This story is over 5 years old.

How 70s Punk Became the Blueprint for Alt Fashion (and Subculture’s Doomed Demise)

Like everything, punk fashion was influenced by sex.

Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

This article is part of an editorial series sponsored by our friends over at HBO celebrating the launch of their new show 'Vinyl,' from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter exploring the crazy and fantastic world of music in the 1970s. Throughout the week, Noisey will analyze this iconic era with articles looking back in time.


Sitting typing in a pair of ripped black stockings and an unwashed red plaid shirt feels punk. Yet is it punk because it matches the aesthetic, or because you can't afford new stockings, the shirt's snatched from the floor of party you attended a decade ago and can't remember, and you're smelly because there's no hot water and you'd rather be comfortable than pristine?


Like all alternative fashion, punk began as a reaction: a reaction against conformity, capitalism, and the establishment. Aesthetically, punk rebelled against the relaxation (both of mindset and jean fit) of the hippie movement and sparkly clean shine of disco. While America was slower to shed sticky hippie trends of long hair, punk fashion, with its dark colors, tight black jeans, and Doc Martens, was intentionally anti-hippie, in the same way norm-core trends ascetically rebel against the over-stylized era of Lady Gaga.

The history of punk fashion is usually traced to 430 King's Road, where Vivienne Westwood, the beloved school teacher turned fashion designer (who would go on to design Carrie Bradshaw's wedding dress) owned the boutique "Sex," working with her then boyfriend Malcolm McLaren, manager to the Sex Pistols. The similarity in the shop and band's name was intentional, but they weren't the first friends to rock a ripped shirt. As Sharon M. Hannon wrote in Punks: A Guide to the American Subculture, McLaren's fashion tastes were influenced by Richard Hell, a punk pioneer of bands such as Television and Neon Boys. The safety-pinned Hell would go on to form Richard Hell & The Voidoids in 1976.

Television in the 70s.

A late-70s safety pin through the ear is punk, while an ear gauge from Hot Topic is distinctly not, despite what commercialism wants you to believe, although both promise to give a nasty ear infection. Punk's detonation from Hell to Hot Topic is demonstrative of the comet tail of all alt fashion: Eventually, the capitalism and convention consumes the movement was created in a reaction to.


Punk fashion was originally intentionally anti-materialistic, a grimy basement to the glamour and glitter of the disco upstairs. Think of Patti Smith's dishelmed aesthetic (remember, this is a woman whose jeans were originally ripped from sleeping in the streets with Robert Mapplethorpe, as Smith recalled in Just Kids, a look that now finds itself in Vogue). The aesthetic of 70s punk was a practical one, gutter punks made vests out of trash bags because it was what they could afford. In 2016, one buys a $3.99 black dress shirt with shoulder pads at a Salvation Army in Queens because it's cheap, and vows to rock it as a middle finger to a modern day economy that forces the most devout feminists to favor Bernie over Hillary for her Wall Street ties, then stumbles upon images of shoulder-padded models in Fashion Week Spring 2016 campaigns, such as DKNY, and our punk queen herself—Vivienne Westwood, who will always be punk because she was there.

In its rebellion, alt fashion is ultimately rendered into future trends. Punk fashion has become Perez Hilton-level mainstream. Before pop stars, sex workers were the inspiration behind some of Vivienne Westwood's early punk designers, wrote The New York Times. If sex work is the oldest profession, it's also the oldest fashion muse.

Like everything, punk fashion was influenced by sex. Laced with the DIY aesthetic such as T-shirts hand spray-painted and pinned together with safety pins were BDSM-inspired looks of spiked belts and leather. Punk played with gender norms, women often blending the feminine and the masculine, such as pairing dirty combat boots and ripped stockings with a delicate tutu. The blending of hard and soft is seen in today's alt trends such as nu-goth, (which loves the retro glasses worn by hippies, a look that punk was trying to veer away from). Recently, to the rejoice of pastel punks everywhere, Manic Panic (started by Tish and Snooky of Blondie in 1977 as a punk shop on St. Mark's place) released a line of pastel colors, all the while ensuring their products are vegan and cruelty-free. Goth king Ozzy may eat the heads off bats, but punks have a fairly solid history of loving cute bunnies as much as they hate establishment. Sharing the love for veganism and cruelty free practices are modern day Tumblr beauty companies such as alt beauty queen Kat Von D's line.


Debbie Harry in 1977

While it often becomes scrubbed clean of its political message once onstage at New York Fashion Week, 70s punk fashion was inherently political in nature. The boys of Crass looked hot as fuck in their black pants, but they preached anarchy (and animal rights, I tell you, punks love bunnies). They served a purpose beyond style. As with the laziness of 90's grunge that gave us oversized knit sweaters out of lethargy, the gothic upside down cross that, before Urban Outfitters sold it, stood for Satanism, for better or worse, punk fashion was be doomed to be gobbled up by the very masses that unintentionally created it.

Sophie Saint Thomas is just as punk as you, but better, and on Twitter.