How punk lost its funk

By Miguel Paolo Celestial Published in The Philippine Star, 17 October 2007

It was only recently, 2006 spring-summer to be precise, that Vivienne Westwood released her “anti-propaganda” t-shirts, the most famous of which was the one she designed for a human rights organization. It bore the text: “I Am Not A Terrorist – Please Don’t Arrest Me”. Another statement t-shirt from her collection read: “Active Resistance to Propaganda: Culture versus Dogma”, printed with the face of Rembrandt and a baby satyr. She has released a paper, no less, with the text as its title, which expresses her frustration over contemporary culture and what she feels are its inadequacies. (In a previous interview, Westwood declared, “Our culture is stagnant.”) Sounds like pretty heavy stuff from the designer who began her fashion career dressing and inspiring the influential punk rock band Sex Pistols. Well-established and commercial, yet still widely regarded as the deviant designer of London, Vivienne Westwood has very strong ideas on culture and on subversion—the very essence of the punk movement that made her famous. She declares at the end of her paper, “This word subversive, which people brag about like it’s an accolade—well, subversion means bringing down society, undermining the society.” But was this premise ever achieved by the band that she helped bring to iconic status? Or even earnestly worked towards? At the onset, one may say that the initial progressiveness of the group and of the movement itself may have given the idea of subversion, of genuine rebellion. But as the ideology was forgotten by the attitude, it didn’t take long for the progressive attitude to wear away from the music, and for the wild abandon of the music to finally disassociate itself from punk’s last remnant, in whatever permutation: its fashion. Returning to the band, the Sex Pistols began as a response to the “increasingly safe” and fully satiated “progressive rock” and manufactured pop of the mid1970s. The band was looking for something else, something defiantly new, hating their predecessors as they were vehemently against any restraining form of authority. The band’s future vocalist, Johnny Rotten, was already dressed in a peculiar way when he was “discovered” and was asked to sing. Before Vivienne Westwood could prop him up, he already wore green hair and had on a statement t-shirt. Sex Pistol’s debut single, “Anarchy in the UK”, served as their credo, expressing

wittily and angrily how they did not agree with the status quo, and thus wanted to destroy it. (“I wanna be anarchy! The only way to be!...I wanna be an anarchist. Oh what a name. Get pissed, destroy!”) Allegedly pushing for individual freedom by expressing discontent through shock and rebellion, the punk movement not only screamed, kicked, and smashed out its frustration; it donned its attitude while doing so. The main ethic of punk fashion is do-it-yourself (DIY), in the pursuit of rejecting commercial and societal standards of dress. Punk fashion in the 1970s was originally used to challenge conformity as a counterculture, expressing aggression and rebellion, for which individuality was highly valued. The fashion covers not only clothing, but also jewelry, hairstyles, cosmetics, and even body modifications. The wardrobe catalogue is endless: from torn shirts to vests and tartans, from military and motorcycle boots to Chuck Taylors, from skinny leather pants to leopard tights, from messy hairstyles to Mohawks, from spiked and studded jewelry to swastikas, and from powder to heavy eyeliner. The dress largely depended on the subgroup of punk: pop punk, cyberpunk, skater punk, industrial punk, emo, grunge, metal, gothic, plus others more.

Supposedly anti-fashion, the DIY ethic produced unique t-shirts screenprinted, stenciled, and painted with one’s own personal views and personality, complete with hand-made tears and tatters, and tailored using safety pins. But over the years, personal touches gave way to run-of-the-mill shirts with band logos. As the appeal of the music and the fashion broadened and reached a wider audience, the kick of originality gave way to only minor deviations to a few typical standards. The culture that was meant to counter the status quo rose to prominence, though sanitized and simplified, and was embraced by the mainstream. Surely, the proponents and diehard followers of punk gagged at the sacrilege. But as far as trends went, it was easy to say that commercialism and mass production killed the cat, but maybe the genuine punk movement, by its very premise, was meant to be impermanent, as it could never stay isolated and untouched as long as it reached more and more people. Struggle as it may, punk was dragged onto the assembly line.
Though argument will always come from the punk “underground”—pockets of communities devoted to keep punk as a counterculture—what they possess, at best, is only a shadow of punk’s former self. Kept in the dark, hidden from greater public participation, and most importantly, divorced from the general frustration and unease of its original setting, present-day punk only appears as inherited, as a hand-me-down.

But is not the case the same for Dame Vivienne Westwood, who as part of the fashion world, relies on her fashion house, and her portfolio of works and inspiration form other designers, old and new, to release collections every season? We all know that even she, realistically, would never dare subvert society because she will only go down with it. That’s why, unlike genuine punk, Vivienne Westwood is alive, commercialized, and kicking.

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