Pearls, Pins, and Provocatuers: A Timeline of Punk in Fashion

by | Mar 4, 2024 | Fashion

This article is part of Not In London, a multi-media celebration of the English cultural capital. With parties, a pop-up store, brand collaborations, and more, check out everything that’s happening right here.

CULTURE: Whether it was challenging social norms through its ideology, music, or fashion, punk railed against consumerist and conformist cultures. Coming to fruition in the latter half of the 1970s, there is one couple who could largely be attributed with the genre’s aesthetic conception: Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. While McLaren took care of music, managing and promoting bands like New York Dolls and Sex Pistols, Westwood will be forever remembered for her part in the creation of punk style.

In her self-titled memoir from 2014, the iconic punk designer and activist wrote, “It’s not about fashion… For me it’s about the story. It’s about ideas.” Never letting up throughout her five-decade-long career, Westwood’s ideas were big ones. Anarchic and confrontational, she attacked the mainstream brazenly.

Through recontextualizing motifs that drew from history, royalty, rock, and religion, she helped reinvigorate the culture, bringing edge and unexpected rebellion to British fashion. This vision of punk was a bottle smashed in the face of convention; like punk music, it was hostile and even violent at times.

Since Westwood’s death in late 2022, the legacy of punk has been as clear as ever. We look at how the movement’s idiosyncratic do-it-yourself ethos tracks from its heyday in the ’70s, via safety pins and shocking graphics, androgyny and shaved eyebrows, from the streets to catwalks.

“We messed around with imagery that basically was provocative,” McLaren said of his and Westood’s designs in the early 1970s. “If it wasn’t to do with sex, it was to do with politics… It was just imagery that hopefully wouldn’t appear polite.” Politeness definitely wasn’t a problem; between the bondage suits, string sweaters, and incendiary graphics sold at Westwood and McLaren’s King’s Road store, they covered the basics — and then some. To the furthest extremes were challenging and taboo graphics. The use of these images might be as hard to decipher today as it was for many then; they weren’t statements of political affiliation but rather anarchic stances in opposition to authoritarian rule — and authority, period. Along with their shock value, these symbols were used in a way that sought to undermine their own potency. In so doing, they confronted the establishment head-on.

This “Two Cowboys” T-shirt (worn by Sex Pistols) made headlines when a customer was arrested wearing it in Piccadilly. He was charged under the UK’s 1824 Vagrancy Act for “showing an obscene print in a public place.”

Naomi Campbell falls at the Vivienne Westwood Fall/Winter 1993 ready-to-wear fashion show., Helena Christensen walks the Versace Spring/Summer 1994 ready-to-wear fashion show

Naomi Campbell falls at the Vivienne Westwood show, Fall/Winter 1993

When Naomi Campbell fell walking for Vivienne Westwood, the industry’s front row gasped as photographers snapped furiously. The supermodel had been toppled by a pair of nine-inch mock crocodile shoes, but she wouldn’t be defeated: “I said to myself, ‘Get up and keep going.’”

What could have been a disaster ended as a real moment, and one that went on to define both Campbell’s and Westwood’s careers. “It was really beautiful when you fell, it was like a gazelle,” Westwood said in a 2019 conversation with Campbell for British Vogue. Campbell recounted how surprised she’d been that the fall prompted new opportunities, including designers asking if she would fall for them. They were jealous of “the press that you got,” she told Westwood.

Gianni Versace, Safety Pin dress, 1994

 “The most emblematic symbol of the punk movement might be the safety pin.” The quote, attributed to Sex Pistols’ charismatic frontman, Johnny Rotten, gets to the heart of the do-it-yourself spirit of punk fashion. Clothes were deconstructed so that rips and tears could be conspicuously pinned back together. For punks, pinned, unraveling items were a comment on poverty, too, forcing it to be acknowledged and confronted head-on. Gianni Versace’s famous Safety Pin dress must have contained more than a touch of irony. Worn by Elizabeth Hurley to the London premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the dress made headlines in 1994, during one of many punk revivals, with its majestic golden crystal-encrusted kilt pins that held together the elegant, slashed couture. More recently, it was referenced by Versace muse Anne Hathaway, who wore a bouclé and pearl-encrusted safety-pin gown at the 2023 Met Gala.

Dior by John Galliano, Garbage Bag dress2006  

John Galliano made unambiguous punk allusions throughout his time at Dior, constantly reinterpreting and recontextualizing the movement’s unlikely symbols. The Garbage Bag dress worn by Kirsten Dunst and photographed by Annie Leibovitz in Vogue’s 2006 September issue is no exception. A high-fashion take on DIY, it recalls the black bin bags that British punks wore following the social upheaval, riots, and rubbish strikes that characterized the UK’s 1978–’79 “Winter of Discontent.” Punk’s penchant for rubbish bags has since been echoed by more designers, from Gareth Pugh to Moschino and Maison Margiela, and in pop culture, by Zoolander’s bad-guy designer, Mugatu. “Let me show you, Derelicte,” he says. “It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique.”

