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Punk Isn't Dead: Fashion Celebrates 40 Years of Rebellious Ready-To-Wear

As London celebrates punk’s 40th anniversary this year, we look back at the rise of mohawks, liberty spikes and safety pins, and scouts out the designers championing a rebel revival this season

On top of a small boutique on the King’s Road, overlooking a neighbouring opticians, three four ft foam letters swathed in bubblegum pink PVC hang above an equally fuchsia shop, in which troubled youths dressed in tattered clothes adorned with safety pins lurk. Graffiti promoting radical feminist policies decorate the walls, flanked by chicken wire, rubber curtains and a red carpet. The year is 1974 and the letters read SEX – the name of the punk rock boutique set up by Malcolm McLaren and his then school teacher girlfriend, Vivienne Westwood. 

Popular with the Sex Pistols (whose name was partly in homage to the store), Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux and Adam Ant, SEX and its founders were largely responsible for the sartorial decisions of the fledgling subculture that rose from the underground two years later. Punk as a movement officially began in 1976 (the year in which the Ramones performed in the UK for the first time; the Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash began their Anarchy Tour; and McLaren held a two-day punk festival in London), but the dress code of such events had arguably been set in stone by Westwood and her cohort of defiant designers several years before. 

Punk had arrived and it was more than just a sartorial statement. It was a middle finger to the government and an antonym to the bohemian peace and love memorandum of the 1960s

Originally a one-stop shop for 1950s memorabilia called Let It Rock, the early seventies saw it transform into a bondage boutique selling translucent latex and “Rubberwear for the Office”, under the fitting moniker SEX. The store fused its knowledge of fetish chic with razor blades, safety pins and red latex, designing its vision of what Westwood later described in Vogue on Vivienne Westwood as an “urban guerrilla”. When the year of punk hit, the boutique was rebranded as Seditionaries; the pink facade was ripped down and the feminist slogans replaced with snaps of the Dresden bombing. Punk had arrived and it was more than just a sartorial statement. It was a middle finger to the government and an antonym to the bohemian peace and love memorandum of the 1960s, dressed in an angry uniform of safety pin jewellery, tartan, distressed jeans, Dr. Martens and heavy black eyeliner. 

This year sees the capital celebrate 40 years since the subculture first came to fruition with a year-long festival of exhibitions and events highlighting the influence punk has had on the city. Chelsea’s Michael Hoppen Gallery will be marking the occasion with an exhibition of vintage prints, all of which showcase the culture in 1970s Britain, from snaps of The Clash to Johnny Rotten. Meanwhile, the British Library is holding Punk 1976-78 – a close look at the rise and fall of the culture through flyers, fanzines and exclusive audio recordings that have been found in the library’s archive. The grand finale of the festival will see Joseph Corré, co-founder of Agent Provocateur and son of Westwood and McLaren, burn his collection of punk memorabilia, which is estimated to be worth £5 million. The event will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, a song that illustrated the angst that was being felt among British youths at the time.

While the British punk movement was decidedly brazen, crashing into the limelight with brute force, across the pond the American take on the subculture was slightly less aggressive. With the exception of the New York Dolls (a band that McLaren and Westwood took under their wing and dressed head to toe in ruby red latex and swastika symbols), American punks such as the Ramones kept it simple with drainpipe jeans, slogan T-shirts and tattered Converse trainers. Theirs was a movement of the laidback variety, with simple, second-hand clothes and long hair, in defiance of the flashy disco scene that was also burgeoning at the time. 

" I think the reality of the punk movement is the fact that it was born on British streets by British kids, and it was a statement for which they cut up their own clothes"

Come 1977, punk was influencing more than just street style, making waves in high-fashion circles, too. Zandra Rhodes took the sartorial branch of the movement away from its underground origins, making it attractive to the upper echelons with beaded safety pin chains, smart kilts and artfully ripped fabric. Her Conceptual Chic collection marked the first time that punk was seen on the catwalk. “I thought that instead of doing a print of tears, why not do the real thing and make a tear something beautiful?” Rhodes recalls. “We made safety pins, which are useful things, into beautiful things, adding beads and jewels. I think the reality of the punk movement is the fact that it was born on British streets by British kids, and it was a statement for which they cut up their own clothes. Then, everything went in reverse, and suddenly it was being worn on the catwalk instead of just on some smelly children in a nightclub.”

Rhodes took punk and turned it on its head, making what was once a working-class backlash to authority into a sparkly, attractive fashion statement for the rich and famous. And yet, not all of her customers were pleased with the change. “We designed these wonderful windows in our Bond Street shop with lovely red, shocking pink and black dress stands, and drapes and a tree with tears and safety pins that was absolutely gorgeous, but of course nobody bought the dresses,” Rhodes laughs. “Now, they’re terribly valuable. The Philadelphia Museum of Art bought one years ago for something like $10 million.”

Despite the backlash, Rhodes’ influence on the punk movement has been cemented in history, and in 2013 she was dubbed “punk hero” by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York in its PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibition. The aim was to highlight how influential punk has been, not just as a subculture in the 1970s, but as a fashion statement both in its heyday and beyond. “Since its origins, punk has had an incendiary influence on fashion,” Andrew Bolton, the associate curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, said at the time. “Although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s aesthetic vocabulary, to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness.” The exhibition featured fashion designers such as Christopher Bailey, Hussein Chalayan and Gianni Versace – the latter being famous for bringing punk back to the red carpet in 1994 when Elizabeth Hurley wore his safety pin-embellished design to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral

In 2016, punk might not be as brazen and candid as it was in the 1970s, but references to the subculture cropped up throughout the A/W16 fashion shows. From black leather suits decorated with silver chains at Ronald van der Kemp, to OTT embellishment at Viktor & Rolf and floor-length tartan dresses at Jean Paul Gaultier, designers are championing a punk revival this season with accessories typical of the era. Meanwhile, Kenzo, Altuzarra, Emilio Pucci, Giamba and Hood By Air all took punk face-on with heavy black eyeliner, which was drawn on in angular shapes around the eye.

It’s not quite mohawks and razor-blade jewellery, but there’s no denying that punk’s influence is still present in sartorial circles. ‘Punk is dead’ was the slogan scrawled on the wall of Covent Garden’s The Roxy in 1977, but does anything really disappear in the world of fashion? Rhodes thinks not. “The glorious thing about fashion is that things are alive when people want them to be,” she exclaims. “Fashion is what it is. Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons always amazes me, and so does Jean Paul Gaultier. They might not be anything to do with punk, but they follow their dreams. They follow what they believe in and I think they are the sort of designers that you need to watch.”

PUNK at the Michael Hoppen Gallery until 26 August, 3 Jubilee Place, SW3, www.michaelhoppengallery.com; Punk 1976-78 at the British Library until 2 October, www.bl.uk; Vogue on Vivienne Westwood by Linda Watson, £15, Quadrille