Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren have been thought of as the creators of Punk, but punk is more than just a fashion statement. It is an expression of the youth of the time and was expressed through many art forms and media. This essay will give an idea of the philosophy of the punk movement and discuss how Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren fitted within the philosophy. Therefore highlighting their contribution to the movement through their relationship and ability to use fashion and eventually music as a weapon for rebellion.
So what is Punk? Punk is many things to different people, but it is possible to say that punk came from social or political issues apparent in the 1970’s. However, it can be said that,
there is no universally accepted definition of punk, particularly among those who consider themselves punk. To some, punk means rebellion against conformity or against parents, school, work and society at large. To others it means taking control of your life and getting things without waiting for someone to help you or approve your idea(Hannon, 2010, p.1 and 2)
Punk is often remembered for it rebellious and sometimes violent attitude which is remembered through many forms such as music, fashion, or art. It is important to highlight that the basis for this rebellion to originally take place was due to the social and political issues talked of above not just a violent expression with no reason behind it.
Punk wasn’t just about the guitar, three chords and the truth (if ever it was thus.) Punk was surely about so much more. Punk was so radical and so cynical and (purists might argue) so ethical and (initially, non) musical- that it suggested and nigh substantiated that all things were possible. Regardless of class. Regardless of ability. Regardless of divorced parents. Regardless of soul destroying (UN)employment. Regardless of the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan (RIP), not quite seeing eye to eye with the miners. Regardless of the looming winter of discontent (1978/9.) Punk, first and foremost, said yes. You too can participate. You too can belong (Ogg, n.d, P.9)
Punk allowed the discontented youth to belong to something that was telling the world of their thoughts and outlook despite who they were or where they came from. In the late 1970’s, not only Britain, but many places in the world, found themselves in a state of repression.
The so-called developed world had manoeuvred itself into an economic and social dead end. In Britain, unemployment was on the rise, and with it the sense of political frustration. (Wien, 2008, p.6)
These social and political frustrations left the youth angry and rebellious. These conditions were such that,
…a new subculture set out to conquer first the headlines and then the minds of an army of disorientated young people(Wien,2008, p.6)
This Punk subculture was an international movement at the beginning. It was “…a creative and emotional response”(Wien, 2008, p.41) from the youth that found themselves within the situation of the mid 70’s. They were frustrated and ready to make it known to society. Like other cities in America or Europe,
London was suffering the effects of a deepening recession that, among other things had a direct impact on the urban fabric( Wien, 2008, p.41)
London was in a time of turmoil, “…a crisis of confidence, of money and of extremist politics”(Wien, 2008, p.41). This was reflected in London’s threatening image or perhaps forgotten areas of the city.
Images of streets of corrugated iron; line upon line of policemen; rows of derelict buildings awaiting demolition; the blooming in the bomb sites. And in the background, looming like primeval monsters, the tower blocks that would soon become a social realist cliché(Wien, 2008, p.41)
It was these “…forgotten interzones”(Wien, 2008, p.46), rather than the wealthy areas, where the punk movement could flourish. Not only because,
“…they embodied the desperate situation of England at that time, but because they highlighted the fact that the city was porous, that it could be bent to the aesthetic or dissident will”(Wien, 2008, p.46)
These neglected areas of London became the place where punks celebrated “…decay and vacancy”( Wien, 2008, p.41) by living cheaply within the city in flats or squats. These empty spaces allowed the “…imagination to run riot”(Wien, 2008, p.41). Punks poured energy into these areas which had been rejected by others which enabled them to create,
…a playground that, for the overstimulated and undernourished young, allowed community at the same time as it gave up unexpected illuminations.(Wien, 2008, p.41)
Through the punks, the vacant areas of the city would be revived by the force of their visions. It was through outlets such as fashion as Vivienne Westwood did, that made a shocking statement to the rest of Britain.
…a time when music and fashion were still capable of provoking not just public outrage, but open hatred. (Robb, 2006, p.2)
The underprivileged youths felt angry with the poor shape of Britain at this time. Whether it be with the lack of employment, the government or the mentality of the older generation. They felt “…alienated from British culture, forseeing their lives with few prospects”(Hannon, 2010, p.5). The use of music or fashion allowed punks to voice a strong opinion about the current times and rebel against all that angered them. Westwood and McLaren’s work together was able to provide an outlet of expression for the punk scene. The shocking fashion designs created a face for punk which was recognised by the public and in turn sent a message saying that these young people wished to be noticed and acknowledged within society.
