Saturday 24 February 2007

You’re Gonna Wake Up One Morning And Know What Side Of The Bed You’ve Been Lying On!

This piece was written for 'SEX & Seditionaries', a book on the clothing designed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for The Sex Pistols (and punks in general).

Dateline: London A Ron Wood - Keith Richards concert is not the place you expect to see the sartorial future. After all, the guitar heroes on stage define 1975 rock ‘n’ roll aristo cool: snakeskin boots, denim, turquoise jewellery, flowing scarves, eye kohl, feathercut hairdos. And yet, here in the lobby, a future time machine among the leather jacket cool cats and mini-Keiths, stands Chrissie Hynde. She is wearing a black rubber mini-skirt. Her pink t-shirt appears to be two squares of jersey cotton sewn together, thread ends hanging willy-nilly. On the front is silk-screened a text ripped from the pages of a badly written porn novel: Softly she undulated her hips…Her legs fell like a broken gate…She willed him to be acetylene at her core… If rock and roll is the rebel music of outsiders and their clothing a statement of identity, then this is the most rock and roll clothing in the house. Frankly, it’s unnerving. It’s not an appropriation of other pop trends or subcultures, it’s unique. No wonder Chrissie looks defensive.

Anyone interested in rock and roll fashion – and who isn’t? – knows about Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Let It Rock at the end of the Kings Road, Chelsea. The teddy boy fashions make great rock star clothing and it’s the only place in London you can buy socks with Day-Glo pink lurex stripes. But after a couple of years McLaren does something unfathomable; he changes the name of the shop and reinvents the clothing. Too Fast To Live lasts only a few months but has the distinction of being the strangest clothes shop in Britain, if not the world. Is anyone else selling a t-shirt with burlesque queen playing cards sewn to it and lettering made out of chicken bones? And do they display it in the main window?

Then one cold grey day I find myself standing across the street from Malcolm’s shop, staring at another name change that would be juvenile if the sign isn’t so unsettling. Above the shop front are three-foot high letters spelling SEX, wrapped in bright pink PVC or rubber. What makes it unsettling is the brazenness of both the colour and the material – it’s obvious that (1) this isn’t a Soho porn shop (so what is it then?) and (2) the owner is quite happy, proud even, to stand outside the crowd. In repressed, repressive 1975 England it goes against everything that polite culture represents. I need more lurex socks so I step inside.

The few pieces of clothing are all about detail: jeans with red plastic pockets and belt loops! With pointless zips inside the pockets! Boots with the tongue on the outside! In brown and green! But what sticks in the mind are the nine-foot rubber curtains fronting the dressing rooms and the row of mannequin heads sporting bondage masks and straps. They don’t have lurex socks.

I meet Malcolm in March 1976. I want to interview his band The Sex Pistols for the music paper Sounds, but first I have to pass an audition with him. On a hot, humid, noontime day he strides into a stuffy cafe in black leather jeans, black jacket and pink nylon polo neck t-shirt. It isn’t so much what he wears that’s impressive, it’s the complete indifference to the heat. From his enthusiasm for leather gods like Gene Vincent and peacocks like Little Richard he obviously identifies with the wilder shores of rock ‘n’ roll, music and clothes. So the leather and nylon points both backward and forward; revolt and style walking hand in leather glove with history.

Wearing SEX clothes requires an attitude. And what makes the sartorial Sex Pistols interesting is how they adopt and adapt their own clothes. A too-small sweater ripped up the side so that it fits. Jeans with a busted zip repaired with three giant safety pins to accentuate the problem. A Pink Floyd t-shirt with “I Hate” felt-tipped above the band’s name. Pretty soon the attitude seems normal. Pretty soon I’ve got the t-shirt, got the shoes, got the attitude.

The Sex Pistols are in Paris. John is wearing Vivienne’s latest creation, a boxy black suit covered in straps and zips, later enshrined as the Bondage Suit. In the same way that Chrissie Hynde seemed unique and strange and slightly threatening, John looks unlike anything previously seen. It really makes you think about the role of clothing. Strapped together trouser legs to restrict your stride…Why? Why not? John looks very pleased with himself.

A balmy summer evening, talking with Malcolm and Vivienne. For such a technicolour couple they’re awfully monochrome – Malcolm in his uniform of black leather drainpipe jeans, charcoal pinstripe jacket and white shirt, Vivienne wearing matching ensemble of bleached spiky hair and white muslin. She has just made this outfit, the first of what will become a Punk uniform, and with its clips and offbeat proportions I’m reminded of a freshly wrapped Mummy. It looks really cool.

She’s describing how she developed her fashion style, how Malcolm would come home and look at her work and go, ‘I like this and this, but I don’t like that’ and tear or rip the offending detail. She started to leave his modifications in the finished garments and then developed it as part of her overall style. She pulls something out of her bag, her latest idea, and gives it to me: a red heart cut from felt with the word POLITICS stamped on it. It’s brilliant in its ambiguity. Like all the other slogans -- Dangerously cLOse To love; only AnARCHists aRe PRETTy – it means whatever you want it to, or nothing at all.

As Punk dominates 1977, Vivienne’s creations become a uniform. The sulphuric whiff of anarchy is an expensive £50 for a bondage suit (up there with St Laurent and Armani), but the t-shirts are cheap. Among all the Anarchy t-shirts at the punk clubs it’s easy to tell the rich girls – they’re the ones wearing Vivienne from bleached head to painted toe.

Thirty years later, the new tribes wear clothing that blends into the landscape. With TV and newspapers full of both rock star antics and worthiness, it’s no longer rebel music. It no longer needs rebel clothing. But wearing Ben Sherman, Polo, Nike, Gucci, Stussy or Quicksilver, just like everyone else, means you are just like everyone else. When you pulled on an Anarchy shirt or bondage trousers you were special, wearing something that was spelled out on the label: Clothes For Heroes.

[text and photos © 2007 J. Ingham]