MOVE6 / Vive le Punk: Stylistic Subversion in British Punk’s First Wave / James F. Anderson

Assorted SEX & Seditionaries designs (detail from original show), Vive Le Punk: Redressed. Author’s photo (11/12/19).

MOVE: Subcultures, Movements, Aesthetics is a series of documentation, a critical-collective output of the “Researching Subcultures and Aesthetics Postgraduate Symposium” that took place at National University of Galway Ireland in September 2019. This event was organized as part of the Punk Scholars Network event series, with the aim of bringing students and early career researchers who work on subcultural movements and arts together and offering a space to connect sociological studies on resistance with the more Humanities-oriented discussions around countercultural aesthetics. 

The three episodic clusters in the series are designed to reflect the gaps and connections between disciplines, aiming to demonstrate the necessity of re-conceptualizations and how each paper can be thought as both specific to itself and part of a story, an episode of a collective research chapter. Topics ranged from neglected subjects and refusals in the literary world to the politics of independent music and punk subculture, from experimental filmmaking practices that blur the borders of American video art and cinema to the occupy, diasporic and subcultural movements in Romania, Brazil and the UK.

MOVE will run the course of autumn 2020 while the covid-19 is fluctuating in different time-spaces, gesturing towards new ways of moving under restrictions. Thanks to all the contributors, Moore Institute at NUI Galway and Punk Scholars Network for support and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J. You can access all MOVE essays here.

– Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (Editor)

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In late 2019, the Horse Hospital exhibited Vive Le Punk: Redressed, a retrospective of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s iconic punk couture clothes from 1971 to 1980.1 The show first ran to commence with the opening of the gallery and exhibition space in 1993. Since then, gallery owner Roger K. Burton has established the alternative arts space as a cherished hub, doubling as the residence for his distinguished archive of vintage clothing, the Contemporary Wardrobe Collection.2 The ecstatic reception that greeted the show’s return was to be expected; Burton’s staging of Westwood and McLaren’s famed early punk fashion, including their bondage designs and pornographic T-shirts, suitably captured the stylistic prurience of these wares. Rather than simply display the garments however, this deconstructed wardrobe was suspended upon inchoate bodily forms (rendered in lurid pink PVC as an homage to SEX’s infamous frontispiece) and strung-up across their subterranean gallery space. It was an exciting spectacle which remained true to the creative energies of McLaren and Westwood’s hub for the London punk milieu at 430 King’s Road, epitomised by SEX (1974-1976), and the later Seditionaries (1976-1980). The reprisal of the show      was, however, bittersweet; threatened by the imminent closure of the space due to excessive rent increases, the show was a late attempt to garner publicity in the hopes of securing financial support for the gallery.3

TAKING LIBERTIES! Jamie Reid 1970-2020. Author’s photo (11/12/19).

Having recently secured a further extension on their lease, the Horse Hospital’s latest exhibit remains fittingly defiant: TAKING LIBERTIES! is a collection of political works from the personal archive of graphic designer Jamie Reid, from 1970-2020.4 Along with Westwood and McLaren’s provocative statements of punk fashion, Reid’s artwork for the Sex Pistols proffered a striking visual language of graphic design constructed around the theme of punk ‘anarchy’. Reid’s iconography trashed images of Britannia, deforming Queen Elizabeth II with swastikas and safety pins as punk iconoclasm. His later career has maintained punk as a modus vivendi, as traced through personal engagements with anarcho-punk and various international protest movements. Reid’s early insurrectionary aesthetic influence has endured into the postmodern landscape of public protest: Pussy Riot, the Occupy Movement, and most recently, Extinction Rebellion, have all utilised his politically incisive graphics. Reid’s work continues to occupy an interesting nexus between the popular and subcultural that defines the broader cultural history of the British punk movement.

