Fashion as an industry suffers from the same authenticity and credibility crises as punk, and both have sought remedies in the same fascist tropes
“Punk rock is a receding object: as one approaches, it disappears.” —Stewart Home, Punk: An Aesthetic
The Metropolitan Museum of Art died for somebody’s sins, but not mine. The much-discussed retrospective “Punk: Chaos to Couture” aimed to draw a line from punk as a musical subculture to its influence on ready-to-wear and couture fashion. As the title implies, the Met wanted to take a disarrayed concept like punk and make it seem rigidly, almost fanatically, controlled.
Clothing speaks of more than just availability or comfort—every item speaks of a choice, however small, to align yourself with a certain ideology, culture, community. There is no opting out of getting dressed. But in our post–“Punk: Chaos to Couture” reality, it appears as though this established institution thinks fashion is merely rules and regulations intended to be decoded for profit, not parsed for truth. My sins belong to me.
The show, which ran from May 9 to August 14, 2013, was a blood sacrifice to the idea that fashion belongs in museums. Almost unanimously eviscerated by critics in publications like the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Economist, and the Guardian, reviews of “Chaos to Couture” read rather more like listicles of failure. The curator, Andrew Bolton, failed to capture the spirit of punk, or captured the wrong spirit, or didn’t draw a strong enough line from chaos to couture; whatever he did, he was doing it wrong. Anna Wintour, with her punk-themed annual Met Ball, failed to prove that “pink is punk,” as she quipped on the red carpet, rather like Chicks on the Right saying “feminism is self-reliance.” Audiences failed to be appropriately shocked, or impressed, or to care, and designers—save for Riccardo Tisci—failed to be sufficiently outraged.
Sasha Frere-Jones’s review was titled “The Day Punk Died Again,” as in the day the Met opened their punk exhibit. He points out that Bolton, as curator, was only really required to construct a narrative out of clothing—and didn’t. “It looks like two interns got Wikipedia out and put it together in an hour,” Frere-Jones tells me. “I don’t want to sound like I have anything against the curator, because I don’t. I mentioned in my post that he’s done other exhibits that were really well done. I honestly think my reaction to the punk thing is not disappointment or anger but just complete bafflement.”
Among the equally and bitterly confused were Jason Diamond in the Paris Review, who issued this warning: “If you show up at the Met looking for answers, you will probably be disappointed.” In the New York Times, Suzy Menkes called the exhibit “sanitized and bloodless,” while Jay Ruttenberg of Fashion Projects points out that “the museum’s decision to identify famed designers laboring under multinational corporations as ‘D.I.Y.’ is laughable.” The people who know right from wrong and in from out quickly looked, judged, and dismissed.
But then, punk has always been a subculture that existed not so much in a vacuum as in a Petri dish. While most people who care about such labels know that, by definition, punk cannot be defined, there’s an entire canon of academic and critical writing about what punk is or was, means or meant. Greil Marcus, Dick Hebdige, Jon Savage—these are just a few of the people who attempted to explain or understand punk in thick academic texts. If Hebdige can just find out exactly which “heterogenous set of signifiers,” you know, the ones that are “liable to be superseded at any moment by others no less productive,” he might be able to “?‘slip into’ significance to lose the sense of direction, the direction of self.”
What is it about punk that inspires this fevered inquisition? Punk could simply be a favorite of academics and fashion editors precisely because punk eludes easy definition. You could defend almost any choice or conclusion by saying you’re talking about one specific breed of punk, and your opponent is talking about another breed of punk, so their criticism is rendered moot.
Bolton said his goal was to “explore the huge impact punk has had on high fashion, on couture, and directional ready-to-wear.” So in lieu of the actual sweater worn by Johnny Rotten in 1976, we have a similar sweater shown as part of Junya Watanabe’s Fall/Winter 2006–07 collection. Instead of an actual jacket with safety pins worn by an actual punk musician, we have the 1994 Versace garment known as the “safety-pin dress,” worn by Elizabeth Hurley.
Couture is tradition and exclusivity incarnate; it cannot exist without a strict adherence to heritage, as established in France by the Ministry of Industry, and by intensive training and lifelong dedication to a rigorous skill turned art form. Couture might be one of the most misunderstood terms emanating from the fashion industry—rather than shorthand for “really fancy,” as some mall brands would like you to believe, the actual translation of couture is clothing made exclusively to measure for the wearer.
Punk is intended to always change, to always grow, and is defined by its supposed ability to include everyone at once, to see all sartorial choices as up for interpretation. In its purest form, couture is only meant to ever be worn by one person (and probably just once). Just because a customizable leather jacket is only ever owned by one person doesn’t make it couture, because bloody well everyone has the resources and ability to stick a pin in a leather jacket. No one, unless his name is Karl Lagerfeld, has the ability to hijack a Parisian atelier and force them to add bondage straps to a pair of black jeans.
