Big Punk

punk on 5th
“Punk: Chaos to Couture”
Costume Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
(The exhibit runs until August 14, 2013.)
“…I, Jackie Duluoz,…big punk…” Doctor Sax
Punk was anti-fashion, so the notion of punk couture is absurd. Punk was one of those labels such as “beatnik” that those from within didn’t like. (Yes, Legs McNeil the founder of Punk coined the term, but who went around referring to himself as a punk or member of the Punk Generation?) Nonetheless, the big “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibit is now at the MMA and a big best-selling book (arts and photography) is being sold with it. On display are some beautiful couture gowns by Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, and Versace—created years after “punk.”
However, punk (for lack of a better word—really it was downtown New York rock’n’roll, attitude, and a look) had a fashion sense and the leader of the pack, the best dressed of the downtown set was Johnny Thunders of the Heartbreakers. He spent time and money putting his look together. He didn’t wear ripped T-shirts with safety pins. He wore hip suit jackets, trousers, and leather shoes. His clothes were cutting edge without being outrageous and he didn’t look stupid. He traveled to the UK and abroad and got some of his clothes there and his Sicilian background played into his somewhat continental air, even though he was all New Yawk. Part of his look came from his sad Sicilian soul. He wasn’t tall, but it didn’t matter; he looked cool, kind of dangerous and gangsterish, in a beat, punk, Italian-New York street way, mixed up with lots of reckless rock’n’roll. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any trace of JT in the exhibit, only a few (two?) photos in the book.
Richard Hell was taller and thin and he looked good, too, but in a simple black jeans and T-shirt style, more American, with white city skin, pallor that never sees the sun.
Patti Smith fashioned herself in the Richard Hell style, simple and unadorned, androgynous.
Debbie Harry was the opposite: lots of makeup, bleached hair, trashy clothes, but her beautiful face made her stand out.
It was hard to ignore the Ramones. How could you ignore four young non-smiling urban guys in black leather jackets?
Then there were American bands that didn’t look cool or good. No names mentioned, but they wore spandex tights and dog collars and safety pins, not at all attractive on man or woman. A dog collar is for a dog, safety pins were once for diapers, and tights are for ballet.
British punks were a whole other thing, appropriate for the time and place, as British youth faced slight prospect of employment or opportunity, and that was their anarchistic political anti-everything protest, so, yes, bring on the rips, tears, safety pins, dog collars, the Doc Martens and all that, but it didn’t quite work on this side of this pond.
William Burroughs of 222 Bowery wore a suit. (“I am no punk and don’t know why anyone would consider me the godfather of punk.”) Good for him. He looked and spoke like the highly intelligent man that he was.
And Frank Sinatra, who was insultingly called a punk, and all those great jazz cats always dressed for the occasion. (Thelonious Monk wore a suit—even to lie in bed all day with the door closed not seeing anyone—good for him, too. The man had style … and hats.)
Even big punk—and there was no bigger punk—Sid Vicious donned a white dinner jacket to perform Sinatra’s “My Way.” Just for the record, Sid Vicious could have been a nice looking young man, but as Jack Kerouac said, “I’m not Frank Sinatra.”

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Author: GK Stritch

GK Stritch is a contributor to Beatdom and the author of CBGB Was My High School. The book is available at the St. Mark's Bookshop, New York City, and amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

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