Following its chaotic emergence, first wave punk has become celebrated in contemporary British popular culture as a unique creative moment of the mid-to-late 1970s. Subsequently, designers such as Westwood have become venerated ‘natural treasures’, whose influence on successive generations can be traced through prevailing trends in fashion and art. Footage shot at the opening evening of Vive Le Punk in 1993 testifies to the inter-generational appeal of Westwood-McLaren couture: McLaren can be seen spinning yarns to an enraptured coterie about the collection, supermodel Kate Moss looks besotted, cheekily laughing amongst her milieu, and notorious socialite and promoter Philip Salon vogues for the camera.5 While Westwood declined to attend the opening event, upon Burton’s insistence, she did however attend a private viewing of the show alongside McLaren.6 Documentary footage filmed by Burton frames the rarity of the pair’s meeting amidst the installation of their designs, discussing the aesthetic influences on particular garments and debating the various craft practices they utilised.7

Through their forays into the interconnected worlds of fashion and music, Westwood and McLaren would realise the latter’s credo—sex, style, and subversion—as architects of the ‘anti-fashion’ clothing look adopted by the burgeoning British punk scene.8 Having begun his career as a trader of vintage clothing, Burton’s own introduction to punk would flourish when he began trading clothes to a King’s Road clientele in the mid-1970s, including the proprietors of 430 King’s Road. Burton’s recent reprisal of Vive Le Punk gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role of gender and sexuality in British punk’s first wave, and the implications of Westwood and McLaren’s engagements with sexual minority cultures. Burton’s      collection of Westwood-McLaren designs in Vive Le Punk lays bare just how striking      their      early work remains     , given its singular construction of a visual language built on sexual desire, flaunting pornographic imagery and fetish wear, alongside political iconography and pop-culture icons. This flagrant embrace of exotic underground fetish was particularly provocative for its time, especially so, given that the wares of underground fetish communities were hitherto hidden away, relegated to the back of magazines and newspapers as mail-order advertisements.9

McLaren opened Let It Rock in 1971 with the help of art-school friend Patrick Casey, but would shortly thereafter enlist the help of his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood as creative collaborator and in-house designer.10 With Westwood on-board, the pair started selling custom lamé suits and other staples of the Teddy Boy wardrobe, such as brothel creepers and ‘drainpipes’; American clothing styles such as bowling shirts and slacks were also stocked. Fittingly, the shop was also decorated with rock ‘n’ roll ephemera and insignia drawn from the 1950s period, including early records by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. During this time, McLaren’s growing interest in ‘cult clothes’ would extend towards areas of pop culture which entailed an ‘edgier’ aesthetic, leading to the selling of leather biker jackets and zoot suits. McLaren drew particular inspiration from a clothing boutique formed in the 1950s on Carnaby Street: that of homoerotic leatherwear specialist Vince Man, whose designs appealed to a largely gay clientele. Following the importation of ‘1960s-biker’ styles, the shop was rebranded Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die in 1973, coinciding with the selling of bespoke items designed by Westwood; though much of their specialist stock was largely only available to a middle-class Chelsea clientele who could afford the expensive price tag of the niche wares. Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die celebrated the pair’s interest in leatherwear and the rocker wardrobe with its associated chains and straps; an image of rebellion epitomised by Marlon Brando’s depiction of existential outlaw ‘Johnny’ in The Wild One (1953).

Seeking to push the envelope even further, McLaren decided to once again rebrand the shop, opening SEX in October 1974.11 In his recent biography, The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren (2020), Paul Gorman cites an interview with McLaren in which he stated his aims with SEX: “I wanted to extend the concept of Too Fast to Live to the sensual, the erotic, making sex the point of fashion […] I wanted to stretch the limits so thought about combining sex and politics”.12 Stocking fetish-ware and BDSM accoutrements, their attempt to reconsider established sartorial conventions also extended to other clothing items: Westwood would turn clothes inside out, to reveal the seams and construction of the garment. Contrasting textures and materials, such as leather with plastic and PVC, were also sutured together through the use of safety pins in a ‘bricolage’ method; the process of creative construction from disparate elements.