If Bolton’s goal is to connect the influence of punk to high fashion, then he’s achieved it through no intellectual labor on his part. Fashion is a vampire; punk, the loser subculture they’ve always wanted to suck dry. By co-opting this particular breed of cool, mainstream fashion gets to try on a little rebellion, a little antiauthoritarian attitude, get itself a little dirty, prove it’s still hip with the kids—and take off their customizable Chanel, as Bolton suggests, when they’re ready to go back to their top rung of society.
They can take off the clothing items evoking World War II and Nazism and fascism, as punk frequently did, and exchange it for clothes made by actual anti-Semites and Nazi collaborators—like two of the designers frequently referred to in the exhibition, John Galliano and Chanel.
That’s the real problem with staging a proper exhibition of punk proper. With context, a museum might explain why the artist’s hatefulness matters as much as the art does. But, by reducing punk to an “influence” for legitimate fashion designers—i.e., legitimized by the preservationist, selective power of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—tourists get all the wittiness and cool with none of the bleaker complications. In other words, the Met doing punk is a lot like any American network remaking a well-liked British TV show.
Here, it’s more than the c-word getting excised. The genealogy of punk is plastered with Nazi and fascist influences, signifiers, and signs. The Dead Boys had swastikas plastered all over their performances, while Ron Asheton flew a swastika flag at Iggy Pop’s 1968 wedding. Siouxsie Sioux often wore swastika armbands. Songs like “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” by the Ramones satirically spoke from the point of view of a Hitler Youth member. The Dead Kennedys took a more direct approach with their song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” In England, punk fashion was centered around SEX, the store owned and operated by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. McLaren and Westwood incorporated the most politically charged imagery into their designs, favoring swastikas but also Marxist and situationist designs. “Look, sometimes a younger generation doesn’t want to inherit the history of an older generation, so we wanted to appropriate the swastika for ourselves,” said Malcolm McLaren in a 2007 interview. “We wanted to have a clean slate. We decided that we liked certain icons from the past and wanted to reinvent them.”
Vivienne Westwood has said that she was trying to prove, by incorporating swastikas in her SEX designs, the taboos of the previous generations no longer applied to her generation. Certainly Prince Harry would agree, but many critics do, too. Steven Lee Beeber argued that Nazi imagery in punk is the ultimate example of camp: “It’s anything but disrespectful to Jews because it is instead disrespectful to the Nazis. It is Jewish revenge …rooted in comedy. When the punk bands used swastikas in a campy way, they were making clear the failed seriousness of those symbols and the risks—in this case extreme risks—of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling, like those of the ultra-patriotic National Socialists. Better to be ironic and detached than to trust unreliable emotions, pretending that they’re inarguable truths to be acted on.”
And still others were racist assholes, bringing the larger problem of racism in mainstream culture into their tiny pocket of a community, creating more fractures, more hate. In her essay “It’s (Not) A White World,” Mimi Nguyen wrote, “I’m a girl who likes to lay it all on the table, so here it is: ‘whitestraightboy’ hegemony organizes punk. And I’m not just talking about its dominant demographic.” More recently, in her chapbook Punk, she talks about realizing “there is no necessary politics to punk, and furthermore, that radical politics were striated, sectarian, very often masculinist, and just as likely to reproduce hierarchies and fucked-up forms of gender, race, indigeneity, or sexuality.” The presence of Skrewdriver and other “White Power” musicians proved that for some people, the swastika or fascist imagery was not purely ironic. “Nazi Punk” became its own subgenre to distinguish the real Nazis.
In “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag talked about the whitewashing (artwashing?) of Leni Riefenstahl’s lasting legacy as a filmmaker committed to truth and beauty as opposed to a propagandist working for an oppressively evil modern regime. In contrast to American uniforms, writes Sontag, “SS uniforms were tight, heavy, stiff … SS seems to be the most perfect incarnation of fascism in its overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior … The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful.”
Every woman adores a fascist, like Sylvia Plath said: “the boot in the face, the brute.” The idea of clothing that does not move, rigid materials that force a body into an idealized appearance, are a key element to fetish gear, and nothing says “stand still while I make my commands” like a floor-length leather trench coat and a tightly laced, shined-to-perfection pair of black leather boots. The sexual and erotic element cannot be denied.
