Just a warning that this episode contains mature language.
RM: I remember the first day I got to college, I was in line at some bakery in the town and a woman pulled me out and said, “I just want to talk to you because I’m a Christian woman and I worry about people like you, and your relationship with Satan.” (laughs)
AT: My boss, Roman Mars.
AT: What were you wearing that day?
RM: I was… I think it must have been a band t-shirt and flannel or something? It was nothing!
AT: Like a band t-shirt. One particular shirt.
RM: So if you met me from the age of 14 to 19, I was probably wearing this one Hüsker Du t-shirt. By the time I stopped wearing it, you know, it went from basically white to gray to almost kind of clear? (laughs) And so to keep it all together, I put little safety pins across the top to keep it all together.
AT: Was that because you saw other people doing that?
RM: No, so I remember in high school, there was very little punk presence. You were called a skater if you wore weird clothes or listened to the bands I listened to. This is going to sound so weird, that quizzical look on your face, but in central Ohio in the late 80s, there wasn’t a concept of what like, a hardcore punk was. There was no…I was called a skater, and rocks were thrown at me, even though I never rode a skateboard before.
AT: People threw rocks at you?
RM: Oh shit yeah. This was different. Yeah, skaters were hated by everybody.
AT: So why bother getting dressed up? Why bother to stand out, especially if people are actively throwing rocks at you. Like, why bother?
RM: Yeah, it’s weird because I don’t know. I don’t know why I wanted to have that fight all the time but….I had to.
AT: There is this myth, that it’s frivolous or unproductive to care about how you look. Clothing and fashion get trivialized a lot. But think about who, culturally, gets associated with clothing and fashion: young people, women, queers, and people of color. Groups of people who, historically, haven’t been listened to, have expressed themselves on their bodies, through their style, their hair, their tattoos, their piercings, and what they wear.
DL: You’ve got to understand. Black, working-class kid, that’s the only way we had to express ourselves was through the music we listened to and the clothes we wore.
AT: This is Don Letts, a legendary DJ and filmmaker and creator of the documentary Punk Attitude.
DL: I’ve always engaged with the look because you know, in black culture we’ve been forced to express ourselves in a very punk rock way. In what is a very white world, we’ve only been left the fringes to operate within. Do you understand? So that’s forced us to do weird things like come up with reggae, for instance. Which is actually formed by a lack of technology, not because you’ve got it. Do you know what I mean? It’s the definition of punk, hip-hop, two turntables and a microphone! I mean if that ain’t a form of black punk rock, what is?
AT: Punk Rock, in the classic sense, in the way it sounds and the way it looks, emerged from a place of disenchantment and dissolution.
DL: I already was pretty alienated, being black. But by the mid-70s, it’s interesting; because society had managed to alienate its white youth.
AT: We’re talking specifically London society.
DL: You gotta set the scene a little bit. We’re talking about the mid-70s, so times were tough. We’re talking about an almost social crisis. Economic, political, and financial, you know? We’re talking about three day weeks. Power cuts and strikes and massive unemployment. The rise of the national front, and it just felt like England was constantly fucking gray man. I mean, I was lucky, I had a soundtrack to ease my pain. I had the reggae! But my white mates not so lucky.
AT: Now there are a lot of different opinions as to where punk music came from and what it’s influences were. And whether it started in Detroit or New York or whatever, it’s widely agreed the music came from somewhere in the United States
DL: Everybody thinks England invented punk! Rubbish! But they were smart enough to give it a look.
AT: The look of punk, that started in London.
DL: It wasn’t invented here, they just gave it a style. Which is not to be sniffed at! Because that music and style combination? It’s a deadly combination!
AT: And the look of punk, like traditional 70s British punk, is so iconic. Think the green mohawk, the leather jacket, the plaid mini skirt. And a look that iconic, that specific, it doesn’t just happen by accident. Someone designed it.
AT- Hi! Are you open?
(SHOP EMPLOYEE) Yes!
