The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Alice Dellal in Chanel's "Boy" campaign. Source:

"You're trying to make your mark in society, using all the tricks that you used on me, you're reading all those high fashion magazines, the clothes you're wearin' girl, are causing public scenes, I said, I-I-I-I-I'm not your stepping stone." 

So sang British punk band, the Sex Pistols, putting their own rebellious flare on a song originally made by American pop group, The Monkees. The Sex Pistols were more than their loud, bold and revolutionary music; they were, and are still considered to be, the product of punk - a subculture that emerged in the 1970s, rooted in anarchic idealism and anti-establishment ideology, a backlash against '60s peace-and-love and England's depressed economic and socio-political conditions at the time.

McLaren and Westwood; the royalty of punk.

It's impossible to talk about the Sex Pistols without bringing up punk subculture, and it's impossible to talk about either without mentioning Malcolm McLaren, the father of punk. In the early 1970s, McLaren lived in New York City and became beguiled by the seminal music group, New York Dolls, who frequently performed at the infamous nightclub, Max's Kansas City, on Park Avenue South. McLaren, an astute business and musical mind, intuitively took the seeds of punk back to his hometown of London, where he planted the new subculture deeply into Britain's cultural soil. But two heads are better than one - and in this case, Vivienne Westwood, McLaren's paramour at the time, helped lead the formation of punk not only as a movement in music, but in fashion as well. 

In 1974, McLaren established SEX, a clothing shop at 430 Kings Road in London, which sold Westwood's provocative designs, bondage and fetish wear and, more specifically, "rubberwear, glamourwear & stagewear." In constructing punk's identity, McLaren and Westwood championed the movement's sound and look and ensured SEX became the "it" location to access the rebellious subculture. To this day, Westwood is referred to as the Queen of Punk

Westwood's punk fashion consisted of plaid, underwear as outerwear, and deconstructed and reconstructed leather embellished with safety pins, razor blades, studs, spikes and feathers, having an overall "do-it yourself" aesthetic. Essentially, punk clothing needed to look destroyed and unfinished - a contrast to the minimalist mod and folksy, hippy look of the '60s. 

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.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Shannon Price, "Punk was both a product and a victim of late capitalism. As the most quickly digested of all previous youth subcultures, it came to fruition and fell victim to mass marketing in less than three years." After the demise of the Sex Pistols in 1978, punk fashion was everywhere in "London, the U.S. and elsewhere," explains Price.

Punk's fifteen minutes of rebellion turned into an enduring, hyper-commercialised style. Since its birth in the 1970s, punk fashion has been recycled time and time again. Haute couture designers, in particular, embraced its rebellious and raw traits. Andrew Bolton, curator of The Costume Institute at the MEt observes that, "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 mixture of haute couture's prestige and punk's low-culture makes for one ironic fashion statement. 

In fact, if we look closely, the signs have been pointing towards a re-emergence of punk in fashion - again. In Spring 2013, The Costume Institute will examine the impact of punk on fashion in its exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture. The exhibit's list of participating designers illustrates couture's continuous jonesing for anything punk; Zandra Rhodes, Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, Marc Jacobs, Andrew Groves, Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander Wang, Rei Kawakubo, to name a few. 

But punk isn't all zippers, studs and leather. It's influenced by the deconstruction of clothing so to look "inside out" or "unfinished." Price explains: "Punk was an early manifestation of deconstructionist fashion, which is an important component of late twentieth-century postmodern style and continues to be seen in the work of contemporary fashion designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela." 

Incidentally, today is the launch of Maison Martin Margiela's collaboration with mainstream retail titan H&M. The collection was revealed at an exclusive party in New York City, held in an abandoned nine-story building. The interior of the building, located on Beekman Street, would have been the perfect setting for a bunch of punk kids to get up to no good. In true MMM fashion, there was no traditional runway or walk-around arrangement; the clothes were showcased in a contemporary dance performance, choreographed by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, featuring dancers dressed in Maison Martin Margiela for H&M. For MMM, punk's influence lies in the way the clothes are draped and deconstructed, capturing the essence of punk without having to rely on cliché symbols. 

A piece from the Maison Martin Margiela
for H&M collection. Source:

And the punk inspiration for the collection didn't stop there; H&M Canada organised a marketing activity that resembled a workers' protest. A handful of people dressed in black, sporting white aprons and carrying H&M x Maison Martin Margiela signs looked like a group of rebels whilst marching along Dundas Street West in Toronto, confirms H&M's tweet. Of course, protesting isn't sensibly a punk element - but the concept is supported by punk's rejection of authority, tradition and compliance. 

There has been a recent proliferation of fashion designers using punk elements in their collections. Alexander McQueen's use of the skull - on scarves, t-shirts, clutches and jewellery - was an instant hit when it first launched in the early 2000s and continues to be popular today. More recently, Chanel's "Boy" campaign featured model and drummer of Thrush Metal (a punk band), Alice Dellal; the entire campaign was styled with punk on its mind - black nail polish, ripped stockings, leather and Dellal's signature tattoos, half-shaved head and rebellious 'tude. Chanel's perfectly tailored and proper garments worn by Dellal prove that you can take the girl out of punk, but you can't take punk out of the girl. Chanel's Cruise 2013 collection also alludes to punk - straight-edged punk haircuts, heavy eye-make up and face tattoos are juxtaposed with frilly, pastel-coloured clothing or paired with an all-leather suit. writer Mark Holgate couldn't help but notice the punk inspirations of Nina Ricci's Spring 2013 RTW collection, noting it to be a "palpable frisson out of colliding his [Nina Ricci's Peter Copping's] typical ladylike elegance with the provocative accoutrements of punk, fetishdom, and the contents of the local adults-only emporium." The punk in the Nina Ricci collection was all in the details - a trio of chains on the back of a suit jacket, fishnets, zipper teeth, to name a few. 

It's inevitable that fashion repeats itself, but the reason for the repetition is sometimes more important than the trend itself. Could the re-emergence of punk fashion be attributed to global awareness surrounding the recent fate of girl-punk band, Pussy Riot? Or perhaps we can turn to the Occupy Movement, the international protest that spanned several countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, England and Hong Kong. We can even turn to the rise of social media and its provision of another set of tools for individual expression on everything social, political - and the mundane.

Punk was both a product and a victim of late capitalism. As the most quickly digested of all previous youth subcultures, it came to fruition and fell victim to mass marketing in less than three years.

But, according to Price, after the late 1970s, punk never went out of style. Rather, it - along with hip-hop - blended into mainstream culture and has never left since. The troubling part of this is that we haven't seen a distinguished subculture movement since. Punk only had three distinct years as a subculture before it transitioned into the mainstream. The subculture of grunge arrived in the late 1980s, shortly after punk's commoditisation, but it too - being a product of punk's influence - was quickly grasped and marketed to the mainstream through such bands as Nirvana. "Today the turnaround of the process of acculturation is much shorter, ostensibly due to the speed of our media and postmodern appetite for the new; so much so that subcultures may not even be recognised as such before they are scooped up and sold as the 'next big thing,'" observes Price. 

The trouble with society moving so quickly is that we don't get to see all of its individual, glorious moments - fishnets and all. And if we are too quick to grab the new - not allowing "it" (whatever that may be) to flourish - we rob ourselves of the opportunity to allow new genres to develop in our culture. 

Are we now at a place where we will constantly be recycling the past, leaving us to wonder if there is anything new at all? All that's left to provide us with comfort is the idea of vision: in a culture that is regularly recycling the past, it's the individual visions of artists, musicians and fashion designers that present the past - like punk - in a new light. 



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