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Punk fashion – punk clothing, subculture fashion

September 12, 2014

The next few chapters will focus on punk fashion. Many of us may be under the assumption that punk had its origins in British culture. But this isn’t the case, think, New York Dolls, Velvet Underground – go back, past 1979 and the Sex Pistols, and go to the New York City nightclub scene from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies.


Here, the New York Dolls with Lou Reed and The Ramones would create a sound and attitude that would eventually permeate the British fashion and music scene. The New York Dolls would befriend Malcolm McLaren who would then go on to manage the Sex Pistols a few years later, taking what he had seen and heard back with him to London, planting the seeds of punk fashion and music in the UK.

Punk subculture

This cultural exchange would lead to punk rock as we came to know it. The Velvet Underground would write about drugs and sadomasochism, taking music in a very different direction. Andy Warhol’s art and media shows would work with The Velvet Underground, and create shows that combined art and music, shocking the audience with its sexually explicit tone and harsh, grating music. The punk haircuts with spiky hair and ripped clothing were first seen on a member of Television, an American group who also had a brief relationship with McLaren. McLaren would bring the look back to the UK and this would soon filter into the fashion and music scene.


Around this time there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the government, middle class society in general, unemployment and the strict mores and social straitjackets that held society together, leaving many of the young with no money and no job. However, it is a myth to suggest that punk was just about a “thing,” a movement rather than about the music.

The Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols burst on to the music scene and quickly shocked and offended any seemingly decent and right thinking middle class conservatives. Johnny Lydon and the rest of the group came on TV snarling and swearing, laughing at everything the middles classes held dear, embarrassing the seemingly unshakeable well-spoken BBC journalists so accustomed to the white middle classes and stiff upper lip of yesteryear. They would become massively successful and eventually be followed by The Clash, The Buzzcocks and The Stranglers. They would often disgust as much as they entertained and although they no longer have any influence today, the fashions and music of the 1970s left a lasting impact.


Former location of "SEX" , at 430 Kings road, SW10 OLJ - By Mark Ahsmann [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Former location of “SEX” , at 430 Kings road, SW10 OLJ

Punk fashion and “Sex”

Fashion was a key element in punk and the “Sex” fashion store in King’s Road run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren would become famous for its avant-garde clothing. Punk fashion trends were especially suited to the young who were affected by unemployment, much as they are today. Due to a lack of money, clothes were cut up and re imagined, changed into something altogether different to what they were originally, something that attracted disapproval and disdain from the older generation.


Punk with hat, circa 1984. By Tim Schapker [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Punk with hat, circa 1984

Today, it’s nothing to see frayed edges to tops or trousers and torn t shirts, but punk clothing came at a time when clothes where meant to be treated with care and made to help the wearer look immaculate.


Punk fashion was opposite to everything fashion had been up to at that point, with torn tees, laddered tights, pins and Doc Martins, safety pins and chains -punk followers created a frightening silhouette. Neck chains and razor blades were worn as jewellery, with body piercings where they could be seen, on the face, neck and hands,the larger and more shocking the better. Punk was different, shocking, with sights and sounds that had not been seen or heard before.


In part 2, we’ll take a closer look at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Malaren’s contribution to punk fashion and the underground trends that came from America.

Underground trends from America

Punk rock is tangled up in so many ideologies it is often hard to untangle the theories to come up with any kind of firm idea of where punk originated. Punk started out as an artistic movement but crossed over into film, poetry, music and literature. The words to the music of the late sixties through to the mid-seventies probably explain much more than any book or theory, and perhaps it’s to them we should go for an answer.

Punk origins

As discussed in last week’s blog it is widely believed that underground American punk started with The Ramones, Lou Reed, Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol. It began with ideas, broke out into music and filtered over into a dress code that became more outrageous and shocking once it crossed the Atlantic.


Some historians argue that it is Britain where punk rock and punk fashion was born, with The Sex Pistols starting out as an underground type of rock until McLaren and Westwood got involved and the influence of their ideas and politic spilled over into music.


 Punk rock clothing & hairstyles - mohicans, chains, piercings, tatoos

Punk rock clothing

Outcast culture

However, it’s been argued that punk had its roots not just in American underground punk rock music, but in their “outcast culture”rather than starting in Britain, according to Josh White writing in The Huffington Post UK back in 2011, with the hoodlum “anti-social branch of urban society” with Marlon Brando and James Dean.


