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  • Isaac L. Davis

Punk and High Fashion: A Case Study in Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation

In fashion, stealing or borrowing ideas, practices, and styles from other cultures is nothing new, along with all the issues this stealing and or borrowing entail. However it is clear that there are two different ways of using ideas, practices, and styles from other cultures, with these different ways being appropriation, and appreciation. When a style is appropriated from a culture, it loses its allure and power to a degree if not completely, however when a style is appreciated and not appropriated it retains its allure to a large degree. To show this difference, I will be using the example of punk rock’s and punk rock offshoot genre’s styles and their appropriation and appreciation in high fashion.

In order from first slide to last slide: Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Stooges.

To fully understand the history and appropriation of punk rock styles within high fashion, it is necessary to understand a basic history of the classic punk rock style that has spawned multiple offshoot punk genres and subcultures. Before punk fully took off in New York City in the mid 70’s there were a variety of proto-punk acts that helped to pioneer the initial wave of punk rock’s style. Acts such as Iggy and the Stooges, Iggy Pop, The New York Dolls, The Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed, among others. Building off of the developments of the proto-punk scenes of New York City along with bands migrating in from the Midwest, the first wave of punk would come to fruition within New York City with acts and musicians such as Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, and the Ramones having the most influence on the evolution of punk rock’s style. In particular Richard Hell of the CBGB’s scene had an outsized effect on the punk rock “look”. With torn t-shirts, safety pins, and sharpied graphics slogans such as “Please Kill Me”, Hell formed the first coherent punk rock look that would go on to inspire Malcom McLaren(former manager of the New York Dolls) and eventually Vivienne Westwood of England.

Right: “SEX” boutique at 430 King's Road, London between 1974 and 1976.

Left: Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood in 1972 photo shoot by David Parkinson.

McLaren and Westwood’s shop SEX would come to form the nebulous of the then forming punk scene in London. Already known for Anti-Fashion(Ie clothes that are shocking or otherwise unfashionable) and extremely offensive designs, the shop acted as a meeting ground for artists, aspiring rockers, drop outs, drug addicts, and everything in between. From this shop many different designs of shirts, t-shirts, sex toys, bondage pants, BDSM gear, other assorted garments and accessories were sold to the burgeoning punk scene. The most memorable of the products sold is undoubtedly the graphic t-shirts which featured shocking prints such as women's bare breasts, swastikas with an upside down Jesus superimposed over them, and Mickey Mouse mainlining heroin. From this milque the classic idea of what “punk” looks like was born, with the two designers and staff piling their own stylistic flares onto the NYC scene’s look. From here, with the end of the first wave of punk rock, many different punk sub-genres and styles would come about, with certain cultural differences arising between genres and geographical areas.

1970s London Punk Scene.

Since the 1980’s, Punk rock style and the style’s of genres associated with punk rock have been plucked from concert venues and squats then put onto fashion runways world over. However, not all punk rock inspired shows are created equal, with some paying tribute to punk rock and its acolytes, resulting in spectacular and lauded collections, and others appropriating the style’s for profit, often to less than rave reviews. In particular two cases of this appreciation vs appropriation of punk and associated genre’s styles comes to mind. In these two examples I hope to illustrate why appropriating a culture’s style often proves to be underwhelming, while appreciating and participating in a culture’s style, spirit, and ideas often make for much more powerful art.

Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 1993 Collection.

The first runway show we will examine is Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 1993 fashion show for Perry Ellis, which shows how appropriative works are often underwhelming, opting for commercial viability over fidelity to the inspiration. As Dick Hebdige writes on page 96 of his book Subculture:

"Once removed from their private contexts by the small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce them on a mass scale, they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise."

I however go a step further, and argue that this is also in part a tell tale sign of appropriation as well, with the choice to opt for mass marketability inevitably causes the product to be watered down, in the process losing its allure and essence. I will quibble somewhat with this however. I think that by keeping a fidelity to the culture that one draws inspiration from, items, styles, and messages can remain incomprehensible, while still retaining a degree of profitability.

Featuring models strutting down the runway in looks that were vaguely grunge(if at all), the show was nearly universally looked down upon by reviewers. After the show, selected pieces were sent to Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, who promptly burned almost all of it. Given the looks featured on the runway, it's easy to see why this collection did not have as much power as the inspiration it drew from. The collection lacked the subversive elements of grunge, in particular the challenging of gender norms, and the willingness to be shocking. For example this image of Courtney Love and compare it to one of the more “grungy” looks from the Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis runway show.

