There will forever be New Yorkers telling you punk started at CBGBs: the undisputed home of punk in NY. The British will tell you something different of course. Either way, it was violence and sneering at the supposed norms of the day; a backlash at the last dying breaths of the hippy movement formed not only the music but the fashion which was every bit as important. In regards to the fashion there are not many as important as Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
In terms of the look - the ripped up, safety-pinned look - many credit Richard Hell with being a forerunner and it’s hard not to agree. Malcolm McLaren was managing The New York Dolls in 1975 and would often attend CBGBs, soaking up the scene, always with an eye on emerging trends. Hell was still in Television at this point and immediately attracted McLaren’s attention. His spiky hair an act of defiance (Hell said himself that “it expressed defiance and criminality too. For one thing, a guy with a haircut like that couldn't have an office job”). If there’s one thing McLaren liked it was defiance, opposing ideas, and of course anarchy. Then there was Hell’s ripped clothes, some with safety pins holding them together and drawn on. Perfect fodder for the young McLaren to try and capitalise on but Hell refused to go back to London with him, preferring instead to carve his own way. McLaren would too find his own way, even if it was through carving someone else’s way.
When he returned to London, haircut and clothes on his mind, he would get to work promoting The pre-Rotten Sex Pistols; his first job was to pass on some of that Richard Hell influence and get Johnny Rotten in the band. Rotten was a regular in the shop Mclaren owned with designer Vivienne Westwood and McLaren liked his pallid face, his attitude, and the fact he wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt with the eyes scrawled out and ‘I hate’ written in marker above the bands name. Rotten was already a punk, McLaren was just there to glean a little more out of him and to make it something marketable.
Really the story started a few years earlier: McLaren and Westwood opened their first shop in 1971. Attracting rockers and bikers, it eventually became SEX in 1974 specialising in bondage gear, obscene imagery, and of course those rips - essential items for the punk wardrobe. McLaren and Westwood’s designs were there to shock, to try and pierce through society’s nonsense with anarchy and non-conformity. Trying to pin down exactly when, where, and how punk started goes against the whole notion of punk itself, but one things certain: McLaren and Westwood were at the forefront of this anarchic revolution with all the ragtag shop-dwellers right behind them.
McLaren and Westwood needed this group and those kids needed them in return. Becoming one of the most influential records of all time, Never Mind The Bollocks simply took what they’d all been doing for fashion, culture, and the destruction of a judgemental society, and put it on record for the world to hear. Chrissie Hynde worked at SEX, Siouxsie Sioux was a regular, this wasn’t just a clothing shop, it was a hangout for creatives to mingle. Without hyperbole SEX had fast become a lifestyle, the driving force behind punk. It was no coincidence that it was in Chelsea were the elite had to watch these mostly working class kids wandering around in next to nothing, spitting and scrapping. The location itself embodying the essence of punk.
The shop would once again change names to Seditionaries - a direct show of rebellion - in the year that the Sex Pistols released their one and only album. Such was the ephemeral nature of punk: the shop couldn’t stay SEX for too long and there’s no way the Pistols ever needed to do even one more album. That is the point of it all; an incendiary blast that hits right at the core, disappearing before anyone knows what’s happened and all they have is reflection and half-truths. They were laughing at the establishment in everything they did.
The relationship between the music and the fashion couldn’t have been more important. As The Sex Pistols were releasing the anti-royal ‘God Save The Queen’ for the Jubilee, McLaren managing the band (mismanaging perhaps but that’s for another time), Westwood was releasing increasingly offensive imagery through her clothes, challenging society through shock. Whatever your views on the designs - many incorporating swastikas and other symbols of hate - there is no doubt Westwood was succeeding in doing exactly what she set out to do. Anarchy in the UK was on the turntables as it was emblazoned on the chests.
As Thatcher’s Britain was looming it seemed everything had fallen into place in perfect, snarling unity. By 1978 Crass had released Punk is Dead, a song about the marketing and consumerism of punk music. The movement was such that within 2 years of the most influential punk album being released, it was now being pronounced dead. The eighties would bring with them violence and unrest and there was new strands of punk fashion being adopted: Doc Martens, Mohawks, and bleached jeans were becoming uniform. Clearly, despite the explosive nature of punk, it was here to stay, it just had to evolve. Punk fashion, as the music, is an expression and a new generation had new issues to deal with, one which they rallied against in their own way.
If Crass weren’t quite right when they said "Punk is Dead" in 1978 there’s no arguing with them now: punk, as an essence and an idea, served its purpose right when it was needed. What it left in its wake though has clearly had a major influence on all areas of fashion. However you feel about Ramones t-shirts being sold in Topshop or Johnny Rotten doing an advert for butter, there is no denying punk sent shockwaves through the world that reverberate to this day.