The History of Leather Part 27 – Punk

Posted on 05/08/14

The birth and rise of punk (1970s-1980s)

Born as the antidote to glam rock at the height of its excess and foppishness, if glam rock was a bright-eyed, precocious teenager, then punk was a brooding, sullen adolescent.

A subculture effectively founded upon the principles that made James Dean and Steve McQueen so captivating, punk was grounded, scruffy, working class, while glam was conceited, self-conscious and elegant.

If anything, punk was downright confrontational in its desire to separate itself from the glam herd. Their prized leather jackets became blank canvases for band patches and deliberately offensive slogans and iconography. In fact, punk’s embracing of leather wasn’t restricted to leather jackets alone. The punk era saw a triumphant resurgence in leather accessorising. Leather skirts, trousers and pants, spiked leather armbands, military boots and Dr. Martens were all part of the collective punk repertoire.

Leather wasn’t the only item on the menu, though. A punk clad in leather was perhaps the best-case scenario for a punk encounter. Toilet chains, bin bags – you name it, it was fair game in the world of punk fashion, as were PVCs and plastics in the most lurid of designs.

Leather allowed punks to channel their working class roots, as punks were wearing the same boots or jackets that honest-to-goodness factory workers and soldiers working the frontlines were sporting. Just with a few spikes, studs, razor blades and inverted crucifixes thrown in for good measure. The rest… well, that was purely in accordance with Vivienne Westwood’s notion of ‘confrontation dressing’, whether punks knew it or not.

Just like the greasers before them, there is a potential contradiction at the core of punk fashion. The punks wanted to avoid the pretentiousness and pomp of glam, right. They did so by embracing working class fashion, and adorning that garb with consciously confrontational messages and symbols. Surely the very notion of constructing a confrontational exterior is a pretension in itself, no?

Digressions aside, the overall picture of the punk scene was one of simplicity – that, we can agree on. The beauty of the punk movement was its commitment to that tenet, letting it carry through to the music itself. You could say it was deliberate, or you could say it was punk bands making the most of a bare-minimum level of proficiency with their instruments, but punk music often comprises a Hadrian’s Wall of guitar chords in rapid-fire succession, topped off with rambunctious drumming and vocals entirely bereft of actual melody or craftsmanship.

Whichever belief you subscribe to, the message is clear, as summed up by the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, the emphasis was on “chaos, not music”. This carried through to the punk scene’s hectic soundtrack as well as its, shall we say varied, wardrobe underpinned with leather staples of the working class world.

(Header image: courtesy of photographer Simon Edwards)

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