You know you’re in trouble when the first thing that hits you at the Met’s ‘Rock Style’ is an overblown sign bragging, ‘This exhibit is made possible by Tommy Hilfiger.’ Tommy Hilfiger? The guy who’s always had his tongue hanging out like the fellow in the Rolling Stones logo, pleading to be accepted by the worlds of style and rock, neither of which has ever given him the time of day? Tommy Hilfiger,that craven climber, that ripper-offer of street style, that mounter of lavish, empty runway shows full of warmed-over, half-baked fashion ideas? What’s next: Giorgio Armani at the Guggenheim?
If Hilfiger is a pathetic wannabe, the Met hasn’t helped matters by refusing to impose any discipline on the proceedings. There’s no catalog to help you navigate the messy showcases that lie ahead, no particular rhyme or reason to the contents of the vitrines, no overriding sensibility ordering the hundreds of dimly lit outfits, just wall cards that say things like “During the 1950s rock and roll music became a driving cultural force” and “Rock stars continue to be trendsetters in many cultural spheres,” and an annoying tape loop playing “Dancing Queen,” “Express Yourself,” and other familiar ditties.
Whatever insights are reached are a function of the memories of viewers themselves, many of whom, on a recent afternoon, were accompanied by children staring blankly into showcases (breathes there a child who actually enjoys tooling around an art museum?) while mamas and papas patiently explained things like “You know, the Mamas and the Papas? You know, Michelle Phillips? She was on Knots Landing.” Here she’s represented by the brocade caftan she wore onstage at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967, a garment not nearly as interesting as Mama Cass’s velour muumuu, just a mannequin away and embellished with appliquéd felt flowers like the ones currently decorating Fendi’s campy baguette bags, for sale for around $1000 at the Fendi store on Fifth Avenue.
Donovan Leitch’s Victorian Balkan wedding cape (misattributed to 1968; don’t they mean 1868?), which he wore on the inside cover of the goopily entitled album A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, brings to mind not just flower power but a 200-year-old tradition of Lord Byron-ish dandyism. But of course, you’d have to know all this stuff yourself—with no catalog and only crude attempts to explain the outfits on display in a historical or social context, you’re pretty much on your own.
Which is not to say a faint breath of poignancy doesn’t occasionally waft through the bombast. Three identical lavender beaded mother-of-the-bride-ish dresses that clung to the Supremes when they sang “My World Is Empty Without You” on Ed Sullivan in 1966 speak of a humbler, quieter era in rock costuming; Gene Vincent’s circa-1958 Harley Davidson leather jacket retains its iconic status 40 years later (John Lennon was so enthralled by Vincent’s bad-boy pose that the Beatles recorded his “Be-Bop-a-Lula” in homage). On the other hand, Patti Smith’s striped T-shirt and leather pants, an outfit you assume she picked up in a street stall, seem a touching relic of late-century bohemia until you read the accompanying card: The shirt came straight from the house of Dior.
Roughly speaking, the clothes in the show can be divided into three categories: glitter (Kiss, James Brown), grunge (Bruce Springsteen, John Sebastian), and souped-up street style (Courtney Love, Debbie Harry). The first category may be overrepresented—there’s no lack of Bowie and Bono and Bob Mackie—but the other two are more interesting. Janis Joplin’s 1920s piano shawl (on loan from the Hard Rock Cafe, whose own collection this enterprise recalls—if only one could munch a cheeseburger while trolling the cases) is emblematic of a whole revolutionary Haight-Ashbury aesthetic: Too bad the Met didn’t include any photos of hippie chicks in the Avalon Ballroom audience, swaying and dancing in their own piano shawls. There’s not a glimmer of what it meant to wear vintage clothes, on stage or not, at a time when the notion that “everybody is a star” was gaining momentum—the seditious impulse behind the clothes has all but been extinguished.
Likewise, Courtney Love’s circa-1993 bias-cut slip is duly enshrined, and though the accompanying card says Carly Simon and Ronstadt also wore slips at various points in their careers, it fails to inform the reader that millions of other women wore them too. Nor does the exhibit link the underwear-as-outerwear concept with other examples from this very show, including Tina Turner’s rhinestone-and-lace slip dress (she had Versace turn it into a micro-mini for her) and Madonna’s Gaultier bullet bra bursting out of a man’s suit, as transgressive as anything Oscar Wilde ever thought up.
At their best, the styles in “Rock Style” flout St. Marks Place and Liberace in favor of an eccentric collaboration between a particular designer and an equally eccentric star. Among the more successful of these are the less predictable examples: the painted aluminum headdress Keith Haring made for Grace Jones; the quilted vinyl Ziggy Stardust number that Kansai Yamamoto made for David Bowie which goes far beyond androgyny (it doesn’t even look like it’s meant for a human but rather some high-fashion extraterrestrial); and a studded, fringed, ivory velvet jumpsuit created for Mick Jagger by Ossie Clark, a now forgotten “mod” designer who was famous in the Carnaby Street era of the last century, long before anyone had ever heard of Tommy Hilfiger, back in the days when museums offered catalogs, and parents hated rock and roll.