Labelled as “the original Sex Pistol” by Jon Savage, Jordan’s importance as de facto model for many of Westwood and McLaren’s wares testifies to the ways in which the radical punk ‘look’ they propagated at SEX would provoke in public contexts.13 Having begun as a shop assistant at SEX in 1975, Jordan’s legacy as an inspiring female archetype of first wave punk is well-known, as captured in Sheila Rock’s infamous portrait of Jordan astride the doorway to SEX from 1976. The image is striking, particularly given its framing of Jordan as an extension of SEX, offset against a conservative looking gentleman who’s affronted stance indicates her embodied challenge to the prescribed gender roles of the period. Rock presents Jordan as an emboldened female figure whose appearance contests both generational and gendered power dynamics, suggesting a performative agency inspired by Westwood and McLaren’s punk clothing. For Jordan however, wearing her SEX garb in quotidian contexts did not implicitly position her as a sex object. Rather, she emphasises the potential of Westwood-McLaren designs towards a deconstruction of gender norms. In contrast to the perceived connotations of fetish wear, as a form of embodied prurience, Jordan maintains that her wardrobe of rubberwear and PVC “was utilitarian in nature, I wasn’t sexually objectified”.14

McLaren travelled to New York in January 1975, assuming a brief tenure in a managerial position of the brash proto-punk outfit, the New York Dolls.15 He was instrumental in conceiving of the Dolls’ Communist-inspired image makeover, dressing the band in a Westwood designed ‘red patent leather’ wardrobe, in an attempt to revitalise their careers by channelling politically charged provocation (239). His efforts turned out to be short-lived as the Dolls’ disbanded in Florida on a disastrous tour of the Southern states in March of that year. Whilst in New York, McLaren had however become particularly enamoured with musician Richard Hell, admiring his ‘look’ of torn clothing, and his affective insouciance; on his return to Manhattan after the Doll’s failed tour, McLaren would proposition Hell to become the frontman of a new musical group he was attempting to put together but Hell declined the offer (249). McLaren returned to London in May 1975 with a collection of pornographic magazines in-hand, purchased from sex shops in Christopher Street in the Greenwich Village.

Honing their utilisation of détournement as a modus operandi for their punk pursuits, Westwood and McLaren selected a plethora of the most risqué images and set about silk-screening them with zeal on SEX customised T-shirts. As music writer Greil Marcus defines it, tellingly, détournement is “the theft of aesthetic artefacts from their contexts and their diversion into contexts of one’s own devise”.16 Hell’s ‘look’ would serve as the archetype for the group of “sexy, young, assassins” McLaren had conceived of to rival the Bay City Rollers: the Sex Pistols.17 With their sulking recalcitrance, working-class roots, and puerile attitude, the Sex Pistols would give Westwood and McLaren’s clothing a uniquely British voice to convey youthful revolt. Initially however, as Maria Buszek has observed, the band effectively functioned as “mannequins to shill the store’s wares”.18 Throughout 1975 to 1977, the Sex Pistols can be seen garbed almost head-to-toe in SEX and Seditionaries apparel. The band regularly wore several of the pornographic T-shirt series and can be seen sporting iconic designs such as the ‘Tits’, ‘Cowboys’ and ‘Naked Footballer’ onstage and in interviews from this period. Yet, as Tavia Nyong’o reminds us, “wearing the iconography or style of the homosexual [is] not the same thing as subjecting oneself to the stigma of being perceived as homosexual” (91).

McLaren contracted Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, member of COUM and later Throbbing Gristle, as photographer for an early photoshoot of the band in 1975. At the time, Christopherson was working at design agency Hipgnosis, which shared a door to the Sex Pistols Denmark Street studio. The photoshoot has been discussed by Nyong’o “as one archival switch point between the queer and punk seventies”.19 Inspired by American photographer Larry Clark, Christopherson styled the Sex Pistols as rent boys, who’s work he  describes in Nyong’o’s account as documenting “white trash kids” (111). According to Nyong’o, “when Christopherson posed the Pistols to resemble rent boys in a YMCA toilet, McLaren was apparently shocked and threatened by the homoerotic images, and he turned down the pictures” (111). Instead, McLaren opted for images of the band in a London phone box taken by Ray Stevenson. In August 1975, SEX shop-assistant Alan Jones was arrested while wearing the ‘Cowboys’ T-shirt in Piccadilly Circus for “exposing to public view an indecent exhibition”.20 As Gorman details, Jones’ arrest resulted in police seizure of the stock of T-shirts from SEX, and Jones was subsequently charged and had to pay a penalty of £30 following Westwood and McLaren’s failure to attend their court date.21

‘Cowboys’ T-Shirt (detail), Vive Le Punk: Redressed. Author’s photo (11/12/19).

