Published on November 22, 2012 | by Stephanie Richardson and Jennifer Logan

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The art of punk movement

A poster featuring a head with the words 'Beijing Punk' shaved into it.

The punk movement has been around for decades, influencing generations and setting trends for both art and fashion. [Harriet Coombs]

 Having evolved in the USA and the UK in the mid ’70s, it has heavily influenced all areas of the arts world and many young people. Punk was an expression of youthful rebellion and anti-authoritarian mentality. The term punk was first used by American critics in the early ’70s to describe the new bands that had arrived on the scene.

By the mid ’70s, bands such as The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash were viewed and recognized as the forefront of a new musical movement. Soon, punk spread around the world and not just in music, but also within fashion, visual art, literature, dance and film.

After The Art of Punk exhibition which has just ended at London College of Communication (LCC), Arts London News takes a look at the imprint left by punk on fashion, design, print and popular culture.

The history of punk 

The origin of punk is debatable. As everybody has their own definition of punk rock and the youth sub-culture of every generation creates shock and scandal, so punk can be traced back over a vast period of time.  While it is common knowledge to most that punk rock originates from the early ’70s, its beginnings can be traced back much further than that, and some even say that Elvis Presley himself was a punk.

The term “punk rock” was originally used to characterise rock and roll garage musicians of the mid ’60s who were not vocally or musically trained. Bands such as The Seeds and The Sonics fitted into this genre – which was later known as ‘garage rock’ – and were able to break the rules of music because they did not know the rules of music.

“Punk is back, and (ironically) in a way which is most at odds with its ethos of anti-materialism.” Emma Segal

Following on from these early foundations of the punk sub-culture, bands such as the Velvet Underground and The Stooges emerged in the north-east of the US and sowed the seeds of punk rock. The Stooges immediately awakened the world of music with their violent concerts and their raw, undefined and frequently political music. Similarly, The Velvet Underground tried and tested the boundaries of music, as their sound often bordered on the edge of “noise”.

Taking inspiration from the transvestite community, the first band to adopt a distinct attitude and style in the punk scene were the New York Dolls. Leading the “glam punk” subculture, the New York based group were known for their extravagant dress sense and outrageous behaviour, which included doing Nazi salutes in front of photographers.

The first recognisable punk scene appeared in New York between 1974 and 1976, following the downfall of The Velvet Underground.

Infamous bands such as The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, Blondie and the Talking Heads played regularly at the notorious CBGB music club – which later became famous for being the birthplace of the American punk movement – and brought punk out of the underground scene. Being unified by their scene and shared musical influences, these bands adopted the title of punk in early 1976, at which time Punk Magazine first appeared. Although they all held the same genre in the ’70s, the punk bands later went on to develop their own individual styles, gradually moving away from the punk rock category.

A women playing the guitar with a Ramones t-shirt on.

Punk t-shirts are prominent in high-street stores [Flickr]

As punk was becoming ever more successful in New York, it was undergoing an entirely different beginning in London. Although London had a comparatively small effect on shaping the early punk sound, it eventually came to be the definition and embodiment of the rebellious punk culture. The economy was in a bad state and unemployment rates were at an all time high in the UK, which gave the English punk scene a political and economical focus.

British youth were angry, unruly and unemployed, which provided a clash between people having very strong opinions and too much time to spare. During this period, following a short time managing the New York Dolls, Malcolm McLaren returned to London in May 1975. Together with his designer girlfriend, Vivienne Westwood, McLaren opened SEX, the clothes shop that was instrumental to the beginnings of punk fashion as we know it today.

Looking towards the youths who worked and spent time in the shop, SEX became iconic in terms of the creation of the radical punk clothing style, producing S&M inspired “anti-fashion”. McLaren used his new protégé – the Sex Pistols – as a way to put this new style of clothing on the map. The Sex Pistols had a strong cult following known as the Bromley Contingent – named after the south-east London suburb where most of them grew up and they helped to make the fashion of the early UK punk movement popular. With individuals such as Siouxsie Sioux, Jordan (Pamela Rooke), Steve Severin and Billy Idol, The Bromley Contingent followed the Sex Pistols all around the country.

Together with The Clash, The Damned, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, The Sex Pistols came together in December 1976 for a set of UK gigs called the Anarchy Tour. Many of the shows were cancelled by venue owners following bad press from tabloid newspapers who reported on the despicable behaviour of the bands and their fans alike. This was furthered by the antics of the Sex Pistols’ guitarist, Steve Jones, who swore at Bill Grundy, the host of Thames Today, on live television. The tabloid outrage that the Sex Pistols ignited caused the punk explosion to disgust as many as it inspired.

