At 430 King’s Road in 1970s Chelsea, ‘SEX’ was spelled out in huge, fluorescent pink letters. The store’s interior consisted of phallic graffiti, full of bondage trousers, ripped jeans, studs, badges, and graphic (and I mean graphic) tees. Owned by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, ‘SEX’ pioneered punk fashion through dressing the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols as much as prostitutes and young Londoners. They used fashion to scream what punk was: anarchy, anger, sexual liberty, sedition, and anti-establishment rebellion.

Punk helps make the claim that fashion can be profoundly bottom-up, substantial, influential and radical. It was a counterculture, with music, literature, art, politics and philosophy expressing its anti-authoritarianism and anti-consumerism. Its fashion was no different, with the DIY ethic in defiance of consumerism, ripped clothing in defiance of notions of propriety, and BDSM-inspired leather and PVC in defiance of sexual norms. Meanwhile, the American hardcore punks developed a different sort of rebellion through their ethos of ‘anti-fashion’ - the idea that the movement should not be defined by its fashion - with the adoption of a dressed-down style (jeans, T-shirts and combat boots) taking cues from the working class.

These styles have since diffused into contemporary popular culture. Vivienne Westwood pearl necklaces and Doc Martens were the most coveted clothing items of the past year; Olivia Rodrigo referenced punk with PVC gloves, black leather boots, a corset and a plaid skirt in the ‘good 4 u’ music video. Compare punk music - such as the Sex Pistols’ anti-monarchical ‘God Save the Queen’ with lyrics such as “The fascist regime / They made you a moron / Potential H-bomb” getting the song banned from the BBC - with Rodrigo’s pop-punk invoking teenage angst through punk to curse out a guy (also valid).

But herein lies the difference between actual punk and punk as a style. It no longer exists as a cohesive movement or culture, but as a style on moodboards to borrow from (not to disregard the fact that actual punks do still exist today). We have gone from ‘anti-fashion’ and DIY to punk-inspired luxury brand R13 selling distressed jeans for £535 and a Sonic Youth T-shirt for £340. The 2013 Met Ball theme was ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’, suggesting the taming of punk into a polished style for the mainstream, yet whilst snatching and incorporating it into the exclusivity of luxury fashion. Vivienne Westwood, the ‘mother of punk’, struggles to remain true to punk’s ethos while operating 63 global stores (as of 2015), making millions annually, and being granted a Damehood. The mainstream’s adoption of punk is far from a testament to the power of counterculture. Because what power and influence is there, really, when the aesthetics of a movement are devoured by the very system they oppose?

Punk is historically a counterculture, but currently a style. As Valerie Steele wrote about retro fashion in 1990, “It exists only to be cannibalized, or refashioned[...] Clothing signs become meaningless, except in purely visual terms.” Three decades later in the 2020s, with internet culture and the system of capitalism both overripe, the cannibalising of subcultures has only intensified. The internet, and particularly the prioritisation of visuals on sites such as Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest and TikTok, can often result in images stripped of contexts and meanings. The provenance of an image can go completely uncited or unknown: an afternoon on Pinterest can yield a moodboard of 100+ images void of the compiler’s understanding of the origins, let alone ethos, behind each image and its style. Punk becomes one out of multitudinous subcultures whose meanings are rewritten and whose styles are free for the choosing. Elements of punk can be found everywhere, from stringy cutout tops to leather jackets, graphic band tees to Demonias and tartan. One is no longer ‘punk’, but incorporates punk into a melting pot of inspirations for personal style.

“Because what power and influence is there, really, when the aesthetics of a movement are devoured by the very system they oppose?”

The issue worsens when media consumption turns into material consumption because of capitalism’s unethically vast production capability. Punk has been appropriated as a general symbol of rebellion that is produced, marketed and sold by capitalists. Countless fake Vivienne Westwood pearl chokers are sold on Amazon: the provenance even of a material good is irrelevant, as long as the ‘look’ is achieved. Many hauls of punk and goth clothing on YouTube are from Shein and Aliexpress - online fast fashion giants popular on TikTok. Shein releases between 700-1,000 new items per day, has repeatedly been criticised for infringing other companies’ trademarks, and was reported by Reuters for failing to make public and even making false claims about working conditions in its supply chains. Shein and Aliexpress have no specific identity or style, but are omnivorous producers of all styles even more so than Zara. Their cheap prices and larger sizes make them doubly appealing (which reveals more ills of the fashion industry). Rebellion in a previous manifestation, punk fashion can now completely exist under and feed into the dominant system.


Mountain View

Antifashion, grunge and 90s youth culture

Part of the problem is that we have oversimplified the way we think about the power of fashion, overemphasised its power of expression. Fashion can be radical, political, and influential, but to solely don the visual language of rebellion can be the opposite of sticking it to the system. Punk fashion was shocking and subversive because of the ideology it accompanied. As Erving Goffman posited, to express an act and to act are different. To externally signal rebellion is different from being rebellious. The internet and capitalism have made us worship the power of external expression - that how we present ourselves and what commodities we purchase possess inherent power to convey and empower - which does hold some truth. The pandemic has made us value the language of rebellion and radicalism as the world crumbles, but has also enhanced our reliance on aesthetics, external representations, the internet, and e-commerce to express it. If our generation wants to harness a movement and a counterculture, what we do ultimately matters a lot more than wearing vintage - or fake - Vivienne Westwood.