Precursor to Punk: 1950s: Twist and Shout

In the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll gave birth to the “teenager,” whose main traits were a fondness for rebellion, and the desire to cultivate an identity separate from his/her parents. The sexually suggestive dance moves and raunchy lyrics of teen favorites like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard helped sow the seeds of the anti-establishment punk movement by making parents squirm as kids learned to do the twist. Twenty five years later, the idea of teenagers expressing their rebellion through clothes and music formed the basis of the punk rock revolution.

Precursor to Punk: Early 1960s: I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones flouted convention with their aggressive antics and overtly sexual lyrics. Their hit song, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” lambasted commercial advertising and graphically described unrequited male needs. With their outrageous hairstyles and costumes, the Stones set the stage for punk rock’s dress code violations.

Precursor to Punk: 1960s: I Hope I Die Before I Get Old

British band the Who formed in 1964 and released the song “My Generation” in 1965. With lyrics like “I hope I die before I get old,” “My Generation” communicated the idea of a significant generation gap, with hostility on both sides. It was one of the most potent messages of youth rebellion ever produced. Written as an anthem for a group of alienated British teens called Mods, the mood of the track was a precursor to punk.

Kicking Off: MC5

The Motor City Five, a hard rock band from Detroit, emerged in 1964 and served as inspiration for numerous punk bands. Their bold guitar rifts, aggressive sound and blunt, confrontational lyrics like “kick out the jams, motherfucker!” shocked the music industry, but also prepared it for what was to come.

Daddy Of Them All: Iggy Pop

James Newell Osterberg Jr., better know as Iggy Pop, is often called “the Godfather of Punk.” As lead singer of the Stooges, Pop’s onstage antics—such as smearing raw meat on his chest, mutilating his body with broken bottles and jumping off stage into the audience—inspired many imitators.

Building Bridges: Velvet Underground

Even though their commercial success was limited, the Velvet Underground, an American band that formed in 1965, had a significant impact on the music scene of the 1970s and developed a cult following. They bridged the gap between the swinging ’60s and the anarchy of the ’70s punk movement, with songs about everything from transvestites to heroin addiction. The band, which was managed by Andy Warhol, got its name from The Velvet Underground, Michael Leigh’s book about sadomasochism, a copy of which was found by lead singer Lou Reed when he moved into his New York City apartment.

1970s: Birth Of A Movement

On both sides of the Atlantic, disenchanted white teenagers were frustrated by the constraints of mainstream society. Poor socioeconomic climates in London and New York turned many people against the chichi egoism of ’60s bands, and, in 1971, the New York Dolls and Suicide formed as a backlash against the Beatles and the Stones. They started playing at the Hotel Diplomat, the Mercer Arts Center, and Max’s Kansas City. Performer Richard Hell wore ripped tops bearing the slogan “Please kill me,” boosting punk’s fondness for subversive t-shirts. The fanzine, Punk, started in 1975 and was credited with first coining the term.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: CBGB

The bar/club CBGB, located at 315 Bowery in New York City, opened in 1973 and quickly became a punk rock haven. The venue’s full name—CBGB OMFUG—stands for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers (voracious eaters). Founded by Hilly Kristal, the nightspot became famous as the birthplace of American punk. In 1974, the Ramones, Television, the Dictators and other CBGB regulars helped punk to coalesce as a movement.

A Band Apart: Sex Pistols

Punk’s biggest band, the Sex Pistols, needs no introduction. In their early days, the band hung out at the Let It Rock clothing shop on the Kings Road and befriended shop owner Malcolm McLaren. McLaren became the group’s manager, changed the name of his shop to SEX and named the band Sex Pistols as a tribute to the boutique. The band took musical cues from the New York Dolls and the Ramones, but the lyrics to songs like “God Save The Queen” reflected distinctly British preoccupations. Band members Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious quickly became the most infamous men in music.

The Architects: McLaren and Westwood

Malcolm McLaren and his business- and life-partner Vivienne Westwood may have been the parents of punk rock. Some claim that the Sex Pistols were merely McLaren’s puppets. Whether that’s true is debatable: what’s clear is that McLaren helped to create anti-establishment movements that had lasting effects in the U.S. and the U.K., and Westwood’s designs brought punk’s subversive style to the forefront of fashion.

Punk’s Poet Laureate: Patti Smith

Patti Smith rose to fame in 1975 and gave punk a literary touch. Her debut album, Horses, melded poetry with hardcore rock, and her introductory lyrics declared the arrival of an uncompromising talent: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

Work In Protest: The Clash

The Clash, an English group that formed in 1976, peddled their passionate left wing political idealism and protested against the monarchy, the upper classes and consumerism in the U.K. They gave an eloquent voice to a disenfranchised generation through their rebellious music and, with their fondness for reggae, they sowed the seeds for the two tone movement that was to come (Madness, Specials, English Beat…).

