Punks hanging out on the Kings Road, London 1983
In 1975 the first issue of comic mag PUNK hit the streets and was much admired in CBGB – a music venue originally geared for ‘Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music’ but which increasingly leaned towards some weird and wonderful reinvention of old school Rock ‘n’ Roll which many would call ‘Punk Rock’: Rock ‘n’ Roll but with an out of kilter twist.
Cartoon characters in a badass 50s theme park. The fast and furious Ramones, for example, dressed like and acted the part of standard issue 50s juvenile delinquents. Bleach blonde Debbie Harry offered a pastiche of those 50s floozies who eyed you up in a late night bar and, who, if they got lucky, left on the arm of some dodgy gangster. The New York Dolls were like something – some thing – out of an ultra low budget 50s sci-fi movie. It was all very retro, very 50s Americana, but a retelling of an old story where the printing press has slipped and all the colours are just a bit out of sync. A remake where everything is in ironic quotation marks – ironic quotation marks being a defining feature of Punk (and of that other 70s retro-with-a-weird-twist phenomenon, post-modernism).
Over in London, also mid 70s, much the same sort of weird 50s B movie/Sci-fi/ Modern Romance/Filthy Degenerate mash-up was leaking out of the deranged mind of one time New Zealand sheep farmer Richard O’Brian in the form of The Rocky Horror Show which (after a brief, initial run at The Royal Court’s 63 seater ‘Upstairs’) opened at the Chelsea Classic Cinema where Brad and Janette met a certain Mr Frank-N-Furter who turns out (as is so often the case) to be a transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania. Let’s do the time warp. Again. But (as seems inevitable in a post-modern, ‘No Future’ age) things do not turn out well for these ‘Insects called the human race. Lost in time. And lost in space. And meaning…’ If, as you came out of the Chelsea Classic Cinema (today a Boots chemist), and walked right in the ‘wrong’ direction on the King’s Road – away from the upmarket respectability of Sloane Square with its debutante ‘Sloane Rangers’ – you came to World’s End. In 1973, at 430 King’s Road, you might find one ex-art student come clothing shop entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren and his ex-school teacher partner Vivienne Westwood in their back-of-beyond shop which had once been called Paradise Garage, then Let it Rock, then Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die and was about to become SEX. McLaren and Westwood had recently been to New York where they had met The New York Dolls and, infected with the lethal post-modern virus, were determined to transform their little shop at the wrong end of the King’s Road into a den of ‘degenerate perversity’. In 1975 I was organizing the ‘Fashion Forum’ series of talks at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. A previous series had included many established greats of British fashion such as Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes. For a second series I resolved to bring some new names into the project. Having read something about it in a London paper, I headed off all the way into the boondocks of World’s End to investigate this new shop called SEX.
On a weekday, Malcolm McLaren was the only one there when I entered the shop. ‘The ICA! We hate the ICA! Fuck off!’ was his response but I managed to give him my card before I left. A week or so later there was a phone call from Malcolm who wanted ‘to do a deal’. SEX had been busted by the police for selling obscene t-shirts – a ‘Society For Cutting Up Men’ one celebrating would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solaris and one celebrating the American Wild West with two well-built cowboys who had neglected to zip up their trousers. Malcolm proposed that if I would be a character witness at their trial (to attest to their importance as serious British fashion designers) then Vivienne and their always stunningly dressed shop assistant Jordan (but not Malcolm) would appear in my Fashion Forum programme. Seemed reasonable to me. Aside from being a bit tongue-tied and nervous (first time in court, my Lord), I had no trouble in proclaiming the seriousness and the importance of Malcolm and Vivienne’s contribution to British fashion – as history has proven. But a fat lot of good it did them. They were found guilty, fined and thus began their high profile presence in the public consciousness. On the night of the Fashion Forum a distant fire alarm or two went off but I, as the host, figured we could just carry on and when, right in the middle of a discussion about rubber fetishism, the doors of the ICA’s auditorium burst open and a couple of firemen dressed in stunning bright yellow rubber uniforms strode in to tell us it was a false alarm, it seemed like they were part of the show. Years later someone who might well have known about these things told me that Malcolm had gotten some of his new band (called, if memory serves, The Sex Pistols) to set off the fire alarms. Malcolm liked to say that Punk ‘started in my little shop’. While not doubting that Punk would have evolved differently had Malcolm and Vivienne not been around, the fact is that both in the US and in the UK Punk was one of those historical tsunamis which was inevitable.
