Commentary: punk is dead

Crass declared that “punk is dead” in the eponymous 1978 track, but they were wrong. Punk died Monday, May 6, at The Met Ball.

The Met Ball is known as the fashion event of the year. Anna Wintour and her Vogue cronies host a gala/fundraiser at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to celebrate a new fashion exhibit at The Met, among other things. Designers, celebrities and generally famous people don their best and most fashionable looks to support the exhibit’s theme.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was 2011’s theme. Fashionistas know how to do McQueen. Elsa Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations happened in 2012. The theme turned into Schiaparelli’s signature color, pink. This year’s theme, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, proved to be a challenge to, well, everyone. It’s pretty clear no one on the red carpet Monday ever went through a punk phase.

Punk has been experiencing a revival in current mainstream culture, especially in fashion, but its reincarnation cannot contend with the original. Versace spun punk into “vunk,” an animal print massacre of punk fashion for the sake of Fall Fashion Week 2013. Forever 21 is grossly stocked with “distressed” denim vests, and drugstores are overrun with fluorescent tubs of Manic PaniÔ‘c. Punk, since its initial surfacing in the 1970s, has become a cultural Frankenstein – contorted, misunderstood and lifeless.

The spotlight being cast on punk is not inherently bastardizing, so long as the light it casts is not refracting. The theme of this year’s Met Gala, though, shattered all prospects of authenticity. Punk is the flavor of the week, and it’s leaving a bad taste in our mouths.

Like every seismic counter cultural shift, punk developed its own unique aesthetic and eventually became swallowed beneath it. The ideals were shrouded in leather, the attitude deflated by the prick of a stud, the movement diluted by superficiality. Punk is an all-encompassing cultural term that has since become a fashion buzzword.

Choosing “punk” to be the theme of the Met Gala seems inherently contradictory. Galas are luxurious and decadent; it’s hedonism all dolled up in a floor-length gown. Punk, on the other hand, is contradictory, anti-conformist and sometimes flagrantly offensive.

Punk was born out of a distaste for the rampant hedonism in mainstream culture and eventually broke off into camps including straight edge (retaliated by bent edge), Oi! and hardcore. Each faction developed its own unique fashion that reflected its individuality as well as served as a simple identifier. Skinheads were masters of the utilitarian – Fred Perry collared shirts and suspenders became their uniforms, the back alleys their runway.

Straight edges proudly bore x’s on the backs of their hands and adorned their clothing with positive (or “posi”) phrases. Fashion was not only a statement of taste; it was an art form, a declaration of ideals, a waving middle finger in the face of conformity.

To boil down punk to a studded Burberry jacket – looking at you, Sienna Miller and Cara Delevigne – is to commoditize and commercialize punk in a way that’s been problematic for decades. To return to Crass’ “Punk is Dead,” “Yes that’s right, punk is dead/It’s just another cheap product for the consumers head … Ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash/Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be.”

But at least they tried, a little bit. No one expected anyone to walk out of their black car on 5th Avenue in something actually held together with safety pins. Sarah Jessica Parker pulled out a fauxhawk, not bad. Madonna pulled out her best punk as well, which is expected by a cultural icon who came to stardom around the same time of the movement.

Looking at you, Kim Kardashian, you wore a slipcover to The Met. While that would normally be a fashion offense in itself, it quite literally has nothing to do with punk. Not even a little bit. Kate Upton’s blah green Diane Von Furstenberg gown looked like a basic Oscar dress. Cameron Diaz wore a Stella McCartney blue crepe gown, but it was really a blue cape gown.

Where’s the punk? Not here. In a red carpet interview at the Met Ball for Vogue.com, Creative Director of Vogue Grace Coddington said, “Well I’d like to see some real punks in here, some real street punks, but I doubt they were invited.” Maybe that gosh darn cultural lens got lost in the mail.

Subcultures have flirted with high fashion for decades. It’s near impossible to avoid this creative overlap. When wielded wisely, the combined artistic forces can intensify the impact of a cultural movement. In fact, Vivienne Westwood cemented her name as one of fashion’s great movers and shakers with her contributions to the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren’s boutique King’s Road, and punk launched into its highest level of fame.

But Westwood understood punk’s ideals and it’s hard to remain convinced that the starlet tepidly rocking that mesh-and-leather number is even slightly aware of the cultural brevity of her appearance.

The punk-themed Met Gala wouldn’t be so unsettling if it was acknowledged as blatant cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is sifting through a culture and applying a few favored aspects to a mainstream lens. In the Gala’s case, it is a fraudulent representation of punk, with eyes drawn toward tattered hems and glimmering studs. There is a difference between an item of clothing being punk and it bearing the punk aesthetic.

The Met Gala could have been a night of fashion’s liberation, the chance for celebrities and fashion figures alike to delve into the barely pulsing heart of a movement and take a defiant swing mainstream ideals. The Met may be boldly declaring that “‘punk’ ain’t dead,” but a sense of loss hangs heavy over every each red carpet snapshot.