Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Runway Punk: A Story of Celebration and Co-option

Haute couture designers tap into the socio-political commentary of punk’s confrontational attire to reflect upon societal decay–and to satirize high fashion.

Fashion and style are elastic terms in meaning, but here, in relation to punk, the former refers to the industry-derived haute couture manifestation of attire, the latter to its more general popular usage in the culture. Included in both are the clothes, jewelry, accessories, hairstyles, cosmetics, and body modifications that represent the looks of the punk subculture. 

Over punk’s almost half-century history, these looks have mutated, penetrating and changing visual youth expressions around the world. Despite historical documentations reducing punk to a small selection of iconic images, its styles have been far from homogenous, such that even today fashion designers are unraveling its threads for new sources of creative inspiration.

Questions over the origins and emanation of punk’s looks harbor socio-political implications. These inquiries are problematized by the most tacitly reliable sources bringing their own vested interests and egos—and thus particular slants—to the debate. Did punk start as a fashion, designed for and sold to interested customers by stores like SEX, as its owner Malcolm McLaren contends?  Or did it start as a style from the streets, the DIY constructions of individuals, as former Sex Pistols’ frontman John Lydon argues? (Bolton p.21). 

The truth likely lies somewhere in-between in ongoing interactions between individuals and institutions. Lydon had a striking proto-punk look before even entering SEX; he had green hair and had modified a Pink Floyd T-shirt by scribbling “I Hate” above their name. However, he did not complete his transformation into the fashion plate of punk until McLaren and Vivienne Westwood started dressing the band. Their video of “Pretty Vacant” featuring Lydon (then Rotten) in their iconic Destroy T-shirt, was shown on Top of the Pops in July 1977, cementing a conceptual visual image of punk in the minds of the nation. Jon Savage explains, “From that point on, the virus was loose in the mass market and the mass media-effects that still reverberate” (Bolton p.35).

Beyond the boutiques, the punk style virus was simultaneously spreading around the orbit of the street subculture. Bondage trousers with elaborate flaps and appendages may have been derived from the fetishistic fantasies of Westwood and McLaren, but few punks could afford their posh punk; instead, they created their own like-minded bricolages. Old school blazers were plucked from wardrobes, then adorned with decorative embellishments of studs, spikes, chains, zippers, padlocks, and safety pins, all cheaply available at your local DIY hardware store. Old suit jackets were picked off the racks of thrift stores for a pittance of what a normal suit would cost, then plastered with band badges and other assorted markers of punk affiliation. Combat fatigues and boots were popular, too, acquired at near cost from army surplus stores. 

These were not items one would find at SEX, but they were part of punk’s rich tapestry, each one a product of reuse and reinvention by the new creator-producer-consumers of the subculture.  Lydon argues that the eclecticism and excitement of early punk was due to a “mixture of different individuals” being given space to be inventive before the style was reduced to a narrow set of clichés by the fashion industry and media (Bolton p.22). 

Fed then by a constant diet of the same images by the media and fashion world—and today by documentaries and historical retrospectives—we ignore the reality that punk style took on many guises, and that it manifested in many different ways beyond the London in-crowd. In his essay, “Distress to Impress” academic Frank Cartledge offers this other perspective, taking us on a time travel trip to Sheffield in 1976-77.  He recalls how dressing for the average punk revolved around jumble sales and mail order advertisements in the back of fanzines and music papers. His dress codes, he says, were swayed by a “series of urban encounters”, by who and what he saw at local gigs and in record stores (Cartledge p.145).  What he saw was not spectacular SEX designs, but more low-key, low-price versions, where everyday clothing was re-formed with minor punk signifiers. 

Joy Division’s Ian Curtis self-identified as a punk back then, and his style—portrayed in glorious black and white by Anton Corbijn in his 2007 film, Control—was indicative of what one would see in the Manchester punk scene. His hair was mid-length and straight, his slacks slightly flared, and his dress shirt buttoned up, but he had customized his beaten-up donkey jacket by scrawling “HATE” on the back.

Sam Riley in Control (Corbjin, 2007) | poster excerpt

The meanings of punk clothing are as disputed as what those clothes consist of. The tabloids of the day brought hysterical sensationalism to their coverage, equating punk’s style assaults with the daily random violence of assorted hooligan youths. For those conservative fear-mongers, punk provided just another good reason to bring back compulsory national service. 

