Riot Act: A look back at punk’s wild influence on fashion

Riot Act: Punk Fashion
Riot Act: Punk Fashion

See punk fashion on the runways »

When the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene in 1976, their spitting anarchist anthems were the antithesis of high fashion. But these days, a studded leather motorcycle jacket is as covet-worthy as a designer bag.

Opening on May 7, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shines the spotlight on this rebellious movement with its latest Costume Institute exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture. In its early days, British punk rock bands like The Clash forced safety pins through leather while Patti Smith, The Ramones and Blondie’s Debbie Harry holed up at New York’s legendary dive bar CBGB in tattered T-shirts and ripped jeans as a protest against the city’s glitzy disco scene.

Designer Vivienne Westwood’s punk roots also run deep—in 1976 she cultivated many of this era’s DIY hallmarks at her London boutique, Seditionaries, which she owned with then-boyfriend, visual artist and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The duo’s endlessly creative takes on rebellion helped shape the unofficial punk uniform, with reappropriated patriotic symbols including Queen Elizabeth II’s face and the Union Jack. The movement’s raw aesthetic gained mainstream appeal in 1977, when British designer Zandra Rhodes used exposed seams, strategic rips and bondage-like accents on her floor-length dresses.

Today, the punk trend continues to be a source of inspiration for ready-to-wear designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci. The once-radical notion of safety pin embellishment has been reinterpreted so many times, most notably by Gianni Versace in 1994, that it has become a fashion mainstay, while holes and fabric deconstruction are considered trademarks of contemporary labels like Rodarte. This spring, punk’s DIY logo T-shirts have been given a modern twist at 3.1 Phillip Lim, Christopher Kane and Acne. And judging by fall’s lineup of sliced and diced leather looks and thick-soled black boots, punk continues to rock on. Long live the anti-establishment.