The following interview is with my former colleague from Worn Through, the delightful and insightful Monica Sklar. Monica’s book Punk Style (Bloomsbury) was recently released; I asked her a few questions about this fun and important topic in fashion’s social history.
What, if any, is your personal connection to punk?
I’ve been associated with the punk subculture since adolescence in one form or another. The specific punk scenes I was most connected to were hardcore in the 1990s, riot grrrl, and a general college rock/alt rock/dark wave/goth vibe. There are many subgenres, and I’ve woven in and out of lots of the scenes that either call themselves punk (in one way or another) or are correlated subcultures, such as the scooter scene, the rave scene, the indie and garage rock scenes, etc. In Detroit, where I grew up, there were definitely divisions among the people in each scene; however many of the meeting places overlapped and the subcultures influenced and impacted each other through overlapping participants and experiences. I was always a very involved participant, playing in bands, working at boutiques, wardrobe styling for bands, assisting photo shoots for designers, and organizing many events including some large-scale (for the underground) festivals in the late 1990s. I was early to the online scene and traveled a considerable amount, and therefore I’ve met a lot of people in the scene and kept in touch with many people– which came in very handy for the book research.
What do you think are some of the most common popular misconceptions / inaccuracies about punk?
There are three misconceptions that immediately come to mind:
- that you have to dress iconically punk to be punk (there are tons of styles and subtle cues that are punk, and the book emphasizes it is very much in the wearer’s opinion if they are punk not in the specifics of their dress;
- that if you are dressed punk that you are, in fact, punk (you might not be at all; it can be all trend and devoid of meaning, except the meaning of being part of the mass culture);
- that punk is exclusively for the young; the book discusses how many have aged and still incorporate punk aesthetics and ideals into their lives.
Why do you think punk fashion has endured over generations?
I think the fact punk style is more about the meaning than the specific aesthetics has been its key to longevity. Sure there are iconic elements, especially those associated with the looks coming out of England in the 1970s; however, punk has morphed and changed repeatedly and brought in many new garments and body styles over the years to reflect each important style leader, each new scene it’s become correlated to, or perhaps a new geographic region, sport, or music style that has come to the forefront of punk for that time period. Punk style embraces concepts about individual expressiveness, subcultural community, and a division with the status quo. How these things are manifested in dress can be quite flexible.
Why is fashion important to the history of punk? What do you think style communicates about punk that is difficult or impossible to communicate in other ways?
Fashion has always been a huge aspect of punk. In some areas, such as 1970s England, the artists and designers were leading the movement and really showcased the social and political ideas of the time prior to the bands taking off. The States also had strong visual elements right off-the-bat, and were very purposeful in choices even if they were rooted in street style functionality more so than designer-led. Each subgenre and progression of punk has had its own take on what punk style is to them. The fact it has continued to evolve highlights how important it is to have a relevant visual that connects people and expresses their experiences. In the book, I write about how many people get involved in punk in their youth, and fashion is a way they can express their feelings about their placement in society and society as a whole. As they age, dress may be a less pertinent way to get these ideas across, because they have their career and family lives to demonstrate their views. But fashion is a crucial way for people to initially get ideas across, and once they have this tool it tends to stick with them in one way or another forever, at least in the form of subtle cues. By studying the style of punk, one can learn a lot about the people themselves and what was important to them.
How has punk ethos and style been commodified by the mainstream– both high fashion and fast fashion? Has punk as a movement been diluted as a result, or are there other consequences?
There’s actually an entire chapter of the book that deals with how punk styles are created, produced, distributed and their relationship to mainstream channels. It’s a pretty complicated relationship with more ebb-and-flow than to just say “punk style rejects the mainstream” or “the mainstream co-opts and corrupts punk style.” I will acknowledge though that punk styles frequently push more boundaries of the current norm than mainstream styles do, and when a punk style appropriates something from the mainstream it’s often imbued with social commentary. When the punk style then peaks within the mass market, it is frequently as part of the fashion cycle of semi-functional clothes, driven by celebs, youth trends, or even retail/finance-led. This version of similar garments lacks the cultural critique or necessity that made the original shapes “punk.” Distressed clothes with rips and safety pins is an example of a garments going back and forth and back around again throughout the fashion cycles and in and out of the mainstream and underground.
Whose work– designer, celebrity, academic, etc.– has illuminated some particularly significant aspect of punk style for you?
Ted Polhemus’s book Streetstyle (and, to a lesser degree, his book Style Surfing) was a bible to me while styling bands and learning about subcultures that were influencing me. I memorized Streetstyle, and am so thrilled to now call him a colleague and friend and his endorsement on the back of Punk Style is very meaningful to me. I also really felt Valerie Steele’s Fetish was an early model for me back during my bachelor’s, and was a book that showed me how to take an underground subject and dive into it thoroughly and with respect.
Academically I’ve had many influences and mentors in the study of dress and culture, and going to the University of Minnesota was a very good place to explore that in depth. Otherwise, mainstream celebs were never really my thing, but I was always intrigued by scenes and small communities and what and who made them tick, including their fashion sense. The 1950s beats, ’60s Swinging London, John Waters crew, the early CBGB’s group were all frequently on my mind, and when I came into my own teens-and-early-20s, I was a part of my own small communities that had style leaders for sure.
Monica Sklar is the Editor and Founder of Worn Through. She has a Ph.D. in Design-Apparel Studies from the University of Minnesota, focused on Socio-cultural and behavioral aspects of dress; 20th/21st century design history, theory, and criticism; aesthetics, innovation & creativity; retailing and consumers, with Supporting Areas of Study including: Social movements, subculture, popular music, deviance, and visual culture.