AT: On 430 Kings Road in London, there’s a little shop. It looks like a little shack, it’s tiny. Don Letts remembers the first time he went there.
DL: I found myself wandering up and down the Kings Road Chelsea, which was like the major fashion high street in the UK, in London. And I wandered into this store called either Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, or Let it Rock, because he kept changing the name of the store. And I walked into this kind of Aladdin’s cave of subculture and Malcolm was there and Vivienne was there.
AT: Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. The couple that owned the shop in the 70s. They had started out selling records and then moved into clothing.
DL: And I struck up a relationship with these guys, and it was probably one of the most fortuitous meetings I’ve ever had.
AT: Vivienne Westwood was in her early 30s, a primary school teacher and a mother of two who had sewed all the clothes in her living room. She had no formal training but had grown up sewing her own clothes out of necessity. Malcolm McLaren was in his mid-20s, lived in this kind of, world of ideas.
DL: The countercultural riots in 68 when, you know, where Paris, Grovness square, Kent state, all this stuff! Those are the things he could talk to me about. I don’t know, the situationists movement in France. Stuff I would have never fuckin’ heard about!
AT: The situationists were really important to Vivienne and Malcolm. As early as the 1950s, situationist theorists declared that artists and thinkers were morally obligated to break down the divides between art and life. To fuse art with everyday existence, so that art could not be cleaved away and etherized and put into galleries and academies. And the way to do this, the situationists said, to fuse art and life, is for artist and activists to be provocateurs. To create dramatic, outlandish interruptions in the every day, to expose the absurdity of the status quo. Art and protest were to be on the streets, with no barriers, for everyone. In their faces, whether they wanted it or not.
DL: Yeah the whole idea of being subversive, thinking out of the box. Being Punk!
AT: But the look of punk still wasn’t quite born yet. In their pursuit of testing limits, of merging art and life, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren were constantly changing the shop and the style of the clothing sold within it.
CW: They’d close it down, rename it and reopen it again.
AT: And it’s not like their stores were failures. They were changing the face of 430 Kings Road because they wanted to!
CW: Malcom Mclaren got bored, and he wanted to move on, and so did Vivienne.
AT: This is Claire Wilcox, senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. By the way, Vivienne Westwood herself declined to be a part of this story, but Claire Wilcox has interviewed Westwood and curated an incredible exhibit of the many phases of her work.
CW: It’s this idea of always outrunning their audiences. They were always one step ahead. They never rested on their laurels; they kept moving, and changing, gathering momentum.
AT: They were kind of like anthropologists. They’d get really intrigued by a certain subculture and they’d build the shop around it. 430 Kings Road had an iteration where it sold dandy rocker clothes, another making more leather, biker-inspired stuff. And then in 1974, Vivienne and Malcolm turned 430 Kings Road into a shop called SEX.
CW: It was called SEX.
AT: One word. All caps.
CW: What Vivienne said about being interested in clothing used in the sex industry. The latex, the rubber, was that she appreciated it for its strange kind of beauty.
AT: The sign just said SEX in big pink plush letters. The clothes inside were leather and rubber and covered in straps, skin tight and androgynous.
CW: And she said the mix of clientele when it was called Sex ranged from, as she said, people with a perverse interest in these types of garments and then kids off the street just wanting to be fashionable. So, it was sort of this hybrid moment.
AT: Malcolm and Vivienne knew how to shock. No one had stuff like theirs.
DL: No, their mohair tops? Some of their t-shirts? Fucking cool. I nearly died trying to put on a rubber t-shirt once. Seriously, that’s not a joke. I didn’t put the talcum powder thing on, nobody told me about that shit, and nearly died with this thing wrapped around my neck trying to get it off.
AT: On trips to New York, Malcolm and Vivienne discovered the burgeoning American punk music scene, which was blooming in interesting new ways. And so, upon his return to London, Malcolm decided that he wanted to manage a band of his very own. He and Vivienne gathered some kids who worked at and hung around 430 Kings Road, and formed them into a group, named The Sex Pistols.
