The 1970s was a time of extremes. High unemployment, power cuts, strikes and terrorism made for a bleak social context in which to celebrate the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Extreme times created extreme looks, and punk was the most extreme of all.
A mixture of art-school radicalism and grass-roots ‘do-it-yourself’ belief, punk was
an expression of disaffection, a rejection of both mainstream cultural values, and those of the hippy counter-culture who had come to dominate the music and alternative scenes; a reclaiming of music and fashion by a new generation, and shock for shocks sake.
At the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the Sex Pistols, dressed in the t-shirts, brothel creepers and bondage clothing of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries shop on King’s Road, London, were advocating anarchy – sticking a safety pin through the Queen’s lip on their record sleeve and swearing on national television at 6pm. Whilst the nation reeled in disgust, the Pistols, and those who quickly formed bands in their wake, emerged as a renegade movement that reaffirmed the generation gap and went on to profoundly change the music, media and fashion industries.
Punk was quick to appear in other major cities such as Manchester and Liverpool. However, the radical Seditionaries clothing of McLaren and Westwood was regarded as a London style, and with its high price tag, considered by many at the time to be elitist.
The punk outfit in Brighton Museum’s Renegade collection is representative of this London style as it includes two items by the Seditionaries label. It also illustrates the lengths to which McLaren and Westwood were prepared to go in creating clothing that shocked.
Punk style aimed to shock. Materials that were regarded as cheap, vulgar or disposable were valued by punks as an inversion of mainstream consumer values. Synthetic and industrial fabrics like PVC, rubber and plastic were teamed with metal zips, clips and d-rings, giving clothing connotations of disposability and latent sexuality, a particularly provocative element when worn on the high street in day time. Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection contains a number of garments that illustrate punk style.
Bondage trousers designed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for their Seditionaries label were a famous part of the punk look. They were straight legged, getting as far away from the flared hippy look as possible, with leg straps from one knee to the other, and zips that could tighten the trouser legs, giving the trousers the sexual overtones of fetish wear.
Always quick to exploit current youth styles, mail-order clothing companies had been a main-stay of the small-ads in the music press since the early 1960s, selling everything from ‘Beatle boots’ to Afghan coats. Labels such as Phase and Tiger offered cheap versions of the Seditionaries bondage trousers, PVC trousers, striped mohair jumpers and brothel creepers, that were also sold through outlets such as Nasty’s in Brighton’s Gardener Street. Whilst this could be seen to make Punk style available outside urban centres, it also consolidated unk style into a series of sartorial cliches.
Many elements of Westwood & McLaren designs such as frayed unfinished seams and hand printed phrases and images were easy to copy and clothes were often bought from charity and second-hand shops and then customised. This was partly fuelled by the lack of availability of punk clothing in the shops, but also by punk’s do-it-yourself attitude and anti-consumerist stance. Brighton punk Tony Lord teamed his expensive Seditionaries punk outfit with an old cardigan, whilst another Brighton punk, Saskia Gemmell, raided her mum’s secondhand clothes shop for the choice items.
School blazers, shirts and jumpers were worn ripped; held together with safety pins and badges of favourite Punk bands. What quickly became stock Punk buzzwords such as ‘Anarchy’, ‘chaos’; and ‘boredom’ were stencilled across clothing. However, this soon came to be regarded as a cliched punk uniform rather than the outburst of creative individualism it had intended to be.
Accessories also followed a do-it-yourself disposable ethic, with the most notorious example being the popularity of the safety pin worn both on clothing and in more extreme examples, through the ear, nose or lip, as immortalised in Jamie Reid’s artwork of the Queen for the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ single. Button badges became extremely popular; they were a cheap and easy way to denote a wearer’s Punk sympathies whilst also allowing for a hierarchy of Punk authenticity and obscurity to emerge. The biggest selling badge of 1977 simply stated ‘Bored Teenager’ but the more obscure the band featured on a badge, the greater the wearer’s punk credibility.
Brothel creeper shoes, originally worn by Teddy Boys were incorporated, in a modified form, into the Punk look.
The infamous Punk hair style is the mohican, shaved to the head at the back and sides, leaving a strip of hair down the centre of the head which is then often dyed and vertically spiked. However, the mohican did not become a common style until the early 1980s. The early punks usually wore their hair unevenly cropped short and then spiked into different directions.
A close-cropped style that was then dyed a bright colour was popular with punk girls. This style also leant itself to hair being dyed into a leopard-print pattern.
