Lucky Punk | Anouchka Grose | Granta

Lucky Punk

Anouchka Grose

We were just very ecological about clothes. It was just about taking old clothes and wearing them again.

– David Johansen of the New York Dolls


Environmentalists have a tough time trying to persuade people not to do the things they seem to like doing: flying, driving, consuming animals, buying new clothes. Inside the movement there’s a stress on trying to keep things loosely positive in the face of a looming apocalypse. If you make environmentalism sound austere and boring, so the thinking goes, no one will want to join you. But fears about ecocide and societal breakdown don’t lend themselves easily to a party atmosphere. Or do they?

One of the sacred texts of my generation is a book called Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Since I’ve had it lying around in my kitchen I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve walked in and said: ‘That’s my favourite book!’ It’s so seminally cool it’s even referenced by Jess in Gilmore Girls, which basically makes it unimpeachable. Collaged from a series of live interviews and press cuttings, it tells the story of the birth of punk, between New York and London how it morphed out of the post-hippie, underground art-music scene into an endlessly influential global sensation. Initially there was no word for the movement; its adherents were just grumpier, poorer and less idealistic than old school, flower power hippies. They’d watched the world fail to develop into a peace-loving paradise and couldn’t afford to float from festival to festival without confronting, and feeling compromised by, life’s uncomfortable economic realities. Some took heroin in order to experience a sense of release only to find the uncomfortable economic realities of heroin addiction even worse than the standard ones they were trying to slip away from.

In keeping with its subject matter, Please Kill Me is an explosion of sometimes conflicting accounts of the same events, one voice sliding into another as a kind of shattered, cubist picture emerges. One of the book’s many striking features is the searing, self-reflexive honesty of its subjects. No one gives themselves an easy ride. Everyone doubts their own ‘goodness’ and ‘rightness’. None of them seem to have a plan. As the film director Mary Harron is quoted as saying: ‘What was so thrilling about it was that we were moving forward into the future and I had no idea what that future was. I felt like everything was new – there were no definitions, or boundaries, it was just moving forward into the light, it was just the future, everything new, no rules, no nothing, no definitions.’

Hippies had to be good, nice and right, but punks didn’t; they also had the option to be bad, horrible and wrong. In the book, there are endless stories about venereal disease, everyone sleeping with everyone else’s partner, and injecting heroin with needles filled from puke-laden nightclub toilets. Having said that, an incredibly idealistic philosophy somehow emerges, and it seems to have something to do with honesty. Perhaps it’s like the modernist architectural idea of truth to materials: if you are human and, as such, deeply flawed, then this is what you have to work with. Once you stop trying to be marvellous and exemplary you are freer to live a more nuanced, complex and potentially interesting existence.

If this nameless shift involved being somehow different from a hippie, then it also became necessary to look different from one. For many of the early protopunks, like David Johansen of the New York Dolls, this simply meant stopping wearing overtly hippyish clothes without putting too much thought into what you wore instead. Perhaps you wore quite ‘normal’ clothes. However, you wouldn’t go to the shop and kit yourself out in all-new stuff. In keeping with your nonselective, Dadaist outlook (not to mention your poverty) you could just put on whatever was lying around, however tatty, uncool or completely the wrong size. Lou Reed wore plain black T-shirts with jeans, Patti Smith a simple man’s shirt, while The Ramones wore classic bikers’ leathers.

It wasn’t until Malcolm McLaren came to New York and started managing the New York Dolls that clothes became seriously foregrounded. Not content with their slapdash, eco-anti-fashion, he started to dress the Dolls up in matching red leather and vinyl outfits, making them perform in front of a huge red flag. Everyone hated it, including the band, who felt like their new look had nothing to do with who they were. Their friends and fans were confused and offended. What had initially come about organically was suddenly being converted into a product, and everyone hated it.

As the New York Dolls started to fall apart due to drug addiction, bad management and terrible clothes, McLaren began to cast about for the next big thing. The person he admired most in the New York scene was Richard Hell, the singer in a band called Television. In his own words:

I just thought Richard Hell was incredible. [. . .] This was not someone dressed up in red vinyl, wearing bloody orange lips and high heels. Here was a guy all deconstructed, torn down, looking like he’d just crawled out of a drain hole, looking like he was covered in slime, looking like he hadn’t slept in years, looking like he hadn’t washed in years, and looking like no one gave a fuck about him . . . I don’t think there was a safety pin there, though there may have been, but it was certainly a torn and ripped T-shirt. And this look, this image of this guy, this spiky hair, everything about it – there was no question that I’d take it back to London. By being inspired by it, I was going to imitate it and transform it into something more English.

It seems Richard Hell wasn’t overly delighted when he discovered a short while later that McLaren was managing a band called the Sex Pistols, who dressed in ripped T-shirts, had spiky hair, and sang a song called ‘Pretty Vacant’ which was all but a paraphrasing of Televison’s ‘Blank Generation’. Still, he responded philosophically: ‘Ideas are free property. I stole shit too.’