AT: But it’s not like The Sex Pistols were just a clever ruse to sell clothes?
DL: No. Listen, it was a fortuitous combination for those things to work together but that was wasn’t anything weird! The style of the music in this country, it’s so important! So I don’t think that there was any shame in that.
AT: Malcolm and Vivienne wrote some of the lyrics for the Sex Pistols, which were about, you know, anarchy in the UK and bad mouthing the queen. This was not your mother’s rock & roll. It was the anti-band, the anti-music built to shock. Kind of for politics? But also kind of to just shock people, like a situationist happening. Although maybe that’s giving Malcolm too much credit, I don’t know how planned out this was.
DL: Malcolm wanted to create Malcomworld. What his endgame was, I have no fucking idea. I think, I don’t think Malcolm did, to be honest. He did make up a lot of shit as he went along. A lot of things that kind of ended up in chaos he pretended that he orchestrated, but that’s ok. You know. What was your question?
AT: This new movement demanded a new look. A new store. So in 1977, 430 Kings Road was reincarnated again. This time it was called “Seditionaries” and this is the iteration of the store in which punk fashion would truly emerge
CW: In a way, Seditionaries was a line in the sand because here you had the tree emerging of music and fashion, McLaren’s two main loves.
AT: The chapters of 430 Kings Road all compounded on each other. Elements of Edwardian dandy, rocker, biker, and sex worker all combined, catalyzed with hard fast music and political imagery.
MC: Uh, it’s a ripped up union jack held together with safety pins!
AT: This is style icon Michael Costiff, a longtime neighbor of 430 Kings Road. Over the years, Michael and his wife Gerlinde bought so many Westwood clothes, their collection was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
MC: So beautifully cut, the trousers.
MC: Yeah, and they sort of sit and they’ve got this big wide belt, a little bit hipster almost.
AT: Michael is showing me a pair of his old Bondage trousers, which look like a straightjacket for your legs. They’re loaded down with zippers and chains and straps hanging off them. And there’s a strap that ties your knees together. Which Michael assures me is less limiting than you’d think.
MC: And you know, it was absolutely no bother to walk. It didn’t alter anything. There was nothing you couldn’t do with your knees tied together.
AT: These bondage trousers of Michael’s were black, but there were versions in plaid, and some had kilts you could clip on to the front and back, or little towels and other things that would hang off them.
DL: The last time I had a conversation with Bob Marley we had an argument about the bondage trousers that I was wearing. He didn’t like them, he thought they looked like mountaineer trousers.
AT: Vivienne’s clothes turned people into strange sculptures. She played with the human form, binding the legs together, or extending sleeves down to the floor, and pushing the body into new angles.
MC: All the things were sort of cut differently, you know? With one sleeve higher, with the neck hole to one side, and then you pulled the fabric in different ways. it was all rather fabulous.
CW: As a sartorial movement, it was resolved, it was well-crafted. It was not cheap. It was not cheap, the clothes were not cheap.
AT: In other words…
DL: Fucking expensive! But call it what it was though, it was clothes as art, without a doubt.
AT: Those first punk clothes weren’t dirty, grungy, sloppy, they were fabulous and strange.
DL: The thing about Vivienne’s clothes is they were clothes as art. You gotta understand that.
CW: Vivienne has always taken great pride in crafting her clothes very carefully. You get this extraordinary sort of marriage of craft and care and you know, downright outrageousness.
AT: So outrageous that other shops started to copy Vivienne’s designs.
CW: Lots of people copied those looks. Once the genie was out of the bottle, the whole of kings road was selling variations upon a theme.
MC: There’s loads to go with the punk look. You know, you’ve got studding, and wristbands, and leather harness, you know, loads of ephemera you could add onto it. So it gave loads of people a chance to have a business.
AT: Punk was easy to rip off. Michael showed me some imitation bondage trousers that used to belong to his wife. They were made by another shop called BOY.
