The Anti-Fashion of Punk

March 4, 2022

London, 1976.

The city swelters in the middle of a heatwave as unemployment hits a historical high. Workers across the country are on strike for a livable wage as Britain spirals into an economic crisis, and Margaret Thatcher has taken over the Conservative Party, ushering in a wave of nationalism that borders on fascism. The Cold War rages on, and families all across the West are preparing for nuclear war. There’s no future in England’s dreaming.

And in a failing boutique off King’s Road, a group of angry street kids who can barely play their instruments are about to change the world.

Dressed in leather and safety pins, shredded shirts and ripped jeans, the Sex Pistols left a trail of destruction across Britain in their brief but glorious career, inspiring generations of disaffected youth to rip their clothes, pick up guitars, and rebel against their parents. From the crucible of London’s underground, punk was born into a world with “No Future,” a mantra howled in the Sex Pistols’ first single, “Anarchy in the UK.” Three and a half minutes of pure anger, the song’s distorted guitars throb over a pounding drumbeat as the aptly named Johnny Rotten snarls, “I wanna be anarchy.”

It was the sound of revolution: music would never be the same.

45 years later, Johnny Rotten is appearing in butter commercials, and the designer of his artfully ripped clothes is a multimillionaire, her work filling catwalks and fashion shows worldwide. Where did it all go wrong?

To understand the anticlimactic decline of a subculture where it’s better to burn out than to fade away, one only needs to look at its true origins. There’s still heated debate over who was the first punk band, although the shared consensus is that the Sex Pistols remain one of the most influential groups in the first wave of British punk. But before the Sex Pistols and punk rock, there was Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

McLaren was a shop owner and impresario who had spent the greater part of a decade chasing trends in futile efforts to get rich. Opening a clothing shop on King’s Road with his girlfriend, Vivienne Westwood (then a schoolteacher, now a world-famous designer), the two attempted to market her clothing towards youth-culture, changing the boutique’s name with every passing trend. Once that proved unsuccessful , McLaren focused on music promotion, with a brief and disastrous attempt at managing the proto-punk band, The New York Dolls. Dressing them in Westwood’s designs of red leather and drag, Malcolm McLaren convinced the group to perform in front of a communist flag backdrop, effectively ending the band’s career in a Nixon-era America. Fleeing back to Britain (and allegedly stealing some of the Dolls’ equipment), Westwood and McLaren renamed their shop SEX and focused on fetish fashion and anarchist patterns, attracting a small crowd of disaffected teens but remaining largely unknown. Among these rebel teenagers, McLaren found his fame.

Hand-picking the most provocative of his customers, McLaren gave them an offer. Join his band and he’d make you famous. Within a few months, the Sex Pistols were formed. Dressing them in apparel from SEX and equipping them with basic anarchist slogans, McLaren had created an unforgettable advertisement. Months after the first Sex Pistols show — which lasted all of twenty minutes and ended in a fistfight — punk bands were springing up across England, and thousands of teens started cutting their hair and safetypinning their clothes. British punk spread like wildfire all through 1976 and ‘77, crossing over into America where it mixed with the vibrant New York garage rock scene. For a glorious moment, it seemed as if the youth revolution had finally arrived. But nothing built on destruction can last forever, and less than a year after releasing their first album, the Sex Pistols broke up. While their career was short-lived, their influence has persisted, leaving an equally unforgettable mark on music and style.

The punk scene and fashion have always been intertwined. Vivienne Westwood would later describe the Sex Pistols as living mannequins for her clothes, their popularity launching her career as one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century. Meant to provoke their War Generation parents, her early punk fashion integrated leather, Scottish plaids, short spiked hair, repurposed fetish clothing and most controversially, sometimes included swastikas. Later punk groups would disavow such Nazi imagery, from The Clash’s antifascist messages and performance at the Rock Against Racism festival to Dead Kennedy’s more explicit song, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Catalyzed by Westwood’s influence, punk fashion took on a life of its own. Similarly, as her and McLaren’s relationship deteriorated, Westwood grew tired of the mindless anarchy of street punk and moved into the realm of high-fashion, now renowned as one of the most influential designers of the late 20th century. As the music spread and evolved, so did the style.

