“Plastic trash bags, bondage wear, Nazi regalia, slashed clothing held together with safety pins, multicolored hair spiked up with Vaseline, lurid make-up, and, most shocking of all, safety pins worn through flesf of cheeks, lips, nostrils, and ears” (Henry, p. 80). This is a description of the fans at a Sex Pistols concert in 1976. In the early 1970s the musical movement known as punk began. This movement challenged the norms of modern culture not only through its fast paced, loud, chaotic and violent music, but also through its fashion. Prior to the early 1980s many punks followed a do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality that created an anti-capitalistic stance towards society. However, in 1979 after the breakup of the most well known British punk band, the Sex Pistols, the punk subculture had created enough media recognition that it was placed in a position to become capitalized. Already by the early 1980s movies, television shows, and non-punk musical artists, such as Madonna were imitating punk fashion. Twenty years later fashion and hair companies such as Prada, Kenneth Cole, Bed Head and Wella, are turning punk fashion into profit. Punk style that was once considered offensive is now considered high fashion.
In the spirit of many rock and roll movements that challenged the ideals of mainstream society, such as The Beatles or Janis Joplin, the punk movement followed in their footsteps. However, different from these movements the punk movement emphasized a do-it-yourself attitude towards everything. As Greil Marcus states in LipStick Traces, thousands of punk bands were formed within a span of about seven years (Marcus, p.46). Despite the fact that most of these bands had no formal music education (or any music education for that matter) the idea was to create it on your own. This idea manifested its way into taking what was known as rock and roll music and tearing it apart until it became almost unrecognizable. Bands still used guitars, bass guitars, drums, and a singer but not in any “conventional” way. Bands played louder, faster, and harder then any rock music that came before it. Punk music used the basic elements of what was know as rock and roll and torn themapart and created them into something new.
This same idea of tearing apart what was seen as mainstream in the music manifested its way into the fashion in the same context. For example, while mainstream society was wearing three piece suits, the punk subculture was cutting up these suits and safety pinning them back together. In Break All the Rules!, Trica Henry quotes Caroline Coon describing the fashion of Johnny Rotten, the lead singer for the Sex Pistols. She states, “It was after feeling particularly hostile of Chelsea’s wealth and well-groomed finery that Johnny [Rotten] bought (or acquired) a brand new suit, shirt, and tie. He took it home and slashed it to pieces. He pinned and stapled it together again. And then he wore it” (Henry, p.74). Similar to the music, the fashion in the punk subculture required taking articles of clothing with a specific meaning and redefining them.
In Dick Hebdige’s book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, he explores this re-appropriation of clothing within the punk subculture. He states that the punks were, “adapting images, styles, and ideologies made available elsewhere on television and in films, in magazines and newspapers (high fashion, the emergence of feminism in its commodity form, e.g. Cosmopolitan) in order to construct an alternative identity which communicated a perceived difference: Otherness. They were, in short, challenging at a symbolic level the inevitability, the “naturalness” of class and gender stereotypes”(Hebdige, p. 89). Punks were using clothing as a signifier of meaning. For example, Johnny Rotten was not following the rules of the culture of power to move ahead by wearing a three-piece suit. Instead he was using the three-piece suit as a signifier of upper-class culture to make a statement about classism and anti-conformity. As Hebdige states above this was an action which challenged social class status.
To suggest that all punks of the early 1970s wore specific clothing to make political statements about classism and gender roles would probably be a mistake. As Craig O’Hara suggests in his book, The Philosophy of Punk, he states that the early punk movement was more about anti-conformity. He says, “Conformity is rejected on every front possible in order to seek the truth or sometimes to merely shock people” (O’Hara, p. 27). The punks managed to shock mainstream society by creating styles that fell outside of the social norms. For example, punk men were wearing just as much makeup as women were. Men were blackening their eyes and even drawing fangs down the side of their faces (Henry, p.85). This large movement of punks shocking mainstream society forced people to question what was acceptable appearance and what was not.
The punks managed to create enough media attention that people did start to question appropriate means of appearance and the fashion industry started to change. Fashion companies started to pick up on punk styles and sell them back into mainstream society. This action in itself had defeated the punk idea of anti-capitalism and anti-conformity. Hebdige speaks about the idea of the conversion subcultures signs into mass produced objects. He states, “the creation and diffusion of new styles is inextricably bound up in the process of production, publicity and packaging which must inevitably lead to the diffusion of the subcultures subversive power both mod and punk innovations fed back directly into high fashion and mainstream fashion” (Hebdige, p.95). The original shocking power the punks had through appearance dissipated once mainstream society taped into it. The commodifaction of style contradicted the idea of originality. By the 1980′s punks were able to buy punk fashions over the counter.
Today punk fashion has become incredibly ingrained in mainstream society and in high fashion. This season Prada models have saggy spiked hair. In almost any magazine that looks at youth culture you can see hair dyed in artificial colors such as blue or green. Many malls in the United States now carry a store called Hot Topic where you can buy any punk accessory that you can dream of, even a pair of red plaid pants for eighty dollars. The punk movement with the intent to question conformity through fashion loses its meaning when society turns punk fashions into profit. A fifteen-year-old youth that buys a mass produced spiked bracelet is not seen as an act of rebellion when they wear the bracelet, according to original punk ideology. This youth is no longer questioning anti-conformity. However, if a fifteen-year-old youth from Utah, who lives in a highly religious community, makes a T-shirt that says something to the extent of “You are all sheep” and then wears it, this may still be considered rebellion in the eyes of the early punk movement. Even though punk fashions have been exploited and commodified, this second youth has questioned their surrounding environment and become a producer of their own fashion.
You can also watch the Punk Fashion documentary here.