s view of music as a kingdom that “will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit—the “Oscars of fashion,” currently co-hosted by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and perhaps the city’s most glamorous large social event—feels like the opposite: a celebration of rare finery and a discerning elite. The gala’s theme is generally the same as that of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibit; say, Jacqueline Kennedy or Chanel. But this year’s exhibit is “Punk: Chaos to ­Couture,” a look at punk clothing and high fashion’s varied responses to it. A lavish ball pivots on the same word you’d use to describe crusty squatters in ­Tompkins Square Park.

One knee-jerk response to this situation is to see it as a laughable irony, like a steakhouse celebrating how brave and inspiring vegetarians are. I know: It’s tempting. Even a glancing understanding of what “punk” is tends to assume vigorous antipathy toward fashion-industry galas. And it is somehow amusing to imagine socialites commissioning extravagant couture inspired by gangs of raggedy late-seventies miscreants, or Girls actress Allison Williams studying photos of the Sex Pistols and, as she said, getting “really excited to commit to that theme.” In 1976, the year the Ramones released their first LP and cemented the “teenage dirtbag” look that’s persevered through decades of rock culture—before the reek of the CBGB bathroom became one of music’s most famous odors—Diana Vreeland was presiding over a Costume Institute fantasia titled “The Glory of Russian Costume,” for which the air was pumped through with ten gallons of ­Chanel Cuir de Russie perfume. And yes, the whole endeavor comes surrounded with some of the iffy double-talk that arises when cultural institutions celebrate old bits of radical thinking. Exhibit curator Andrew Bolton talks about subverting the mainstream, and of today’s fashion world lacking the energy and freedom of punk—but doesn’t punk’s example suggest that this doesn’t matter? That the fashion world is easily topped, freedom-and-energy-wise, by random glue-­sniffers? If one of punk’s lessons is that people can create their own culture, instead of waiting for it to be dictated from on high, what can elite culture-industry folk learn from that, besides modesty?

One answer is “technique.” Bolton’s exhibit isolates specific themes of punk style (confrontational images, tattering and deconstruction, metal hardware) and traces them out into high fashion. It’s not the first time punk has intruded into the Met-gala world. It cropped up in 2006 as well, in Bolton’s “AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion” exhibit. Sex Pistols front man John Lydon neglected to show up for the band’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction honors that year, with characteristic scorn, but weeks later he was recording a podcast on the Met’s behalf; he contributes a ­preface to this year’s catalogue. His band was famously instigated by Malcolm McLaren, whose longtime collaborator, Vivienne Westwood, turned out iconic early-punk looks from their London shop—all of which is re-created in “Chaos to Couture.” Richard Hell, whose carefully conceived style became the template for museum-worthy punk looks—he figured out the T-shirts and the hair—contributes another preface, and also just published a punk-years memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. CBGB’s bathroom will be replicated as well, both in this exhibit and in a forthcoming big-budget film about the bands and odors and semen-spiked chili that still make rock nostalgists swoon. This exhibit is far from alone: We’re neck-deep in opportunities to memorialize punk.

It’s right on schedule. We’ve all spent enough time with the old boomer iconography of rock and roll—Elvis and Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the student movement, Woodstock—that it’s become quite cozy and grandparentish; it’s as chronologically distant from a young person today as the big-band era was from young people of the nineties. Rock’s become more of a niche interest, and our image of its grand transfiguring moment has gradually become something more obscure: Ramones T-shirts, pictures of Johnny Thunders, spiky hair. The New York scene offers a particularly romantic origin story, full of fabulous records (graceful poetics from Television and Patti Smith, Mad magazine giddiness from the Ramones, Dead Boys, and Dictators), eye-opening tales (with cameos by Beat poets and Bowie and Sontag), and the sense of this fecund window when a few rotten patches of Manhattan made art with such energy and possibility, such unexpected elegance and dignity, that parts of the music world have spent decades obsessing over—or, in the case of those shaggy throngs on the Lower East Side ten years ago, trying to revive it all, the look and feel even more than the sound itself.