The Origins Of Punk Fashion Cultural Studies Essay

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The time and birthplace of Punk movement is debatable. Either the New York scene of the late sixties or the British Punks of 1975-76 can be given the honour. Conventionally, it is thought the New Yorkers invented the musical style while the Londoners popularized the attitude and the appearance. For our purpose, we will just watch over the British punk because it was just in the late seventies that the movement gained some importance and formalization.

Punk in Britain was a movement essentially made of deprived working-class white youths. There is a strong connection between the punk phenomenon and the economic and social inequalities in Great Britain. The aim of this work is to show where the punk came from and how the movement developed its own style, quite different from any other else, up to making it a proper fashion recognized worldwide.

In the fist chapter, it will be introduced the concept of subculture. The punk was in fact one of the many white youth subculture sparkled after the Second World War. It will be explained why youth subcultures emerged and they will be delineated the main features of some of them.

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A deep analysis of Punk movement origins will be carried out in the second chapter. Here it will be possible to understand the social reasons which led to the creation of punk and the many different sources of style which contributed to the formation of a punk aesthetic.

The main feature of the punk aesthetic, then, will be exposed and commented in the third chapter. This chapter focus on the use of shocking and glowering clothes and accessories as a way of rebellion against the mainstream and the society.

In the fourth chapter, it will be discussed the role of media in the spread and acceptance of the punk subculture. As we will see in this chapter, little by little media changed attitude toward punk. There was a shift from fear to integration of punks which can be explained through the analysis of two forms of incorporation, the commodity form and the ideological form. Yet in this chapter, it will be presented on of the main pillar of the punk ideology, the 'Do It Yourself' (DIY) philosophy, which influenced everything in the punk subculture from the music to the fashion.

In the fifth chapter, then, it will be drawn the story of what can be considered the real birthplace of the punk fashion, the 430 King's Road, where Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren started their careers. It will be delineated the evolution of the different shops that followed each other at this address and, what is more important, the evolution of the styles proposed by these shops which became the point of reference for the most important punk fashion addicted.

In the sixth and last chapter, finally, it will be pointed out how the commodity form of incorporation struck the punk made it fashion available and accepted by the vast public. The 1977 couture collection of Zandra inspired to punks may be identified as the final blow for a pure punk style and the beginning of its exploitation as a fashion trend.

From that time on many fashion designers inspired to a punk aesthetic for their collections. Recently the whole fashion system seems to have rediscovered the punk: From Jean-Paul Gaultier to Moschino up to low-cost retailers as Zara or H&M.

Chapter 1

Youth subcultures:

The source of style

The term 'subculture' came up for the first time around the second half of the 1940s in anthropological and sociological writing. As early as 1950, David Riesman distinguished between a majority, "which passively accepted commercially provided styles and meanings, and a 'subculture' which actively sought a minority style (hot jazz at the time) and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values. Thus the audience [...] manipulates the product (and hence the producer), no less than the other way round" (Riesman, 1950).

From that time on, many different studies were carried out and various interpretations on the meaning and the function of the subcultures were given by estimated personalities as John Clarke, Phil Cohen, Walter Miller, Matza and Sykes, Peter Willmott and Stuart Hall. 

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In particular, Dick Hebdige gave one of the biggest contributions to the study of subcultures in his 1979 book "Subculture the Meaning of style" which encompasses all theories from the above mentionated authors and uses them to analyze the youth subcultures. From hipsters to teddy boys, from skinheads to mods, from glitter rockers to punks, the youth cultural styles' consecution is here reinterpreted, reposing on Gramsci's notion of hegemony, "as symbolic forms of resistance; as spectacular symptoms of a wider more generally submerged dissent which characterized the whole post-war period" (Hebdige, 1979)

The origins of youth subcultures are, thus, to be found after the Second World War when the traditional patterns of everyday life were completely upturned. The emergence of the mass media, modifications in the structure of the family and in the organization of school and work, shifts in the relative burdens of work and leisure, all contributed in fragmenting and polarizing the working-class community. In this contest, also the role and the relative importance of the working-class youth experienced a deep change: their purchasing power enormously increased (during the period 1945-50 it was estimated that the average real wage of teenagers increased at twice the adults' rate) and, consequently, it was created a new youth market in order to take up the resulting surplus.