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren met in 1965 and McLaren was to be a big influence on Westwood during the time leading up to the punk movement as it is know known. Between 1964-71 McLaren spent his time attending drama school and art colleges where he was “…absorbing the radical currents of the time”(Wilcox, 2004, p.10). Vivienne Westwood talks about McLaren saying,
I felt there were so many doors to open and he had the key to all of them. Plus he had a political attitude and I needed to align myself. (Wilcox, 2004, p.10)
Westwood highlights her interest in Malcolm McLaren for the need to gain a political attitude which is in keeping with the punk movement as it was very much about politics or attempting to rebel against it. Together Westwood and McLaren would visit galleries and Westwood also says,
“I wanted to escape my own upbringing- Malcolm did help. He introduced me to things that excited me and made me think”. (Wilcox, 2004, p.10)
This perhaps highlights the idea that a younger generation wanted to rebel against an older generation which is a key point within the punk movement and a key point in Westwood’s interest in rebellion. Vivienne Westwood grew up in a “…typically northern landscape-part industrial and part rural”( Connolly, 2002, p.9) and meeting McLaren displayed
“a completely different outlook on life from the more conventional people that Vivienne was used to” (Connolly, 2002, p.17)
He offered her a “…glimpse into a different, more exciting world”(Connolly, 2002, p.17) Together neither Westwood or McLaren were interested in the ethnic, hippie clothes of the 1960’s. Westwood highlights their need to move away from these clothes because they had lost their intensity.
We were interested in rebellion-we felt the hippie movement had waned, and we were never interested in their clothes(Wilcox, 2004, p.11)
Both Westwood and McLaren sought attention through their clothes before they even met each other. While Westwood attended Grammar School she attracted attention,
…by wearing daring outfits such as high-heeled shoes, slinky dresses and large outrageous earrings. (Connolly, 2002, p.13)
McLaren also had a way of drawing attention through his clothing by adopting the,
…style of the Mods, who favoured tight-fitting jackets worn over neat white shirts, slim trousers and desert boots – a reaction to the baggy, traditional male outfits of the 1940’s and 1950’s. (Connolly, 2002, p.17)
Their interest in attracting attention through their fashion emphasises their interest in non-conformity which is one part of the punk movement. Also, this is perhaps reason for not being interested in the hippie fashions. Westwood started making clothes for McLaren very often in a teddy boy style. They were
…both drawn to the hard, teddy-boy look, with its parody of upper-class Edwardian menswear style. (Wilcox, 2004, p. 11)
Their interest in the Teddy-boy look is key in realising their interest in rebellion which is so apparent in the punk movement. The look is linked to Rock ‘n’ roll which was rebellious within the 1950’s and as Vivienne Westwood says
“Malcolm liked what was active about rock ‘n’ roll. He had a dislike of the older generation and liked this idea of kids running wild in the 1950’s” (Wilcox, 2004, p.11)
McLaren also encouraged Westwood to cut her hair short and bleach it blonde which was almost a prototype for the punk look and is “…said to have influenced David Bowie”(Wilcox, 2004, p.11) All of this shows both of them in the early stages of trying to find new ways to rebel.
In 1971 they opened ‘Let it Rock’ a shop, on 430 Kings Road London selling 1950’s inspired clothing, like the teddy boy look, and other memorabilia. Westwood and McLaren would Parade London,
…in Teddy Boy-style unconventional clothes, along the King’s Road, the capital of London’s fashion trendsetters, exhibiting (in Malcolm’s words) ‘the beauty of fearlessness'(Connolly, 2002, p.23)
The opening of the shop was the beginning of their journey of shock and rebellion and the outcome of punk. In 1972 the shop was re-branded and called ‘too fast to live, too young to die’ which focused more on biker gear, for example, customized leather clothing which is a glimpse of what led to the look that is now associated with punk. It was in this time McLaren met a band called ‘The New York Dolls’ in New York. They made music which has been seen to contribute to the Punk Movement as well as making their own decadent outfits. McLaren’s involvement with the band was the start of his interest in music which became more apparent later when he managed the sex pistols. At the same time Westwood started designing customised t-shirts saying things such as ‘rock’ or ‘perve’ which are now seen as a key moment in the development of punk fashion. It’s the beginnings of the DIY attitude that is associated with punk.
