NEW YORK - Not every show at the Met begins with a replica of a filthy bathroom, complete with toilets and urinals. But the recreation of CBGB’s circa the 1970s is part of the fun in Punk: Chaos to Couture, the latest Costume Institute crowd-pleaser, on view through 14 August.

After a few vintage garments, the show quickly moves toward edgy, but very pretty, haute couture, though the dresses have artfully placed safety pins, staples and bottle caps—and some of the most careful rips in the history of clothing.

Curator Andrew Bolton has a good storytelling sense, as he has proved over and over, notably in the Alexander McQueen blockbuster of 2011. And he makes a good case that punk, born of the streets and the music scene, has been an enduring idée fixe for top designers. It moved uptown quickly and with lasting results.


The dresses (and the few male outfits) are eye-popping to be sure, but I was most impressed by the exhibition design, especially a room that I think of as the bizarro-Met: it’s a long classical gallery with grand architectural flourishes like sculpture niches, but it’s painted black and falling apart. Sam Gainsbury and Gideon Ponte deserve the credit for these ingenious touches (including the gross bathroom).

And there is another show at the Met right now that also has a clever design—and it’s the somber, sober counterpoint to the fashion on view. Photography and the American Civil War, up until September 2, could not be more different; it’s all real death and destruction instead of the playful faux-darkness of Punk.

The exhibition galleries mimic a battlefield tent, with unfurled canvas covering the walls. The images in this show are small, and require you to get up close to see the amazing scenes and people of this era, when an entire country was tested in the most severe sense. It creates a weird intimacy with the baby faces of the soldiers who fought the bloody war and often came back injured, or not at all.

Photography was a new medium back then, and the Civil War was the first major historical event to be fully captured by it. (For another view of the time, check out the Civil War and American Art show, also on view now at the museum, with lots of classic paintings by Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson and others.)

True, Photography and the American Civil War is a bit of a downer, but it’s an essential show not just for war buffs but also for anyone who wants to see how this medium developed. The technology available at the time has helped shape our image of the events. I found myself walking out and wondering: Can you imagine the results if Matthew Brady had had an iPhone camera?

Tags:New York, Museums, Exhibitions