From then on, the youth started to express and impose its own identity against the parental one. According to Cohen youth subcultures can be defined as a "compromise solution between two contradictionary needs: The need to create and express autonomy and difference from parents [...] and the need to maintain the parental identifications" (Cohen, 1972). That is to say, the latent function of subculture was to "express and resolve, albeit magically, the contradictions which remain hidden or unresolved in the parent culture" (Cohen, 1972)

As Hebdige pointed out, skinheads, for instance, "undoubtedly reasserted those values associated with the traditional working-class community, but they did so in the face of the widespread renunciation of those values in the parent culture - at a time when such an affirmation of the classic concerns of working- class life was considered inappropriate"(Hebdige, 1979). But it is also the case of mods: in fact they "were negotiating changes and contradictions which were simultaneously affecting the parent culture but they were doing so in terms of their own relatively autonomous problematic - by inventing an 'elsewhere' (the week-end, the West End) which was defined against the familiar locales of the home, the pub, the working-man's club, the neighbourhood" (Hebdige, 1979).

Nevertheless, we must be careful in stressing the importance of integration and coherence between youth and parent culture because one of the most relevant feature in the definition of a subculture is its dissonance and discontinuity with the most largely accepted culture. This is particularly evident if we take in consideration the punk subculture.

As Hebdige writes in fact "we should be hard pressed to find in the punk subculture, for instance, any symbolic attempts to 'retrieve some of the socially cohesive elements destroyed in the parent culture' (Cohen, 1972) beyond the simple fact of cohesion itself: the expression of a highly structured, visible, tightly bounded group identity. Rather, the punks seemed to be parodying the alienation and emptiness which have caused sociologists so much concern, realizing in a deliberate and wilful fashion the direst predictions of the most scathing social critics, and celebrating in a mock-heroic terms the death of the community and collapse of traditional forms of meaning".

Even if each subculture strives to be different and unique among other ones, they all share a common feature: they are all cultures of conspicuous consumption. This term indicates the practice of abnormally spending on goods and services with the main objective of flaunting the belonging to a social status, a particular group or, as in this case, to a specific subculture. "It is through the distinctive rituals of consumption, through style, that the subculture at once reveals its 'secret' identity and communicates its forbidden meanings. It is basically the way in which commodities are used in subculture which marks the subculture off from the more orthodox cultural formations." (Hebdige, 1979).

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The style can be defined as the self-image that a person creates representing his or her personality. Style, however, is not built at an individual level but it is strongly dictated by the subculture rules. Everyone identifying in a specific subculture is unconsciously constrained in the adoption, use, dissemination, and the rejection of a certain style of clothing or even acting. That because of the so-called social pressure: the behaviour of a single person is so much linked to the influence exerted by the social groups that the individual identity muddles up with the collective identity. Accordingly, the identity of the individual is recognized just as his or her membership to the reference group is recognized and accepted by all other members. In this contest, the apparel assumes a key role becoming the most evident sign of affiliation and, thus, one of the principal mean of social avowal. Considering the clothing in the sense of a common communication code, it becomes important to identify the symbolic value of different clothes. Actually, they always carry a message about the style of a group, and to a more precise analysis, they can tell us everything we need to know about norms and values of a specific group and even about its formation processes.

Thus, the apparel adopted by a subculture should not be seen as a transient fashion but as a visual image of what are the values and norms characterizing that specific subculture and distinguishing it from parent culture and from the other youth subculture too, and inasmuch symbolic representation, it needs to be carefully analyzed to be properly interpreted.

Chapter 2

The Punk: a Mix of heterogeneous youth styles

I can play punk rock, and I love playing punk rock, but I was into every other style of music before I played punk rock. (Travis Baker)

This quotation from one of the most famed punk-rock drummer of the recent years well summarizes what was the punk movement's background.

Punk's origins are blended and even conflicting, coming from a wide range of different musical and fashion styles.

Influenced by David Bowie and glitter rock, combined with the main features of Southend r&b rhythms, inspired by American proto-punk, twisted with northern soul and with reggae, the punk can be described as a patchwork made of "distorted reflections" coming from almost every previous post-war youth culture "stuck together with safety pins". (Jon Savage, 2007)

It is like punk unearthing and renewing entire wardrobes belonging to different ages with the aim of proposing them in revitalized cut-up form.

