Neon is the new navy blue. Fashion eats itself, gobbling decades like it was stoned rather than anorexic. In the beginning, in the first wave mid ‘70’s UK punk time, there was no neon in the drab, shabby London streets (apart from Soho strip joint signs). There were no elite, pricey vintage boutiques, nor glittering high street racks of garish leopardskin and studded vinyl motorbike jackets, mass-produced tropes of punk style. There was not much “vintage” concept back then. Instead, we had jumble sales and second hand clothes that your Mum would sniff at – who knows where it’s been? Might have germs!
Such treasures we would score in church hall scrums, junk shops or street markets, everything from Great War military jackets to 1960s op art shifts. We could pillage back through fashion’s archaeological layers: a 1930s velvet tea gown; tweed suits straight from a 1940s Hitchcock flick. Oh, that long-lost 1950s eau de nil chinoiserie dressing gown with massive shoulders! There were shrunken school blazers and baggy overcoats galore to take home. And then you could cut them up. Rip off the sleeves, pin up a hem, make darts with safety-pins. Turn trousers into a skirt. Because you couldn’t buy the gear we wanted to wear. All the looks we liked, we had to put together somehow ourselves, customizing old owners’ discards just as we were cobbling together a new culture from the seeming crash of all that had gone before. That included the previous bit of the 20th century, like two World Wars, and the ‘60s happy hippies. Instead it was a grey grind of no jobs, IRA bombs, power cuts, garbage strikes, constant street fights with the racist National Front and the infamous police “Suss” laws which meant young black males could be picked up on the Orwellian charge of suspicion of loitering with intent. Arguably today’s anti-terrorist laws are less amorphous and all-encompassing.
It was not long since Britain had supposedly said goodbye to its colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, when punk first snarled. The nation’s traditional all white, alright face was changing to reflect the countries it had “kept in their place” for centuries. Often spread by the first generations of kids whose folks had arrived from Jamaica, the island’s deconstructed dub sound saturated punk music by people like The Slits, The Police, UB40, Generation X and the Clash, who used to say, “Like trousers, like mind.”
Dub challenged our preconceptions of what music could be. It re-arranged the regular reggae heartbeat riddim the way we re-modelled our clothes. Our dress codes were cut-ups, like our music, like our lives. The key thing was to mismatch, showing our disconnect from typical expectations. Here’s the start of wearing “inappropriate” trainers or bovver boots with a frilly frock. Of wearing a 2nd World War flight jacket with athletic clothes.
And the more taboo, the better. Stuff that was always worn by the opposite sex to whatever you were. Clothes that had only been flaunted by sex workers, fishnet tights and leopard skin, were ours by outsider right. Anything from the shady fetish demi-monde: rubber, vinyl, chains, studs. Punk claimed garb from the wild side, like the teddy boys’ bad attire. The scourge of the 1950s streets, their sharply cut drape coats held a special seam to hide your razor blade in case of a “ruck.” Mirroring the instability we felt, we craved unfinished garments, inside out, rough, still in progress; wonky hems and zips. Clothes were a canvas and people spray-painted or stenciled stirring words on army surplus. Bondage trousers aside — they were a cute symbolic provocation — punk gear should always be ready for a mosh-pit, for fight or flight.
Of course, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were flogging their bondage trousers and big mohair jumpers with pre-ripped holes at SEX on the King’s Road —but not even punk rock stars could afford them. So they either nicked them, or like most of us, kept on foraging and inventing.
Then a street high-style generation arose from within the punk ranks: hatmaker Philip Treacy, catsuit queen Pam Hogg, Jean-Paul Gaultier and of course, Alexander McQueen. The Versace siblings never looked like actual punks. But it was their slinky, safety-pinned uni-shoulder gown worn to a 1994 premiere by then-little-known actress Elizabeth Hurley that seemed to set punk style pogoing into our high streets and malls.
It was considered “edgy” in 1975 when photographer Robert Mabblethorpe shot punk poet Patti Smith in a man’s shirt and tie on the sleeve of her “Horses” LP debut; but now it’s normal. When not just wearing another gender’s clothes, but gender-evolution itself is a prime-time TV staple — is any style still subversive? Since the 1980s, neon was always a reliable sign of hard-core raverdom. The abandon implicit in neon feels tamer, now that Queen Elizabeth has worn it for her 90th birthday shindig.
Mallification and commodification and yes, a sort of style gentrification has happened to all the above once transgressive looks. Can fashion still be resistance?
In a world that often seems set up to make us conform or die, what you wear is still something you can control and use to project yourself, who you are and hope to be, how you feel about the world and the sort of change you want to make.
But how to be individual, express rebellion, even, when everything is so available, scarily manufactured who knows where by who knows whom?
The original solution is still the greatest. Whatever you find, whatever you buy… you can flex it. The long can be short and the short long(er). Dye it. Tie it together in a new way. Try it back to front. Change buttons, change mood. Adjust it, jazz it up. Wear it like only you can. Slice it, stitch it, frock it – rock it.
Vivien Goldman by Gudrun Georges
Vivien Goldman is a London-born, New York-residing writer, broadcaster, educator and post-punk musician. In the first wave of punk, she covered the scene as a music journalist in the US and UK, along with reggae in Jamaica. The author of five books, the most recent of her two Bob Marley works is “The Book of Exodus: the Making & Meaning of Marley & the Wailers’ Album of the Century” (Three Rivers Press/Random House.) An Adjunct Professor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, she teaches rebel music like Punk, Bob Marley, David Bowie and Fela Kuti . New York University’s Fales Library has acquired her archive as The Vivien Goldman Punk and Reggae Collection. “Cherchez La Femme,” the Musical she co-wrote with August Darnell, aka Kid Creole, was premiered by New York’s La Mama Theatre in 2016. Her journalism appears in The Guardian, Okayplayer.com and the New York Times’ T Magazine. About “Resolutionary,” a compilation of Goldman’s post-punk music, (Staubgold,) Pitchfork declared, “No-One is More Punk than Vivien Goldman.”