As spiked styles got longer, the problem arose of how to fix it in place. There was little in the way of hair-product besides lacquer or Brylcreem at this time and the more extreme styles required something stronger. Experimenting with domestic products, punks soon discovered the possibilities of soap, food colouring, Vaseline and sugar solutions as alternative hair products.
Brighton punks Debbie Sherman and Tony Lord, interviewed for Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection recall the products they used to style their hair:
“We used soap. Yeah hair gel, God if we had the products that are out today….like all the colours that are out today, we didn’t have anything like that. We used to go to Fred’s hairdresser’s, which is in Upper North Street….He actually sold ready made-up soap solution for us to gel our hair up, and he sold it for like a pound, and we used to go there and have our hair cut for about £2, and buy a bottle of this soap solution. But I mean other than that you just had normal soap, which you kind of rubbed your hands over and you just stuck it in your hair, to stick it up as much as possible. Absolutely disgusting, but it worked…. ‘course sugar solution I think was another thing that people used.” Debbie Sherman, oral history recording, OH000049
“[I] tried all the various experiments with food colourings and stuff to try and colour it and you know, you’d learn the lesson that food colour runs in the rain, so depending on what the weather was gonna do it decided whether you’d actually bother to dye, try and colour your hair or not. Having sort of quite light brown hair I could get away with food colourings at the time….and you’d do anything you could to try and make it stand up. I probably experimented with everything from soap to Vaseline, a friend of mine used to put Vicks on his hair because that was all that was left in the medicine cabinet.” Tony Lord, oral history recording, OH000085
Secondhand and vintage clothing was important to both the metropolitan and regional punk styles. Westwood and McLaren had begun selling vintage 1950s Teddy Boy clothing in the early 1970s and incorporated elements of this into their later punk clothing. Acme Attractions on London’s King’s Road specialised in deadstock 1950s American style clothing and was run by Rasta-Punk Don Letts, DJ at London’s premier Punk club The Roxy and film documenter of the 1970s London punk scene.
Saskia Gemmell, a Brighton Punk in the late 1970s recalls where she sourced the clothes for her punk look:
“Cos my mum ran a secondhand clothes shop [The Emporium, Gloucester Road], I had an almost endless supply of new clothes and for me the most important thing was the drainpipe trousers…. Her stuff was the main source of my clothes….When she used to come back on Saturday after she used to go buying from jumble sales, I used to go and rummage and all my friends used to come round and sort of get the pick of the stuff, and she used to moan at me for taking her best things.” Oral history recording, Brighton & Hove Museums Renegade collection, OH000052
The transformation of punk attitude from grass roots creativity to commodified style cliche was quick to happen and many purist punks believed that punk was dead by 1978 with the demise of the Sex Pistols and the increasing availability of punk-by-numbers clothing. By the late 1970s Brighton had its own such punk clothing shop called Nasty’s. Brighton punks David McLean and Tony Lord recall the shop:
“It was fairly cheap and nasty. It was in Gardener Street, near where the Komedia is now. It was all sort of stereotypical punk clothes really, like leopard skin spotty trousers and tiger-striped t-shirts and that, which by then I considered myself, I suppose, a cut above that sort of thing. I didn’t go there but a lot of people did though. It was quite a popular shop for a while.” David McLean, oral history interview for Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection, OH000053
“There was a shop opened up…. called Nasty’s and I guess some enterprising person thought “ooh there’s probably a market for these sort of clothes…” So they had things in like very lurid coloured t-shirts with tiger-stripe prints on them and sort of matching trousers in pinks and yellows and greens. They had some PVC trousers and they started getting in some sort of group t-shirts like Clash t-shirts and things like that.” Tony Lord, oral history interview for Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection, OH000085
Rag Freak is Brighton’s longest running shop selling punk clothing. Previously on West Street and now on Cranbourne Street, Rag Freak sells cheap tartan bondage trousers, studded belts and Sex Pistols t-shirts.
Punk outfit worn by Tony Lord, c1977
Tony Lord, a Brighton punk from 1977 onwards bought this outfit from Seditionaries, the punk label of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. He wore the outfit between 1977-1985 before donating it to Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection, which illustrates the history of subcultures in Brighton.