"Glam rock contributed narcissism, nihilism and gender confusion. American punk offered a minimalist aesthetic (e.g. the Ramones' 'Pinhead' or Crime's 'I stupid'), the cult of the street and a penchant for self-laceration. Northern Soul (a genuinely secret subculture of working-class youngsters dedicated to acrobatic dancing and fast American soul of the 60s, which centres on clubs like Wigan Casino) brought its subterranean tradition of fast, jerky rhythms, solo dance styles and amphetamines; reggae its exotic and dangerous aura or forbidden identity, its conscience, its dread and its cool. Native rhythm 'n blues reinforced the brashness and the speed of Northern Soul, took back to the basics and contributed a highly developed iconoclasm, a thoroughly British person and an extremely selective appropriation of the rock 'n roll heritage." (Hebdige, 1979)

However, the link between these so heterogeneous styles is to be found in the social contest in which the punk movement emerged. We are dealing with the late 1970s in Britain, with its massive unemployment, with its continuous warlike violence episodes (as ,for instance, the tragic one happened during the '76 Notting Hill Carnival to which the punk group The Clash dedicated the song 'White riot'), with its changing moral standards and its rediscovery of poverty.

It was exactly in this period that the race relations became fundamental. On the one hand, there was the urban black youths, living and working in Britain but dreaming and finding an imaginary refuge in an 'elsewhere' (Africa, the West Indies, etc.) through the reggae and the Rastafarianism. On the other hand, there was the white working-class youth, placed at the same social level as the black ones but stuck in their present time, having no foreseeable future and no places or means to escape the reality. In fact, the model proposed by the glam rock made of literary influences (from Rimbaud, Burroughs, Lautréamont and Huysmans) and underground cinema, focused on the concepts of polymorphism, perverse sexuality and obsessive individualism resulted too remote from the majority of working-class youth.

They were imprisoned in a vicious circle. They felt as aliens, rejected not only by the rest of the world but also by the any existent music genre. They had no reference models, no hopes for the future and neither perspectives of improvement. Therefore, they started "to act out alienation, to mime its imagined condition, to manufacture a whole series of subjective correlatives for the official archetypes of the 'crisis of modern life': the unemployment figures, the Depression, the Westway, Television, etc." (Hebdige, 1979)

The awareness of this crisis led to the conversion of what was an inner malaise into tangible icons (the safety pins, the ripped clothes, the spikes, the hungry look, the combat boots, etc.) reflecting in an enhanced way the perceived condition of exile and alienation, which is, nevertheless, voluntarily assumed.

Punks, thus, "moved back to earlier, more vigorous forms of rock (i.e. the 50s and the mid-60s when the black influences had been strongest) and forward to contemporary reggae(dub, Bob Marley) in order to find a music which reflected more adequately their sense of frustration and oppression." (Hebdige, 1979). They saw in Rastafarian history of exile a point of contact and it was exactly for this reason it was the only accepted subculture alternative to punk. Richard Hell, a punk musician, interviewed in the popular music magazine New Musical Express declared, "punks are niggers" (NME, 29 October 1977). An inevitably feisty claim but it is indicative of what was the real situation at that time. As Hebdige writes, the punk can be seen in part as "white 'translation' of black 'ethnicity'." (Hebdige, 1979)

In addition, this unstudied identification with black British and the West Indian tradition was a way to oppose actively to teddy boys, their hated rivals. In fact, punks used to modify and wear elements from the teddy boys' style and it was perceived as an outrage by the teddy boy revivalists because they felt as punks stealing and fooling their way of clothing and, in a sense, their ideals. "Punk style was perhaps interpreted by the teddy boys as an affront to the traditional working-class values of forthrightness, plain speech and sexual Puritanism which they had endorsed and revived" (Hebdige, 1979). Concrete evidences of this tension between the two subcultures could be found every Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1977 along King's Road where punctually a throng of punks and teds met to fight.

