Sex Pistols, How London Punks Changed Fashion Forever

Punk style never died. Although condom earrings and hypodermic needle necklaces may not be as popular today, the spirit of fashion-forward, forward-thinking style has never died. T-shirts, leather jackets and bondage pants have all been staples of alternative fashion since Malcolm McLaren, Sex Pistols manager and VivienneWestwood began creating the style (and co-opting it) in their London boutique Sex.

“Just seeing the leather jacket move from subculture to subculture, for both functional and fashionable use, I would say that that’s one of the biggest influences of clothing and music,”Josh McConnell, creator and creative director of Straight to HellA clothing line inspired by the movement is called ‘The Movement’. “One of the biggest ways clothing and music combine is through the black leather jacket.”

Elements of punk style that partly originated with the Sex Pistols remain alive and well in Hot Topic, as well the work of designers from Demna Gyvasalia to Dior. So what truly survived from the glory days of King’s Road, a birthplace of youth anarchy, and what does it look like today? McConnell joined us to help us explore. 

Pamela Rooke (a.k.a. Jordan) and Simon Barker (a.k.a. Six, modeling bondage gear from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s boutique Seditionaries, formerly known as Sex.

Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

What makes the Sex Pistols’ fashion style unique?
Malcolm McLaren and VivienneWestwood would be the primary designers behind the Sex Pistols’ fashion style. I would say if it wasn’t for those two designers and the Sex store on the King’s Road, then there would be no Sex Pistols. I’d say Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren invented the British look of punk.

What’s the British look?
Bondage pants — plaid pants and straps — that’s a British punk look. Safety pins in all of your clothing, in T-shirts, through people’s cheeks. Although safety pins were popularized by the Sex Pistols in New York, they may have been imported from New York. Malcolm McLaren saw Richard Hell in New York during the mid-Seventies. Richard Hell would then rip McLaren’s clothing and safety-pin it again. Malcolm McLaren, I believe, took that look straight back to London at just the right time and put it on Sex Pistols. This caused the first wave in punk-rock youth to tear their clothes and safety-pin them back up. I believe you could also get the Richard Hell spiky-hair look. Malcolm McLaren brought that spiky look back to London and applied it to Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, and others.

I would say the first wave of punk in London, so 1976, ’77, I think that was more characterized by experimental styles. … There weren’t well-defined rules about what is punk and what isn’t punk. It was just being invented, so you can see lots of styles that have never been popular.

You like what?
So you see a lot of experimentation in clothing that doesn’t really translate into real life. There’s a photo of some kid at a punk show in, like, 1976 who’s like wrapped up in bloody gauze. There’s a lot of ripped-up clothing and sewn and safety-pinned back together that probably wasn’t even worn except to a punk show, where maybe it was photographed one time. That’s kind of the vibe that I get from a lot of the real experimental-looking stuff. A lot of these kids, they didn’t have money. They were working class. Actually, their parents were working class — we’re talking about kids who were probably between the ages of 14 and 19 during those two years. Their parents were working-class people, while others were on the welfare. My guess is that the lack of resources contributed to their artistic abilities and creativity.

Because Vivienne Westwood stuff is not cheap.
Right. I think most people made or altered their clothes themselves. It’s obvious that these clothes were worn by Sex Pistols. But if you look at all the old photos, you don’t really see regular people in those clothes, regular punk kids.

Let’s talk about leather jackets.
Although the leather jacket is a key part of punk music, it was not the first. I would say the leather jacket became popular a little bit later, maybe like 1977, ’78.

Are you referring to the Sex Pistols?
Sid Vicious was the one who popularized the leather jacket. There were many variations of his leather jackets. The Sex Pistols signed him to [A&M Records]They wanted a public signing. In those photos, he’s wearing a Jacket in black leatherIt is likely that this was what prompted many children to try and find a leather jacket.

The Sex Pistols with their manager Malcolm McLaren signing a new contract with A&M Records after being dropped from EMI, outside Buckingham Palace, London, 10th March 1977. The contract was terminated after one week. (Photo by Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Sex Pistols with their manager Malcolm McLaren signing a new contract with A&M Records, outside Buckingham Palace in March 1977. After one week, the contract was ended.

Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Ramones made the leather jacket popular, but I’d argue that it was the Ramones who inspired it. 1976, was the Ramones first tour of England.,They wore leather jackets. They wore leather jackets when they returned to the show the next year. A lot of the inspiration for that — “Oh, we can do this too!” — came from watching the Ramones in London. And so I’m guessing a lot of those kids probably adopted the leather jacket at that time.

So that probably wasn’t all Sid Vicious?
Sid Vicious may have made his leather jacket a little later than I thought. I would say at least a year. I mean, the thing is, that doesn’t mean a lot to us now. But as far as looking back on the history of things, it’s hard to pinpoint photos and times. Gaye Advert, singer of the Advertisements, she’s famous for wearing a leather jacket in the late Seventies, but it’s interesting to note that she probably saw the Ramones wearing that first. That’s my guess.

How did the look we see now come about? The Sex Pistols were doing experiments and were being given looks by McLaren, Westwood. Then the kids mimicked that look in different ways in their own DIY style.
Yeah. London is such a fashionable city, there’s no way that this fashionable city was going to have this new music movement where these people onstage are dressed really boring. You can be sure that the members of the bands will look better in designer clothing, such as Sex. However, I believe the fans, the children, won’t have the best gear.

