Punk: The Many Manifestations of a Misunderstood Subculture

Punk was never meant to be about the clothes. And though many doth protest, it was not about the music either. The unabridged foundations of Punk sought the promotion of freedom and the individual against the establishment and it is these ideals that propelled this dynamic subculture into notoriety in the 1970's. The Punk ethos bled out into all aspects of culture; its attractiveness flourishing amongst a restless and disgruntled youth in an England bereft of economic opportunities. By the 1980’s the movement was less an irksome subculture set out to ‘ruin everything’ but a profitable and marketable cultural phenomenon. Punk fashion and music saw a resurgence in the 1990’s that coincided with another economic downturn and by the 2000’s Punk had ingratiated itself firmly in mainstream consciousness.

Though Punk was in itself an ethos, it was its cultural proponents that were the driving force of the movement. The sound, image and unanimous voice of Punk were inextricably interrelated and one might argue organised to portray that notorious ‘we don’t give a f**k’ outwards appearance. Despite the emphasis placed on living a rogue, Punk lifestyle, the foundations of the subculture in the UK were extensively planned and thought out. With a keen eye for upcoming trends, Malcolm McLaren and his then girlfriend Vivienne Westwood saw the burgeoning unrest within British youth culture and maximised on it. In 1974 they transformed their London boutique into an S&M anti-fashion establishment named ‘SEX.’

The boutique become an infamous hangout for punk protégés and McLaren is often credited for introducing and organising the original line up of the Sex Pistols; the band that would go on to propel the punk music scene as well as the punk image into overdrive. The future ‘Prince of Punk’ Sid Vicious worked at SEX and became a member of the band in 1977 as bassist. Despite Vicious being a drummer, he was recruited mainly because McLaren considered him to be the perfect representative of SEX as well as the Punk 'image'.

The look Punk inspired was actively not inspired. It was intended to look careless and worn, an image that could be achieved by anyone with a grudge against authority and a pair of scissors. The look was meant to be derivative of the ambivalence felt at the time; an ambivalence towards the powers that be. However what was originally a subculture focused on transgressing the music industry and the media, it seems ironic that Punk would go on to be an accepted presence in mainstream culture. The very ideals of the original Punk ethos were inevitably repackaged and sold back to the people Punk purportedly fought against.

Herein lied the problem for Punk and the manifesto it exalted. As stated by Jon Savage in his seminal work on punk culture England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock “how do you avoid becoming part of what you’re protesting against? If everything exists in the media and you reject it, how do you exist?”

In the early 90’s, another period of economic slump, Nirvana became the nearest equivalent to the Sex Pistols as the movement re-emerged in a post- punk ‘grunge’ guise. In more recent years, the features of Punk fashion are now consistently present and acceptable in our current fashion and retail climate. The common threads of Punk, which originally signified a breakaway from the conformity of everyday clothes, have become common. Rips, zips, safety pins, fishnets, brightly coloured hair and tartan are not rarities in the average high street shop but trend staples. Punk is no longer a subculture but a modern fashion manifesto. Perhaps its resurgence particularly in the last five years coincides with the socio economic dilapidation of the late 2000’s or possibly indicates a contemporary anti-establishment outlook on fashion as accessible to all socio economic backgrounds with the advancement of bloggers and high street/ designer collaborations.

The resurgence of Punk culminated last year with the theme of the 2013 Metropolitan Ball being ‘Punk: From Chaos to Couture’ in honour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest exhibition. How, one must wonder, can a high fashion, couture ball be synonymous with Punk culture? In theory, it simply cannot but it is a move that further fixes Punk within the mainstream consumerist palette. With high end designers re-interpreting punk on the red carpet, the fashions of Punk have definitely re-emerged if shrouded in a veil of irony. As Cara Delevigne sashayed down the catwalk at the Met Ball in couture Burberry studs, the muffled echoes of early Sex Pistols lyrics fell sharply on deaf ears “Don’t be told what you want/ don’t be told what you need.”


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