Therefore, Reggae, notwithstanding its apparent distance from punk music, started to be present in a number of repertoires of punk bands as The Clash, The Slits, The Jam, and many others. In the majority of punk clubs, they used to play regularly heavy reggae music between live acts and, moreover, the song "Punky Reggae Party" by Bob Marley & The Wailers, is the evident and overwhelming proof of this contamination.

Chapter 3

Punks' rebellion through style

Rebellion is the heart of the punk subculture. Rebellion against society, rebellion against social inequalities, rebellion, in last instance, against conformism. Everything the punks did, everything they wore, dance to, fight for, everything can be consider as 'punk' has the only aim of convey a message of nonconformity. Conformity can be defined as "a change in a person's behaviour or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or a group of people". (Aronson, 1972)

Therefore, punks' rebellion was essentially against the prevailing modes of thought; what 'common' people took for granted that is to say the necessity to have a good and certain job, the blame on homosexuality, the mistrust in other race, it was simply not accepted as the only and the best code of conduct.

However, punks were young, poor, and completely helpless in effectively struggling for changing the reality. Therefore, the only weapon they found to react was to transform themselves in directly offensive and threatening beings.

"Punks, like previous post-war youth subculture such as teddy boys, the mods, the rockers, the skinheads, the beats, the zoot suiters, and the hippies created, a coherent and elaborate system of body adornment that expressed their estrangement from mainstream society and that horrified the general public. Having little access to dominant means of discourse, punks displayed their disaffiliation and their subcultural identity through such adornment, which was for them an accessible and direct channel of communication. By manipulating the standard codes of adornment in socially objectionable ways punks challenged the accepted categories of everyday dress and disrupted the codes and conventions of daily life" (Wojick,1995)

Early punks, probably unconsciously, used most of the rebellion techniques typical of the early avant-gardists: "unusual fashions, the blurring of boundaries between art and every day life, juxtapositions of seemingly disparate objects and behaviours, intentional provocation of the audience, use of unstrained performers and drastic reorganization (or disorganization) of accepted performance styles and procedure" (O'Hara,1999)

In this contest, it is not surprisingly that the main features of punk fashion were so extremely impressive and shocking.

"Objects borrowed form the most sordid of contexts found a place in the punk's ensembles: lavatory chains were draped in graceful arcs across chests encased in plastic bin-liners. Safety-pins were taken put of their domestic 'utility' context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear or lip. 'Cheap' trashy fabrics (PVC, plastic lurex, etc.) in vulgar designs (e.g. mock leopard skin) and 'nasty' colours, long discarded by the quality end of the fashion industry as obsolete kitsch, were salvaged by the punks and turned into garments (fly boy drainpipes, 'common' miniskirts) which offered self-conscious commentaries on the notions of modernity and taste."(Hebdige, 1979)

Even the conventional ideas of beauty and attractiveness were refused. Hair was dyed with bright colours and straightened up in spikes and Mohawk. Body piercing degenerated in self-mutilation: studs and pins prinked eyebrows, cheeks, nose and lips.

Make-up was used by both boys and girls in a massive and impressive way: cosmetics became as paint to be used in creating alien masks to hide behind. As Hebdige argued, "beneath the clownish make-up there lurked the unaccepted and disfigured face of capitalism".

Claiming to be anarchists and nihilists, punks felt free to offend as many people as they could. They wore terrorist/guerrilla outfits, directly offensive T-shirt covered in swear words or fake blood, along with desecrated religious object and sexually deviant accessories.

"The perverse and the abnormal were valued intrinsically. In particular, the illicit iconography of sexual fetishism was used to predictable effect. Rapist masks and rubber wear, leather bodices and fishnet stocking, implausibly pointed stiletto heeled shoes, the whole paraphernalia of bondage - the belts, straps and chains - were exhumed from the boudoir, closet and pornographic film and placed on the street were they retained their forbidden connotations. Some young punks even donned the dirty raincoat - the most prosaic symbol of sexual 'kinkiness'- and hence expressed their deviance in suitably proletarian terms." (Hebdige, 1979)

For the first wave punks, each adornment used had a precise meaning: The safety pins and bin liners, for instance, symbolized a material and spiritual poverty in an exaggerated form, which could be really experienced or just acted out.