This outfit includes, from top to bottom:
Seditionaries ‘Destroy’ bondage top, c1978. Muslin, screen printed with swastika, inverted crucifix and lyrics to Sex Pistols’ song ‘Anarchy in the UK’, CT003805
Seditionaries bondage trousers, c1978, with customised towelling bum-flap, black cotton, CT003806
Brothel Creeper shoes, made of black leather and crepe rubber, c1985, CT003808
Studded belt made of black leather, c1977-78, CT003807
Tony Lord on the Punk Movement
“I think punk is many things to many people, to me personally it was probably 60% the music, cos obviously a lot of the punk thing was always about the music, a new form of music….it all seemed very new and fresh at the time and it did seem like a rebellion against established forms of music….But I think because the age I was at the time, I was also finding my own identity and I think that I identified with punk because punk was also about finding your own identity…it seemed to be moving so fast and going through so many different phases at the time that it, it seemed new and exciting and something clicked with me then about the style and the fashion as well…”
“There were probably only 30 to 40 [punks] actually in Brighton at the time, a very small number. The group was always changing or expanding….but it always seemed like a small close-knit community scene at the time.”
“The main place we used to hang out was a pub called The Buccaneer, which was on Brighton seafront opposite The Aquarium, it’s now called The Escape [currently Audio]…. At that time they had the basement which was quite grotty and damp and they used to have, they had a small wooden stage….It was all about going out, meeting your friends, going to all these gigs, you know, whatever night of the week you wanted to go out practically you could do.’
‘[In] Sydney Street in Brighton there was a record shop which was called Vaultage, which sprung up from the Vaultage record label which had compilations of the Brighton groups [Peter and the Test Tube Babies, The Lillettes, The Vitamins]; Vaultage 78 and 79. They opened a shop which sold only punk, mainly small labels, small independent labels. We tended to buy everything and not be discerning, so you ended up with quite a lot of crap but some little gems.” Tony Lord, Brighton Punk, oral history recording for Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection, OH000085
Tony Lord’s Scrapbook
Tony kept scrap books of photographs, gig tickets and music press cuttings that document his time as a punk in Brighton.
Punk Rock Girls
Punk is widely regarded as being a watershed movement for female performers and audiences. Punk’s do-it-yourself ethic meant that virtuosity and the values of the mainstream male-dominated rock scene could be challenged and rejected. Informed by the feminist debate of the 1970s, bands such as The Slits, The Raincoats and Kleenex reinvented music on women’s terms, whilst the androgeny of Patti Smith and the confrontational style of Siouxsie Sioux and Jordan challenged the image of the passive, objectified female performer. As one female punk expressed it:
”If you were a punk you could wear fishnets but not be labelled a slag. You could wear huge boots and not have to have sexist lechers whistlin’ after you. You could run when you needed to instead of hobbling around in stilettos. You could dress how you wanted….” (why I became a punk by ***** age 36)
Punk style was all about challenging conventions, so ideas of attractiveness and femininity were turned on their head. Hair was usually cropped short, spiked and dyed artificial colours. Thick black make-up was worn around the eyes with eye shadow smeared all around the eyelids with slashes of colour in bright pinks and blues. Sexual imagery was a key part of the look for girls who would wear mini skirts, fishnet stockings, suspenders and stiletto heels in a manner that was sexually aggressive rather than passive.
Punk Music and Fanzines
Music was pivotal to the punk scene, the Sex Pistols created a blueprint for a particular kind of punk rock that rejected musical virtuosity in favour of attitude, sheer noise and determination. Punk tried to take music back to the street, hand it back to the audience; non-musicians learning to play as they performed, writing lyrics about their lives and experiences.
This do-it-yourself ethic permeated throughout the punk psyche, not only generating new bands, but also independent record labels and a supporting media in the form of hand produced fanzines or zines that documented the bands, the gigs, the scenes that sprang up from town to town.
Brighton had a number of punk and New Wave bands that centered around The Vault, a rehearsal space in the basement of what is now the Brighthelm Centre. The Piranhas were the only band to achieve chart success (with Tom Hark, reaching no 6 in 1980), but many of the other popular local bands such as The Lillettes, The Depressions and Nicky and the Dots were documented on vinyl on the Vaultage compilation albums released in 1978, 1979 and 1980.
Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection contains interviews with Brighton Punks who recall the music scene in Brighton.
Learn more about oral histories in Community History
|Accessories also followed a do-it-yourself disposable ethic, with the most notorious example being the popularity of the safety pin worn both on clothing and in more extreme examples, through the ear, nose or lip, as immortalised in Jamie Reid’s artwork of the Queen for the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ single. Button badges became extremely popular; they were a cheap and easy way to denote a wearer’s Punk sympathies whilst also allowing for a hierarchy of Punk authenticity and obscurity to emerge. The biggest selling badge of 1977 simply stated ‘Bored Teenager’ but the more obscure the band featured on a badge, the greater the wearer’s punk credibility.|