Punk style never died. Sure, people might not still be wearing condom earrings or hypodermic-needle necklaces like they did on the streets of London in 1977, but the ungovernable spirit of the fashion-forward trend never truly went away. Since Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood started creating (and co-opting) the style in their London boutique Sex, T-shirts, leather jackets, and bondage pants have become staples of alternative style.
“Just seeing the leather jacket move from subculture to subculture, for both functional and fashionable use, I would say that that’s one of the biggest influences of clothing and music,” says Josh McConnell, founder and creative director of Straight to Hell, a clothing line that takes inspiration from the movement. “One of the biggest ways clothing and music combine is through the black leather jacket.”
In the years since, elements of punk style that partially originated with the Sex Pistols are alive and well not only in Hot Topic, but in the work of designers from Demna Gvasalia to Dior. So what truly survived from the glory days of King’s Road, a birthplace of youth anarchy, and what does it look like today? We dug in with McConnell to explore.
What makes the Sex Pistols’ fashion style unique?
The Sex Pistols would owe their fashion style to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, first and for foremost. I would say if it wasn’t for those two designers and the Sex store on the King’s Road, then there would be no Sex Pistols. I’d say Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren invented the British look of punk.
What’s the British look?
Bondage pants — plaid pants and straps — that’s a British punk look. Safety pins in all of your clothing, in T-shirts, through people’s cheeks. The safety-pin look was made famous by the Sex Pistols, but was possibly imported from New York. Malcolm McLaren was in New York in the mid-Seventies, and saw Richard Hell, and Richard Hell would rip his clothing and safety-pin it back together. I believe that Malcolm McLaren took that look directly back to London at the right time, and put it on the Sex Pistols. That caused the first wave of punk-rock youth in London to rip their clothes and safety-pin it back up. I think you could also probably contribute the Richard Hell spiky-hair look. Malcolm McLaren probably brought that spiky hair-look back to London, and stuck it on Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious.
I would say the first wave of punk in London, so 1976, ’77, I think that was more characterized by experimental styles. … There weren’t well-defined rules about what is punk and what isn’t punk. Because it was being invented at that moment, you see a lot of style that never really caught on.
So you see a lot of experimentation in clothing that doesn’t really translate into real life. There’s a photo of some kid at a punk show in, like, 1976 who’s like wrapped up in bloody gauze. There’s a lot of ripped-up clothing and sewn and safety-pinned back together that probably wasn’t even worn except to a punk show, where maybe it was photographed one time. That’s kind of the vibe that I get from a lot of the real experimental-looking stuff. A lot of these kids, they didn’t have money. They were working class. Actually, their parents were working class — we’re talking about kids who were probably between the ages of 14 and 19 during those two years. Their parents were working class, people were maybe on the dole. I would say the lack of resources probably contributed to the artistic-ness and your creativity of doing things yourself, DIY, altering your own clothing.
Because Vivienne Westwood stuff was not cheap, right?
Right. I would say most people were probably making or altering their clothing themselves. Obviously, the Sex Pistols were in those clothes. But if you look at all the old photos, you don’t really see regular people in those clothes, regular punk kids.
Let’s talk about leather jackets.
The leather jacket plays a big role in the punk world, but not at the beginning. I would say the leather jacket became popular a little bit later, maybe like 1977, ’78.
Is that something that Sex Pistols brought in?
Sid Vicious made the leather jacket popular, for sure. He had multiple variations of different leather jackets. When the Sex Pistols signed to [A&M Records], they had like a public signing. In those photos, he’s wearing a black leather jacket, and I believe that probably caused a lot of kids to go and try to find a leather jacket.
But the leather jacket, I would say, became popular because of the Ramones. When the Ramones had their first tour of England, in 1976, they wore leather jackets. And then when they came back the following year on their second tour, all of the kids who were in the front at the shows now had formed their own bands. A lot of the inspiration for that — “Oh, we can do this too!” — came from watching the Ramones in London. And so I’m guessing a lot of those kids probably adopted the leather jacket at that time.
So that probably wasn’t all Sid Vicious?
I think Sid Vicious, his leather jacket maybe came about a little bit later. At least by a year. I mean, the thing is, that doesn’t mean a lot to us now. But as far as looking back on the history of things, it’s hard to pinpoint photos and times. Gaye Advert, the singer of the Adverts, she’s famous for wearing a leather jacket in the late Seventies, but it’s interesting to note that she probably saw the Ramones wearing that first. That’s my guess.
So how did the look that we know now come together? The Sex Pistols themselves were experimenting and were also being given looks by McLaren and Westwood, and then the kids were kind of mimicking that in different ways, in their own DIY style?
Yeah. London is such a fashionable city, there’s no way that this fashionable city was going to have this new music movement where these people onstage are dressed really boring. So the people in the bands are definitely going to be dressed better, in expensive clothing from a store like Sex. But I would say the fans, the kids, are going to not have all the best gear.