"In other words, the safety pins, etc. 'enacted' that transition from real to symbolic scarcity which Paul Piccone (1969) has described as the movement from 'empty stomachs' to 'empty spirits - and therefore an empty life notwithstanding [the] chrome and the plastic […] of the lifestyle of bourgeois society". (Hebdige, 1979)

One of the most controversial symbol used by punks were surely the swastika. This symbol was made available to the punks through Bowie and Lou Reed's Berlin phase. It evoked a decadent and evil Germany, an idea of 'no future' strictly linked to the punks' mood. Therefore, it had nothing to do with the Nazism's ideology in the punk's vision. Quite the opposite, punks firmly supported the anti-fascism and anti-racism movement. In the punk wear, the swastika lost its classic meaning and it was worn just because it was guaranteed to shock.

Conventionally, the swastika has always signified 'enemy' and 'hate', and to be hated is exactly what punks wanted.

Chapter 4

Role of media and DIY

As it was showed previously, punk was surely a spectacular subculture and it would have been very difficult for media not to pay attention to it.

Although many others groups had paved the way for punk through 1975, it was not until the advent of the Sex Pistols that punk began to take shape as a noticeable style for the vast public. The New Musical Express gave the Sex Pistols their first music press coverage in the 21 February 1976 for their performance at the Marquee. From then on punk rock began to attract critical attention of the specialized press, and criticism from all the rest of the world.

Moral panic began emerging clamant after the accident happened at the punk festival at 100 Club in Soho in the September of the same year, when a girl was partially blinded by flying beer glass. Punks were angry, wore absurd and offensive clothes and openly claimed they wanted to fight the society and to be heated. It is not surprising that in few months all the British press was focused on this new subculture frightening the middle class.

Punk was described as a big social problem and the deviant and anti-social act (as vandalism, swearing, fighting etc.) did nothing but worsen the situation. Their style was used as counter-evidence of the danger they represented: They infringed the sartorial codes in the same way they disrupted the civil and social codes; they dress in an inhuman way because they are beasts acting as animals without moral.

Therefore, punks were demonized in the press and depicted as 'folk devils'. They were a threat to adjure before it led to a degeneracy of all British youth: concerts were cancelled, the Sex Pistols' song 'God save the Queen' was banned by British radios, and moral barricades were raised by editors, politicians and other right-thinking people. However, nothing of the above could stop the punk movement's diffusion. For the first time in the history, there was an attempt by a working-class youth subculture "to provide an alternative critical space within the subculture itself to counteract the hostile ore at least ideologically inflected coverage which punk was receiving in the media". (Hebdige, 1979)

An alternative punk press was created: the fanzines. Punk fanzines were non-professional and nonofficial journals edited by an individual or a small group consisting of reviews, editorials and interviews with the most important exponents of the punk scene. These publications were produced on a small scale as cheaply as possible and distributed through a small number of sympathetic retail outlets.

"The language in which the various manifestos were framed was determinedly 'working class' (i.e. it was liberally peppered with swear words) and typing errors and grammatical mistakes, misspellings and jumbled pagination were left uncorrected in the final proof. Those corrections and crossings out that were made before publication were left to be deciphered by the reader. The overwhelming impression was one of urgency and immediacy, of a paper produced in indecent haste, of memos from the front line." (Hebdige, 1979)

The fanzines are one of the most notable expressions of the punk's "Do It Yourself" (DIY) concept. The DIY ethic, in general terms, refers to the ethic of being self-reliant by completing tasks oneself as opposed to having others who are more experienced or able complete them for you. The DIY ethic is tied to punk ideology and anti consumerism, as a rejection of the need to purchase items or use existing systems or processes.

"Sniffin Glue, the first fanzine and the one which achieved the highest circulation, contained perhaps the single most inspired item of propaganda produced by the subculture - the definitive statement of punk's do- it -your self philosophy- a diagram showing three finger positions on the neck of a guitar over the caption: 'Here's one chord, here's two more, now form your band'. " (Hebdige, 1979)

Nevertheless, the Do it yourself philosophy was not confined just in the press world.

Emerging punk bands began to record their music, produce albums and merchandise, distribute their works and often performed basement shows in residential homes rather than at traditional venue, in this way they could to avoid corporate sponsorship and to secure freedom in performance.

To be honest, these emergent bands had no many other choices because most of venues tended to evade more experimental music, and so houses were often the only places at which they were allowed to play.

