By now, you’ve all seen slideshow upon slideshow of the fashion choices at this year’s Met Ball, all of which were influenced (some much more than others) by the exhibition’s theme Punk: Chaos to Couture. So instead of presenting our own best and worst dressed list - we’re pretty much in agreement that those celebrities who went all out were the fiercest (read: SJP, Madonna, Rooney Mara, Lily Cole) - let’s explore briefly the history of punk, and it’s indelible influence on fashion at large. And of course any such discussion on the matter must include the original Punk warrior, Vivienne Westwood.
Distortion in dress is nothing new. Throughout history, rebellions against conventional mores of dress have sprung up during times of social, political, and economic upheaval. However, no other form of anti-fashion has been as deviant as punk.
Born in London in the summer of 1976, punk first manifested itself among unemployed youth. The style functioned as a visual protest of the period’s economic decline, political upheaval, and social fragmentation, as well as Great Britain’s dominant class and gender ideologies. Sourced from charity shops and army surplus stores, the almost entirely black and menacing attire symbolized more than just poverty—it was outright aggression and a demand for attention.
In order to dramatize the plight of the English lower class, punks focused on over-the-top elements of dress. The use of shiny gold industrial fabrics, fetishistic leather, rubber, PVC, plastic-coated cotton, metal fastenings, and safety pins represented a visual violence that was abrasive, even sinister. Punks became increasingly hostile in their forms of dress, adding tribal mutilations, body piercings, tattoos, Day-glo hair dye, black makeup, and accessories that were reminiscent of bondage and sadomasochism. In sum, fashion mutated into an ugly, intrusive visual that deconstructed class and gender codes.
Lauded as the only designer who researched gang cults and designed apparel to suit their taste, British designer Vivienne Westwood popularized a threatening female punk style that freed women from traditional ideals of beauty. Westwood stated, “The only reason I’m in fashion is to destroy the word ‘conformity.’ Nothing’s interesting to me unless it’s got that element.” Westwood hoped that punk warriors, armed with her controversial designs, could tear down prevailing English attitudes toward sex and gender roles.
Critics of the anti-fashion movement believed that it would be a short-lived fad. However, as we now know, punk has mutated again & again in tandem with each cycle of global recession. In the early 1990s, it was called ‘neo-punk,’ and in the mid-1990s, it evolved into a generic ‘grunge’ street style that recently experienced a major resurgence of popularity.
Why does punk continue to make its mark on contemporary designs? As a visible embodiment of cultural meaning, punk underscores fashion’s important role in the “spirit of the times.” Just as fashion wields the ability to challenge societal conditions, you, too, possess the power to make a statement through your wardrobe choices. Whether or not you’re a sartorial subversive, we at AKIRA encourage you to embrace whatever inspires you & to let fashion be your canvas for expression.
By Sarah Kim