The offending image depicted an illustration of two cowboys, naked from the waist downwards. McLaren détourned the image from a 1969 design by Jim French featured in Manpower! and added the additional dialogue below the couple: “Ello Joe, been anywhere interesting lately Nah, its all played aht Bill, Gettin to [sic] straight.” Gorman views McLaren’s appropriation of the ‘Cowboys’ from the “then-subterranean world of gay art” as constituting a bold stylistic statement, mobilising the iconography of the gay underground as a challenge to “the social and sexual mores of the times”.22Yet, the Jones incident also raises questions around the homophobic nature of his persecution, and Jones’ right to self-expression as a gay person in the 1970s. Indeed, . Music scholar Benjamin Court questions the stakes of Westwood and McLaren’s designs and their engagements with sexual minority cultures. For Court, these designs used the iconography of homosexuality in potentially damning ways:

Even if McLaren and Westwood intended to use these images to build a specialized style that catered to an emerging youth subculture […] they did so by appealing to a heteronormative value in the dominant culture”; that is, “the desire to be shocked by deviance”.23

In so far as they appropriated these images as a means to provocation “to index a general social taboo”, Court holds that McLaren and Westwood’s porn designs remain problematic.24 With this in mind, their designs from this period remain difficult to reconcile from the perspective of contemporary representational politics of gay culture.

Contrastingly, Scott Treleaven presents a different view.25 A notable figure himself within the reprisal of punk aesthetics and DIY practice in the context of late-1990s queercore, Treleaven views first wave punk’s fascination with pornography, particularly its connection to gay culture, as an indicator of punk’s queer roots.26 As Treleaven argues, “The queered sexiness that would become intrinsic to punk had the dual purpose of titillating the initiated while simultaneously ridiculing the uptight behind-the-plastic-curtains realm”; he reminds us that, “After all, ‘punk’ meant ‘gay’ before punk meant punk”.27 Reading a genealogy of queer struggle intimately tied to punk, then, Treleaven seems to suggest that punk’s linkage with ‘queer porn’ provided a significant moment in popular culture of queer visibility. Whilst the pornographic images used by McLaren and Westwood are not unproblematic, then, the DIY legacy of their designs seemingly propounded a model towards deconstructing gendered style, and the visual subversion of gendered norms of sexuality. We find this archetype of aesthetic resistance located in a broader trajectory of ‘queer punk’ that was taken up in the mid-1980s in the queercore movement initiated by filmmakers and artists such as Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones.28

Under McLaren and Westwood’s influence, sexuality became a central aesthetic referent in what Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg have defined as the “visual codes of punk” in its first wave British incarnation.29 Conceived of as part of McLaren’s Situationist-inspired attempts at instigating provocation, their designs ‘stripped down’ artistic practice in a ‘deconstructionist’ attempt to push fashion to its limits to create ‘anti-fashion’, as McLaren termed it.30 To be sure, McLaren’s appropriation of pornography in silk-screened T-shirts such as the ‘Naked footballer’ and ‘Cowboys’ remain controversial. These issues notwithstanding, in their designs, pornography became a deliberate aesthetic strategy towards the ‘stripping off’ of stifling moral convention and outdated post-war gender roles. As the Horse Hospital’s successful restaging of the exhibition reminds us, Westwood and McLaren deployed hitherto occluded fetish and pornographic imagery in early punk clothing as a stylistic hand-grenade with which to explode the stultifying sartorial status quo of seventies fashion, and an affront to the conservative social order of ‘Middle-England’ values. Vive Le Punk; Vive Le Horse Hospital.


