Essay: The Punk Movement in the Realms of Subculture, Fashion and Style

punk subculture

Style and fashion play important roles in distinguishing one social group from another and from the rest of society, and are vital in giving individuals and groups both a sense of belonging and of being unique. Through sartorial and behavioural choices group identification is produced, and just as fashion encodes style, members of a group bearing a particular fashion reinforce their tribalism. Simultaneously able to be both a whimsical pleasure or novelty and a bold social or political statement, fashion is, in modern society, a functional equivalent to good taste, although the idea of using dress to distinguish oneself is age-old. With their ability and track record of traversing class and social status, fashion and style can be discussed in relation to individuals and groups of people as diverse as monarchs and heads of state, to gatherings of fans of a particular band or genre of music. This essay will examine the punk fashion and youth movement of the late 1970s in Britain and America in the realm of the youth culture it was formed in and influenced, including how it was received by the wider Western society of the time, and its long-term impacts on Western society as a whole.

There is a strong argument for fashion not having existed in any major sense before the growth of capitalism and the formation of industrial cities in Western Europe, although there is some evidence of ancient Roman and Greek ideas of fashion remaining static (Wilson 1985, p.16). By the fourteenth century, trade expansion, the growth of urban life, and the increasing sophistication of aristocratic and royal courts led to an increase in tailoring (Wilson 1985, p.16). Communications technologies introduced at the end of the nineteenth century helped spread knowledge of the latest fashions worldwide, and fashion and style have been a part of Western societies ever since.

Although closely linked, fashion and style can be defined in different ways. A dictionary definition of fashion is “a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration or behaviour” (Oxford Dictionary, online), whereas style is defined as “a manner or way” (Oxford Dictionary, online). However, the terms have much deeper meanings when explored further and compared.

While Gronow (1993, p.89) describes fashion as a “socially acceptable and safe way to distinguish oneself from others and, at the same time, it satisfies the individual’s need for social adaptation and imitation”, Mauss (1973, p.70) went further by explaining how even the most mundane bodily activity is a cultural technique. Fashion and style can have effects on societies and cultures on a much grander scale than the individual; a person’s fashion choices do not merely represent their taste in clothes or hairstyle, but the attitude they adopt to the world and the people and objects with which they choose to surround themselves (Merleau-Ponty 2004, p.63). With the arrival of mass communications technologies in Western societies, it became possible for individuals or entire subcultures to become famous on national or international scales, and for individuals and groups to seek fame with the use of fashion and style.

Style, in a broad sense, has been defined as “the counter-hegemonic practices of youth subcultures” (Hebdige 1979, p.2) and, in Hebdige’s description of style in the realm of subcultures, style is a form of social refusal or “criminal art” (1979, p.2). Like fashion, the concept of style can be relevant when discussing both individuals and cultures.

As the idea of ‘youth’ appeared in post-war Britain as one of the most obvious social changes, the social landscape changed accordingly. The appearance of youth brought about new legislation, official interventions, and was signified as something “we ought to do something about” (Jefferson 1989, p.10). Youth was a metaphor for social change in ways which took many years to pinpoint, and an idea aided by media constructions and exaggerations about what was organic and what was forced (Gramsci 1971, p.177). Images of youth were self-destructive, misdirected, criminal, impressionable, apathetic, victimised, cool, and cutting edge (Wilson 2006, p.5). As cultural social groups within the arena of youth developed, identified by their distinct patterns of life, they formed ideas about the meanings and values embodied in institutions and traditional customs (Jefferson 1989, p.11). Youth subcultures formed as “crimes against the social order” (Hebdige 1979, p.3); perpetuated by a change of clothes, hairstyle or adoption of fandom of a particular type of music or band.

Subculturalists have been described in many different ways, as both “postmodern in their identification with fragmentation and heterogeneity” and “modern in their commitment to individual freedom and self-expression” (Brodie-Smith 2000, p.174). It has also been argued that subculturisation is the result of urbanism; cities having large heterogeneous populations and thus weaker interpersonal ties (Fischer 1972, p.187). These newly-formed groups engaged in a struggle over cultural ‘space’ and expressed themselves in new ways, but were not able to solve many of the problems associated with the peripheral social position of youth (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.1).

The exact definition of a subculture is always in dispute and boundaries remain a problem, but the concept style is important as it is “the area in which the opposing definitions clash with the most dramatic force” (Hebdige 1979, p.3). Indeed, possibly the most important aspect of a subcultural group is its use of symbolic style (Brake 2013, p.12), with the dominant values of style being image, demeanour and ‘argot’, or a special vocabulary and how it is delivered (Brake 2013, p.13). The nature of subcultural groups’ clothes is very complex: they are the “system of signals by which [they] broadcast [their] intentions, projection of [their] fantasy selves, weapons, challenges, insults” (Carter 1967, p.10).