Likewise, the use of a recent collective horror can be cathartic for the person expressing it. Perhaps incorporating fascist or violent elements into contemporary clothing is a way to confront our collective anguish over the whole experience, the way Alexander McQueen claimed to do with his Highland Rape collection. This line of thinking doesn’t take into account the carthartic power for the person viewing the expression. Sometimes the designers claim coincidence, like Rei Kawakubo’s unfortunately staged Auschwitz-inspired show for Sleep. Or maybe it’s just a vicious cycle: After all, the most recent mainstream designer to explicitly invoke The Night Porter as inspiration was Louis Vuitton—the French brand that collaborated with the Vichy regime.
I don’t want to speculate as to who is a real Nazi and who’s just a poseur. Everyone loses in that conversation. But I will speculate bout how and why an item of clothing can speak of a sum far greater than its parts.
Fashion as an industry suffers from the same problems as punk. Less a unifying industry term than a culture under constant observation, fashion is always forced to define itself, to prove its worth, its place, amid the long-standing belief that an interest in fashion (or, dads forbid, a career) is for the vain and vapid. Small percentages of the industry are held up as the definitive problems within it: Fashion is too inaccessible because haute couture exists; fashion is too destructive because fast fashion exists; fashion isn’t art because you can touch it.
The defense that fashion is art, however, always rings hollow. Contemporary visual art doesn’t have to defend itself; it gets to be haughty. Either you get it or you don’t and if you don’t, you can get out. Real art isn’t supposed to chase acceptance or titles from the asshole sitting at the top of whatever hierarchy your subculture has assigned itself. “Let’s be real,” a friend of mine said to me recently, “I love getting dressed and I do believe that fashion is important … but the history of fashion is indefensible.” I agreed. The history of fashion is indefensible, if we’re talking about misogyny, racism, excess, vanity—in short, the vices that characterize the as-indefensible histories of literature, film, painting, pop.
The use of the swastika, outside historical or educational purposes, is banned in France and Germany. Outside of legislatures, the use of Nazi or fascist imagery will never be taken as a purely comedic or satirical measure; by Hitler’s design, “this symbol was also an eloquent expression of the will behind the movement … the swastika signified the mission allotted to us—the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind and at the same time the triumph of the idea of creative work which is in itself and always will be anti-Semitic.” Regardless of why swastikas were integrated into punk fashion, it is an irrefutable fact that they were always present. To ignore the truly vile aspects of punk expression in clothing in favor of an artfully deconstructed Rodarte knit glosses over the true realities of clothing as personal expression.
Perhaps fashion, like punk, cannot be defined as either an art form or commercially co-opted culture, but instead must be taken as individual expression, as speech, and held to the same standards we hold our God-given rights to say whatever we please. There are words and ideologies that we dare not mention—but for a generation who grew up in the shadow of Holocaust survivors, like the original punks in England and New York, clothing was a way to speak the unspeakable. The winners may write history, but the extent to which the Met have taken this cliché is too far. Galliano, Chanel, Versace, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have won, but that does not mean they have the legitimacy to dictate the conversation about punk aesthetics.
The notion that free speech exists at all is suspect, particularly as more and more countries lose the illusion that their government is not interested in monitoring their conversations. Clothing is one of the last few ways to communicate volumes without actually opening your mouth. To deny punk fashion its own agency, warts and swastikas and all, is a loss for the Met; the institution has forsaken an opportunity to confront fashion as hate speech and still stand by its validity as oracle.
In Bodies of Work, Kathy Acker—who was punk as fuck and often evoked Nazi fetishes and racist imagery in her work—said, “The more I write my own novels, the more it seems to me that to write is to read.”
I understand what she means—the deeper I get inside fashion, the more it seems that fashion exists to be spoken. In 2006, Dodie Bellamy staged an exhibition with Acker’s clothing and jewelry, suspending a collection from the ceiling to create a “Kathy Forest,” as the exhibition was named. “Possessing such intimate effects of a woman I wasn’t so much friends with as in awe of, I felt compelled to write it all out,” Bellamy said, followed with her writings on “relics, ghosts, compulsive shopping, archives, makeup, our drive to mythologize the dead, Acker’s own self-mythologizing, the struggle among followers to define Acker, bitch fights, and the numina of DNA.”
Our drive to mythologize the dead is the same drive behind museum exhibitions. Museums are intended to preserve—if not in amber, then at least behind velvet ropes—the relics of what came before us. But punk isn’t necessarily dead. The limits of what the Met could or could not include are entirely subjective; while Acker could never be considered a legitimizing force for Nazism as an individual, the Met as an institution has the power to address clothing as seriously as they address watercolors or sculpture. If fashion is a conversation, then only choosing the most mainstream, commercially successful, and watered-down examples of punk fashion for the exhibition amounts to self-imposed censorship and an uninteresting, systematic silence.