Designers like McLaren and Westwood, conversely, envisaged their clothes in terms of progressive social subversion, as undermining the repressive norms of British society. While Westwood made the clothes, McLaren drew from his old art theory books in explaining how they symbolically challenged our presumptions about class and gender identities. Whereas the tabloids characterized punks as a symptom of a nation in decay and decline, McLaren articulated their distressed attire as a pointed reflection of that condition. 

Academics soon picked up on McLaren’s analogies of punk to the works of Marcel Duchamp and the Situationists, adding their own theoretical inquiries. In Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), cultural critic and theorist Dick Hebdige offered semiotic readings of punk clothing that echoed and expanded upon the manifesto statements of McLaren and Westwood. He presents style as just one part of punk’s larger “homology” of subversion, as a “cacophony on the visual level” (p.26). By reusing and reorienting everyday items, punk engaged in “bricolage” in the process creating symbolic disorder and disrupting common sense norms. 

“Punk did more than upset the wardrobe. It undermined every relevant discourse,” Hebdige dramatically exclaims (p.108). Gramsci, Barthes, and Levi-Strauss are among the heavy-weight cultural scholars the writer calls upon to make sense of punk (style)’s fated journey through its stages of social resistance, accommodation, and ultimate commodification.

By the time Hebdige’s Subculture was published, punk had indeed been accommodated by the fashion industry, though this did not erase its continuing coexistence in the subculture and on the streets. Indeed, changes in punk style over the past 40-plus years have been mostly organic, developing out of hybrids and mutations of punk rock and its splinter subcultures. In the US, punk style has been largely ignored by the fashion industry, its street-wear basics contrasting starkly with the spectacular concoctions of British punk. At the same time that fundamentalist punks in the UK were extending their spiky hair into mohawks and adding even more studs, chains, and slogans to their leather jackets, American hardcore punks wore mostly utilitarian clothes. Their choices were pragmatic, a plain T-shirt, work pants, and combat boots more functional than bondage trousers with restrictive chains and bum flaps for surviving the brutal mosh pits at hardcore gatherings and gigs. 

From hardcore to contemporary skaters, US punks have continued to dress down in ways appropriate to their occasions, all the while casting a suspicious eye at the pretensions of their peers on the other side of the Atlantic. It is those British posers that the fashion industry has looked to since the first wave, pilfering periodically from the mohawked anarcho-street outcasts; from the new wave gender-benders; from the Rocky Horror goths; from the retro-futuristic psychobillies; and from the camo-fetishistic rivetheads of industrial punk.

With Westwood leading the way, the fashion industry came early to punk, driving it and following it. With the success of SEX (later Seditionaries), too, came greater attention to the store, particularly to Westwood’s wild but popular creations. Ever on the lookout for the new and innovative, and with its own artistic credentials and anti-establishment postures, the fashion world drew closer, with the glossy magazines not far behind, all helping Westwood graduate from punk rags merchant to designer of punk couture.

The mainstream media and general public may have been repulsed by what the punks were wearing, but the fashion industry saw potential and profit in those rips and pins. So, as runway punk became a reality, other designers jumped on that runway, among them celebrated veteran, Zandra Rhodes. Her 1977 “Conceptual Chic” collection featured a sleeveless short black dress with ripped hemlines, holes, and adornments of link chains, beaded safety pins, and diamontés.  Elegant versions of punk for the wealthy, her work drew immediate disdain from within the punk subculture, Lydon describing her work as “parasitical, like a big, fat leech on your back” (Bolton p.22). 

Skilled in the craft of co-option as much as couture, the fashion houses paid no heed to the naysayers, carving out new niches around punk ideas and innovations. Whether in homage to Rhodes or to punk, Versace’s Spring/Summer 1994 collection featured a sleeveless short black dress with strategic rips attached by safety pins. Another Versace dress, famously modeled by Elizabeth Hurley at the London premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral (Newell, 1994), had longer, more revealing rips, each held in place by gold safety pins with diamontés.  