He also goes on to argue that bands such as The Ramones, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and Patti Smith considered themselves as punks long before it reared its head in 1976 in London. He believes that for a proper “culture and intellectual history of punk” it “must begin in New York.”

Punk in the UK

What can’t be denied however is the influence that both Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood had on punk in Britain from the mid-seventies. As her relationship developed with McLaren, Westwood would be introduced to the underground scene and eventually he would influence her with his own ideas on the power of art in political terms, resulting in Westwood pursing her own creative ideas and creating her own designs.


Bondage pants and fetish latex would be part of her early punk creations and together they would revolutionize fashion with their torn tees, dog collars and pins. McLaren’s famous term “Never Mind the Bollocks,” and Sid Vicious Nazi tee, put punk fashion on the front pages with its disrespect for authority, class and social mores, with its sole function being to shock.


Sex Pistols playing a set in Norway 1977

Sex Pistols playing a set in Norway 1977

Legacy of punk

McLaren passed away four years ago in 2010 but the legacy of punk and punk fashions he created with Vivienne Westwood lives on in various guises. Vivienne Westwood continues to inspire and shock with her innovative fashions and is still as outspoken today as she was back in the 70s, expressing her own views on Scottish independence and climate change.


in the final part of this post, we will explore more fully how punk has influenced today’s fashion, and is there such a thing as vintage punk? Before moving on to the New Romantic era.
Ever since Johnny Lydon took the bin liners from the side of the street and wore them as clothing, punk style has had a lasting impact on fashion. Of course it was helped along by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood who brought punk to life with their shop in King’s Road and the influences McLaren brought back from America, with the likes of The Ramones, Patti Smith, Television and The Velvet Underground.

Punk still going strong

Fast forward 30 years and punk fashion is still gracing the catwalks, take a look at last year’s autumn winter 2013 collection and Gareth Pugh had models walking down the runway in rubbish bags which had been re-imagined, reshaped and cut in to shrubbery. Fashion designers are constantly finding inspiration from the punk era.


You can still find tees with cartoons and the dyed hair and Mohican look, which never really went away, it’s just come back reinvented and reborn. Leather, ripped clothing and dramatic make-up is constantly being re imagined and recreated and still manages to make an impression, just like it always did. The shaved hair from one side of the head, the bright red dyed hair, leather pants, gladiator boots – it’s all there, just regurgitated with different names and slightly differing shapes.


punk clothes - slogan t shirt

slogan t shirt

Do-it-yourself Punk fashion

Punk was always about doing it yourself, so buying vintage punk doesn’t really seem an option. A punk look can be created at home and you can make T shirts with slogans on yourself. Objects made from consumer culture can easily be turned into a garment, and ironically it sits so nicely with today’s recycle/up-cycle environmental awareness.


Jewellery can be made from household objects – or sex shops if you dare to enter one. Second hand clothes are a definite source of interest, I say second hand rather than vintage, because you’re not going to want to rip or shred a vintage garment.


The Sex Pistols playing at the Paradiso club - By Photograph: Koen Suyk. In: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 - negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang, bestanddeelnummer 928-9665 (Anefo Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sex Pistols playing at the Paradiso club

Pin it together Punk fashion

Dresses held together with pins – remember Elizabeth Hurley in 1994? The same goes for t-shirts, and tops – then can be ripped and held together with pins. By all means look online and in vintage shops if you really must have a vintage tee, cartoons or slogans are good, but make sure you don’t pay too much if you’re thinking of ripping them up later.


Think baggy mohair sweater, similar to what Johnny Lydon once wore (although his was striped), or open weave jumpers, dresses, tanks. You can also spray paint old trousers, skirts or tops for a punk look and a little graffiti.

Mohair sweater, punk clothing style

Mohair sweater

High fashion & Punk fashion?

Punk clothing was always subversive, so looking too fashionable is out. Looking for high fashion/vintage garments is probably not a good idea when thinking punk. Recreating such a look should be relatively cheap and easy to do at home without scouring haute couture or high fashion vintage, however if you really want to rip up a Chanel suit, then go for it.


Punk clothing, circa 1986.By Quercusrobur (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Punk clothing, circa 1986

Of course if you don’t want to go all out down the punk road then you can always combine elements of punk fashion into other looks, keeping it simple, but allowing that inner subversion out through your hair, nails, make-up or clothing and leaving the rest simple. Punk arrived in the seventies from overseas, and it’s unlikely to leave, its influence indelibly stamped on British culture.






The Ramones

patti smith

Zandra Rhodes

patti smith

Gareth Pugh -Dress fashioned from rubbish bags