London Calling: The Punk Revolution

Fashion can also be used to articulate difference and dissent. It can give a voice to a collective or people on the fringe of society. This is most evident among youth subcultures. Subcultures have a shared group identity based on the consumption of music

Fashion can also be used to articulate difference and dissent. It can give a voice to a collective or people on the fringe of society. This is most evident among youth subcultures. Subcultures have a shared group identity based on the consumption of music, fashion and drugs. They have their own philosophy and social codes, and their allegiance to this group is signified through ‘style’. This is the fashion of the street, not the catwalk.

One of the first academics to study youth culture was Dick Hebdige, a sociologist based at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, which produced innovative research in late 70s and 80s. Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style looks at the styles worn by British subcultures like Teddy Boys, Mods, punks and skinheads. He argues that everyday objects can be turned via a series of ‘spectacular transformations’ and made to signify as ‘style’.

The most notorious British subculture was punk, which we can use as a case study. Punk emerged in the late 70s in response to the economic recession and mass unemployment of the period. Revolving around groups like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, punk was defiantly working class, anarchic and aggressive. One of the Pistols’ first hits was called Anarchy in the UK.

Roger Sabin’s definition is helpful:

Thus at a very basic level, we can say that punk was/is a subculture best characterised as being part youth rebellion, part artistic statement. It had its high point from 1976 to 1979, and was most visible in Britain and America. It had its primary manifestation in music - and specifically in the disaffected rock and roll of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Philosophically, it had no 'set agenda' like the hippy movement that preceded it, but nevertheless stood for identifiable attitudes, among them: an emphasis on negationism (rather than nihilism); a consciousness of class-based politics (with a stress on 'working-class credibility'); and a belief in spontaneity and 'doing it yourself’. (Sabin, p3)

Coinciding with the rise of postmodernism, punk launched an iconoclastic attack on accepted meta-narratives of Britishness, monarchy and class. The Sex Pistols created a parody of the British national anthem God Save the Queen. They ripped it apart by using an aggressive musical style and turned it into a protest about modern Britain. This is visualised by Jamie Reid’s image, which defaced a picture of the Queen. Punk was nihilistic and anti-establishment.

Punks had a DIY ethos. They cut their own hair and augmented their bodies with piercings. This is an infamous feature from the punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue. It sets out three chords, then says ‘now form a band’. Punk is not about ability, it’s about attitude. Hebdige argues that subcultures are positioned in resistance to mainstream society. He writes:

The punk sub culture, like every other youth culture, was constituted in a series of spectacular transformations of a whole range of commodities, values, common-sense attitudes, etc. It was through these adapted forms that certain sections of predominantly working-class youth were able to restate their opposition to dominant values and institutions.

Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture offered a semiological reading of punk – examining its visual signs and tropes. For example, he interprets the safety pins and bin-liners that made up the punk armoury as signs of material poverty made to stand for the ‘spiritual paucity’ of everyday life. This in turn was a condemnation of capitalism. Dave Laing in One Chord Wonders (1985) provides more of a sociology of punk. For example he shows that many punk musicians actually came from middle-class families (43%) and that there was a strong influence of art school students.

Punk style was a bricolage of discarded symbols: swastikas, bin liners and safety pins. Hebdige argued that the punk subculture was characterised by chaos, but that it was nevertheless ‘thoroughly ordered’. It was a logical system by which objects and images were appropriated and made to signify new ideas.

How can we resolve this paradox – a chaotic style that follows clear rules? Hebdige uses a concept devised by the French sociologist, Levi-Strauss – homology. This is the ‘symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group’ and the objects it uses to manifest itself. Objects are appropriated – taken out of their original context and made to express the values of the group.

Punk’s visual identity was formulated by two individuals. Malcolm McLaren was a pop impresario and manager of the Sex Pistols. He had his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. Vivienne Westwood was a fashion designer and she had the creative flare to translate McLaren’s ideas into clothing. In 1971 they took over a shop at 430 Kings Road, London, and renamed it SEX in 1975. Their ambition was to bring the dark world of sexual adventure and fetish to the streets of London.

Westwood produced provocative clothing. The Bondage Suit combined references to the straightjacket and bondage/sadomasochism for ultimate shock value. She produced t-shirts emblazoned with provocative phrases. A famous photo shows McLaren in a T-shirt reading ‘Cambridge Rapist’ and Westwood in a T-shirt displaying a paedophilic image. As you can imagine, Punk outraged the mainstream of British society. Westwood changed the look of rock music forever, matching The Sex Pistols' revolutionary sound with an equally revolutionary approach to DIY fashion.

Today Vivienne Westwood is Britain’s most culturally significant fashion designer, personifying the subversive originality of British fashion. After punk had died down, she began to take an interest in the clothes and fabrics of the British establishment. Her Harris Tweed collection of 1987 took its inspiration from Savile Row tailors.

Affectionately parodying the establishment, these clothes evoked the aristocracy, boarding school and country houses, as well as upper class pursuits like hunting, shooting and fishing. Westwood has stated: ‘I am never more happy than when I parody the British in the context of a classical perspective.’ Of course, Westwood’s work inevitably declared sexuality under the constraint of British understatement.

Westwood is renowned for raiding history for ideas. Her Pirates collection (1979-81) was adopted by musicians labelled the New Romantics. This work brought to the fore the habit for which she Adam and the Ants and Spandau Ballet wore billowing shirts inspired by Westwood’s study of 18th Century men’s clothing but flamboyantly fused with North American Indian and pirate styles.

Punk wasn’t an isolated phenomenon; it sent shockwaves through a number of cultural fields: film, literature, comics and fashion. The work of Jamie Reid is a visual counterpart to the Sex Pistols' music. Reid's work made the greatest single contribution to punk's visual identity. He designed the cover of the notoriously titled Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The typography resembles letters cut out of newspapers like a ransom note of a letter from a serial killer – symbolic violence punk style.

Like the Sex Pistols' music, Reid's visuals used an aggressive montage form, pillaging fragments of pop-cultural detritus. The Pistols lifted their riffs from a repository of stock rock n’ roll prototypes. Reid appropriated his materials from the ‘trash populism of tabloid culture and downmarket advertising’.

The cover of the 7-inch single, Pretty Vacant stands out. Reid uses a collage of two tourist coaches, the destinations of which are 'nowhere' and 'boredom'. The front cover features the shattered glass of a picture frame, beneath which is emblazoned, in ransom note lettering, the name of the band and the song. ‘Nothing, at the time, so vividly articulated what it was like to hear the Pistols shattering the edifice of rock 'n' roll mythology: it was exactly like the sound of breaking glass — and you didn't know where the shards were going to fall.’ (Sabin, p25)

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