The popularization of punk | University
At 430 King’s Road in 1970s Chelsea, “SEX” was written in huge fluorescent pink letters. The interior of the store consisted of phallic graffiti, full of bondage pants, ripped jeans, studs, badges and graphics (and I mean graphic) tees. Owned by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, ‘SEX’ pioneered punk fashion, dressing New York Dolls and Sex Pistols as well as prostitutes and young Londoners. They used fashion to shout out what punk was: anarchy, anger, sexual freedom, sedition and anti-establishment rebellion.
Punk helps assert that fashion can be deeply bottom-up, substantial, influential, and radical. It was a counter-culture, with music, literature, art, politics, and philosophy expressing its anti-authoritarianism and anti-consumerism. Her fashion was no different, with the DIY ethic in disregard of consumerism, ripped clothes disregarding notions of propriety, and BDSM-inspired leather and PVC in disregard of sexual norms. Meanwhile, American hardcore punks have developed a different kind of rebellion through their “anti-fashion” philosophy – the idea that movement should not be defined by its fashion – with the adoption of a dressy style ( jeans, t-shirts and combat boots) by drawing inspiration from the working class.
These styles have since spread into contemporary popular culture. Vivienne Westwood pearl necklaces and Doc Martens were last year’s most coveted garments; Olivia Rodrigo referred to punk in PVC gloves, black leather boots, a corset and a plaid skirt in the ‘good 4 u’ clip. Compare punk music – such as the Sex Pistols’ anti-monarchical “God Save the Queen” with lyrics such as “The Fascist Regime / They Made You a Dumbass / A Potential H-Bomb” getting the song banned from the BBC – with Rodrigo -punk pop invoking teenage angst through punk to curse a guy (also able-bodied).
But this is where the difference between current punk and punk as a style lies. It no longer exists as a cohesive movement Where culture, but as style on moodboards to borrow (without forgetting the fact that real punks still exist today). We’ve gone from anti-fashion and DIY to punk-inspired luxury brand R13 selling distressed jeans for £ 535 and a Sonic Youth t-shirt for £ 340. The theme of the 2013 Met Ball was “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” suggesting taming punk in a refined style for the mainstream, while pulling it off and making it exclusive to luxury fashion. Vivienne Westwood, the “mother of punk,” struggles to stay true to the ethos of punk while operating 63 stores around the world (as of 2015), earning millions every year, and securing the title of Dame. The mainstream adoption of punk is far from a testament to the power of counterculture. For what power and what influence is there really when the aesthetics of a movement are devoured by the very system it opposes?
Punk is historically a counter-culture, but currently a style. As Valerie Steele wrote about retro fashion in 1990, “It only exists to be cannibalized, or reshaped[…] Clothing signs no longer make sense, except in purely visual terms. Three decades later, in the 2020s, with the internet culture and the system of capitalism both overripe, the cannibalization of subcultures has only intensified. The internet, and in particular the prioritization of visuals on sites like Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and TikTok, can often result in images devoid of context and meaning. The provenance of an image can be totally un-cited or unknown: an afternoon on Pinterest can produce a moodboard of over 100 images without the compiler’s understanding of the origins, not to mention the ethics, behind each image and its style. . Punk becomes one of the many subcultures whose meanings are rewritten and whose styles are free to choose. Elements of punk can be found everywhere, from stringy cutout tops to leather jackets, from graphic stripe tees to demonias and tartan. One is no longer “punk”, but incorporates punk into a melting pot of inspiration for a personal style.
“, Really, when the aesthetics of a movement are devoured by the very system they oppose?” “
The problem becomes worse when media consumption turns into material consumption due to the vast unethical production capacity of capitalism. Punk has been appropriated as a general symbol of rebellion which is produced, marketed and sold by capitalists. Countless Vivienne Westwood fake pearl necklaces are sold on Amazon: the very origin of a material good does not matter, as long as the “look” is achieved. Many of the punk and goth clothing items on YouTube come from Shein and Aliexpress, the online fast fashion giants popular on TikTok. Shein releases between 700 and 1,000 new articles per day, has been repeatedly criticized for infringing the trademarks of other companies, and has been reported by Reuters for not going public and even making false statements about working conditions in its supply chains. Shein and Aliexpress do not have a specific identity or style, but are omnivorous producers of all styles even more than Zara. Their cheap prices and larger sizes make them doubly attractive (which reveals more of the fashion industry’s woes). Rebellion In a previous demonstration, punk fashion can now completely exist under and fuel the dominant system.
Part of the problem is that we’ve oversimplified the way we think about the power of fashion, overemphasized its power of expression. Fashion can to be radical, political and influential, but to put on only the visual language of rebellion may be the opposite of sticking it to the system. Punk fashion was shocking and subversive because of the ideology it accompanied. As Erving Goffman put it, expressing an act and acting are different. Outwardly signaling rebellion is different from being rebellious. The internet and capitalism have made us worship the power of outward expression – the way we present ourselves and the products we buy have an inherent power to impart and reinforce – which contains an element of truth. The pandemic made us value the language of rebellion and radicalism as the world crumbles, but also increased our reliance on aesthetics, external representations, the internet and e-commerce to express it. If our generation wants to appropriate a movement and a counter-culture, what we do ultimately matters a lot more than wearing vintage – or fake – Vivienne Westwood.
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