To Vivienne, these clothes were statements that would shake society out of its conservatism. (Connolly, 2002, p.27)
Vivienne Westwood’s clothes were able to provoke the public and is in keeping with Punk’s role and ideas,
to catalyse and accelerate – to turn things upside down and, by doing so, enable new perspectives. (Robb, 2006, p.2)
These T-shirts allowed cult fashion and politics to meet together. Westwood and McLaren even got prosecuted under the obscenity laws for showing two naked cowboys on a t-shirt and other offensive t-shirts such as the ‘Cambridge rapist’, or including the Swastika within designs. McLaren says,
It started with an interest in any form of youth revolt, so that involved Teddy Boys and Rockers. Then we brought the Sex element into it. (Wilcox, 2004, p.)
After the success of ‘too fast to live, too young to die’ and with Malcolm wanting to create more controversy, the Kings Road Shop was renamed in 1974 as ‘SEX’. It sold all in one body suits, leather mini skirts, chains, padlocks, fishnets and stilettos. Marco Pirroni, who was a member of the band Adam And the Ants, says,
The Kings Road shop Vivienne ran with Malcolm was unlike anything else going on in England at the time. The country was a morass of beige and cream bri-nylon and their shop was an oasis(Wilcox, 2004, p.12)
The shop offered excitement where those who chose to could escape the fashions of the older conservative generation. To Westwood the re-named shop was an “…opportunity to develop her ideas about shocking society through fashion”(Connolly, 2002, p.28) The whole shop was made to shock, with sex toys and pornographic images on display. Westwood continued to design t-shirts with tears that would expose skin or sexually aggressive slogans. She would alter them all herself. The effect of all her designs was to shock and to “…overturn notions of what constituted good taste”(Connolly, 2002, p.29). All of these things are now details that have become linked with punk. Westwood’s way of producing clothes, such as these t-shirts, introduced this ‘Do-It-Yourself’ attitude which will always be associated with the punk movement.
‘SEX’ attracted a loyal following of customers as well as some part time staff. One shop assistant, called Jordan became well known for wearing the clothing designs of the shop on the commuting train from Sussex. By wearing the shocking clothes, her look confronted social expectations of beauty and femininity within society at the time. This is a clear example of rebellion and how the shop and its designs inspired outrageous rebellion.
Two regular customers were a pair of teenagers from West London called Paul Cook and Steve Jones. They made up a band called Kutie Jones. McLaren became interested in them hoping he could break into the music business to further his rebellion. He found a lead singer called John Lydon, who became known as Johnny Rotten, who joined the band. Together, in 1975, they were now the Sex Pistols. This is where McLaren was clever with the merging of music and fashion within the Punk Movement.
He used the band to promote the shop and vice versa. For him, McLaren says, “they were an idea not a band”(Wilcox, 2004, p.14). Westwood set about creating a ‘look’ for the Sex Pistols. One of the most important pieces was the Anarchy shirt which is most famously known for being worn by Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols. (Plate 1, Westwood and McLaren, 1976, http://www.paulgormanis.com/?p=1533, 02/01/2012). It was a design created by both Westwood and McLaren. The shirt is covered in painted stripes with slogans like ‘Only Anarchists Are Pretty’. Attached to it are patches of Karl Marx, and McLaren says,
“I attached silk patches of Karl Marx I discovered in shops in Chinatown which sold Maoist literature. I chose him because his book started the Socialist and workers’ movements in the 19th century. Also, Vivienne and I liked his beard. Marx was a writer/author, a creator of ideas, not a politician like Lenin. Marx represented a greater significance and was important to us because he lived in London at one point.” (Paul Gorman, http://www.paulgormanis.com/?p=1603, 2/01/12) It is important to notice the link between why Westwood and McLaren would have been interested in Karl Marx. Together they are trying to create and be part of the punk movement through radical ideas. Therefore they are influenced or inspired by Karl Marx and how he wrote books that left an impact on society.