Obviously, also punk fashion followed the DIY ideology: The clothes suited the lifestyle of those with limited cash due to unemployment and the general low-income school leavers. Punks cut up old clothes from charity and thrift shops, destroyed the fabric and refashioned outfits creating a very innovative way of clothing never existed before.

This stylistic innovation attracted the media's attention provoking two different responses: In the fashion pages, the newness and the creativity of the punk fashion began to be not only accepted but also celebrated, while there was a big part of the British press still stigmatizing the punk as ridiculous and offensive.

Starting from an initial acceptance by the fashion magazines, little by little all media began a sort of process of recuperation and incorporation of the punk: obviously, young punks still represented a deviant way of living but the media's attitude, and so of the whole society as well, slowly shifted from a demonizing approach to an exorcising approach.

This was made, as Hebdige explains, throughout two different forms:

The ideological form

The commodity form

A - Ideological form

Through this form, media tried to neutralize the differences between punks and common people. Young punk's family assumed a new role.

"The punks tended to be resituated by the press in the family, perhaps because members of the subculture deliberately obscured their origins, refused the family and willingly played the part of folk devil, presenting themselves as pure objects, as villainous clowns. […]. For whatever reason, the inevitable glut of articles gleefully denouncing the latest punk outrage was counter-balanced by an equal number of items devoted to the small detail of punk family life." (Hebdige, 1979)

During the summer of 1977, several articles were published on punk babies, punk-ted weddings and on a lot of other common daily situations involving punks and with titles like 'Punks have mothers too: They tell us a few home truths' (Woman, 15 April 1978) or 'Punks and Mothers' (Woman 's Own, 15 October 1977)

"All these articles served to minimize the Otherness so stridently proclaimed in punk style, and defined the subculture in precisely those terms which it sought most vehemently to resist and deny" (Hebdige, 1979)

B - Commodity form

This second form of incorporation is the most interesting for the purposes of this research. It is trough this form that subcultural signs (clothes, music etc.) are driven to the conversion into mass-produced objects. Therefore, it is here the key to understand how the punk way of clothing, born from the rebellion against the whole society and characterised from the beginning by an anti-fashion attitude, could be transformed and largely exploited as a proper fashion trend.

But first to get to this, it will be necessary to draw the story of what could be consider the cradle of punk fashion The 430, King's Road.

Chapter 5

430, King's Road

Everything started in the October 1971 when Malcolm McLaren and his art-school friend Patrick Casey opened, here in the heart of the Chelsea district, a small stand in the back room of a shop called 'Paradise Garage'. They sold at time original rock 'n' roll vinyl records, specialized music magazines, vintage items from the 1950s and some garment.

The young McLaren was convinced that music and fashion were two inseparable things and so, when in 1971 he obtained the proprietary rights on the store, he renamed it 'Let It Rock' and transformed it in a clothing store stocked up with second-hand and new teddy boy clothes designed by his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood.

The shop wavy iron facade was painted black with the store's name written in pink letters, while the interior followed the typical stylish period details, such as the so-called 'Odeon' wallpapers. Westwood's designs sold in the shop were outrageous and outlandish, inspired by bikers, fetishists and prostitutes. 'Brothel creeper' shoes, drape coats, and skin-tight trousers were designed by Vivienne Westwood (but also by McLaren itself) and then made up by an East End tailor and by a local seamstress.  One of the most representative example of the kind of garments sold in this first-phase 'Let It Rock' is the 'Bones T-shirt': "Using chicken bones acquired from a local takeaway, Westwood boiled and drilled the bones and attached them with chains and studs to spell keywords such as 'Rock' and 'Perv'. The idea originated in the skull and crossbones of the bikers, but it gave the garment a primitive, talismanic power". [1]

Nothing similar ever appeared in the entire fashion world scene: the store with its creation attract the attention of the international press, from the Rolling Stone to certain Japanese magazines.

It was a real success but McLaren was not completely satisfied with the style of the shop: their main customers were teddy boys and he had huge problems with them.

