Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears

As innovative and controversial proprietors of a clothing store, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood ignited the general public’s awareness of the punk explosion in fashion and music.

Summary of Event

Surprisingly, the birthplace of punk’s antifashion style was a boutique owned and operated by Malcolm McLaren and his wife, Vivienne Westwood. Fashion designers;Vivienne Westwood[Westwood] In November of 1971, McLaren purchased a shop located at 430 King’s Row in the fashionable Chelsea section of London. McLaren and Westwood opened a clothing boutique they called Let It Rock. The store specialized in 1950’s “teddy boys” clothing; the teddy boys style included “drapes” (long jackets trimmed with velvet), scarlet shirts, string ties, gold brocade vests, narrow-legged pants, neon-green-striped socks, and thick, crepe-soled shoes called “brothel creepers.” From the beginning, McLaren and Westwood wanted their shop to be more than merely a retrogressive clothing store. They designed Let It Rock to be a place where young people could congregate, shop, talk with one another, or just listen to music—the store included a jukebox that played vintage rock and roll. In addition to clothing, Let It Rock sold 1950’s rock memorabilia such as posters, old records, books, and magazines. Music;punk rock
Punk rock
[kw]Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears (1974-1976)
[kw]Antifashion Style First Appears, Punk’s (1974-1976)
[kw]Style First Appears, Punk’s Antifashion (1974-1976)
Music;punk rock
Punk rock
[g]Europe;1974-1976: Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears[01470]
[g]United Kingdom;1974-1976: Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears[01470]
[g]England;1974-1976: Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears[01470]
[c]Fashion and design;1974-1976: Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears[01470]
[c]Music;1974-1976: Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears[01470]
McLaren, Malcolm
Westwood, Vivienne
Rotten, Johnny
Jones, Steve
Cook, Paul
Matlock, Glen
Vicious, Sid

In March of 1973, McLaren changed the name of his boutique to Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. At the same time, the clothing sold at 430 King’s Row began to deviate from the teddy boys style. The teddy boys style was replaced with a strong “outlaw biker” component: black leather jackets, jeans decorated with metal studs, and T-shirts spelling out motorcycle brand names—in letters made out of boiled chicken bones attached to the cloth by tiny chains.

During the spring of 1974, McLaren and Westwood closed and once again refurbished their store. When it reopened in the late summer of 1974, it had a new name—Sex, displayed in big, pink sponge letters. It was this reincarnation of the shop at 430 King’s Row that spawned the punk style.

Sex Sex (clothing store) still sold “drapes” and “outlaw biker” apparel, but there was also a new clothing element added to the store’s inventory by Westwood. Westwood’s new designs included sadomasochistic bondage garments as well as clothing that was hand-made in a deliberately crude, haphazard, or perverse manner. The “bondage suit” was made of fabric called black Italian—a polished blend of black satin and cotton. The suit had zippers on the back of the pants up to the knee and on the thighs, buckles on the calves, a cloth strap connecting each leg of the pants, and a piece of terry cloth material hanging down over the backside. Other punk attire and accessories included black shirts with adjustable straps crossing the chest, shirts with the sleeves dyed different colors and displaying either bleached or painted stripes on one or both sleeves, multicolor mohair sweaters with one sleeve considerably longer than the other, spandex and vinyl pants in lurid colors, rubber or leather masks with large silver zippers covering the mouth area, bicycle or dog chains, outsize safety pins, handcuffs, and, perhaps most distinctive, a new line of T-shirts.

Producing the T-shirts was simplicity itself: Two pieces of cloth were roughly sewed together, leaving holes for the head and arms. The T-shirts were often artificially torn and the ripped material turned back and sewed or held together with safety pins. Some of the T-shirts were printed with pornographic writing; others displayed images of nude boys, half-naked cowboys, or giant swastikas. Still others contained various slogans written out in ransom-note style (the letters of the words appeared to have been cut out of and pasted together from newspapers). The slogans appearing on the T-shirts included “Only Anarchists Are Pretty,” “Dangerously Close to Love,” “Be Reasonable, Demand the Impossible,” “Destroy,” “Anarchy,” and “Chaos.” Many of the T-shirts also had attached such adornments as upside-down crucifixes and hypodermic syringes.

