The 'punk' aesthetic: relevant to culture and business

Do motorcycle jackets, safety pinned clothes, and photos of snarling punks with mohawks belong in a museum? Yes, if you consider punk's influence on style and commerce.

The March 25 issue of The New Yorker features a worth-reading, behind-the-scenes look at the forthcoming "Punk: Chaos to Couture" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (I have a pile of New Yorkers I'm getting through, so I'm about a week behind.) The show doesn't open until May 9. You might not be interested in punk music or history personally, but as a fashion and cultural influence, punk is an extraordinary example of how a particular style was defined and then sold to generations of people of all economic backgrounds.

What I found valuable to share from this New Yorker piece is how author Calvin Tomkins suggests why the punk aesthetic -- in fashion, specifically -- lives on and is so relevant in 2013. It's been a perennially strong force in retail, both high and low: consider the mutations of motorcycle jackets currently on sale at stores from H & M to Chanel. Some takeaways:

  • Punk in London and New York as it emerged in the late 1970s grew out of DIY (do-it-yourself) ingenuity that emerges after economic unrest. So we can see parallels to the late 2000s and early 2010s, in our culture of Making.
  • Punk is also about a subculture of mash-ups. As Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Met show, says in the New Yorker, "punk was very much about customization, going to thrift stores and army stores and mixing things together."
  • Punk has a very clearly defined aesthetic vocabulary (the color black; safety pins; mohawk haircuts; leather motorcycle jackets) that can be easily referenced by either DIYers or high-end designers who want to display their street-savvy.
  • Punk is always about irreverance. So staging a major exhibition on the genre is irreverent. So it's likely to draw both criticism and applause. And at the very least, it will spark conversations.

Image: Ester Inbar, available from

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