These kids, they’re not being influenced by the internet obviously; they’re being influenced by whatever was happening that weekend. Let’s say they go to a punk show on a Saturday, and then maybe they go back to high school. They might meet up with friends to figure out how they look punk that week. And so then the next time they go to a show, they’re dressed even more outrageous.

I don’t know about what vintage stores or resale stores were like back then, but I’m guessing there was lots of hand-me-downs; I’m guessing there was raiding closets of parents, you know? You’ll see a big look of kids in blazers. There were safety pins on the blazers. Perhaps ripping off your blazer was a way to refashion it with safety pins. “fuck you”To the establishment.

We wanted to know more about the iconography that was used at the time in clothing. Insbesondere, we are interested in swastikas. These are children who grew up after the German Blitz on London. These symbols can be hateful and polarizing.
Yeah. That’s a tough one. Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with the punk look involving swastikas. It’s shock value, but when you explain that to somebody who’s not into punk, they’re just not going to get it and you’re shocking in the wrong way. It’s kind of unfortunate that that whole punk movement went towards the swastika at the beginning. The swastika was also used by British Hells Angels like Lemmy, I know this. [Kilmister, later of Motörhead]. Lemmy was a Hells Angel. Lemmy wore swastika swanka pins.

And I do recall reading, maybe it was in Johnny Rotten’s autobiography, that Sid Vicious didn’t understand what the swastika was, but he knew what he put it on and he walked down the street it pissed people off. They’re not doing it because they’re against the Jewish people; they’re doing it because it pisses off regular people.

It’s not to justify it; it’s more to explain it. When you have a subculture like punk, where you’re not supposed to give a fuck, well, one way to prove you don’t give a fuck is to wear more outrageous clothing than somebody else. I think the swastika remained popular on the fringes, but not among those who were really trying to offend. The swastika became so unpopular that it was not popular enough.

Yeah. And at some point there’s a whole anti-Nazi scene that comes out of this.
Exactly. I think you have to look at the timeline, but in the late Seventies, the Clash were playing music festivals that were anti–National Front festivals. If you look at the timeline, it is obvious that the National Front was already in existence. The National Front was also recruiting members of the punk, skinhead and reggae scenes. They were trying to recruit young people to join that movement. Maybe people realize how much I believe. “Oh, you can’t. Now is not the right political time to be wearing a swastika.”

5th December 1976 (Photo by Sunday People/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Malcolm McLaren’s shop, Sex, on the King’s Road.

Sunday People/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

What are the particular things from the Sex Pistols’ style, this early London style, that you think have been most influential during the past couple of decades?
I would say one of the biggest influences that came out of the early punk look, the Sex store, and the Sex Pistols was, just the T-shirt in general — the T-shirt as a way to express your identity, and the T-shirt as a do-it-yourself piece of clothing.

The Sex shop printed their own offensive T-shirts. The Sex store printed offensive T-shirts for men with their cocks out. There were cartoons of Snow White, the Seven Dwarves and others doing it. There were different people from pop culture — Marilyn Monroe on the “Piss Marilyn”Marilyn wearing a yellow shirt with yellow pee all across it. If you’re lucky enough to own an original, these shirts sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. However, these shirts made punk more accessible. You could create your own offensive T-shirts and rip up your T-shirts. I believe that punk was a major factor in band T-shirts becoming so popular.

Is there anything else from punk fashion that you think evolved into other markets? But that you attribute to their original work, e.g. the Sex Pistols look?
It is possible to attribute gaudy jewellery. Sid Vicious wore an iron padlock and many of these young punks wore chains. The small chains they attached to their blazers would cause fear and instill fear in anyone who came across them. Safety pins are also used to instill fear into the general public. And so I would say, I know there’s been resurgences of different styles of necklaces — think beaded necklaces from the Nineties or people wearing chains. Most of it is likely to be punk.

The safety pin seems a bit trendy to me. They were actually called punk points as a joke. If someone arrived at a party with a bunch safety pins on, they would be a mess and you would talk about them. “punk points” —how many punk points did they have on.

I was so interested in leather jackets and Tshirts that we got so far, I wondered if you could tell us a few more about bondage pants and their durability.
The Sex store, the Sex Pistols and the Sex Store brought bondage pants. This continued well into the early eighties and into the hardercore punk scene groups that were influenced. [by them]. Discharge and Chaos U.K. grew their hair longer as the first wave of punk continued. Big spiky hair was born, liberty spikes were created, and the mohawk emerged. Around 1982, many punks either had died or were being replaced by more extreme versions of punk culture. It is now known as street punk.

Bondage pants were what they wore. … Leather jackets got studs added to them. Leather jackets got studs to give them a more intimidating appearance. Today, the bondage pantalont is very popular across all music genres. You’ll see a lot of hip-hop artists wearing bondage pants. You’ll see different fits of bondage pants, which is new. In the Nineties, if someone wore bondage pants, they wore them very tight, like the early punks did, but now you’ll see bondage pants that are baggy. So that’s kind of something new.

This interview has been edited to ensure clarity and length. 

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