Historian Jon Savage said “Many of the people whose lives were touched by punk talk of being in a state of shock ever since” (1991, p.4). It is generally accepted that the punk movement began in America in the early 1970s, but it became to be perhaps most closely associated with Britain in the mid- and late-1970s: a time when an economic recession, with its high levels of unemployment and increase in poverty-line living conditions, provided a catalyst for a new youth movement. When John Lydon – then know as Johnny Rotten – wrote the lyrics to his band the Sex Pistols’ single ‘God Save the Queen’ in late 1976, at a time when young working class English people were facing grim economic prospects, little did he know of the cultural and social impact his band and songs would have. The social meanings created by English punk bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Slits and The Damned, their American counterparts the New York Dolls and the Ramones, and Australia’s The Saints, have been pored over in the ensuing decades, and for good reason: very few youth subcultures have had such an impact on Western society as punk.

“Punk” is a vague concept, but its origins can be traced to the 1960s as a reaction to the cultural landscape of the time. It was “a subculture that scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of the hippy myth” (Christgau 1976). It also followed the lead of much of the mod youth movement; bands like the MC5 and The Stooges brought a stripped-down version of rock and roll into the arena of popular music. There is an intersection between youth and extreme fashion as a method of asserting an attitude of dissent in times of crisis (Fury 2016, p.230), and strong visual styles accompanied punk’s music, with the American bands sporting mainly black leather jackets and blue jeans, and the British bands tending towards ripped shirts, safety pins, Nazi imagery, and bondage wear in a self-mocking, shocking image (Isler & Robins 2007, p.23). ‘Porn chic’ was a style of punk clothing which can be viewed as a critique of patriarchal fashion codes, giving female punks a new basis of empowerment and authenticity (Langman 2008, p.1). The power of ‘otherness’ was deliberately harnessed as a tool of protest, as a way to provoke and agitate. A post-modern society, transformed by evolving fashions, music, and attitudes, emerged as a challenge to the status quo; the prevailing social and cultural positions of modern life (Chambers & Cohen 1990, p.143).

The British punk movement was a much more politicised version of the American movement, and arguably had a greater cultural impact in its own country. However, it could also be argued that the British movement would not have happened without the American movement occurring first (Henry 1984, p.30). As a social movement it was considered fresh and exciting by many young people, with the feeling that “it made one feel that maybe music had some sort of relevant part to play in one’s life” (Vermorel 2006, p.1) being common.

The subculture’s high point was reach between 1976 and 1979, but throughout this period it had no set ideology or agenda (Sabin 2002, p.2). However, certain attitudes were prevalent across this time-frame and were common across all geographical locations where the subculture was apparent; including an awareness of class politics, a belief in spontaneity or “do it yourself”, and a focus on negationism (Sabin 2002, p.2). It is generally accepted that the movement ended in 1979, when other youth subcultures became more prevalent as fashion and social culture evolved. The movement’s most prominent band, the Sex Pistols, broke up in acrimony in January 1978 after a chaotic and shambolic North American tour. It has been claimed that the movement died with the death of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, who overdosed on heroin in early 1979, shortly after the stabbing death of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in unknown circumstances (Sabin 2002, p.2).

In the summer of 1976 the punk movement gathered speed as the number of participants swelled, reproducing the “entire sartorial history of post-war working class youth cultures in ‘cut-up’ form” (Hebdige 1979, p.27). The rhetoric of punk as a subculture was steeped in apocalyptic words, many of which were painted or stitched brazenly across garments in the style of the movement, yet the movement as a whole was obviously innocent of literature (Hebdige 1979, p.28).

Alienation and cosmetic rage were the manners of choice for all the major participants, in the same way that most youth cultures are a reaction to bourgeois values (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.232). Langman (2008, p.1) describes how any form of fashion or lifestyle can be understood as a way of “claiming agency to resist domination, invert disciplinary codes and experience ‘utopian moments’”, although this theory has been disputed. The punk subculture was in many ways defined by the idea of its participants being ‘outsiders’, or opposed to bourgeois institutions, although it has been argued that the irony of this situation is that the punk movement’s reaction or resistance to bourgeois society takes place “as a result of their incorporation into bourgeois institutions” (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.236). Foucault (1972, p.778) described how, when a human turns himself into a subject, the human subject is “placed in power relations which are very complex”. Describing the punk movement’s reaction to institutional power is not as simple as saying “it was against it”. In examining possible answers to the question “What legitimates power?” (1972, p.778), Foucault suggests that in examining the aspects of power relations between two entities, there is more to be learned from the subject of power than the holder of power.

The idea of punks being oppressed by the state is therefore open to debate; they were self-excluding and went to great lengths to keep it that way. Similarly, it has been suggested that the concept of a ‘generation gap’ is not an appropriate reason for the prevalence of many youth subcultures, including punk: it is inappropriate for youth’s reactions and attitudes to institutions to be blamed on institutions, as their responses to them are likely based on the same value systems used by the institutions themselves (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.236). It is most likely that the combination of elements in their lives – including school, family, job, police, courts, youth clubs, social workers, mass media, and commerce – that decides a young person’s reaction to institutional power (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.237). Foucault (1985, p.28) describes how all moral action involves both a relationship with the reality in which it is carried out and with the self. Self-formation as an “ethical subject” concerns a participant deciding on a certain method of being which will serve his moral aims (Foucault 1985, p.28).

