The heritage of dressing to make a point
When the spectre of a multi-tentacled, deep-state, opposition-conspiracy “anti-growth coalition” was summoned at the Conservative party conference, which of us with a secret thrill thought, Rebel Alliance? And with the new prime minister in a form-fitting, block-coloured dresses of the variety popularly recognised as Carol Vordermann 1997, my first question after “where do I sign up?” is “what do the outfits look like?”
Because whether it’s dreadlocks, loopy handknits or a PVC catsuit, the counterculture has ever claimed fashion as its statement of dissent. Fashion signifies our tribe and our rebellion against prevailing orthodoxies.
Until the end of the Venetian Republic in the late eighteenth century, masks had been used for 500 years to identify lagoon-dwellers as separate from mainland Venice. A mask showed they were governed by darker laws, as well as usefully protecting their identities when they got up to no good in carnival season.
The sans-culottes who overthrew the French monarchy in 1789 were actually named after their revolutionary outfits, which rejected aristocratic silk culottes (breeches) in favour of the workman’s cotton pantalon. (Not, as is sometimes assumed, that they stopped wearing trousers altogether.) The rebels began a parallel revolution in clothing, replacing silks and narrow brocade tailcoats with sober cloths and colours. Their only ornament was the cockade, whose red, white and blue represented the founding principles of the new Republic: Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the top-to-toe androgynous black of the beatnik – worn in smoky, jazz-filled basements from San Francisco to Paris – rejected the social and sexual norms represented by pretty frocks and bowler-hatted rectitude. For these postwar refuseniks, black was the colour of mourning, the camouflage of the cat burglar and the anonymity of the stealth warrior. They even applied it to the off-duty sweats of the dancer: see George Peppard in the film of Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (1959), or Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957) for a look at the phenomenon’s faintly risible side. The beatnik’s black polo-neck grew into the tune-in, turn-on and drop-out vibe of the ’60s and the long hair and hippy striped loons of the ’70s: an all-out assault on the “straight men” of industry and the establishment.
Our isles have long been famed for our willingness to look outlandish in order to make a point, ever since the invading Romans were taken aback by the ferocity of (native Scottish) Picts who’d painted themselves blue in readiness for battle. In the eleventh century, Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry to protest against the oppressive taxes imposed on the city by her husband. And after the Norman invasion of the twelfth century, a man could rebel against these clean-shaven invaders by letting his beard grow – the importance of facial hair as a social signifier has ebbed and flowed ever since.
But it’s punk, born out of the alternative music scene of 1970s New York, that represents the ultimate costume of modern rebellion. Its birthplace was in the lower East Side club CBGB’s, where the likes of Patti Smith and The Ramones stormed the stage clad in torn and tattered black jeans. The movement swiftly crossed the Atlantic, where British punks took the grunge uniform and ran with it. And ran.
From bondage trousers to bin-bag dresses and body piercings, from Sid Vicious in an acid-wrecked t-shirt to Siouxsie Sioux’s gothic/Japanese fusion, from Pam Hogg to Body Map, there were as many variations on punk’s rebellious wardrobe as there were new bands to pogo to, namely, half a dozen every Saturday night.
One incarnation of Vivienne Westwood’s legendary King’s Road boutique was actually called Seditionaries, while Katharine Hamnett used the slogans on her t-shirts to demand change on the steps of Downing Street. When these two took up the rebels’ baton, the potential of using clothing to challenge orthodoxy went global.
Despite the late-century, anti-capitalist message of these designers, when fashion sees a moneymaking opportunity, it jumps. In 2007 Karl Lagerfeld re-made the classic Chanel tweed suit with punk rips and safety pins, charging tens of thousands for the privilege.
Yet the revolution that was street-level punk, born out of a decade of recession, power cuts, poverty and inequality (brought on by conspicuous consumption), feels like the movement that should resonate today. And when the sign-up to the new Rebel Alliance runs from men in suits at the IMF to wild Extinction Rebellion supporters, who knows what we’ll look like, this time around.
Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now