Punk fashion, an iconic movement that epitomizes rebellion and individuality, holds a complex history that extends beyond a single creator. While Vivienne Westwood is often credited with popularizing punk, it is crucial to acknowledge the diverse influences and contributions that shaped its origins. This article unravels the intertwined journey of Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, and the American punk scene, shedding light on their collective impact on London’s fashion landscape in the late 1970s.
It all began in the early 1970s, when punk music was pulsating through the veins of New York. Manhattan’s CBGB became the epicenter of this rebellious sound, nurturing bands like Television and The Ramones, although punk started way before these bands. The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls, and The Stooges were the prototypes of punk, laying the foundation for what was to come.
In 1973, Malcolm and Vivienne embarked on a journey to New York City. Their mission? To promote their clothing brand, “Let it Rock.” Little did they know that this trip would become a turning point in their lives. As they immersed themselves in the vibrant punk scene, their perspectives on fashion shifted dramatically. Setting up a stall in the MacAlpin Hotel, their display showcased T-shirts, Teddy Boy apparel, and rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia. It was here that they encountered the influential New York Dolls, who would become their guides through this thrilling new world. They formed friendships, were interviewed by Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, and joined in the wild festivities at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB.
During their time in New York, Malcolm and Vivienne encountered a figure who would play a crucial role in shaping punk fashion: Richard Hell. Richard’s distinct style, with his disheveled hair, torn T-shirts, and leather garments, resonated deeply with McLaren and Westwood. It was a fusion of worn-out aesthetics, mod influences, and a touch of danger. Richard Hell embodied the essence of punk fashion.
As the couple returned to London, they carried with them a newfound inspiration. According to Paul Gorman, McLaren came across Jizz Inc’s original Tits tee in a New Orleans novelty shop in the spring of 1975. It was a graphic that perfectly captured the bleak and alienated nature of punk. Together with their friend Jamie Reid, they created the infamous “God Save the Queen” T-shirt, a rebellious statement based on the official Cecil Beaton Jubilee portrait. Meanwhile, Vivienne’s creative genius took flight as she designed trousers unlike anything the world had seen before. Drawing inspiration from bondage-wear straitjackets, she added knee straps and zips that dared to challenge societal norms. These revolutionary trousers, known as “bondage kecks,” became a powerful symbol of liberation, both for the body and the spirit.
Punk fashion was not merely about clothing; it was a subversion of the fashion industry itself. McLaren and Westwood embraced elements of violence, with razor blades as jewelry and chains as adornments. They deliberately distressed fabrics, giving birth to what McLaren called “damage- driven clothes” and Vivienne referred to as “clothes for modern heroes.” This was a fashion revolution built on the streets, in a boutique where the boundaries of style were shattered daily.
While it is true that Vivienne Westwood did not single-handedly invent punk fashion, her pivotal role in bringing the movement from America to the streets of London cannot be overlooked. The inspiration she garnered during her travels and the subsequent transformation of her designs became the catalyst that introduced punk to the UK. With 430 King’s Road as its epicenter, a haven for punks was born, where individuals found solace, expression, and a sense of belonging. Vivienne Westwood’s contributions, alongside the collective creativity and collaboration of the punk movement, forever shaped the course of fashion history, leaving an indelible mark on the world of style and rebellion.