  1. The show opened November 30th 2019 and was extended to January 31st 2020.
  2. Burton notably supplied the wardrobe for Quadrophenia (1979) and Absolute Beginners (1986). For an extensive purview of 20th century rebel fashions, complete with clothing examples from his own collection, see Burton’s Rebel Threads: Clothing of the Bad, Beautiful & Misunderstood (London: Lawrence King Publishing, 2017).
  3. For more information on the history of the Horse Hospital and the campaign against its closure visit: Accessed March 26, 2020.
  4. The show initially ran from March 6th-28th, but has been extended through August 31st 2020. For more information, as well as a brief purview of Reid’s career, see: Accessed July 28, 2020.
  5. As seen during the Punk: London spectacle of 2016: a city-wide celebration of punk’s 40th anniversary.
  6. Author interview with Roger K. Burton (March 17, 2020).
  7. According to Burton, this filmed reunion was to be the first time the pair has seen each other in ten years, and seemingly the last time the pair physically met, prior to McLaren’s death in 2010.
  8. For an exhaustive purview of McLaren’s life, his partnership with Westwood and formative role as Sex Pistols manager in this period, see Paul Gorman’s The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren (London: Constable, 2020).
  9. SEX sourced bespoke items from other London-based specialists, including Vince Man’s leather emporium and the London Leatherman. For a brief history of the latter brand, still in operation today, see:
  10. As Gorman details, Westwood was initially sceptical at the prospects of McLaren’s new venture, and retained her job as a schoolteacher, before being persuaded by McLaren to assist with the production of garments for the store such as mohair sweaters. See: ‘The Life and Times’, 143/44.
  11. Later undergoing a further rebranding as Seditionaries in December 1976.
  12. Gorman, ‘The Life and Times’, 207.
  13. Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2001), 93.
  14. Personal interview with Jordan at Rough Trade Bristol (May 1st 2019). For a thrilling account of Jordan’s life, see her recent autobiography Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story (2019).
  15. Gorman, ‘The Life and Times’, 234.
  16. Qtd. in Mike Roberts, How Art Made Pop, And Pop Became Art (London: Tate Publishing, 2018), 149. See also: Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1989).
  17. Gorman, ‘The Life and Times’, 231 & 263.
  18. Maria Buszek, ‘Clothes Clothes Clothes, Punk Punk Punk, Women Women Women’, in Design History: Beyond the Canon, Eds. J. Kaufman-Buhler, V. Rose Pass and C. S. Wilson (Bloomsbury: London), pp. 87-110, 91.
  19. Tavia Nyong’o, ‘Do you Want Queer Theory (or Do You Want the Truth)? Intersections of Punk and Queer in the 1970s’, in Radical History Review, 100 (2008), pp.102-119, 111.
  20. Paul Gorman gives a detailed account of this incident on his website: Accessed March 26, 2020.
  21. (ibid).
  22. (ibid).
  23. Benjamin Court, ‘The Politics of Musical Amateurism’, (unpublished doctoral thesis, UCLA, 2017), 104.
  24. Court, 86.
  25. Court, 98.
  26. Treleaven published the zine The Salivation Army, a key text of the 1990s underground Queercore resurgence, fusing a post-AIDS queer grassroots political activism with a punk aesthetic and insurrectionary rhetoric.
  27. Scott Treleaven, ‘Revisiting the Permission Factory’ in Showboat: Punk/Sex/Bodies (New York: Dashwood Books, 2016), 310.
  28. Bruce LaBruce gained attention with the publication of the underground queer punk zine J.D.s, which was edited by G.B. Jones. LaBruce would go to work as an acclaimed filmmaker, working with subcultural and pornographic themes, as seen in his early work No Skin Off My Ass (1993), and Super 8½ (1994).
  29. Russ Bestley & Alex Ogg The Art of Punk (London: Omnibus Press, 2012), 9.
  30. For a personal account of his contributions towards the anti-fashion style of punk, see the following interview with McLaren: