Punk Britannia

...punk is back, and at odds with its ethos of anti-materialism.

by Emma Segal
For a fashion subculture based on an ethos of anti-establishment, anti-materialism and ‘breaking the rules’, the idea of producing a ‘style guide’ seems ostensibly oxymoronic. However, in recent years, there has been an undeniable resurgence in the style signatures of the ‘Punk’ movement, bringing it back to the forefront of the industry. Perhaps it is a sign of the socioeconomic times; with looks that celebrate an unbridled sense of creativity regardless of income, the ‘punk’ style is accessible to everyone on some level.

It would take significantly more than one feature to truly appreciate the punk movement. To start with, there are a myriad of sub-genres (from cow, techno and glam to hardcore and gothic) and new interpretations (such as the goth-punk looks of the A/W12-13 Gucci runway). That being said, there are some points of interest and signatures that help quantify that movement.

We live in an age of street fashion and immediate access to runway shows. As a consequence, the traditional line of proliferation has been inverted. Far from the clean delineation of ideas going ‘from catwalk to media to high street’, the process of influence is now much more symbiotic on both a temporal and aesthetic level. It could be argued that Punk fashion is one of the earliest movements to which this new ‘business model’ applied.

The movement began in the mid 1970s, with the defacing, tearing and fraying of mainstream looks and fabrics in protest against the clean-cut post war look. The movement and ethos, whilst starting on a street fashion level, was at the same time fuelled by designers and tastemakers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood (the latter opening iconic boutiques ‘Let it Rock’ and SEX with business partner and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren). By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the commercialisation and ‘couture-isation’ of the Punk look was in full swing; most notably, through designers such as Zandra Rhodes. But, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, new emerging subcultures (such as grunge) overtook Punk. This led to the creation of a greater distance between high end, catwalk design and street looks. But what were the elements that made the movement?

When one thinks of Punk footwear, it is virtually impossible to ignore Dr. Martens. These iconic British military-inspired boots are still a Punk staple today; their yellow stitches still a visible presence on street fashion blogs. Launched in 1960, the height of the brand’s success was during the 1970s and 80s, when the boots were embraced by the Punk subculture as the footwear of choice. In recent years, the brand has enjoyed a revival, culminating in its 14-hole design being awarded ‘counter-cultural footwear of the decade’. Recent collaborations with the likes of Liberty, Vivienne Westwood, Preen and Rick Owens have also cemented the brand’s place in high-fashion circles.

Related to these are Brothel Creepers, another staple of the Punk movement. Though the current resurgence of interest in creepers is arguably a more recent development on both the catwalk and the high street, they too reached the height of their popularity in the 1970s. However, unlike Dr. Martens, these shoes were not an invention of the Punk movement.

Fashion historians actually date the creeper back to the 1950s Teddy Boy scene. Perhaps this is why they were eventually adopted in Punk fashions; the Teddy Boy movement was another unique counterculture which celebrated individuality and eschewed the clinical mainstream. The modern significance of the creeper shoe was cemented in high fashion when Karl Lagerfeld chose to dress the models exclusively in embellished creepers in Chanel’s Cruise 2013 collection. Ironically, it would seem that creepers have therefore emerged from their subculture roots to become a product of the trend-led, high fashion world.

Next, it is impossible to mention Punk fashion without mentioning embellishment and customisation, a cornerstone of the look. This is undoubtedly the easiest and most economically inclusive way to embrace the look. It would obviously be absurd to attribute the art of embellishment to Punk alone; however, there are key ways of embellishment that the movement did invent. Though it could be argued that the use of both denim and leather can be attributed to the 1950s (jeans in particular became a symbol of rebellion after being worn by James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’), the use of tearing and fraying, studs, leather, tartan, skulls and slogans are traceable back to Punk. Deliberately offensive t-shirts, such as the ‘DESTROY’ T-shirt sold at SEX, were particularly popular. Multifabrication was an interesting byproduct of the Punk movement, again featuring in the production and aesthetic of contemporary designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood. In recent years, this influence has become greater in catwalk and RTW clothing. Slogans, especially controversial, are used by the likes of Katharine Hamnett and House of Holland.

Retro and multifabrication designs by, for example, Meadham Kirchhoff also owe something (in no small way) to their Punk predecessors. The deliberate attempt to subvert gender stereotyping by combining masculine, feminine and unisex clothing is also a Punk byproduct. Now, young, street led brands such as The Ragged Priest (stocked on the high street) also heavily borrow from the movement in the use of fraying, studding and customisation.

Finally, the explosion in rainbow hair and ‘Bleach’ babes is another obvious way in which the legacy of the Punk movement has endured and returned to the fore. Walk down any given street today and you are sure to pass a dip-dye, root dye, Shllingford-inspired colour wash. Bleach in the salon is no longer confined to one geographical area, with the introduction of salons in high street retail outlets. It’s also difficult to spot a catwalk or editorial spread where uniquely coloured hair is not present; from Maarten Van Der Horst and Craig Lawrence to Prada, or Dazed to Vogue and Elle. Even the idea of ‘messy and undone’ hair can be traced back to the 1970s.

Punk is back, and (ironically) in a way which is most at odds with its ethos of anti-materialism. But being embraced by the designers and high street simply means that its legacy can be modernised and it can evolve in ever more interesting ways.