(Begun July 4, 1993, Version of November 17, 1995)
YOU KNOW IT'S NOT AN ACCIDENT, and she's not dressed that way because she's poor. Her clothing is broken. Torn at knee and thigh, or even right across her bottom, the otherwise careful accouterment is marred by worn-out, totally thrashed jeans. What gives? Well, Gramps, these are modern times. She's dressed that way because it's fashionable. And to annoy you, of course.
Intentionally-torn garments date at least from the English "punk" movement, which finds its first popular expression in the music of the Sex Pistols. (1) Lead singer Johnny Rotten, with the November 4, 1976 release of "Anarchy in the U. K."; excoriates his entire society. Its successor "God Save the Queen" carries the nihilism further. Both proceed from an Anglo-American tradition of youthful hooliganism and social disaffection. "God Save the Queen," was found so offensive to gentle sensibilities that it was withdrawn before release and melted down by its publisher, A & M records. Later published on the Virgin label, the name of the record was erased from BBC charts and topped the hit parade as a blank space, thus creating the bizarre situation in which Britain's most popular record was turned into contraband.
In America, we have the exemplar of Hollywood's teenage hoodlums, switchblade knives, black leather jackets, blue-jeans and T-shirts. In the United Kingdom, this expression of juvenile social rage took the expression of, first, the "Borstal Boy" a graduate of the English reform school and later the "Rocker."(2) In the 1960s, socially conscious English youth fell, broadly, into one of two classes: the "Mods," whose long hair, foppish dress and consumer culture is exemplified by the Beatles and similar "English invasion" musical groups; and the "Rockers," who were even at that time embracing a destructive, anarchistic, racist, working-class sub-culture. (3) Shaved heads, purposeful self-mutilation, garish tattoes, heavy boots, laborer's garments and the rejection of Mod upward mobility simmered along well after the swingin' sixties disintegrated. By the early-1970s, the Rockers became "punk rockers," and shortly, "punks." In England and Europe, the punks mutated into the deeply anti-social skinhead movement.
By 1977, the punk look had emigrated from England to the United States. Black clothing, motorcycle jackets, bizarre, brilliantly-colored hairstyles, tattoos for both sexes, multiple piercings of ear, nose, nipple, labia, navel, often with unusual items such as safety pins; aggressively slutty clothing (black bra under a white blouse, torn fishnet stockings, micro-mini skirt and garter belt, &c.) heavy makeup and dead-white skin to some degree typify the punk look. The name "punk," consciously embraces everything repugnant to nice society, glorying in a name meant to be critical in much the same sense as the "Quakers" also adopted a slur as their banner. (4) Rejected by society, the punk aggressively says, "If I can't be good, I sure can be bad." The center of the punk movement, however, as it began, remains anti-cultural music. Here in Berkeley, we have at least one music club-971 Gillman-entirely devoted to the punk music culture. (5) Late at night, the road is made hazardous by scores of young people, invisible in black, wandering aimlessly on the public street.
The whole identity-intentionally torn clothing included-remained somewhat on the sub-cultural level until Jennifer Beals' 1983 movie "Flashdance" brought torn garments into the mainstream. Pre-torn garments appeared at about that same time in Penny's and similar mass-market clothing stores. Though the extreme expression of the whole punk package remains a big-city sub-cultural phenomenon, its milder expressions have become integrated into the general teen and youth look. So, when you see an ad for Virginia Slims in which the leggy model sports torn jeans, or when your daughter, granddaughter or niece flaunts her rosy bum in artfully ripped clothing, we may successfully date the look to the English punk movement and its corrosive American descendants.
(1) Intentionally-torn clothing is nothing new, of course. The "slashed and gored" style favored by Renaissance bully-boys is the earliest example I can call to mind. 1960's hippies tore their clothing and then colorfully patched it. For a thorough history of fashion, consult Seeing Through Clothes, Anne Hollander, Avon, 1980.
(2) Brendan Behan's 1958 book, Borstal Boy, sheds some light on this social phenomenon.
(3) Both terms date from at least 1960."Mod" short for "modern" as well as "modish," referred to young, fashion-conscious English youths who rode scooters. The Mods were the spiritual descendants of Teddy Boys, so-called after their imitation of the garb of Edward VII's reign (1901- 1910). "Rockers," in contrast, wore leathers and jeans, and rode motorcycles. The term "Rockers" probably derives from rock 'n' roll music. The two groups exhibited a great antipathy for one another. See Cathy McGowan, "Rockers and Mods," TV Times, November, 1963.
(4) "Punk" originally meant a prostitute, but early in this century came to mean many more unsavory things, most pertinently a catamite, as well as a young hoodlum.
(5) For an exhaustive analysis of the punk music phenomenon, I recommend Griel Marcus' Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Harvard University Press, 1989.
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