For these reason the next year, he travelled to New York for a boutique fair where he met the emergent American rock band the New York Dolls. It was here he started to take his first steps in the rock music system. In fact he took over their management, he dressed them in red leather clothes supplied by his London store and promoted them using Soviet iconography. The Dolls broke up soon after, but served their purpose as a dry run for the management style he would soon deploy to spectacular effect with the Sex Pistols.

This New York phase was moreover very useful to renew the 'Let It Rock' style.In 1972 the store's name was changed in 'Too Fast To Live, To Young To Die' and was restocked with clothing (still manufactured under the label 'Let It Rock') evoking the more recent, early 60s rocker fashions. To this period it belongs for example the 'Wembley 72 T-shirt': In the august 1972, at the Wembley Stadium of London , it was held one of the most important rock festival of that year and for the occasion Westwood and McLaren printed a lot of T-shirts inspired to it. "They did not sell well and to avoid waste McLaren had the idea of turning them into relics of the past. This one from Westwood and McLaren's shop Too Fast to Live too Young to Die has been dyed, cut and re-stitched and one sleeve has been removed. It has zips and three plastic pockets with pictures of 1950s pin-ups cut from magazines. The words 'Rock 'n' Roll' and 'Wembley 72' are just visible on the T-shirt."  [2]

In 1974 the shop went through another change: its name was modified in 'SEX' (written on the faced in big pink foam rubber letters) and the style of the assortment adapted accordingly. Above the front door there was scrawled the defiant phrase "Craft must have clothes but Truth loves to go naked" while the interior walls were covered with pornographic graffiti and latex curtains. Among the store stock there were a lot of fetish garments.

Also the label 'Let It Rock' was abandoned and replaced by the new one, 'Sedetionaries'.

"The store's designs played with taboos and sexuality, and included T-shirts bearing images of the Cambridge Rapist's face hood, semi-naked cowboys, a trompe-l'œil image of bare breasts and pornographic texts from the book School for Wives by the beat author Alexander Trocchi.

Among the designs were clear plastic-pocketed jeans, zippered tops and the Anarchy shirt which used stock from the 60s manufacturer Wemblex. These were bleached and dyed shirts and adorned with silk Karl Marx patches and anarchist slogans."[3]

The clientele of this period was extraordinary variegate (made of a mix of voyeur, prostitutes and proto-punk) and the merchandise supplied was manifold too: SEX sold fetish and bondage accessories as well as original fashion style clothes that would later become punk.

Vivienne Westwood claimed in Forum magazine (at the time the Britain's best-known sex magazine) that the idea was to take fetish wear "out of the bedroom and into the streets" and that they were really making "a political statement with this shop by attempting to attack the system".

In December 1976, McLaren renamed for the umpteenth time 430 Kings Road: the new name was 'Seditionaries - Clothes for Heroes'. He also redesigned its futuristic interior.All ove the walls there were printed photos of a demoted Dresden and an upside-down Piccadilly Circus.

"McLaren was now manager of the Sex Pistols and a key figure in the emerging Punk Rock phenomenon. The Seditionaries collection was an audacious fusion of all the subversive elements in Westwood and McLaren's recent work. There were the ripped garments of 1950s pin-ups; the leather, chains and badges of the bikers; the straps and buckles of the fetishists.

As Westwood said, 'You couldn't imagine the Punk Rock thing without the clothing'. These clothes were never cheap, but the Punks improvised their own gear and the look spread rapidly". [4]

Most of the Seditionaries' customers were members of the so-called 'Bromley Contingent', a group of followers and fans of the Sex Pistols (most were also fans of David Bowie and ex glitter rockers) which included important name as Siouxsie Sioux, Jordan, Simon 'Boy' Barker, Debbie Juvenile (née Wilson), Linda Ashby, Philip Salon, Simone Thomas, Bertie 'Berlin' Marshall, Tracie O'Keefe, Steve Severin, Billy Idol and Sharon Hayman. 

They had a primary role in helping popularize the fashion of the early UK punk movement. The fashion statements made by Siouxsie Sioux, in particular,incorporating fetish and bondage clothing, and her innovative style of makeup, continue to live on in punk and goth fashion.

