The punk subculture emerged in the 1970s as an aggressive visual protest against the constraints of society. Originally punks fought against a sense of conformity or commercialization. However, and indeed ironically, in today’s society the “punk” style has become a mass produced, commercialized means or way of dressing.
What had, by the 1970s, emerged as ‘subcultures’, were understood to be groups of youths within a culture, with the aim of distancing themselves from the larger culture to which belonged. Clothes and music were often seen as a way for these smaller subcultural groups to connect, and indeed often used as a tool for distancing themselves from society’s “limits” or “boundaries”. In his 1979 book, Subcultures: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige wrote of subcultures, saying that they can often be perceived as a negative force or influence on society, due to the nature of their criticism towards the dominant social standard. This could be said to be true of the subculture of punk – a subculture which was reacting to the social issues and problems of 1970s Britain.
During the 1970s, Britain was a place of unrest and turmoil, as a result of chaotic social issues, such as unemployment, racism, violence and rioting, coupled with poor living conditions and standards. For many, there was a feeling of loss and hopelessness within society. According to Johnny Rotten in the 2000 documentary, The Filth and the Fury, the working class at that time both felt, and were being told that, “If you weren’t born into money, you wouldn’t amount to nothing”. The subculture of Punk soon surfaced in a rebellious and rather unhinged manner. Armed with an aggressive style of dress and music, the 1970s punks were ready to battle and challenge the norms which society had put in place and set.
At the time, the punk style was almost revolutionary, causing mass hysteria and fear among the media and the general public. Originally led by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, punk has often been hailed as one of the most influential fashion movements of the 1970s, becoming infamously iconic. Described by writer and broadcaster, Jon Savage as a “bricolage” of almost every previous youth culture that existed in Post War Western society “stuck together with safety pins”, punk saw the rejection of the previously accepted and formulated notions and styles of beauty, and instead birth a style which consisted of mainly homemade clothing items, ripped and torn garments, worn in layers of dishevelment and worn alongside gathered and found items and objects, namely plastic bags, animal’s bones and carcasses, safety pins and chains. The colours and tones often worn by punks reflected and mirrored their thoughts and attitudes towards society. Dark, sombre and murky tones of purple, black and grey, coupled with heavily applied and blunt, dark make up, facial and body piercings, as well as loud, extreme and radical hair styles projecting an anti-conformist and societal attitude. The punk style was like nothing British society had seen before, which led it to become highly controversial, causing fear and sense of frenzy and panic within society. However, over time, the punk style began to lose its potency, and indeed, it even became a diluted and watered down version of it’s self.
The punk subculture began to become homogenized with the everyday, mainstream society. Punk’s original rebellious spirit, attitude and identity began to become less effective and its style less authentic, with a more commercialized version of the punk style becoming apparent and visible in society. Even today, we are still being presented with a diluted notion of the punk style. High street clothing stores, such as H&M, have adopted a “punk”- look; with the Swedish fashion store producing a range or collection displaying a printed safety pin motif. This could be understood as ironically evoking a sense of non-conformity in a very safe and rather commercial way. However, it is not just high street stores which have homogenized the 1970s movement, international fashion houses have also been influenced by punk, transforming it from a DIY fashion style to an expensive, luxurious commodity. As recently as 2013, designers have sent punk inspired looks down the catwalks of various fashion shows around the world. Japanese designer, Junya Watanabe, has exhibited punk style leather jackets and ripped and patched jeans at his fashion shows. Celebrities have also been spotted wearing designer punk-esque attire, most notably at last years Met Gala in New York, with the model Cara Delevingne sporting a plunging black, studded Burberry gown and heavy, bold eyeliner and a number of ear piercings to the event .While Miley Cyrus was pictured at the same event in a full length, fish-net Marc Jacobs dress, which she coupled with a bleach blond, spiked hair style.
The original punks dressed as they did in a bid to fight the established norms of society and mainstream culture – not to fit in or to be seen as fashionable or stylish. Through the commodification of the punk style, the subculture or the notion of “otherness” which was once attached to the movement has become “sameness”, resulting in the loss of the fundamental concept of punk. Ironically, and indeed upsettingly, this concept has now become so diluted, that it has become part of the very establishment it once aimed to fight or tear apart.