RIP Malcolm McLaren: But wasn’t punk already dead?

By Lauren Bravo on April 9th, 2010 2 comments

malcolm-mclaren.jpgLauren Bravo writes:
A piece of fashion history died yesterday. Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols, passed away in Switzerland, aged 64.

The news has made me feel sad, in an odd, empty-stomached sort of way. But if I’m honest, what I’m currently mourning more than anything is the fact as a 22 year old, my only real ‘memories’ of the erstwhile Godfather of Punk date from watching I Love the 1970s and occasional features in the Sunday style supplements. In my very best Carrie voice, I couldn’t help but wonder… what does punk mean to us?

People of my generation have grown up with McLaren’s legend sitting in the corner like an aged aunt. An aunt bearing a striking resemblance to Vivienne Westwood, it must be said, but a misty shadow of something that was once brutally important but has been dulled with time and laboured legacy. And while it’s easy enough to listen to God Save the Queen and feel something of the original rawness, the same can’t really be said of the clothes. Those dark, DIY looks are still very much a part of fashion, especially this season, but when we’re buying it from ASOS rather than Camden market does it still count, or is the whole idea too sanitary to be truly rebellious?

Westwood and McLaren’s prerogative was to provoke. Their King’s Road boutique was called, in turn, Let it Rock, Too Fast to Live too Young to Die, and of course, the one that stuck, SEX. Marching the’70s briskly though Teddy Boy style, glam rock and into Pistols-era fetishwear and bondage gear (neatly sidestepping fair isle tank tops), the couple’s influence still litters our catwalks and high street today.

Bandage tops, latex leggings, all the leather-studs-and-chains paraphernalia that return readily to our wardrobes season after season, all of it is descended from their punk philosophy. But somewhere along the way, it seems to have lost its shock value. Grannies don’t faint when we get on the bus; they’re more likely to be eyeing up our carpet bag and sensible brogues.

Part of the issue, of course, is diffusion. If there’s one dominant aesthetic that emerged from the noughties (and most of the time it seemed that there was only one), it was eclecticism. We are pick-n-mix dressers. We rarely wear a look head to toe; instead we’re encouraged to shake it up. Leather and florals, slashed tights with cocktail dresses, we dress like walking taster platters and by default each style is diluted down to a point where, oh horror, it’s just about the clothes, not a world agenda. Anarchy has been replaced by apathy – less anger, more time to accessorise.

Then there’s the obvious oxymoron. When designers tell us punk is ‘in’, does it still count as punk? For unlike Andy Warhol a decade earlier, who embraced the commercial and consumer potential of his art, McLaren and Westwood were inherently anti-fashion. Possibly being an actual punk today isn’t looking like Alice Dellal, it’s going to the opposite end of the scale, ironing a crease down some khaki slacks and tying a sweater round your shoulders. Need I remind anybody of the John-Lydon-does-butter-advert fandango?

Then finally, there’s the sex to consider. Credit where credit is due, Vivienne Westwood still understands female sexuality like no other designer. She creates pieces that flaunt the female shape in extreme proportions, while still retaining an edginess, a twist that seems to say “I’m wearing this for me, not you, bucko”. But what of the S&M styling that made she and McLaren such legends?

Well, we still have it in abundance, but not so much the ripple of shock that was meant to accompany it. Mention should be made of course, to Joe Corre, McLaren and Westwood’s son, and the co-founder of upmarket lingerie brand Agent Provacateur, who has given fetishwear a whole new fashion status. But when ShinyStyle’s Andrea can wear her undies to a bar without anybody batting an eyelid, and tweenies can wear bandage leggings down to Debenhams with their mums (heck, when the mums can wear them too), even sexualised dressing doesn’t pack the punch it once did.

To say ‘punk has lost its power’ would be trite in the extreme, but until I get to the bottom of the myth that the be-mohawked chaps on Camden bridge are paid to stand there by the tourist board, I will remain jaded on the subject. Punk remains a crucial part of our musical heritage, but where fashion is concerned, I think it needs to slot neatly into the filing cabinet of references alongside so many other revolutionary movements. So RIP Malcolm. You led a controversial life, and left a confusing legacy, but I imagine that’s exactly how you wanted it.

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  • rod

    Oh brother. You DO know that McLaren did a few things after his punk era don’t you?

  • Viv

    Yes, obviously. But this is an article about punk and fashion. The clue’s in the title.




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