Very clearly, on the left Courtney Love is dressed in a way that challenges traditional American ideas of femininity and how a woman should act. By labeling herself as a “slut” and a “witch” she is essentially pronouncing herself as being in opposition to traditional American gender norms and values. On the right a model wears merely a see through dress and lace cardigan which, while clearly inspired by grunge style, does nothing to incorporate what makes grunge style so interesting in the first place. The look on the right does nothing to challenge traditional ideas of femininity, gender, or otherwise make a statement beyond a stylistic one.

In these looks and others from the 1993 show, Marc Jacobs appropriated the style of grunge, but in doing so completely lost what made it so powerful and alluring to begin with. What made grunge’s style so powerful to begin with was that it stood in opposition to traditional American gender norms and capitalist cycles of consumption. In place of these traditional American concepts, the style associated with grunge offered up do it yourself, recycled garments in conjunction with a complete dismissal of traditional gender norms. Marc Jacobs failed to provide either of these tantalizing factors, opting instead to merely offer up more consumption, and relatively gender conforming grunge tinted clothes. In this way, Jacobs 93 show proves to be an excellent example of what usually happens when designers appropriate styles and aesthetics from various cultures. The designer copies the forms of the subculture they are taking ideas from, without actually capturing the essence of said forms and subculture.

In contrast to the appropriation of Marc Jacobs grunge show, as discussed above, there are clear examples of designers appreciating punk style and culture. One runway show in particular stands out as a shining example of a designer appreciating punk rock style, and culture, with that show being Undercover’s Spring/Summer 2003 show “SCAB” in Paris. In 2002, with the war on terror just beginning and the events of 9/11 still fresh in the minds of everyone, Jun Takahashi, founder of the cult label Undercover, was preparing for his debut show at Paris Fashion Week. With debuting at Paris Fashion Week often being viewed as a critical point in any designer's career, it would come as a shock to the audience what Takahashi had planned. As I wrote previously for Archive PDF in my article “Eras of Undercover'':

“Instead of shying away from current events and popular opinion, Undercover feasted on the forbidden fruit, and had their most political and timely season as a result, with even models in burkas ending the extremely political show. The show's political statements were much more than simply showing models in burkas, however, with many of the tee shirts having anarchist imagery and the season itself being centered around radical anarchist politics — in particular anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-environmental exploitation.”

In doing this Takahashi made his mark, with the show being considered one of, if not his best so far at Undercover. Beyond just making waves with critics, the season was a commercial success. Even today pieces from SCAB still draw interest from those in the high fashion community, with certain pieces still fetching anywhere from 200-2,000 dollars on Grailed. This cultural staying power is due in part to a few things, such as war etc still being relevant topics in today's political discourse. However the main source of power behind SCAB is the fact that it is not merely a hollow copy of what crust punk and anarcho-punk is. Takahashi fully appreciated the culture he took inspiration from, on top of participating in it. In this way Takahashi ensured that the SCAB show and collection was not only stylistically punk but was also infused with the spirit and raw essence of the culture he took inspiration from.

Undercover S/S03 ‘Scab’ Runway show.

I think from these two case studies, a compelling argument can be made that appropriative works of fashion that merely copy the forms of another culture, without having what makes those forms interesting, makes for much, much weaker forms of art. As Greene and Kaiser write in their piece entitled Fashion and Appropriation “at a foundational level, appropriation begins with imitation – that is, imitation of another time, place, people or subject position.”(Green and Kaiser) This is in line with the argument presented in this paper relating to appropriation vs appreciation, in which appropriation is truly a mere imitation. This lies in stark contrast to works that appreciate a culture, and how these works tend to be in line with the values and forms of the culture that provided inspiration.

While certainly no longer (and never really) a truly oppressed culture, punk and its various offshoots provide excellent examples of how fashion designers and labels appropriate styles from a variety of cultures, many of which are much more systematically oppressed or exploited than any punk or punk offshoot. In these cases, the appropriated cultures style is watered down, till all that's left is a vague imitation. While this may prove profitable, it is nowhere near as artistically or culturally powerful as works by designers and labels that merely appreciate, and build off the cultures they draw inspiration from. The reason for this is these collections are imbued with the essence of that culture, which serves to make the shows, garments and other pieces in the collections all the more interesting. When works that appropriate other cultures are put head to head with works that are inspired by, and appreciate other cultures, it is simply no contest. The imitation shall forever bow to the original.

Visual Content Sourcing: Felix R.


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