Combining a spiky hairstyle with McLaren and Westwood’s antifashions was the height of sartorial effrontery. For McLaren and Westwood, the effrontery was intentional, as they explained during the “Fashion Forum—New Designers” session at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on February 4, 1976. At the same time, McLaren was also quite excited about a new advertising medium for his boutique—a rock-and-roll band.

Steve Jones and Paul Cook were regular customers at Sex, as well as novice musicians. They frequently told McLaren of their interest in forming a band. Glen Matlock, a part-time employee at Sex, was also interested in forming a group. Responding to McLaren’s encouragement, the three began practicing with Cook on drums, Jones on lead guitar, and Matlock on the bass guitar (he was replaced in 1977 by John Simon “Sid Vicious” Ritchie). In August of 1975, John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon auditioned for the remaining position of lead vocalist, and the group was complete. McLaren agreed to serve as the group’s adviser and manager and he provided the “Sex Pistols” name. By outfitting the Sex Pistols, Sex Pistols McLaren initially expected the group merely to serve as a marketing vehicle for his shop. McLaren never anticipated becoming the infamous manager of England’s first widely recognized punk band.

By the end of 1976, McLaren and Westwood had changed the name of their boutique from Sex to Seditionaries. Even with a change of name, the almost exclusive control of punk fashion began to slip away from McLaren and Westwood, as many other designers unveiled new collections featuring torn clothes, chains, and safety pins.


The spirit and impact of punk’s antifashion style can be encapsulated in the sentiments of Jean Cocteau: “Ce que le public te reproche, cultive-le, c’est toi” (What the public rebukes you for, cultivate, it is you). When McLaren and Westwood marketed their antifashions, they not only introduced a new style of clothing but also created an entirely alien perspective on the purpose of fashion. Traditionally, fashion had been used either to accentuate or to create attractiveness. Antifashion very deliberately subverted this process; that is, antifashion was intended to accentuate or cultivate ugliness. Every aspect of punk fashion was meant to provoke and scandalize the general public.

If contrived ugliness was one defining characteristic of antifashion, the other was a do-it-yourself polemic against high fashion. High fashion originates from the salon of a couturier, and the couturier’s most successful and expensive designs are often copied and manufactured in less-expensive versions for the general public. McLaren and Westwood demonstrated that anyone could be a couturier. One of the slogans stenciled on T-shirts sold at Sex was “Anarchy Is the Melody, Do-It-Yourself Is the Key.” When John Lydon appeared at Sex to audition for McLaren’s band, he was wearing an official T-shirt of the rock band Pink Floyd. Lydon, however, had added his own antifashion alterations: He had torn holes in the T-shirt and, with a ballpoint pen, scrawled “I Hate” above the band’s logo. Lydon had subverted an official Pink Floyd T-shirt (fashion) and created an unofficial “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt (antifashion).

What were McLaren and Westwood hoping to accomplish by this nihilistic stance toward fashion? If it was merely the advocacy of a do-it-yourself ugliness, what was the overall point? Essentially, McLaren and Westwood were trying to establish a continuity with the 1960’s, when youth culture was viewed as threatening to the established order of society. The young people of the 1960’s, McLaren and Westwood’s generation, represented a generation in protest against the conventions of society. To McLaren and Westwood, 1970’s youth culture appeared too complacent, too enervated, and such fads as leisure suits and disco music seemed to symbolize the state of affairs. The calculated attack on such symbols was an effort to shake Great Britain’s youth culture out of its seeming lethargy.

Ironically, the innocuous sounds of disco music belied the economic and political turmoil that was England in the 1970’s. The country was in recession, and unemployment figures were the worst since World War II. England was no longer a world power; moreover, it was on the verge of becoming the first industrialized nation to have its economy revert to that of a developing nation. The government seemed incapable of reversing the downward spiral.

