Alice Keegan traces the trajectory of the punk movement in fashion terms, with a particular emphasis on its revolutionary impact on fashion today, and how it is visible even today.
Punk began as an angry cultural movement, but manifested in fashion through experimentation, youth, and rebellion. The movement was an artistic platform for protesting broken socio-economic structures and political inadequacy. The punk way of dressing encapsulated an eclectic blend of the visual and the visceral. But how does the punk style stand today in this current cultural sphere? It is presented, like at its inception, through musicians. The style of singers and groups such as Irish act Nerves, who are set to release their debut EP ‘Glórach’ this March, highlights this sensation.
You might be wondering, what even is punk fashion? Punk is characterised by aggressive anti-conformity and its fashion is hard edged with a Do-It-Yourself spirit. It was found on the streets; teenagers ripped up tights, clipped on safety pins and slashed t-shirts in the name of anarchy. Punk is one of the few fashion phenomena where creation and destruction are employed equally. You do not need to go out and buy anything new, rather you work (or tamper) with what you already have, and self-curation is at the centre of this subversive style. Traditional punk aesthetics emerged in the early-seventies, involving black leather, spikes, studs, and red tartan. This edgy look was achieved, for example, through pairing classic staples such as Doc Martens and fishnet stockings.
Punk is one of the few fashion phenomena where creation and destruction are employed equally. You do not need to go out and buy anything new, rather you work (or tamper) with what you already have, and self-curation is at the centre of this subversive style.
Let’s consider the history of the movement, in fashion terms. Punk fashion can never be discussed without referencing its relationship with the music industry. Punks used their art to make a statement. Punk rock was an intentional rebuttal of mainstream music and culture, and early punk artists' fashion played an integral role in the movement, particularly during the 1970s. During this decade, punk exploded in Britain with bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash, though its musical roots are traced to the USA, in particular the proto-glam New York Dolls and the authentic Patti Smith.
Vivienne Westwood was a key figure in sculpting this style. She changed fashion forever by looking at the roaring music taking the world by storm. In 1971 Westwood and her then-boyfriend Malcolm McLaren pioneered punk style when they began producing their own t-shirts with provocative images confronting social issues of the time. This even led to their prosecution under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. Their response? They printed even more hardcore tees. In 1974 their store was given its most iconic rebrand, simply retailing under the name ‘SEX’ on the Kings Road in London.
In 1971 Westwood and her then-boyfriend Malcolm McLaren pioneered punk style when they began producing their own t-shirts with provocative images confronting social issues of the time.
At this store, McLaren formed the Sex Pistols, and it became a haunt for many iconic bands that Westwood outfitted. Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten found themselves taking to stages dressed in tees with tongue-in-cheek inclusions of the Union Jack, torn and distressed sweaters, leather jackets and graphic shirts, revolutionising fashion for good. The designer defined the punk aesthetic with her daring decisions. Notably, punk fashion provoked and challenged culture. Deliberately offensive designs are now infamous, such as the T-shirt which featured an inverted crucifix and a Nazi Swastika. She remixed British monarchical imagery; a staunch anti-consumerist produced countless extraordinary creations due to her activist nature. Fashion commentator Derek Blasberg credited her with “ushering in London’s counterculture scene to high fashion”.
Punk style initially involved rebelling against societal expectations of appearing stylish and presentable. Punk clothing was first handcrafted, incorporating everyday objects for aesthetic effect. Many outfits were made from whatever they had on hand, even going so far as accessorising with razor blades and chains. Hair was cropped and dyed bright unnatural colours. Female punks mixed traditionally feminine pieces such as bows and tutus with leather jackets (see Siouxsie Sioux for example).
However mass production was looming soon, threatening the style’s integrity. The original resistance to runways was undone when Zandra Rhodes utilised rips and tears in her 1977 'Conceptual Chic' collection. The tension was noticeable, as the rough teens down dark alleyways hardly meshed with the models in Milan draped in ‘punk’ clothing, mass produced by multimillionaires. On the one hand, there was a genuine desire for authenticity and change; on the other, there was growing commercial pressure. Ultimately, however, there was still a cultural revolt at the style’s core.
Gay Byrne hosted a segment on Irish punks on The Late Late Show in 1983. Twenty-year-old Donnacha McDonagh was interviewed, and appeared with spiky dyed-red hair, heavy makeup, and tartan skintight trousers. He described the philosophy of being punk as “a rebellion against the old system”. He is just one example of countless young people who expressed thoughts loudly and reflected them in his clothing choices. Punk’s impact in fashion is still visible: look at the iconic, tragic, Sid and Nancy, a controversially ever-popular couples Halloween costume (even showcased by Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker). In 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibition entitled “Punk: Chaos of Couture”. Cara Delevingne paid homage to punk at London Fashion Week in September 2023.
While the shock factor and offensive nature of the style may not be as apparent, Nerves are just one of many acts who cite current socioeconomic and political complacency as inspiration for their art. Without punk fashion from the ‘70s, would we see so many slogan tees, or Karl Marx’s face appliqued onto clothing? Punk introduced disillusionment and societal critique into fashion, through its gritty, harsh visuals - its impact should never be underestimated.