In the 37 years since the Sex Pistols first performed at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, public perception of what punk rock was has undergone a change. Analysts used to talk about it as a political musical movement, an expression of social discontent with its roots in anarchism. Now, increasingly, it is seen as a movement in fashion, its greatest lasting influence being on how we dress.
This was certainly the thrust of this summer’s just-closed exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” Created by the museum’s costume unit, this was a show about dresses by high-fashion designers, mostly from the past five years, that bear the influence of late 1970s British clothes as worn by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. The dresses on display were gorgeous and sexy and created with astounding artisanal skill (particularly the bunched and sculpted Comme des Garçons ensembles, cut up like cubist sculpture and held together with elastic bands), but available only to the extremely rich, which is, well, not so punk.
This was not, by a long shot, the first manifestation of this interpretation, though. From the very beginning of this youth movement, its appearances in media were visual, not aural. I first saw punks, in the seventies, as pictures in magazines and on album covers. The music came and went; the fashion persists. In the past 10 years, punk’s only presence in mainstream media has been as inspiration for fashion shoots. And the studs and spikes and leather have become associated with a certain hard-edged, high-heeled, highly sexual sheen in photos.
That extremely feminine, almost pornographic look – the look defined by fishnet stockings, cat-eye makeup and black chokers – was front and centre at the Met’s punk fashion show, which included stunningly glamorous outfits by Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, Junya Watanabe, Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan, Ann Demeulemeester and Rei Kawakubo. It’s funny that the whole thing is now focused on women, since girls were in a definite minority in the musical punk scenes of the seventies.
Harsh criticisms were launched at the Met’s show when it opened back in May: It was said that the show reduced a political, working-class movement to its outfits; it ignored both the artistic experimentation of the New York punk scene (that came to include such drably clothed eggheads as the Talking Heads) and the furious class protest of the London scene (the Clash was, after all, calling for a “White Riot” and the Sex Pistols called the monarchy a fascist regime).
But actually, the ideological aspirations of punk rockers were highly overstated by the media and even by the musicians themselves. British punk, despite the myth, was not a working-class movement. Johnny Rotten and the rest of the Sex Pistols were genuine East Enders, but they were a band put together and directed by a well-educated fashion designer. Their famous fans, the Bromley Contingent, most of whom went on to be punk stars themselves, were also mostly of cockney origin, but not all – Siouxsie Sioux grew up in a suburb and her father was a scientist. Joe Strummer went to a private boarding school; his dad was a diplomat. Most of the early punks were actually art students, as they were in the New York scene. And as soon as the movement became well-known, its international following was entirely middle-class and educated – most punk bands in provincial cities around the world came from art colleges.
Even the anti-rich propositions made by a few bands were largely perfunctory, part of an aesthetic stance, not an economic program. The New York punk bands, such as the Ramones, were expressly apolitical, and even the Sex Pistols’ apparent revolutionary fervour was incoherent. Steve Jones, the group’s guitarist, said in the late seventies, “I don’t see how anyone could describe us as a political band. I don’t even know the name of the Prime Minister.”
The Met show’s textual panels explained quite clearly that fashion, or at least the flamboyant, spikey-hair fashion we think of as punk, was not originally part of the New York scene at all; that movement was more about artistic minimalism and an endearingly earnest asceticism. Punk fashion as we now think of it came from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.
Evidence of the carefully curated nature of early punk looks came in the Met’s meticulous recreation of McLaren and Westwood’s London clothes shop, the home base for the creation of the Sex Pistols. I had seen many pictures of the outside of this shop and had always thought of it as a bit rundown; I had no idea it was so slick and minimal inside, with its wallpaper of blown-up photographs, just like the designer boutiques of today. To me, this was shocking confirmation of punk’s essentially visual genesis.
Protests against the fashion focus of punk retrospectives are eventually going to fall silent. History is acknowledging that punk was, always, essentially a form of chic.