Since The Exploited released Punks Not Dead in 1981, the phrase has been coined with a pocket of comedic value that mocks those against conformity and conservatism. Your feelings on whether Punk is or is not dead divides the country almost as much as Brexit, and there are forums dedicated to the subject in the comments of forgotten blogs and YouTube videos.
So, what’s the story? Punk fashion and culture is about so much more than the Sex Pistols and spikey mohawks. Although the music produced during the mid to late ‘70s is considered - in today’s pop culture - to be the main cornerstone of the subculture, the Punk ethic was also expressed through dance, visual art, literature and film. Punk is about so much more than wearing studs and ‘sticking it to the man’; it encompasses anti-establishment views that bubbled from a deep unsettlement of the early 1970s and post-war periods. The anti-conservative, anti-greed, anti-authority and non-conformity stemmed from unemployment and economic stagnation. This led to the DIY ethos of music and fashion that we associate with Punk today. Punks painted themselves with irony and satire that developed in the undergrounds of cities, and mediums such as zines, offensive t-shirts and independent bands became a way to convey these messages. In short, Punk influenced the subculture, not the other way around.
Punk broke down the boundaries of pop culture before reconnecting the jigsaw pieces, so it’s no surprise that Punk quickly became part of the mainstream discourse. The most popular bands, such as Blondie in the late ‘70s, became figureheads for ‘Pop-Punk’, and Debbie Harry encompassed everything about the subculture. Adopted at the age of three months (and discovering her adoption at the age of four), Harry had something to say and was destined to find a way to say it. Blondie was even named after the catcalls Harry heard in the street. Her aesthetic was also central to her identity, and by bleaching her hair - but neglecting the back as she “couldn’t reach” - Harry’s two-tone style became iconic.
Vivienne Westwood is also another iconic source of Punk fashion. Opening her Punk boutique on the King’s Road in 1974 (aptly named Sex), Westwood quickly cemented herself as a designer that pushed against the conservatism of the post-war period. She also employed many figureheads for the Punk scene, including Glen Matlock, Pamela Rooke, and Sid Vicious.
Despite the relaxation of the subculture in the 80s and 90s, Punk has never truly left the scene. Designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier have continuously included Punk elements within their process, and models like Agyness Deyn have become figureheads for the new waves of Punk, weaving elements of contemporary and punk style to add their own spin.
Although Punk may not be what it was, it’s far from over. Much like the ‘70s, the Western world is angry at politics, angry at democracy, and angry at zero-hour contracts. The roots of this unsettlement have bloomed through zines, satirical t-shirts, hair colours and music, where artists such as Billie Eilish and Slaves encompass the contemporary unrest of today. Slow fashion is on the rise, and the younger generations have growing concern for global warming, militarisation of the East and the over-capitalisation of, well, everything. If history demands we name ourselves, which it does, I suppose we are Neo-Punk. We are not the same as the original Punks but we don’t need to be.
If Punk is a reaction against conservatism, idealism, and all the other ‘-isms’, then Punk is very much alive. Those that state ‘real Punks don’t exist anymore’ because it’s not 1977 and Punk is less mainstream have, themselves, missed the point of Punk. Have they forgotten Punk is rooted in the underground, and awards itself to an ethos as opposed to a giant safety-pin attached to a pair of pre-ripped jeans? Maybe they have.