In other ways, the punk movement has been described as “dole queue rock” (Marsh 1977, p.10), and it has been argued that level of education and income are unrelated to fashion leadership (Goldsmith et. al 1991, p.37). The punk movement was initially a reaction not to institutional power, but to the over-inflated ‘superstar’ stadium rock acts of the early- and mid-1970s. In an era when musical technical virtuosity pointed to commercial success and concert ticket prices were often too high for most working class youth to be able to afford, gaps emerged between millionaire musicians and unemployed fans (Brake 2013, p.77). The punk movement has also been described as a “condition of postmodernity” (Moore 2010, p.305), or a crisis of meaning caused by the commodification of everyday life, bringing about a reaction in the form of a “culture of destruction” (Moore 2010, p.305).

In saying this, there were more than one class of subculturalists within the movement itself, ranging from the art school students and cultural rebels who developed bohemian careers, to working class youth who refused to conform to anything and remained unemployed (Brake 2013, p.78). In some cases, the punk fashion movement saw the blurring of boundaries between art, fashion and everyday life; in others, art, fashion and everyday life were seemingly disparate objects and behaviours (Henry 1984, p.30). There also existed a hierarchy of members based on their perceived level of commitment to the scene (Fox 1987, p.344), and a paradox between the unaffordable fashion items sold by the primary trendsetting designer of the movement, Vivienne Westwood – partner of the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren – and the ‘garbage bag’ fashion she created.

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate how the fashion and music of the punk movement had an effect on Western society in the 1970s is to examine the wider public’s reaction to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of December 1976. ‘Moral panic’, or a process by which “politicians, commercial promoters and media habitually attempt to incite” (McRobbie & Thornton 1995, p.559), surrounded the band’s concerts, and many were picketed by local residents, cancelled by venue owners, or overcrowded by hostile press. London councillor Bernard Brook Partridge infamously declared in a television interview: “Some of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death” (Simpson, 2007, online). The response in the form of a moral panic to a youth culture shows the complexity of feeling towards subcultures, and while the response to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour was partially socially-constructed by media and politicians, “reactions by trade unionists, students, feminists and socialists show that concerns about British society in 1976 were not confined to religious pressure groups, conservative media commentators and political elites” (Gildart, 2015, online). The band played up to their supposed role as trouble-makers, deliberately provoking media and politicians alike, and the result was a general increase in intensity of the moral panic.

Although the intensity of, and participation in, the original punk movement was high for only a short time in the 1970s, it had a sizeable impact on fashion, music, and culture, and thus wider Western society as a whole. The fashion, music and attitudes of the Sex Pistols, in particular, facilitated a “reframing and a re-imagining of English culture” (Adams 2008, p.469), which has been drawn on by a number of subsequent fashion, art and music subcultures. The evolving punk subculture of the 1980s attempted to tackle many of the problems of inner-city life, most especially on the east coast of the United States, and soon after embraced much larger social and ethical issues (Parkes 2014, p.42). Although the original punk subculture failed to create the revolution in everyday British and American life that many of the bands involved called for in their lyrics, the punk fashion and music movement changed the way people thought about and discussed social stratification in Britain and America from the late 1970s onwards (Simonelli 2010, p.121). Unfortunately for the participants themselves, their efforts – using fashion and music – to protest and agitate against the bourgeois culture of their home countries was doomed to failure, as the main players involved could not resist becoming professionalised themselves (Simonelli 2010, p.121). A prime example of this happened in 2005, when the Sex Pistols’ logo and branding appeared on a Virgin credit card, with many news headlines containing words similar to the affect of “Punk Rock Dies a Little” (Tuttle 2015, online).

Towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s the punk movement “began to produce its members, as opposed to its members producing it” (Parkes 2014, p.80). The punk aesthetics of awareness of class politics, a belief in spontaneity or “doing it yourself”, and a focus on negationism (Sabin 2002, p.2) largely disappeared; an ironic turn typified by subcultural patterns. The musical, and accompanying fashion, form found a new audience in the 1990s, when mainly American bands like Green Day, The Offspring and Blink-182 brought a more pop-oriented version of the genre to the mainstream. The genre as a subcultural movement has since not been able to match its 1970s heyday for social and cultural impact (Brake, 2003, p.24). It is no longer the subculture ‘of the moment’ since going mainstream, but the after-effects are still present: it is studied in universities and art colleges across Britain, America and Australia, and its music press has long since made the move from the underground to the overground (Sabin 2002, p.2).

In conclusion, it can be said that the punk fashion and music movement had effects on the wider society of which it was part, albeit a lesser one than was intended by many of the participants of the subculture. If culture is defined as “all the characteristic activities and interests of a people” (Hebdige 1979, p.137), then the punk subculture took – however temporarily – a prominent position, and had an affect on, those cultures. While initially a subculture alienated from contemporary mainstream culture, the movement was absorbed into the mainstream within a few short years; completing what is considered by many to be an inevitable cycle (Hebdige 1979, p.137). This is perhaps best summed up by Barthes (1972, p.10), who wrote: “Everything nourishing is spoiled; every spontaneous event or emotion a potential prey to myth”.


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