Anarchy At The Met: Costume Institute Chronicles Punk’s Journey From Chaos To Couture

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute will pay tribute to the punk rock legacy, from CBGB to the pages of Vogue.

If you’re a woman who cares–even in the most cursory manner–about fashion, I bet you have an item of apparel with hardware on it: An exposed zipper, some subtle metal studs, maybe a grommet here or there. But it’s unlikely that many of the women who are stepping into semi-conservative Ann Taylor dresses with those exposed zippers realize that their frocks are directly inspired by the punk movement of the ’70s. The exhibition debuting May 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute—PUNK: Chaos to Couture—reminds us that punk’s motifs have permanently permeated all levels of fashion, from couture to ready-to-wear.


In a presentation video on the Met’s website, PUNK exhibit curator Andrew Bolton explains the dual origins of the punk aesthetic. One branch of punk grew up around the New York City music scene in the early ’70s, specifically the crowd at the famous CBGB, where musicians like Richard Hell and the Ramones got their start. The other branch centered on the clothing shop at 430 King’s Road in London, where designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were selling T-shirts with obscene images and slogans among other things, most famously the “tits” and the “two naked cowboys” T-shirts.

The Sex Pistols’ John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), 1976. | Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Photograph by Richard Young | Rex USA

The aesthetic at its most basic is Do-It-Yourself (DIY). But as Bolton explains, the handmade, distressed clothing that became associated with Punk is meant to express two overarching themes–nihilism and infantilism. The nihilism, Bolton says, was “knowingly mirrored in appearance. Blacked-out eyes; torn, ripped clothes; a preference for black all communicated a worldview that was bleak and pessimistic.” As for infantilism, which was communicating a desire to stay perpetually juvenile, that was expressed through adopting schoolboy blazers and ties and fuzzy mohair sweaters, as members of the Sex Pistols did, and using pacifiers as accessories.

Out of punk’s New York and London origins, Bolton identifies four different expressions of those dueling punk themes that have remained influential over the past 40 years: Hardware (those grommets, zippers, safety pins, and studs), bricolage (the incorporation of found objects into fashion), graffiti (the spraying or painting of clothes), and destroyed (the ripping and shredding of garments). Herewith, a slide show, courtesy of the Met, showing precisely how the destroyed aesthetic and that rude punk attitude were ripped from rock stars and sent down runways.

About the author

Jessica Grose is a regular contributor to Co.Create. She is a freelance writer and editor who writes about culture, women's issues, family and grizzly bears.