MC: Those were copies. BOY copied all of Vivienne’s things and did them much cheaper, in cheaper fabrics, further down the Kings Road. Yeah. which was kind of cool because it gave more people a chance to wear the clothes. Vivienne hated BOY. She said, “Oh my maybe I should set my shop on fire cuz they’d have to do the same!” (laughs)
AT: But the other side of this coin, was that individuals could imitate these looks very easily as well, and sort of elaborate on them.
MC: You know, tape, and bandages, and god knows what. Bits of chain…
AT: Vivienne had created a style lexicon that anyone could play around with.
MC: Lavatory chain, safety pin. You know, it was a very do it yourself ethic.
AT: I mean, you could go into your own wardrobe right now, and rip stuff up and put it back together and make it punk. And that DIY part? That Vivienne loved.
MC: It gave a chance for the kids with no money to develop a do-it-yourself version of that.
AT: Vivienne Westwood, after all, didn’t have any training as a seamstress. She just figured out how to do these things. So anyone could, and should, follow her lead.
CW: It was part of this shared movement of rebellion that these clothes could be adopted and customized and adapted by anybody. Wherever you came from, however rich or poor. However old you were. Whatever sex you were, you could take these clothes on and perhaps you might save up to buy a pair of bondage trousers, but you’d customize your own t-shirt.
AT: Punk became grassroots. As Vivienne herself has said, “It wasn’t invented from the streets. It was the other way around.” It turned into a movement.
CW: So I think in a way it was a joyful explosion of taking control of your own identity.
AT: And before the internet, this look was cross-pollinated between New York and London by touring bands, like The Sex Pistols and the Ramones.
MS: And so there started to be this back and forth dialog, a little bit, between the two scenes, but they were visually very different.
AT: Monica Sklar, Fashion historian and author of the book Punk Style. She says the New York look was based in functionality.
MS: With New York being jeans, t-shirts, using safety pins for functional purposes.
AT: But the London look, thanks to Vivienne Westwood, was rooted in art aesthetic. As bands toured and cultures mixed, spheres of influence spread across the US.
MS: And then it would go around the country, and go around the globe. Other scenes would come to fruition and take on their own bed of influence.
AT: Depending on bands, on the weather, on the local culture, punk became reinterpreted.
MS: Whether it’s San Diego, whether its DC, whether its Detroit, London, New York, Minneapolis, had a large series of bands and style leaders. And then as those individuals and their stuff, whether it’s them personally traveling around, or as their zine makes it around, or their music that gets to the next place, their style goes with them.
AT: Note how Monica Sklar said their style went with them. Not their fashion.
MS: This goes way beyond punk or subculture, but especially in the united states, fashion is associated with entire groups of people that are often relegated as secondary.
AT: Women, queers, people of color and youth. Fashion is the realm of the historically powerless.
MS: And so people don’t want to talk about things that are associated with them, but they do have this huge awareness of style and how important style is.
AT: Style, according to sociologist Michael Brake, is a combination of 3 elements. Image
MB: Image, so what are we looking at?
MB: What’s our attitude when we’re wearing it?
AT: And this concept called “argot.”
MB: Argot, this French concept of slang and secret language and secret coding.
AT: Kind of like jargon. Special words or phrases that only insiders in a group would know.
MB: All together it’s that embodiment. And so being able to have image, demeanor, and argot with authenticity is true punk style.
AT: In other words, it’s part of what makes you authentic or a poser. If you have the right style, And for punks, it was this ceaseless hunt to sniff out true punk style. It was a lot of looking for little clues. HInts of authenticity. Trying to figure out who was on your side, and who was a sellout. It was constant, and it was exhausting. In fact, only shortly after Seditionaries opened in the late 70s, Vivienne Westwood herself grew tired of it. She said, “ I got tired from looking at clothes from this point of view of rebellion. I found it exhausting. After a while, I wasn’t sure if I was right. I’m sure that if there is such a thing as the Anti-Establishment, it feeds the Establishment.”