By the late ’70s, the beginning of punk was over and it was finally recognised as a concrete musical genre. Following its rise to fame, punk began to divide into countless sub-genres. In 1977, a new wave of bands appearedincluding Black Flag, Stiff Little Fingers and The Misfits, the latter of which went on to influence the separation from the original punk rock sound to initiate the hardcore subgenre. The genre of hardcore punk became most popular in the US in the early ’80s and was best known for its intense, rapid beats and political lyrics.

As new musicians welcomed the DIY movement, establishing their own distinct sounds, punk steadily became more diverse and less simplistic. Alternative musical influences started to creep in as bands like The Clash and The Slits started to incorporate reggae, rockabilly and jazz into their music. The 2 Tone ska revival that was created was embraced by many English bands including The Beat, The Specials and Madness – to name but a few.

This new sound took away from the legacy of punk that had been created by the Sex Pistols – the cliché being that punk was not so much a musical genre but more a state of mind. Following this, as the punk movement started to lose some of its momentum, post-punk, New Wave and No Wave began to appear in the charts. Post-punk was predominantly popular in the UK where original members of the British punk rock movement such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Public Image Ltd started to emerge alongside groups such as Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle.

In the United States however, numerous bands developed from the punk movement and by the end of the ’80s, they had been labeled with the genre “alternative rock” – where bands such as The Pixies and Sonic Youth were gaining attention from a wider audience. This sub-genre of punk went on to influence bands like Nirvana, who in 1991 accomplished massive commercial success with their album, Nevermind.

The original message of punk was dissident, counter-cultural, disobedient and politically outspoken, but this was lost over the years. The subculture of punk now focuses more on the music rather than the attitude. The importance of punk “can be judged by the echoes heard in music ever since, as well as the legend and clichés that have grown up around it,” according to Ian Youngs, BBC News Online arts reporter.

The influence of punk on fashion

When punk was established in the mid ’70s, Britain’s youth became daring and rebellious and started to wear outrageous clothing that had never been seen before. Clothes that had previously always aimed to look clean and presentable were being torn up, frayed and printed to attract attention. Most punks wore tight drainpipe jeans, tartan trousers, kilts and leather jackets which were often decorated with painted band logos, pins, buttons and metal studs or spikes. Some early punks sometimes wore clothes displaying a Nazi swastika for shock-value, but more contemporary and anti-racist punks wore a crossed-out swastika symbol.

This style of fashion has inspired many fashion designers and we now see many celebrities embrace it. Pop star Lady Gaga recently wore a copy of the famous Versace safety pin dress that Liz Hurley wore to accompany Hugh Grant at the premiere of the 1992 film, Four Weddings And A Funeral. This was when punk was overtaken after Zandra Rhodes, the British dress designer, took elements of the early punk style and used it in her collections, making more elegant versions of clothing that were more acceptable for the rich and famous.

Hair also played a large part in the punk aesthetic. The most popular and obvious that comes to mind the spiked Mohican hairstyle using a variety of things including sugar and water solutions, soaping, gelatin, PVA glue, hairsprays and hair gel. It was also all about having big hair that was brightly coloured with food dyes, as well as over-bleaching the hair to attract great attention.

Another alternative and daring look was to shave areas of the scalp, which both men and women did to make themselves look intimidating. Hair was also sometimes dyed jet black or bleached white blonde and dark vampire style make-up was worn to attract more attention to the face.

'God Save the Queen' poster signed by the Sex Pistols and postcards on a wall

Sex Pistols have consistently been popular [Harriet Coombs]

Many of these styles have seen a return to today’s society. It is now extremely fashionable to have daring rainbow style hairstyles, pink, green, blue, jet black or heavily bleached.

Shaving areas of the scalp has also become very popular again amongst young people and celebrities. Punk fashion has seemingly made a massive comeback lately and has influenced many, but this style never faded and probably never will. We still see groups of young and fashion creative people dressed in striking ensembles, wearing iconic British military-inspired Dr. Martens boots or platform creepers.

Emma Segal, Contributing Editor for Not Just A Label, believes that although the materialism of the now conflicts with the essence of the punk movement, it is a good thing. She said: “Punk is back, and (ironically) in a way which is most at odds with its ethos of anti-materialism. But being embraced by the designers and high street simply means that its legacy can be modernized and it can evolve in ever more interesting ways.”

So, it can be seen that punk has affected many parts of our society’s culture. From music, to fashion, to art, punk has informed and inspired the creative industries for decades, as well as proving to be a lifestyle choice for the youth of the day, whatever ‘day’ that may be. The slogan adopted by young rebels everywhere still rings true; “Punk’s Not Dead” and, seemingly, long will it continue.

Click her to view the Art of Punk book launch

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