Clothes for Heroes – Punk Fashions and Women

By Imogen Hunt and Julie Bréthous

“What a fucking rotter!” They are hardly elegant words but nonetheless words that can be read as having changed the face of British culture in the late 1970s. Bill Grundy’s televised interview with the Sex Pistols in 1976 introduced the world to Punk with a bang. The next day, the Sex Pistols adorned the front pages of newspapers across Britain while TV production companies leapt into action to prepare pieces on the new craze that was brainwashing British teens. By this time, however, Punk had already been bubbling under London’s cultural surface for several years with shops like Sex by Westwood and McLaren and Acme Attractions catering to the needs of this new subcultural breed.

For the first time in a subculture, young women were particularly prominent in Punk. Women like Jordan, a shop assistant at Sex, greatly influenced the way the image of the Punk woman was constructed by the media. Jordan is notable in any history of Punk fashion; Johnny Rotten even credits her with the idea of using safety pins to decorate clothes, an incredibly iconic image of Punk. Women like Jordan pushed social boundaries by creating heavily sexualised outfits, often including aspects of punk 1bondage wear or masculine items of clothing. Historians including James Lull (1987) argue that such women were fighting against female stereotypes and ideas of the “girly girl” and were thus attempting to disassociate themselves from the confining limits of accepted notions of gender. Lauraine Leblanc (1999) explores this further, writing that Punk women sought to construct a new form of femininity that was separate from traditional norms and was something to be proud of.

punk 3Whilst these women can be seen as having pushed boundaries with their clothing, their appearance could incite complaint or even violence from outsiders. In her interview featured in The England’s Dreaming Tapes by Jon Savage, Jordan recalls a specific commute to London wherein a woman complained that she had “corrupted her son,” resulting in Jordan being moved to a different train carriage. Other women also experienced similar backlash. Ari Up, the 14-year-old singer of the girl group The Slits known for wearing excruciatingly short skirts, was stabbed in the bum outside of the Rainbow theatre in Islington. Clearly the uninhibited and empowered image that Punk women represented was not an easy pill for the British public to swallow. This is evident in their separation from society, as attested to in the 1977 documentary The Year of Punk.

TV programing such as The Year of Punk represents Punk’s separation from mainstream society while also addressing its dissemination. The diffusion of Punk fashion from subculture into popular culture is apparent in the popularisation of Punk music and its newfound place in the mainstream. By 1978, acts like Blondie and Siouxsie and the Banshees were appearing on Top of the Pops. Punk fashion was making its way into the living rooms of the nation as something inspiring – rather than a curiousity – granting a generation of young women exposure to subcultural fashions and music without having to take part in the subculture itself. Whilst female viewers may not have been taken hook, line and sinker by Punk fashion, in the words of Leblanc (1999), Punk expanded “what is possible in mainstream femininity,” and it is for this achievement that Punk women of the 1970s must be seen as groundbreaking.

Images taken from ©In The Gutter, Val Hennessey
Header Jordan, 1977 ©Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph from Rex USA

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