Typical example of the garments sold in 'Seditionaries' was the muslin 'Destroy T-shirt': "It is formed from two squares of fabric with elongated, straitjacket-like sleeves caught back with D-rings, evoking a straitjacket and printed with the word 'destroy' and a swastika. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren used highly charged slogans and provocative images in a deliberate attempt to provoke the establishment. The muslins quickly became tattered, only adding to their appeal." [5]

Another element of the 'Seditionaries' collection was the 'Bondage suit': "the Seditionaries bondage suit of 1976 was inspired by American military fatigue trousers and the motorcyclists Belstaff jacket. It was first worn by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in Paris, and caused uproar. The trousers have a zippered seam under the crotch and a detachable black towelling bum flap, like a loincloth, and 'hobble' straps. Malcolm McLaren said 'Dye it black: make everything black, black, black.'" [6]

However, inevitably the new fashion was absorbed and disarmed by the mainstream. By 1977 when British punk rock achieved a certain widespread consensus, there were emulators as for example the shop 'BOY' (also in the King's Road).

Westwood, then in her early forties, could not accept this kind of widespread diffusion and decided to go out of the business in September 1980.

"During the last week of trading there was a massive sale, and leftover lots of stock from 'SEX' was sold off. Some stock was given to Steph Raynor at 'BOY' for them to sell as Westwood wanted to move on from a purely "punk" ethos. The screens for their original design t-shirts were given to BOY and the deal was for BOY to pay Westwood a percentage of the sales. Raynor made some small changes to the t-shirt designs." [3]

This is the end of the punk fashion era for Vivienne Westwood. Obviously not for her fashion career that grew more and more till leading her to international success and recognition as one of the most innovative, creative and prestigious fashion designer of the world.

In any case punk fashion will remain forever attached to her name: she wasn't the creator of the movement of course, neither he was Malcolm McLaren, but they were the punk fashion 'conceptualiser': "The pair picked up all kinds of outer concepts from the late sixties and sought their practical application using bored teenagers as their living experiments" [7]

Chapter 6

How rebellion became fashion

As we have just seen, it arrived a time in which the punk style became punk fashion: this moment coincides with the incorporation of the punk clothes in the mainstream and especially with the raise of imitators, the proper feature that can distinguish a real fashion from a simple way of clothing.

To explain this step it is necessary to go back to the concept of 'commodity form of incorporation' that I have previously introduced.

The commodity form of incorporation consist in converting the typical features of a subculture into mass production.

The relationship between the punk subculture and the various industries that exploit it, it is evidently ambiguous. The punk communicates through commodities even if the meanings given to them are deliberately distorted. It is therefore difficult to clearly distinguish the boundaries between commercial exploitation and creativity, even thought these are two diametrically opposed issues in the value system of most subcultures.

In any case the punk subculture established new trends and generated new looks and sounds which fed back into the reference mainstream industry.

The diffusion of punk style from the subculture to the fashion market was not simply a cultural process, but a real network of new types of commercial institutions.

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren with their first shop 'Let It Rock' were pioneers of the punk fashion world. They was able to understand the totally new needs of a very narrow segment of the market, ignored and hated by the rest of the society, and satisfied them in an effective way, even if there was a not too remote danger of encountering social condemnation. Actually, in 1975, Westwood was even fined for 'exposing to public view an indecent exhibition' and the following year McLaren was arrested.

What is certain is that they were the artificer of the first wave of transformation of the punk subculture into commodities. As I have already said they do not created it but simply they had the acuteness (and maybe the luck) to gain international recognition. Therefore, in the collective imagination Vivienne Westwood invented by her the punk fashion as well as Sex Pistols invented by them the punk music.

When the mainstream fashion industry became interested to the niche fashion segment it started a mass scale production of a codified, cleaned and tamed versions of those rebellion symbols of the punk subculture (the safety pins, the ripped clothes, the leather-studded jacket etc) which originally signified exactly dissociation from the mainstream culture.

"Punk clothing and insignia could be bought mail-order by the summer of 1977, and in September of that year Cosmopolitan ran a review of Zandra Rhodes' latest collection of couture follies which consisted entirely of variations on the punk theme. Models smouldered beneath mountains of safety pins and plastic (the pins were jewelled, the 'plastic' wet-look satin) and accompanying article ended with an aphorism - 'To shock is chic'."(Hebdige, 1979)

This could be maybe identified as the moment in which the punk subculture was killed and the punk fashion generated.