England’s Dreaming, punk couture, and the Met Ball

Have you seen the pictures from the ‘punk chaos’ themed Met Ball? They’re splashed all over fashion blogs at the moment.

The Met Ball is an annual event, this time in honour of the ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’ exhibition in New York.

Punk? No. Fugly? Yes.

The theme of ‘punk chaos’ was tricky for the attendees. Rich people don’t want to look like Nancy Spungen, according to the New York Times (although who does want to look like Nancy Spungen nowadays? Apart from Italian punks hanging around in Camden).

Most people went for tried-and-tested punk shorthand, ie:

  • Safety pins. So many safety pins.
  • Mohawks/spiky hair.
  • Ripped fishnets.
  • John Lydon sneer.

It’s inevitable that nobody would really get it right. I don’t think punk was ever a red carpet thing. But punk definitely was a fashion thing. It all started in a clothes shop, didn’t it? Punk was the definition of style over substance.

There’s an amazing history of punk by Jon Savage called ‘England’s Dreaming’, which is one of my favourite books ever. It’s all about how fashion created and defined punk, from an arty, threatening, exclusive London clique, to the dumbed down mainstream of spiky mohawks and Sham 69 gigs.

Read the book and you’ll get a picture of punk as being all about DIY and dissatisfaction (as well as a nasty undercurrent of teenage stupidity, fascist chic, and random violence).

And if you’re interested in fashion and subculture, you should read this book. Jon Savage’s writing is highly evocative about clothes. Here are some choice quotes on sewing and style:

Vintage Sex Pistols t-shirt from 1976
Vintage Sex Pistols t-shirt from 1976

‘After two years of intermittent tailoring, Vivienne found her own style, suddenly turning her inexperience to her advantage. One day, she was tinkering with two simple squares of cloth, attempting to make a sleeved T-shirt. Then she thought, ‘Why bother with the sleeves?’, and made the simplest possible T-shirt instead, sewing the two squares roughly together, the seams highlighted as much as possible, with holes for the head and the arms. Beautifully androgynous, they fitted the torso like a glove. The heavy, pinkish, felt-like cloth made a suitable backdrop for printing slogans.’
Vivienne Westwood’s first attempts at tailoring

Poly Styrene (RIP)
Poly Styrene (RIP)

‘Take a cheap plastic bag,’ she says, ‘stick a lot of plastic flowers on it and things that nobody would be bothered to buy, then all of a sudden they become very very trendy and people want them. I had little lattice plastic bags and see-through Mary Quant shoes from the sixties: I used to buy up old stock. Anything different. Some of the things were vile but they were so vile they were cute. That was the whole thing: it was meant to be an extreme version of tack.’
Poly Styrene (of X Ray Spex) talking about her market stall on the King’s Road

Vivienne Westwood looks well ‘ard. You wouldn’t mess.

‘The first person I saw who looked totally brilliant,’ says Simon Withers, who worked with Vivienne Westwood in the early 1980s, ‘was in late ’74 at a bus stop in Kentish Town. He was called Matt Scottley and he had blue two-pleat pegs, plastic sandals, and a blue mohair jumper, with a blonde wedge.’ This was what would later be called the ‘Soul boy’ look: at the time the term denoted not only a musical preference but also some sartorial extravagance’.
The emergence of soul boy fashion – there’s a good overview of the ‘The British soul boy’ here.

The original bondage suit, designed by McLaren + Westwood.

‘We found a fabric called Black Italian: it was polished black satin cotton which British Rail used for their waistcoats. That fabric became the basis for the designed based on those trousers. I wanted to put the fetish elements in. The sense of making a trouser become tighter even though it’s wide was good: it had that energy, that ability to contract itself. So we got the zips….the straps between the legs…buckles on the calves…Dye it black: make everything black, black, black’.
Malcolm McLaren on the invention of bondage trousers

There’s also some great bits about how the band Subway Sect dyed all their clothes grey in a bath, and how Holly Johnson (later of Frankie Goes to Hollywood) used to go out in Liverpool wearing tampons as earrings and a kettle for a handbag.

So if you want to know more about punk fashion, ignore The Met Ball and get this book instead.


11 thoughts on “England’s Dreaming, punk couture, and the Met Ball

  1. gingermakes May 11, 2013 / 9:14 PM

    Interesting! Sounds like a great read!

  2. margaret May 10, 2013 / 1:26 AM

    Thank you for this brilliant post. I don’t think I’ll get to NYC in time for the exhibition, but I’m enjoying all the visuals across the internet. I think the celebrities who showed up to the Met Ball look ridiculous and so far off the mark it’s not funny. You’d think Madonna, a self-made trendsetter (at least at first, in the 80s), would get it out of all of them. But no, she just looked dumb. Sigh.

  3. Clare May 8, 2013 / 8:38 PM

    Oh bondage up yours! LOVE Polystyrene, so sad she died. Really enjoyed reading this post. Am fascinated by punk and its subculture. A really good book to read is John Lydon’s “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” (A sign that used to be hung up in some boarding houses and B&Bs).

    • yesilikethat May 9, 2013 / 2:04 PM

      Thanks for the recommendation, will definitely have to read that! Love an autobiography.

  4. craftylittlebugger May 8, 2013 / 8:33 PM

    It’s amazing how something that started out as so anti-fashion is being celebrated at a big celebrity event attended by Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift.
    Great post though, I must get my mitts on that book.

  5. flossiejamieson May 8, 2013 / 6:31 PM

    Brilliant post.ah yes, good old Viv. If only she hadn’t just designed the new uniforms for Virgin’s air stewards I would love her just as much as always. At least Christina Ricci and Lily Cole actually wore her stuff.

    • yesilikethat May 9, 2013 / 2:04 PM

      I know, she is a big old hypocrite. There was an interview with her in this month’s Vogue and even the journalist was basically dissing her…

  6. sweary sewer May 8, 2013 / 4:51 PM

    out of interest, does savage reference dick hebdige’s seminal “subculture: the meaning of style” at all?

    • yesilikethat May 8, 2013 / 4:57 PM

      Hmm, i’m not sure – he must have read it, but don’t think he mentions it in the book. It’s not a massively academic read, it’s mostly made up of interviews with relevant people, mixed with Savage’s own diaries from the time, and musings….

  7. Handmade Jane May 8, 2013 / 3:32 PM

    This is really interesting, I love reading about fashion trends. I was only a little girl in 1976 but I do remember there being a few punks in town and they completely fascinated me! The strange thing is, Jon Savage’s book has been on my bookshelf for 20 years without me realising what it was about (it belongs to my husband). It’s just gone straight to the top of my ‘to read’ list, thanks for the recommendation. x

    • yesilikethat May 8, 2013 / 4:32 PM

      Ah that’s great, you should definitely read it! The pictures are brilliant too. Also Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus is pretty good, although rather pretentious…

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