Runway punk continues to this day as one of the more curious and enduring manifestations of the genre. Its history is well illustrated in Andrew Bolton’s Punk: Chaos to Couture (2013) coffee table book, where 40-plus years of industry designs are juxtaposed with photos of original punks wearing the original clothes, accessories, and hairstyles that inspired them. These side-by-side pictures, while fascinating, make for uncomfortable viewing, forcing us to see the processes of co-option and commodification up close. 

Not only is DIY punk the “antithesis of couture’s made-to-measure precision” (Bolton p.10), as Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), points out, but it is also antithetical to the fashion industry’s “parasitical” piracy and commercialization of art.  Nevertheless, designers can be creative and critical in their plundering, using bricolage in suggestive ways and sometimes even calling attention to the social iniquities they help to perpetuate.

Some of the industry’s most renowned and revered designers—such as Gianni Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Marc Jacobs—have engaged punk to varying degrees and ends. Some pay homage to the trailblazing Westwood, like Junya Watanabe, who recognizes her mentor’s unusual material choices when using rubber and mohair in her 2006-07 collections. John Galliano makes many references to McLaren and Westwood classics, playing with their extreme gestures by exaggerating them to the point of (self-)parody. He alludes to their (and punks’) recycling of everyday domestic items by offering up shower curtain overcoats, garbage bag evening gowns, and newspaper dresses, pants, and swimwear. By employing an absurdist parody approach, Galliano calls attention to punk’s methodology of re-contextualization as much as to the material results.

Certain designers tap into the socio-political commentary of punk’s confrontation dressing, using its coded symbols of rips and holes to reflect upon societal decay, but also to satirize the fashion industry’s traditional valorization of fine attire—particularly the “dress”—as representative of bourgeois leisure and “material” comfort.  Galliano, Jeremy Scott, Alexandre Herchcovitch, Gareth Pugh, Franco Moschino, and Alexander McQueen all use bin liners in their ensembles, whether to pastiche original punk style or to “trash” their own industry and endeavors. Whereas punks re-contextualized in order to reinterpret, these designers reinterpret those reinterpreters.

Johnny Rotten and second-wave street punks like the Exploited are the most common muses for runway punk, but the Clash have also proven useful, their terse political messaging on clothes both played with and plagiarized. In recent collections, Comme des Garҫons, Helmut Lang, Stephen Sprouse, Marc Jacobs, Franco Moschino, Yohji Yamamoto, Katherine Hamnet, and Maison Martin Margiela have all employed the band’s strategy of using clothing as a canvas for stenciled or scrawled political statements. Westwood, too, continues to use the T-shirt as a vehicle for agit-prop fashion, hand-writing “I AM NOT A TERRORIST” on one from her Spring/Summer 2006 collection, and “CLIMATE REVOLUTION” on one from 2013. Her acolytes have followed suit as well, Hamnet echoing Westwood’s environmental sentiments by boldly printing “STOP ACID RAIN” and “PRESERVE THE RAINFORESTS” on plain white shirts. 

The early punk years continue to inspire designers, though other periods and mutations of the genre also show up periodically in fashion shows. New York designer, Anna Sui, once a punk herself, references her city’s punk roots, but has also created collections around the style features of both grunge and riot grrrl. Off-runway punk style, too, has become so much a part of contemporary youth culture that we barely register it as such. Unisex ensembles, uglification, torn clothes, frayed edges, defaced prints, body piercing, self-mutilation, agit-prop (or just agit-fcuk) T-shirts, multi-colored and/or spiked hair, cat-like eye make-up and vampire lips are all common-place sights today deserving a “that’s so punk” hat-tip—because they are.

Seeing the history of punk style end up on the shelves and hangers of Hot Topic and Selfridges may make one cringe as much as seeing David Beckham sporting a diamond-sequined Crass T-shirt does. Yet, such manifestations do not diminish the reality of punk style’s ongoing appeal, relevance, and re-act-ivity for the multiple generations that continue to associate with it. 

Works Cited

Aitch, Iain. “‘Why should we accept any less than a better way of doing things?'” The Guardian. 19 October 2007.

Bolton, Andrew. Punk: Chaos to Couture. Yale University Press. 2013.

Cartledge, Frank. “Distress to Impress? Local Punk Fashion and Commodity Exchange”. Roger Sabin, ed. Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk. Routledge. 2013.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Methuen & Co. 1979.

Hurley, Elizabeth in Versace dress. Wikipedia