Within this context, McLaren and Westwood wanted to revivify the latent resistance and dissent that they thought characterized the youth of every generation. They believed that subversive energy could be set in motion by clothes. McLaren and Westwood’s clothes reflected their ideological beliefs; not only could the clothes be made by anybody but they also could be used to announce publicly one’s disdain for contemporary popular culture.

McLaren’s belief that antifashion was a potential form of revolutionary action reflects his exposure to the Situationist International Situationist International during the 1960’s. The Situationist International was an avant-garde art movement that existed in Western Europe from 1957 to 1972. This artistic and political movement indicted contemporary society for turning citizens into passive consumers rather than active participants in public life. The goal of the Situationists was to radically disrupt conventional life and to subvert and question its normal, taken-for-granted aspects. During the 1960’s, the Situationist International focused on political organizing. The general strike of French workers and students in May of 1968 reflected Situationist ideas; those ideas were humorously displayed in the Situationist posters, slogans, and cartoons that extolled the aspirations of radical students during the strike.

McLaren, an art student at the time, was galvanized by the unruly political events that took place in France during May of 1968. The Situationist International strongly affected McLaren insofar as it demonstrated that art could effectively alter political realities, not merely document political changes after the fact. Many of the slogans that appeared on McLaren and Westwood’s T-shirts (including “Be Reasonable, Demand the Impossible”) were originally created by members of the Situationist International. While McLaren loosely embraced the overall ideological position of the Situationist International, he decidedly implemented many of their ideas in designing clothes, organizing his store, and publicizing his band.

McLaren and Westwood’s influence on popular culture was pervasive yet indirect. Although many rock bands have acknowledged a musical debt to the Sex Pistols, perhaps the band’s most enduring legacy has been as the artful embodiment of McLaren’s do-it-yourself philosophy—the idea that anybody can form a band and perform in public. This philosophy inspired many young people without highly polished musical skills or extensive business contacts to form bands and perform their music. The renewed political implications of rock and roll became conspicuous in the lyrics of rap performers such as Public Enemy, Ice-T, and Sister Souljah. Finally, perceptions that punk fashion was ugly diminished as sleeveless T-shirts emblazoned with slogans and jeans ripped at the knees became commonplace apparel for young people. Music;punk rock
Punk rock

Further Reading

  • Bromberg, Craig. The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. As the title suggests, this is a rather critical biography of McLaren. Bromberg tends to present McLaren as a shallow and manipulative individual who uses people and then discards them when they are no longer useful to him or his career. Approximately half of the book examines McLaren’s life prior to and during his management of the Sex Pistols. The other half discusses McLaren’s post-Sex Pistols career. Subject and name index included.
  • Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. A classic cultural studies work on the postwar, working-class subcultures of the United Kingdom.
  • Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. Reprint. New York: Owl Books, 2000. Enjoyable and easy-to-read general discussion of what clothes say about the people who wear them. Lurie details the ways in which clothing can reveal information about age, personality, and opinions. Particularly germane to the topic of punk fashions is chapter 6, “Fashion and Opinion.” Includes illustrations and photographs, bibliographic references, and a new introduction.
  • Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. Detailed treatment of the history and cultural implications of the Situationist International. Carefully examines the Situationist International’s link to punk rock, especially to the Sex Pistols. Contains a brief discussion of McLaren and his boutique. Useful but somewhat disjointed; jumps from one topic to another without easy transitions. Name and subject index, illustrations, and photographs.
  • Matlock, Glen, with Pete Silverton. I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1991. Matlock’s autobiography is particularly useful in describing what it was like to work for McLaren and Westwood at Sex. In addition, Matlock describes several of Westwood’s designs, other aspects of punk fashion, and the various trials and tribulations of his days with the Sex Pistols. No name and subject index; photographs included.
  • Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. Rev. ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. A massive and perhaps definitive description of popular culture in England during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Savage carefully and exhaustively chronicles the precursors of punk rock, as well as most of the punk groups from England and the United States. Practically every chapter has something to say about punk fashion. Especially noteworthy are biographies of McLaren and Westwood and a fairly complete history of their shop at 430 King’s Row. Bibliography, illustrations, photographs, and excellent discography included.

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