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Dressing the Part

Each spring the Met Ball brings the fashion elite (Vogue’s Anna Wintour, Valentino Garavani) and Hollywood royalty (Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The event kicks off the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition, which for the past 11 years has been curated by England native Andrew Bolton. In celebration of this year’s Punk: Chaos to Couture, Bolton, whose 2011 show, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, drew close to 700,000 visitors, tells us how he puts together the ultimate fashion show.

Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious is just one rocker whose punk-inflected style and music will be on display.

A look from Chanel’s spring 2011 ready-to-wear collection applies the punk aesthetic to the classic Chanel jacket.

A dress by Rodarte will be on view in the D.I.Y. Destroy portion of the exhibit.

The process of planning a Costume Institute exhibition takes about 10 months in total, which is actually a very compressed amount of time, as most curators spend two to five years on an exhibition. I love the sped-up idea—it’s very much how fashion
is and it reflects the fashion calendar, so I can’t complain.

Usually, when planning the exhibitions, I don’t start my research until June or July, after I’ve finished all of the lectures and tours of the year’s current show. Initially, I come up with the concept, which gets rigorously refined as we start looking for garments and images. Garment loans are always tricky because you have to compromise along the way: Either the designers don’t have the piece you want in their archive or they’re unwilling to lend or they’re in bad condition. For this year’s exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture, we didn’t have the final objects until mid-March.

For the garments that are featured in Punk, I focused on designers who have consistently looked to it as an aesthetic or attitude: John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe. The theme was something I had been thinking about for a while, and part of it was personal, because I was about 8 or 9 years old when it really hit. Growing up in England in the ’70s, punk was extreme compared with everything else that was happening there and in New York. I wanted to showcase this movement that used fashion as a powerful tool to express one’s individuality while offering a critique of the status quo. For me, fashion isn’t just about wearability; it’s about expressing concepts and ideas through clothing.

For an exhibition to be successful, it needs to be relatable on many levels. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was an extraordinary experience because McQueen was a hero of mine. It was moving for so many people, but it’s almost impossible to replicate because of the circumstances. I think with Punk, perhaps more than with Savage Beauty, there’s a balance between the fashions people deem as wearable and those that are conceptual. In these exhibitions the clothes need to tell the story. A show that transforms you, makes you think differently and challenges your expectations—that’s what we try to achieve.