DL: If you give something a label, then that’s all it can be. And the whole thing about punk is it’s ever-evolving. And for some people they got stuck on this early definition: it’s about fast guitars, it’s about mohawks, safety pins, leather jackets. No man, that was like one screaming shout that got you through the door. You weren’t supposed to get stuck there! You know, you get on this ladder, and you smart? You keep climbing!
AT: Into the 80s, a lot of London punks kept climbing. Members of punk bands peeled off to learn how to actually play their instruments and experiment with like, synthesizers.
Dl: The interesting thing about post-punk is, all of a sudden people are kind of honest about what they really liked.
AT: And Vivienne Westwood taught herself how to tailor. Like, gave herself a real formal training.
CW: So she embarked on this mission to self-educate herself through looking at 17th, 18th, 19th-century dress.
AT: And this is not DIY. These are not garments that anyone could copy. Subsequent lines of Vivienne’s played with corsetry, ball gowns, suits and evening clothes. Using nicer materials, toying with elements of history and even nostalgia; stuff that was not punk.
CW: Punk clothing was two-dimensional, it can be laid flat. However, when she learns how to tailor, and this is a very difficult practice that she taught herself, her clothes become more and more three dimensional.
AT: As her views of authority and establishment became multidimensional, her garments gained dimensions as well.
DL: So, you see, the development of her skill running alongside the development of her interest in history, and also her, not rejection of punk, because I always think it will be part of her. But her moving on from always being on the defense, always being involved in some kind of conflict. Political, sartorial, conflict with the world.
AT: That store, on 430 Kings Road, it still belongs to Westwood. Ever since 1980, it’s been called World’s End and it has a giant clock on the front, with its arms spinning backward. And if you go there today, there’s not really a band of misfits that hang out there. But there are a lot of Japanese tourists who come to pilgrimage.
Vivienne Westwood is one of the most famous clothing designers in the world now. I mean she’s huge. She doesn’t have the time to speak to me for this podcast. But she is the reason why I wanted to talk about clothing. Because in 2009, I heard her say this thing to the New York Times and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
“The paradox is that people think that if they wear something simple and non-saying, that somehow they themselves will emerge all the more stunning and beautiful from it. It’s not true, it might be true, no, it’s not even true of Christy Turlington. You know, no, no, I don’t want to see Christy Turlington in a t-shirt and jeans. Why not if you’re born somebody, you know, a freak of beauty, why not look like a goddess? Why not?”
I think everyone knows that feeling when you’re dressed in an outfit you really like. When you look good and you feel good. That is an essential power of clothing. Aside from, you know, covering your body, or keeping you warm. It has the power to give you confidence. It’s why Roman dresses up when he goes to do a live performance.
RM: I have lots of options in ties and I have lots of options in pocket squares and stuff like that, and that, I have fun with that. To perform and to actually show respect, that I care about these things to an audience. That’s what that signals to me. And also I like it, I think I look good.
AT: And the thing punk did, was push the boundaries of what looks good. It’s not about looking perfect or clean or rich. It incorporated people of all ages, and bodies, and backgrounds, and ideas, and gave them that confidence. It pushed our ideas of beauty, and Professor Monica Sklar knows this firsthand.
MS: Beauty standards were pushed and pushed. I was fired from a record store, a RECORD STORE, as a youth for having an eyebrow piercing. And now I’m a professor and curator and vice president of the national society of my profession and I have it.
AT: And really, this is the power of what fashion designers can do. Something that appears strange or scary or expensive at first can trickle down through the cycle of trends. And maybe, in time, come to expand notions of what’s acceptable, so more people can feel comfortable expressing their own style. Their own cocktail of image, demeanor and argot, however it manifests. And this myth, that it’s frivolous or unproductive to care about how you look, or what you wear, is completely bunk. To not have to think about how you present, or to assume that you can somehow dress in a way that is neutral or non-saying, that is a massive, massive privilege. Whether we like it or not, we’re all speaking with our clothes. And we might as well give a good hard think about what we want to say.