From here the rest is tragic fashion history. The Sex Pistols formed in 1975, became famous in 1976, split up in 1978, and lost their bassist, Sid Vicious, to a heroin overdose in 1979. From the diverse, experimental clothing of the early punks – bondage, binbags and tampons for earrings – there developed a quintessential punk style that could be copied by anyone. Pop acts like France’s Plastic Bertrand could manufacture ersatz punk hits. In 1977, Zandra Rhodes made the first collection of punk couture – expensive ripped dresses, prettily decorated with safety pins and plug chain. The ‘real’ punks were not impressed. At least Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood were actually part of the scene, even if they were simultaneously exploiting it. Rhodes was a prissy purveyor of colourful, floaty silk gowns and had no place appropriating the punk aesthetic, apparently.

By 2013 the influence of punk on high fashion was so ubiquitous that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would host an exhibition called ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’, demonstrating over three decades of the appropriation of punk by fashion houses such as Comme des Garçons, Chanel, Moschino, Margiela, Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang . . . in short, everyone. Gamely, both Richard Hell and John Lydon provided texts for the accompanying catalogue, neither appearing to have hard feelings. The catalogue juxtaposes pictures of both famous and non-famous early punks, wearing their home-made, idiosyncratic outfits, alongside the high-end copies that have proliferated in the world of couture ever since. The book begins with a classic Chanel suit laced with impeccably crafted moth holes. A McQueen dress made from cling film sits alongside a shot from a 1977 Screamers’ gig. A Margiela tank top constructed from smashed plates is shown next to an unnamed man with a spoon on his lapel and a saucer on a chain round his waist. Near the front is a photograph of Richard Hell from around 1976, wearing a twisted and pinned-together shirt that is the very evident precursor of Westwood’s ‘drunken’ tailoring.

What you might deduce from all this is that punk is as cynically commercial as anything else, and that it was pretty much designed that way from the start. But you could also argue that there was something there before McLaren came along to monetise it, and if we could think our way back we might be able to salvage something useful. The premise of pre-commercial punk was to come up with something funny and cheap with whatever you could get your hands on. And you didn’t have to spend loads of time on it either. Craft was not cool. The world was falling apart and you didn’t have time for fancy embroidery, let alone sewing a button back on. You had to live as though it might all end tomorrow. The nuclear threat, plus economic meltdowns on either side of the Atlantic, made it seem wise to exist in the moment. As Vivienne Westwood says in Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (a documentary about the legendary X-Ray Spex singer): ‘You could just put on your dad’s jumper with a pair of black tights and run off down the road’. The funny thing is that this approach to dressing might also turn out to be a good way to preserve the future. The first wave of punk clothing also happened to be environmentally friendly, and it’s surely no accident that Vivienne Westwood has since become a major spokesperson for transforming the clothing industry into something more sustainable.


Vintage Schmintage

We are constantly being told these days that vintage and second-hand clothing is the way forward. Well-meaning newspaper articles encourage us to shop on resale websites like Vestiaire Collective, and stars are congratulated for wearing vintage gowns on the red carpet. But apart from the fact that this way of dressing can be incredibly expensive, sometimes it simply doesn’t appeal to people. For a start, the older amongst us might dread the idea of dressing in the styles of our youth. But what if we rethought what it meant to wear existing clothes rather than buying new stuff?

One of the misconceptions around second-hand clothing is that the people who wear it just happen to like recreating looks from different eras. Maybe they go swing dancing too, or decorate their homes with psychedelic wallpaper. But as punk shows, it’s possible to wear old clothes in a futuristic way – it was only when McLaren stopped being obsessed with shiny red textiles that he could finally see a way forward. The genius of early punk was that it immediately opened up whole new sets of possibilities that were accessible to absolutely anyone. You could wear tiny clothes, or huge ones. Or tiny clothes over huge ones. You could put things on upside down or back-to-front, or turn shirts into skirts. You could even wear things that wouldn’t normally be considered clothes at all. Once you rejected the idea that your clothes ought to make you look wealthy and conventionally attractive you could start to play with them in new and evolving ways. And the surprising effect of this was it could even make you instantly charismatic. By refusing to be a flunkey to the system, you demonstrated a strength of character that drew other people in. As evidenced by the Met show, everyone wants to be a bit punk.