Since the 60s, Malcolm’s and my generation – the post-war ‘Baby Boomers’ – had been those newly identified ‘teenagers’ who set the world alight with our ‘youth culture’ (in point of fact it was the pre-Boomer generation, we Boomers were just the audience). By the 70s we Boomers were well past our teenage years but most of us pretended otherwise (indeed, even in the 21st century we still haven’t grown up) and refused to hand on the baton to the next generation – those kids who made up the true, grassroots constituency of Punk and who were determined to give the boring old left-over Hippies a good kicking. Despite the stereotype created by cartoonists, most Punks, especially in the early days, didn’t wear an identical subcultural uniform. There was actually only one sartorial rule: don’t look like a fucking Hippy. So instead of flowers in the hair: acidic streaks of fluorescent colour. Instead of well-worn denim: ripped fishnets, PVC miniskirts and battered, studded leather jackets. Instead of Jesus scandals and ‘Make Love Not War’ t-shirts: sturdy Dr. Martens work boots and t-shirts proclaiming ‘We Are All Prostitutes’. Instead of love, peace and understanding: ‘Oh bondage! Up yours!’ (RIP dear Poly Styrene).
What the Punks introduced was not a specific look but rather a process of sampling and mixing all manner of different looks, styles and meanings and mashing these up into as eclectic and downright contradictory a style ‘statement’ as possible. Early on in UK Punk I remember seeing two young ladies strolling down the King’s Road. They wore school blazers, white shirts and ties – the standard uniform of British school girls – with ripped fishnets, micro PVC miniskirts, primitive/extra-terrestrial hairstyles and make-up, 16 eyelet DMs and while one of them sported a genuine pet shop dog collar the other one tugged on the lead attached to it. Innocent/slutty. Primitive/futuristic. Masculine/ feminine. Respectable/degenerate. The name of the game was to mash up style and meaning in a way which defied easy interpretation; creating a look – any look – which obliged people (even the English) to stop and… stare… and… think… and… recognise that if nothing else, here was someone who defied easy classification. And then came the 80s and with it an all pervasive dread of being seen as a ‘Fashion Victim’ – a pathetic, submissive fool who unthinkingly conforms to ‘this year’s new look’, who dresses head to toe in the work of a single designer or who meekly obeys the fashion dictators who decree ‘Madame should wear this hat and these shoes with this dress’. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh no! Oh bondage, up yours. We’re all creative consumers now, just-do-it daredevils who chuck whatever takes fancy into the cosmic style blender. And what comes out is personal, punky and oh so postmodern; with those ever present ironic quotation marks such that there’s always more to one’s appearance than meets the eye. Always a dash of semiotic sauce. Punk was also the moment when fashion – even high, nose in the air fashion – looked out of the corner of its eye at street style and yearned for a bit of rough. Back in, say, 1947 when Dior was launching his ‘New Look’ on a world hungry and eager for a single, guiding fashion ‘direction’, he and every other fashion designer would not have concerned themselves with items like those ‘Perfecto’ black leather jackets which a new breed of hell-raising bad ass ‘Bikers’ were sporting in The Wild One. Or those denim jeans which Kerouac and Cassidy wore as they went On the Road in the same year. Or the outlandish zoot suits sported by 40s jazz musicians. After Punk, however, fashion couldn’t resist the lure of down and dirty streetstyle and these two, previously opposite approaches to dress and appearance, had a fling. Physicists say that when matter and anti-matter meet they instantly annihilate each other. I figure that that’s what happened when fashion and the street really got into bed together. Poof. Now there’s just do it yourself, eclectic, sampled and mixed personal style – as first shown off to stop-and-stare, mind-boggling effect by those no good punks.
Ted Polhemus’ books include Fashion & Anti-fashion: Exploring adornment and dress from an anthropological perspective, StreetStyle and BOOM! – a baby boomer memooir 1947-2022, all of which are available in both print and digital formats. tedpolhemus.com