Look Sharp (and Spiky): Punk Style

In the 1970s, the stereotypical punk was emaciated with spiky, dyed black hair shaped into a Mohawk. He sported t-shirts plastered with profane slogans, a black leather jacket, a dog collar around his neck, safety pins through his clothes, facial piercings and steel-toed boots. This wasn’t just a style of dress; punk was (and to some still is) a lifestyle. Everything about punk opposes mainstream middle-class values and is intended to cause discomfort to those who witness it (and perhaps, in the case of the piercings, to those who embody it).

The Punk Dress Code

  • Bondage trousers
  • Ripped fishnet tights
  • Studded or spiked jewelry
  • Leather or denim jacket
  • Body piercings
  • Band names or symbols written on clothing with Magic Marker

Death Of A Star: Sid and Nancy

Sid Vicious (born John Simon Ritchie-Beverly), the Sex Pistols’ bass player, is believed to have killed his girlfriend, American groupie Nancy Spungen (a.k.a. “Nauseating Nancy”), in room 100 of New York’s Hotel Chelsea. On the morning of October 12, 1978, Sid snapped out of a drug-induced bender to find Nancy stabbed to death on the bathroom floor. Sid denied killing her. The event spawned a host of conspiracy theories, and the Hotel Chelsea became punk rock’s mausoleum. In February 1979, after recently completing rehab, Vicious overdosed on cocaine given to him by his mother. His death served as a metaphor for the end of punk’s prominence.

Punk’s Not Dead: The Legacy

Thirty years after the Sex Pistols broke up, it’s not unusual to see clusters of teenagers dressed in black, wearing bondage pieces and safety pins on St. Mark’s Place in New York City (where such items are sold) or in Middle American malls. Bands ranging from Green Day to the Libertines show that the punk rock movement has had a lasting affect on music and fashion. Sugarcoated singers like Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson ape punk style to boost their credibility, and the skinny jeans that seem to be sprayed on to the legs of the high-fashion set also harken back to the days of punk.

The Personal Is Political: Plastic Punks

Bob Mould, of influential post-punk band Hüsker Dü, says, “Punks today are so concerned about what spikes or boots they’re going to wear next weekend that they don’t think there can be political implications in music. On the other hand, you see someone wearing a swastika on one shoulder and an anarchy symbol on the other and they don’t realize that the two contradict one another.” Mould was “anti-fashion,” and thought that fashion would take away from the music’s message. As an act of protest, he would play wearing plain white T-shirts—a look now more commonly associated with rappers.

The Factions

Punk spawned several sub-groups, each with its own dress code:

Contemporary Hardcore punk rockers typically wear jeans and a band T-shirt or hoodie.

Crust Punk rockers often sport tight black pants or camouflage shorts covered in patches, a black T-shirt or vest, and a studded black belt.

Deathrock/Horror Punk is similar to goth fashion. It’s a more risqué version of punk. Corsets, bustiers, fishnets and heavy horror makeup increase the sex factor.

Skate Punk kids’ style consists of baggy, sagging jeans, up-turned baseball caps, hoodies and skate shoes.

Grunge rockers are very casual and influenced by bands like Nirvana. Their uniform consists of flannel shirts, faded jeans, white T-shirts, utility boots and unwashed, scraggly hair.

Hardcore Emo fans typically wear tight black jeans, white belts, and a carabiner on their belt loop. Fans of this look often listen to brutal, punk-influenced bands like Some Girls.

Today’s Pop Punksters sport heavy black eyeliner, Dickies or skinny jeans, Converse sneakers, and studded belts. Their style is influenced by the third wave punk movement, which includes bands like Good Charlotte and Green Day.

Tight Fit: The Punk Silhouette

Many top fashion designers, such as Hedi Slimane and Jean Paul Gaultier, use elements of punk (slim lines, tapered legs and leather pants) in their collections, bringing punk even further into the mainstream, particularly when their designs are worn by popular bands like Franz Ferdinand.

From Anti to Establishment: Punk At The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2006 Costume Institute ball had AngloMania as its theme, celebrating the launch of an exhibition that pays tribute to British designers and fashion icons from the past 30 years. Punk’s grande dame Vivienne Westwood stole the show at the gala reception with hot pink hair, killer red stilettos and a wrap fashioned out of the British flag—proving that rebellion is always en vogue.