Punk Fashion

Punk in Camden Town, London

Punk as dress cannot be discussed without at least some reference to its musical underpinnings. It has to be recognized that within the field of cultural studies, it both energized and produced a series of new responses to the theoretical construction of youth culture. Thus, it can be regarded as a formative movement in both its sartorial and visual presentation, and the consequent analysis of it as a subcultural style. It can be further argued that punk culture stands at a pivotal point in the relationship between youth cultural style and its commodification.

The United States

Punk had its roots in inner city America at the beginning of the 1970s. While its inspiration could be traced farther back, as a movement with a set of cohesive identities, New York appears to be its birthplace. But as befits its urban nature, punk cannot be said to have a singular geographic location. Detroit, Cleveland, and possibly Los Angeles are other sites that could also claim an emergent aesthetic and style identified as punk.

One of the many effects of the post-World War II consumer boom within the United States and Europe was an ever-expanding market for goods, particularly within a youth cultural market that led to an active struggle from young people to shape and realize their own identities through the consumption of music and fashion. This popularization of "youth" as "style" and "surface" was in part reflected in the breakdown of distinctions between high and low culture within the pop art movements-of Britain's Independent Group and its U.S. equivalent-of the 1950s and 1960s. In the latter grouping was Andy Warhol and the Factory. Symptomatic of pop, Warhol's work, its repetitive nature, and its insistence in articulating nothing more than the surface engaged with a youth cultural perspective of nihilism that revolved around the adage of "live fast, die young." As such, alongside Warhol's desire to surround himself with a coterie of the young, dangerous, and beautiful, the seeds of an avantgarde music scene began to be established.

Set around Warhol's Factory and the Lower East Side in a time of political and financial meltdown in New York, the music of these artists, in particular the Velvet Underground, reflected the repetitivity and surface of the Factory's output. Playing at seedy venues such as Max's Kansas City, CBGBs, and Mother's, the music of the Stooges, New York Dolls, MC5's, Wayne County, and Patti Smith took their influences from a variety of sources all intent in demolishing what was seen as the pompous, sterile sound of contemporary music in the guise of "progressive" and "stadium" rock. So a disillusionment with all things commercial and the be-suited executives at the record companies led to a desire to perform music that would shock people to their senses, bringing music back to the poverty/richness of the everyday. While this was going on in the United States, Britain was in the grip of glam rock, a pub rock sound characterized in part by the clothing of its performers that looked to the transgressive in their stage presence. Of these perhaps the most original was David Bowie. Under a string of different pseudonyms and increasingly bizarre record personalities, David Bowie proved influential in his effect on both music and clothing in Britain and the United States.

The Ramones perform at CBGB, New York in 1977 - Getty Editorial Use

By 1975 the American "punk scene" had evolved into a subculture characterized by the music of Television, and perhaps most famously The Ramones who wore clothes that reflected their rent boy street personas. Given that many of the musicians had gravitated from a bohemian inner-city scene detailed in the writings of William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi, it seemed like a natural continuation of this aesthetic. The black leather jacket, T-shirt, straight jeans, and sneakers of the hustler proved the initial look of an American underground scene. While there were those such as the New York Dolls, who followed an English glam rock look of androgyny-made up with leather and knee-length boots, chest hair, and bleach-the majority pursued an understated street look. It was this musical explosion within the United States that brought a youngish Malcolm McLaren over to the United States to manage the New York Dolls where he fell into the punk scene and made clear his intentions to ship it back to the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom

While it is obvious that Malcolm McLaren and his partner, Vivienne Westwood, are central to any definition of punk, especially in relation to its clothing, it is also clear that the self-aggrandizing machine which is Malcolm McClaren has skewed any historical understanding. In part this is justified, as McClaren and Westwood's string of shops on the Kings Road defined a particular look and McLaren's desire to exploit punk as a scene in the United Kingdom led directly to his management and dressing of the Sex Pistols, the most notorious of all punk bands.

Vivienne Westwood

Starting out on the Kings Road in 1972 as Let It Rock a shop that catered to a late working-class Teddy Boy revival, drape coats, and brothel creepers, Vivienne West-wood and Malcolm McLaren's shop then moved through a number of reincarnations, including Too Fast to Live and the fetish-orientated Sex, and later Seditionaries, and finally World's End. As in the United States, McLaren encouraged those who railed against society to hang around the shop. His and Westwood's antiestablishment aesthetic soon earned them a place in the London underground scene. However, we are not talking of the sophistication of New York, but a more rag-tag army of disillusioned teenagers. And it is from this group that the Sex Pistols were formed. Apart from the "rock" posturing of Glen Matlock, the rest of the band-Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, and Paul Cook-were wholly working class and outside any artistic or intellectual clique. While many of the other emerging punk bands had members from an art school background, the Sex Pistols could claim to be the genuine thing: an authentic working-class group of kids celebrating the boredom of their socially proscribed position.

Theoretical Angles

It is this notion of authenticity and working class that, in part, has always demarcated a British and U.S. understanding of punk as a philosophy or cultural experience. Whereas in the United Kingdom youth counter cultures had generally been a central experience of working-class youth-an expression of dissent and isolation from their parents and a reaction against a dominant ideology that on the surface worked to repress their ambition, in the United States the readings had not taken on such class-bound strictures.