Now and Zen

Thanks to the wish for a sharp break from hippiedom, there might be a tendency to disavow the importance of Zen Buddhism to punk philosophy. But as soon as you start to look at the history of punk the connection becomes clear. If Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground form a bridge between the swinging sixties and seventies punk, then they bring with them the associations with the contemporary art and music scene – the composer, John Cage, with his experiments in chance-controlled music, and the choreographer, Merce Cunningham, who used the I Ching to direct dancers’ movements. Warhol himself is often characterised as a great businessman who was mainly interested in wealth and celebrity, but this is to miss the enormous emphasis in his work on emptiness, non-judgement, silence and the absence of meaning. The New York music scene that birthed punk was infused with a history dating back to early minimalism, with its links to Eastern philosophy. If you listen a little differently, catchphrases like ‘no future’ take on a slightly different inflection. Or this quote from Richard Hell: ‘We had no attachments, nothing to lose.’ Or John Lydon: ‘Punk was all about changing – continuously.’ It’s also surely not by chance that the punk-inspired grunge band Nirvana were called Nirvana. Once you start to look, it’s everywhere. All of which is to say that a re-mining of punk doesn’t mean wearing a mini kilt with a safety pin through your nose. You might end up looking really sensible, like a late seventies David Byrne. The point would be to try to let go of as many persecutory ideals as possible and see what you end up with. What if clothes could be rethought from the ground up? And not just by clothing specialists, but by anyone? Instead of taking the imitable parts of punk, we could take the inimitable bits – the things that happen by chance. Maybe choose an outfit according to comfort and nothing else. Or wear all your favourite things at once. Or dress in the clothes your partner leaves on the floor. Whatever you like. Or don’t like. It literally doesn’t matter. Here John Lydon gives a perfect example of working with what’s under your nose: ‘Because of the rubbish strikes in London, there were garbage bags piled twenty high on every street corner. What the council did was that they started putting out bright green and bright pink rubbish bags to kind of gentrify the trash. Well, that was a perfect, perfect item of clothing to a wannabe punk at that time. You’d just cut a hole for your head and your arms and put a belt on and you looked stunning.’ Of course, these days, the point wouldn’t be to wear a bin bag like you’re going to a punk fancy dress party, but to wear whatever appears in front of you that makes you laugh or gives you an inexplicable buzz. Maybe that’s your mum’s old stuff. Or your kid’s. Or the things your neighbours leave on their garden walls. Or a kitchen apron someone gave you although you never cook. If you like it, wear it.

And if this all sounds a bit woo, there’s the slightly less radical but highly real-world trick that punks perfected under the guidance of Vivienne Westwood. Perhaps if you go fully out on a limb with your clothes you might risk feeling like a nutter. The reason people seem to like designer brands is that they feel authenticated, or rubber stamped, by expensive clothing; if Demna Gvasalia says it’s OK, it must be OK. But there’s nothing less cool than going out and buying a fully put-together designer look so what you do is buy one carefully chosen designer piece and then use it to orient or pin down all the other weird shit you wear around it. In Viv Albertine’s book, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, she describes visiting Westwood’s World’s End shop in the mid seventies and being persuaded by Westwood herself to buy an expensive pair of red boots as an investment. The thing about the boots was that they were so purposeful-looking in their own right that you could wear pretty much anything with them and the boots would make it look good. Albertine was cash-strapped but went along with it, and the boots were still going strong when her book came out in 2014.

Maison Margiela is another surprisingly Zen post-punk design house. Founded in 1988 by the Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela, the brand initially specialised in showing the inner workings of traditional clothes. Every part of the construction  and process was liable to be revealed, from chalk marks to tailors’ tacking to linings. The ‘truth’ of the clothing was fully on show. Another house speciality is the ‘Replica’; a piece of comically flawed old clothing is lovingly reproduced – maybe a holey jumper, baggy old man’s nightshirt, or a pair of boots covered in cracked white housepaint. I was lucky enough to stumble across one of these pieces in a second-hand shop,   a cream silk blouse that must have gaped between the buttons, so the original owner had added visibly-stitched black poppers at the mid-point between buttonholes. The effect is funny and gauche. The poppers are such a ‘bad’ solution to the problem of gape that the replicated blouse is a sartorial joke, like a perfect copy of a two-year-old’s drawing.

The genius of Maison Margiela (whose clothes are now designed by a huge, diverse team of clothing nerds under the supervision of John Galliano) is that the shop is full of clothes it takes five minutes to make and that look completely brilliant. Their design ethos has a strong environmental bent – they’re big on upcycling – and surely so few people can afford the stuff anyhow that their print runs can hardly be enormous. But anyone can walk into the shop, quickly work out that the £590 ‘Foulard Hat’ is simply a man’s shirt buttoned around the head and chopped off round the back, then go straight home and get the scissors out. They are also great for ridiculous styling; knotted hankies on the head with HUGE denim jackets and sock with sandals, all of which can easily be found on eBay. For eco-inspo, Margiela is great. They are also the best at elevating what already exists to the sweet spot where the abject meets the sublime. Applying the well-worn and totally Zen – logic of the fine art ready-made (a tradition inaugurated by Marcel Duchamp’s urinal), Maison Margiela subverts the unfortunate fashion idea of interminably making people want what they don’t have, instead encouraging people to marvel at the kind of stuff they probably already own, or could easily pick up for next to nothing.


To sum up, if you take a look at what punks were up to you discover a number of options:

You can wear whatever the fuck you like.

You can buy one expensive thing and wear it with whatever the fuck you like. (And the expensive thing could even be from eBay.)

You can look at what clever nerds manage to do with abjectly awful garments, and then go home and do it yourself.


Image © Jason Burrows


This is an extract from Fashion: A Manifesto by Anouchka Grose, published by Notting Hill Editions.

Anouchka Grose

Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and writer practising in London. She is the author of more than ten books, including No More Silly Love Songs.

More about the author →