With the fashion designs the Sex Pistols were wearing, such as the Anarchist shirt, they soon had a following of devoted fans which helped not only the band but, the shop, SEX, gain more publicity. As Connolly explains, The band had few musical skills, but the outrageous fans, the threatening song lyrics and the band’s apparent association with sex and violence created a critical momentum.(2002, p.31) The success of the Sex Pistols took the punk movement to a new level. It was challenging society on a larger scale. There were more outrageous youths joining the movement increasing the smaller loyal following that the SEX shop alone had attracted.
The Sex Pistols, soon after released their first single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ which became a huge hit. Conolly again highlights that, The boundaries between music and fashion, business and propaganda were blurred, as both Vivienne and Malcolm helped to write the words to the inflammatory song.(Ibid, p.32) This once again lends itself to the punk attitude of ‘Do-It-Yourself’ that both Westwood and McLaren had been so involved in using at this time. They are not musicians or writers but, are creating lyrics for a song in order to voice their opinions, not only through the fashion designs of the shop but, the words of the Sex Pistols. In keeping with the message of rebellion and sedition they had incorporated into the song, they re-named the shop again to ‘Seditionaries’.
The next step they took was to take advantage of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. The Sex Pistols released the song ‘God Save the Queen’ and Vivienne designed customised t-shirts showing the Queen with a safety pin through her mouth. The song got to number one in the charts, even though, it was not permitted to be played on the radio or be sold in record shops. McLaren said, “that it was a great victory against the Establishment.”(Wilcox, 2004, p.14) Therefore, highlighting that despite the record, being dismissed by some, it provoked a reaction because it was sending a shocking message, that society would not agree with. This effect was a success for Westwood and McLaren because their opinions got noticed as society was outraged.
After the Jubilee, the punk era for Westwood and McLaren was at its peak. Punk had become extremely popular within the UK and spread further. As a result, Westwood and McLaren had,and still have, fame for their contribution to the punk movement. However the partnership between Westwood and McLaren was soon to be over. McLaren was becoming more concerned with the music industry while Vivienne watched Punk fashion being absorbed by the mainstream. Connolly states that her, …designs being copied and made ‘safe’ by commercial designers. Safety pins and mock cigarette holes in dresses were cropping up in high street shops. Just as the whole Teddy Boy scene had begun to seem stale in the early 1970’s, now Punk seemed to be running out of steam – at least in Vivienne’s eyes. (2002, p.34).
Westwood’s designs were never created to become ‘safe’. They were not only a fashion statement but, were made to convey a message towards the social and political climate at the time. To shock the public and the government. By designs being absorbed into the high street, it no longer stood for a message. It was more about a fashion style that didn’t have the “…research and care that Vivienne applied to all her work”(Connolly, 2002, p.34) It is for this reason that Westwood moved on to new things as she was not only interested in rebellion, as the punk movement so obviously was, but her work was always about not conforming to the norm. As Westwood states, the only reason I’m in fashion is to destroy the word conformity. Nothing’s interesting to me unless it’s got that element.(Wilcox, 2004, p.12) Punk brought Westwood to the fore-front of fashion, however it no longer destroyed the word ‘conformity’. Therefore, her interests moved on to new things.
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren clearly contributed to the punk movement greatly through the development of their shop on King’s Road and later in their partnership, with the creation of the Sex Pistols. Punk was more than just a fashion statement or an angry song as it might be perceived on the surface. It was rooted in the frustrations of the discontented younger generation of the time. Westwood and McLaren were part of the punk philosophy. They had frustrations of their own. For example, escaping from the conservatism of the older generation.
Their relationship resulted in the creation of rebellious designs and music that spoke to many angry youths of the time, while outraging other members of society. As Westwood recalled ten years later, Punk did change youth idea because it was a celebration. Rebellion, autonomy, swastikas. It was a great stand against authority…When I look back on it, I see it as a heroic attempt to confront the older generation.(Wilcox, 2004, p.14-15) They used the outlet of fashion as a way of being heard. Together, with Malcolm’s involvement in music and Vivienne’s designs they were able to publicly voice opinions that would be acknowledged all over Britain. It is true to say that they are not the only contributors to the punk movement. They played a major part in it. However, they rebelled boldly,without fear, and for that, they will remain famous for their contribution to the punk movement.
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