John Galliano, straight-jacket sleeves, 2007

Many of the items sold at Westwood and McLaren’s shop at 430 King’s Road were worn by Sex Pistols. This T-shirt, designed by Galliano in 2007, is a clear riff on one of the shop’s taboo garments worn by Rotten. With its elongated sleeves that can be pinned back with clip rings and D-rings, Galliano’s top is a modern take on the muslin, straight-jacket-inspired shirting designed by Westwood and McLaren for Rotten.

A model walks down the runway at the John Galliano show as part of Paris menswear Spring/Summer 2007 collections., A model walks the runway at Alexander McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2008 show at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris.

Alexander McQueen, God Save the Queen dress, 2008 

Few slogans are more evocative of punk than “God Save the Queen.” An example of the way national symbols were co-opted as statements of subversion, this one was promoted by Westwood’s merch for Sex Pistols’ single of the same name. Created in the run up to Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, Westwood’s designs desecrated the Queen’s image; some showing her with extreme piercings, some with swastikas instead of eyes. Alexander McQueen’s reference here is rendered anodyne by swathes of embroidered and bejeweled silk, making it one of the more refined and reverential takes. By the time this dress was designed in 2008, the new Dame Westwood had shifted her own attitude toward the British monarchy and its rules. In 1992, she received her OBE from the Queen and, in 2006, was named a dame. Even so, her rebellious spirit would never be completely lost: After accepting her OBE from Buckingham Palace, Westwood twirled her dress for the paparazzi, making it clear as they photographed her that she wasn’t wearing underwear.

A record year of sales for Doc Martens, 2022

Punk fashion devolved into pop in the early 2010s, merging with skater fashion to include band hoodies, pyramid-stud belts, spiky hair, and skinny jeans. With indie rock and emo styles, rebellion was thoroughly manufactured, and punk’s anti-consumer elements would lie dormant for a while. A sign of its resurgence, though, came in the early 2020s, when Doc Martens shoe sales accelerated year on year. Originally designed as work boots for police officers and postal workers, the heavy, rubberized shoes were adopted by punks in the ’70s. Their simple, utilitarian designs — with a proud nod to the working class — sold more pairs of boots in 2022 than in Dr. Martens’ then-62-year history.

Doja Cat shaves her hair and eyebrows live on Instagram, 2022

Westwood and punk’s legacy isn’t only clear in fashion, but in beauty, too, where trends have veered toward the subversive lately. Luxury brands like Isamaya have emerged, challenging beauty standards with campaigns’ whose stark visuals use dimly-lit industrial backdrops and face piercings to sell high-end lipsticks. And what could pose a greater deviation from “pretty” than shaved eyebrows? In 2022, TikTok searches relating to shaved eyebrows had nearly 100 million views, while singer Doja Cat razored hers off live on Instagram.

Demna, Balenciaga Gift Shop, 2022

When Balenciaga released two campaigns to promote its Holiday 2022 and Spring/Summer 2023 offerings, a media furor rose quickly in response. Press and social media critics condemned the brand’s juxtaposition of bondage items such as studs and harnesses alongside child models holding rucksacks designed to look like soft toys. Within days, what the Internet dubbed a “BDSM teddy bear scandal” had the fashion house withdrawing both campaigns and launching a $25 million lawsuit (later dropped). “We strongly condemn child abuse,” Balenciaga came out saying, while artistic director Demna explained to Vogue that “the plush teddy bear bags [were] referencing punk and DIY culture.”

Harry Styles by David Hockney2023

“Tell me about the twinset and pearls for men, has it caught on?” an interviewer asked Westwood as she introduced her Fall/Winter 1988–89 collection to a television audience. Despite the interviewer’s tone, and the audience’s mocking laughter, she held her cool, flatly replying, “You might see your bank manager in five years wearing that.” How prescient she was, now that one of pop culture’s biggest heartthrobs Harry Styles has made the pearl necklace a signature of his look. His commitment to this fashion statement was even immortalized recently: In his portrait by David Hockney, Styles wears a string of bright pearls.

Marc Jacobs, “Heroes” collection, 2023

Shown at New York Fashion Week just a few months after Westwood’s death in late 2022, Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2023 “Heroes” collection made the full extent of his homage clear. Models’ bleached, cropped wigs were offset by glittering crystals, utilitarian zips, and towering platforms, between upside-down jackets, nipped-in bustles, and tailored corsetry. Blondie’s Debbie Harry sat in the front row, as Jacobs’ “Westwoodisms” walked the runway. Show notes dedicated the collection to “All of our heroes past, and, young heroes present.” Alongside Jacobs’ dedication, there was another quote from Westwood: “Fashion is life enhancing, and I think it’s a lovely, generous thing to do for other people.”

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