These kids, they’re not being influenced by the internet obviously; they’re being influenced by whatever was happening that weekend. Let’s say they go to a punk show on a Saturday, and then maybe they go back to high school. Maybe that week they meet up with their friends and figure out how to look punk. And so then the next time they go to a show, they’re dressed even more outrageous.
I don’t know about what vintage stores or resale stores were like back then, but I’m guessing there was lots of hand-me-downs; I’m guessing there was raiding closets of parents, you know? You’ll see a big look of kids in blazers. The blazers had chains in them or safety pins or lots of like pins and badges, or maybe words painted on them. Or maybe ripping up your blazer and kind of refashioning it together with safety pins was a way of like a “fuck you” to the establishment.
One thing we wanted to ask you about is the iconography used in the clothing at the time. In particular, things like swastikas, especially given that these are kids who grew up in the wake of the German Blitz on London. These are hateful, polarizing symbols.
Yeah. That’s a tough one. Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with the punk look involving swastikas. It’s shock value, but when you explain that to somebody who’s not into punk, they’re just not going to get it and you’re shocking in the wrong way. It’s kind of unfortunate that that whole punk movement went towards the swastika at the beginning. I do know that the swastika was used by British Hells Angels, like Lemmy [Kilmister, later of Motörhead]. Lemmy was a Hells Angel and Lemmy wore swastika pins.
And I do recall reading, maybe it was in Johnny Rotten’s autobiography, that Sid Vicious didn’t understand what the swastika was, but he knew what he put it on and he walked down the street it pissed people off. They’re not doing it because they’re against the Jewish people; they’re doing it because it pisses off regular people.
It’s not to justify it; it’s more to explain it. When you have a subculture like punk, where you’re not supposed to give a fuck, well, one way to prove you don’t give a fuck is to wear more outrageous clothing than somebody else. So I would say that the swastika continued to be somewhat popular, maybe on the fringes of the people that truly were trying to offend. But I think that wearing the swastika died early enough that it never caught on too much.
Yeah. And at some point there’s a whole anti-Nazi scene that comes out of this.
Exactly. I think you have to look at the timeline, but in the late Seventies, the Clash were playing music festivals that were anti–National Front festivals. So if you look at that timeline, the National Front was starting to come about. And the National Front was recruiting members in the punk rock and skinhead and reggae scene, and they were trying to recruit these youths to be part of that movement. I think a lot, maybe people realize, “Oh, you can’t. Now is not the right political time to be wearing a swastika.”
What are the particular things from the Sex Pistols’ style, this early London style, that you think have been most influential during the past couple of decades?
I would say one of the biggest influences that came out of the early punk look, the Sex store, and the Sex Pistols was, just the T-shirt in general — the T-shirt as a way to express your identity, and the T-shirt as a do-it-yourself piece of clothing.
So, the Sex store printed their own offensive T-shirts. There were guys with their cocks out, and cartoons of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves all getting it on. There were different people from pop culture — Marilyn Monroe on the “Piss Marilyn” shirt, with yellow pee all over Marilyn. All these shirts are going for hundreds or thousands of dollars today, if you have an original. But I think these shirts made the punk look more accessible. You could make your own offensive T-shirts or rip up your own T-shirts. So I would say punk probably helped contribute to band T-shirts in general becoming as popular as they are today.
Are there other things from punk fashion, and specifically from like the Sex Pistols style, that you think kind of evolved into other markets, but that you would attribute to their original work?
I think one could probably attribute gaudy jewelry. I mean, Sid Vicious wore a padlock, and a lot of these budding punks wore chains on their clothing. They would fasten small chains to their blazers, chains, maybe instilling a bit of fear into someone that ran into a punk on the street. Safety pins, also instilling a little bit of fear into the public. And so I would say, I know there’s been resurgences of different styles of necklaces — think beaded necklaces from the Nineties or people wearing chains. I would say a lot of that probably comes from punk.
I think the safety pin is kind of a fashionable. We actually used to call them punk points, as a joke. If someone showed up at a party and they had a bunch of safety pins on, you would mess with them and talk about their “punk points” —how many punk points did they have on.
We got so deep into leather jackets and T-shirts, I just wondered if you could say a couple more things about bondage pants and how they have or have not held up?
The Sex store and the Sex Pistols brought about bondage pants, and that also continued into the early eighties, into the more hardcore punk scene bands that were influenced [by them]. Bands like Discharge and Chaos U.K. As the first-wave punk continued on, the look became more extreme with bigger hair. The mohawk came about, liberty spikes came about, big spiky hair came about. So around 1982, a lot of the punks had either faded away, or new punks were dressing more in this extreme punk style that we call it. Today we call it street punk.
So they wore bondage pants. … Leather jackets got studs added to them. Studs were added to leather jackets for a more intimidating look. And then today, the bondage pant is actually pretty popular in all genres. You’ll see a lot of hip-hop artists wearing bondage pants. You’ll see different fits of bondage pants, which is new. In the Nineties, if someone wore bondage pants, they wore them very tight, like the early punks did, but now you’ll see bondage pants that are baggy. So that’s kind of something new.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.