The result in the United Kingdom was the publication in 1977, the peak of punk in Britain, of Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Using punk as its central example, Hebdige employed a series of methodologies from Marxism to Structuralism and Semiotics to chart a view of post-World War II British youth cultures that were constructed through their working-class credentials and a desire to react against the dominant powers that appeared to shape their lives. In this analysis, Hebdige applied the notion of "bricolage" as the stylistic combination of disparate coded objects to juxtapose and create fresh meaning to punk dress and style. The safety pin's original meaning as something to hold together a diaper and to prevent injury to the child was pierced through a nose or stuck onto ripped jeans and jackets. Its once certain assigned meaning through was contexually redefined through its wearing as a stylistic device.


In Britain the spectacular nature of punk as a style surpassed that of the United States. Westwood's designs- from "Destroy" T-shirts, bum bags, tartan bondage trousers, safety-pinned and ripped muslin shirts, and sloganed clothing-were a visible affront to a population who, for the most part, regarded long hair on a man as a concern. While youth cultures had previously been vilified within the national press for violence and drug taking, punk directly challenged the dress aesthetic and morals of a conservative nation. Beyond the Kings Road in 1976, 1977, and 1978, the influence of McLaren and Westwood diminished rapidly. Though they may have attracted a contingent of followers in London and their home counties, punk was a nationwide phenomenon and as such developed a style that was perhaps more coherent and less showy than Westwood's ready-to-wear clothing.

Sex Pistols Fan: close up detail of studded denim jacket - Getty Editorial Use

This do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) aesthetic consisted of Hebdige's "bricolage" as the throwing together of a series of looks based around a few staple elements, such as mohair sweaters, tight jeans, and "jelly shoes." There was also the widespread use of secondhand clothing from charity shops and rummage sales-suits with T-shirts and basketball boots, collarless granddad shirts, and peroxided hair-with or without the ubiquitous stenciling and letter art of favorite bands, anarchist slogans, or the Situationist politicizing of groups such as The Clash.

This aesthetic was perhaps more subdued than the Kings Road look, but is more representative of punk as a dress code within the United Kingdom both for individuals and bands such as The Buzzcocks, The Damned, The Adverts, 999, and out on a style limb The Undertones. By 1977 punk's popularity as a musical form had seen by then the infamous Grundy television interviews; the Sex Pistols single "God Save the Queen" reaching number one in the week of the Queen's Golden Jubilee; and the interest of record companies in signing up groups who claimed in any manner, shape, or form to espouse a punk belief.


By 1979 the first stage of punk in the United Kingdom was coming to an end. Its commercial status became assured, from advertisements in music papers such as NME and Sounds advertising punk clothing, badges, and T-shirts to the record companies' desires to promote a gentler, more public-friendly "new wave" and to the release of various compilations that promised to tell the whole punk story. However, punk itself as both a music and a style attempted to change in order to avoid its co-option/commercialization by hardcore bands such as The Exploited and political bands such as Crass. In terms of dress, there was a reengagement with the motorcycle jacket, the use of Dr. Martin work-wear boots, and the introduction of a wide variety of commercial rainbow hair colorants, along with the ubiquitous Mohawk haircut, which, along with a penchant for black, crossed over into both Goth and the New Romantic movements of the early 1980s. It is this look that for many years characterized, and as such became the iconic image of, punk.

Goth fashion

As a direct result of the energy of punk and the diffusion of a whole series of offshoots from punk with fanzines such as Punk in the United States and Sniffin' Glue in Britain, it became clear that there was a market for hard-edged youth journalism, which dealt specifically with an urban street scene. Punk fostered the emergence in 1980 of street-style magazines such as The Face, iD, and Blitz. Yet, as a consequence of these magazines trying to locate and expose scenes bubbling up from the streets, it became increasingly difficult for "subcultural" movements to resist commercialization through exposure. And it is this that is perhaps punk's greatest legacy to youth cultural style. While it would be inaccurate to suggest that youth cultures prior to punk were left to get on without the prying eyes of parents and large commercial operations intent on supplying, if not co-opting, youth culture toward their own ends, it is clear that punk stood at the crossroads of a contemporary "lifestyle" aesthetic. That youth culture in the early 2000s is so heavily mediated and prey to the intense gaze of commercial pressures is perhaps one of the less-appreciated consequences of punk as a historical event.

From the sounds of Seattle and grunge, through to a swathe of bands in 2004 that look more like The Ramones than The Ramones, punk has endured. For the fashion industry, its stylistic conceptualization as both "bricolage" and "rebellion" makes it the perfect vehicle to reappropriate the old in the spirit of the new, which gives rise to the interpretation of punk as a seasonal look on a cyclical basis. As such, its legacy is assured within both its musical and stylistic qualities. Yet whether its politics of change or its celebration of the bored and nihilistic attitude of teenagers can ever be faithfully played out again is another question.

See also Fashion and Identity; Subcultures; Teenage Fashion; T-Shirt.


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Punk Fashion