Combat boots were introduced in the New York proto-punk dive bar CBGB, which launched the careers of stars like the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and the Talking Heads. Worn partly because of the foot-crushing crowd, but more to avoid the ubiquitous amount of urine from the club owner’s unwashed dog who wandered freely among the equally dirty street punks and bohemians, Doc Martens became staples of the scene. As punk politicized in the 80s, aligning itself with leftist anarchosocialist beliefs, civil unrest increased and fights became a constant, leading fashion to militarize into studded leather, shaved heads, and all-black T-shirts and jeans.

Diversifying into the ostentatious New Wave, gloomy Goth, and aggresive Hardcore subgenres, clothing transformed from shock value into a way to identify members of the contrasting subcultures, recognizing their own and distrusting outsiders often to the point of violence. Accusations of “selling out” by compromising punk values in order to gain commercial success intensified and authenticity superseded both musical ability and fashion. Purists would boycott, slander, and physically attack anyone perceived to be a “plastic punk,” someone who didn’t conform to their image of punk, a sharp contrast from a genre that was supposed to be about individualism.

In one of his posthumously released journals, Nirvana’s tortured frontman Kurt Cobain wrote,“Punk is musical freedom. It's saying, doing and playing what you want.” How did a movement based on self-expression become so exclusionary? For an anti-conformist movement, it seems pretty regimented. Even worse, it’s hypocritical.

The ugly truth is that punk was always about making money and getting famous. From the very first Westwood design and McLaren-curated band, it was a way for anyone to become an orchestrated superstar. Can you really sell out in a subculture that was initially created to sell clothes? There’s an innate hypocrisy in a counterculture that’s dependent on the mainstream, constantly evolving to maintain a position opposite of whatever is popular. Is that really revolution?

That’s not to say that punk is hollow. On the contrary, it’s one of the most important things in our culture. Punk is a promise. It’s a statement that you can be who and what you want to be. It’s proof you don’t have to fit in to matter. It’s raw power, rebellion distilled into pure energy. It’s the tantalizing taste of freedom. Punk is what you choose it to be.

The 2020s have seen a resurgence in nostalgia for the allegedly “plastic” pop-punk of the early 2000s. Hot Topic is experiencing the highest traffic since 2007. Fall Out Boy, Green Day, and Weezer are playing together on the “Hella Mega Tour.” My Chemical Romance and Blink-182 reunited. Most controversially, pop newcomers like Willow Smith and Olivia Rodrigo have taken their place in the pantheon of distortion-laden, leather-and-plaid wearing musicians, inciting claims of punk appropriation. But face it, these admittedly talented (if somewhat derivative) girls make good music. There’s virtually no thematic difference between Pete Shelley singing “You make me feel like dirt and I'm hurt” in the seminal Buzzcocks single “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)” and Rodrigo’s “I've lost my mind, I've spent the night, crying on the floor of my bathroom” in the teen-angst driven “good 4 u”. So why is Olivia Rodrigo crucified by purists as shallow and overly emotional while the Buzzcocks were critically lauded? Both are great, cathartic songs to shout in your car after getting dumped - something I can certainly vouch for.

The most punk thing a person can do is rebel against the conformity of their current punk rock mainstream. Hell, if you’re a punk who likes Taylor Swift, you’re more of a rebel than the twenty-something-year-old basement dweller who only listens to Black Flag. Since 1978, there have been claims that punk is gone, only to be refuted by the next generation of pissed-off kids who pick up instruments and give the middle finger to “the man.” Why fight against something as powerful as that?

Traditional punk rock might be dead, but punk’s spirit can never die. It lives on in the underground hip-hop collectives and the converted warehouses of hyperpop rave scenes, in the teenage garage bands and the risks by popstars who step on the distortion pedal. Punk can be found anywhere that someone refuses to conform to something just because they’re told they should.

Neil Young might’ve said it best.

“Hey hey, my my. Rock and roll can never die.”

Videographer: Diana Perez
Models: Emily Gift & Cameron Wesley
HMUA: Ryan Velasquez & Shania Wagner
Stylists: Andrea Mauri, Livia Blackburn & Ella Claret

Other Stories in Fashion

© 2024 SPARK. All Rights Reserved.