London has fallen in love with punk again. Loud music with electric guitars, leather, studs, zips, and everything else associated with the adored punk look originates from the 70’s, but is coming back today. Mainstream punk fashion was pioneered by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm MacLaren when they re-established their ‘rocker’ shop in 1974- calling it ‘SEX’- in Chelsea.
Vivienne Westwood’s shop ‘SEX’ in 1976
The facade of the boutique included a 4-foot pink rubber sign spelling ‘SEX’. The boutique’s interior was equally scandalous. Its walls were covered in graffiti and chicken wire, the windows were covered with thick curtains, and the floor was carpeted in red velvet. The exterior and interior of the boutique portrayed a strong sexual statement, advocating for the freedom of expression. The clothing displayed there was inspired by Westwood’s ‘anti-fashion’ philosophy which spoke for the youth’s angst and dissatisfaction with society at the time. In striking contrast to the ‘elite’ town of Chelsea, where the boutique was opened, Westwood and McLaren’s shop was full of fetish and bondage wear, studded biker jackets, and distressed jeans that were sold to social ‘degenerates’ such as prostitutes and punk-rock band members. Westwood and McLaren united fashion, political satire, and the ‘degenerates’ together through her punk ideology. This resistance against social norms marked the genesis of the irresistibly stylish epitome of defiance and rebellion.
Where did this urge for rebellion come from and why did London fall in love with it? At the heart of the British punk fashion movement lies punk music. Like most fashion looks and trends, punk fashion became popular due to the turbulent political environment it thrived in. The Sex Pistols released the single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in 1977 which amplified the civil unrest in the UK due to unemployment among the younger people as well as economic crises and the protests by trade unions. Frustration with British politics in the 70’s caused teens to crave for a platform to express their defiance against society and the status-quo. Westwood’s anti-fashion philosophy, illustrated through deconstructed but striking fashion, provided just that.
Westwood’s tasteful rebellion against the status-quo was expressed through the shameless presentation of taboo sexual desire and satire, which was evident in her clothing line in the 70’s.
Bondage suit, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, 1976, England. Museum no. T.252&A-1989. (left)
Pair of shoes, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, 1974, England. Museum no. T.82:1, 2-2002. (right)
Westwood and McLaren produced clothes that appealed to the changing sexual tastes of the youth, indicative of the struggle against social conventions and stifling of freedom of expression. The pieces sold to regular customers were also shockingly sold to prostitutes who patronised Westwood’s clothing line. However, the open discussion of ‘deviant’ sexual desires was welcomed by the young edgy punk enthusiasts who brought the repressed desires out onto the streets of London. The satirical aspect of Westwood’s punk fashion was most clearly expressed through distorted customisation and political slogans. Westwood’s fashion involved politically challenging graphics such as the ‘God Save the Queen’ t-shirts with an image of the Queen’s lips pierced with a safety-pin as well as the variations of the swastika.
Shirt, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, 1977, England. Museum no. T.773-1995 (left)
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, 1976, England. Museum no. T.93-2002 (right)
Westwood’s statement fashion was her unique way of criticising British and world politics, which suited the generation’s needs for rebellious aesthetics.
In 2018 London, punk fashion has evolved into a modern and mainstream aesthetic. However, London’s fashion scene continues to cultivate the timeless anti-conformity look that transcends generations and decades. Vivienne Westwood’s name as a designer brand is thriving, even though it is not as traditionally ‘punk’ as it used to be in the 70’s. The name ‘Westwood’ still represents defying traditions of fashion and clothing. Her dresses are often inspired by the Victorian era and jackets take on distorted forms which, at the core, parallel to the anti-fashion philosophy of punk. Rising fashion icons such as Charles Jeffrey, and his clothing line LOVERBOY, are seen by millennials as the next wave of punk-inspired clothing. Through the medium of fashion, Jeffrey brings the queer community together and channels positive energy into London’s fashion culture, especially the transgender community. By addressing the LGBTQ+ community, like Westwood, Jeffrey makes a political statement addressed to British culture and society, carrying on the artistic defiant attitude Westwood introduced in the 70’s. Despite a different political environment, Jeffrey and Westwood alike show how fashion can be a platform for expression which becomes a lifestyle and a mindset, developed from a trend.
Punk has been a crucial concept in London’s aesthetics of fashion and music. The historical origins and the development of its style are political and rebellious yet welcoming and forgiving when it comes to differences and opinions, embracing all those stigmatised by authority. London’s individuality and vibrancy will live on and thrive as long as punk remains and is as loved in the fashion scene as it is today.