PUNK: The Ultimate Fashion Statement

I wrote about Punk fashion for The Roundhouse, in time for their celebration of Punk London: Roundhouse Punk Weekender. Click here to see the article online, or read it in full below.

Where did punk really begin? New Yorkers claim it grew out of their music scene headed by bands like the New York Dolls, but Londoners reckon the punk scene stemmed out of a specifically British mindset. Britain saw a flurry of youth subcultures emerge during the post-war years; Teds, Mods, Skinheads … and punk came on to the scene as an expression of rebellion. Punks railed against traditional notions of gender, family and hierarchy, with punk fashion being the strongest symbol of this.

Punk epitomised a D.I.Y attitude to fashion as a reaction against the consumerism of 70s Post Modernism – and image was everything. Young punks wore a mish-mash of recycled clothing, often sourced from charity shops. Garments were destroyed, torn and defaced in a style more anti-fashion than fashion, as a statement against pristine clothing favoured by the affluent. Straps, often attached to trouser legs, were a blatant reference to sexual bondage gear. Purposefully ripped T-shirts were held together with safety pins and women combined tartan kilts, laddered fishnets and heavy Doc Martens to challenge gendered clothing. Extreme hairdos, body piercings and an aggressive stance all tested the boundaries of social acceptability.

To be vilified for your stance was a badge of honour not a condemnation.

Provocative music and fashion fused to create the Punk scene. Former art student turned entrepreneur, Malcolm McLaren, formed The Sex Pistols whose message was a clear call for confrontation. The Sex Pistols arrived in a hail of spitting, gobbing and loud-mouthed lyrics; Johnny Rotten blamed it on his sinuses, Julian Temple likened it to the hail of arrows at the Battle of Agincourt.

Soon after punk’s emergence, designer Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren started producing punk inspired clothing for their shop SEX on London’s King’s Road. Described by Westwood as a “crucible”, their shop displayed phallic images, graffiti and bondage gear. The couple created punk fashions including T-shirts emblazoned with anarchic slogans. This became an iconic, if more costly, version of punk fashion and gave rise to the formalizing of sub-culture fashion statements – but could this readymade, manufactured punk fashion still be classed as Punk D.I.Y (one of punk’s main hallmarks)?

Punk soon became popular with art students who embraced it as a music and fashion statement and a number of Punk Bands emerged, many all-female. While openly expressing scorn against Punk’s obsession with petty violence, filmmaker Derek Jarman nevertheless produced the Punk-inspired film Jubilee as a rant against the corruption of money obsessed 70’s Britain. In Jubilee Queen Elizabeth I is transported to a 70s London ruled by Punk anarchists. Modern critics consider it to be the best example of the Punk genre in film, but Punk audiences at the time hated it. Siouxsie Sioux who had a role in the film denounced it as ‘hippy trash’ and Vivienne Westwood condemned Jarman as exploiting Punk. Westwood wrote an open letter, appropriately enough, printed on a t-shirt - ‘I had been to see it once and thought it the most boring and therefore disgusting film I had ever seen’ she wrote.

In November 2016 Joe Corré, former ‘underwear king’ and son of Westwood and McLaren, plans to burn £5million worth of Punk memorabilia as a protest against Punk London, claiming Punk does not belong in the mainstream. Ironically Vivienne Westwood, often nicknamed the Queen of Punk, was honoured by the Queen in 1992 and is now a Dame. Corré’s gesture raises an interesting reflection on the original Punk scene. While it’s easy to re-appropriate versions of Punk fashion - ripped jeans, frayed hems, studded leather, tartan and straps for example have become mainstream and are even seen on high-end catwalks - we shouldn’t forget Punk’s 70s origins as a politicized subculture with serious social objectives.

Whether punk has at times been hijacked by the mainstream, its influence on arts culture and fashion in particular, is undeniable. Never before has the clothes we wear been dictated by a subculture so powerfully. Malcolm McLaren probably said it best; “Punk’s influence on music, movies, art, design and fashion is no longer in doubt”.

Image Credits: Ted Polhemus, Alex Levac, Derek Jarman, V&A, John Selby.