Photos in gallery are by Dod Morrison and Richard Nixon
Leg warmers. Neon. Perms. What do all these things have in common? You guessed it…..the 80s! Whilst 1970s punk style sought to create shock and awe, 1980s consumerism meant that more products than ever were available to those wishing to customise their style. As a result, fashion went all over the place as the once (relatively) unified punk scene splintered into a thousand shards, all with their own key looks. Fashion in the 80s was more colourful than its 70s counterpart with a much wider range of garments available and as a result, there was no end to the mash ups, matches and messes that could be created!
The 1980s was undoubtedly a decade of tumultuous politics and regrettable fashion choices but beneath the stereotype of shoulder pads and tracksuits there were innovative and bold fashion movements that either sat comfortably within punk itself or certainly borrowed from it. Here are some of the most dominant looks.
Mohawks and ‘charged hair’– Whilst 70s punk took a generally more austere approach to hair (favouring short cuts on both men and women) the 80s allowed a bit more room for manoeuvre for both sexes. Long hair just whimsically floating past your shoulders may have been a bit too hippy even in the 80s, so something had to be done to style rogue strands. And so, styles like the mohawk and ‘charged hair’ (when all your hair stands on end like you’ve been electrocuted) became popular- keep it short on the sides but build up instead of out with the rest of it.
As you can gather from its name, the mohawk is a traditional Native American hairstyle and as such has been around for a long time amongst traditional tribes. Whilst the 80s punk scene helped bring the style onto the UK streets, this was not the first time the Western world had borrowed the look. American GIs wore the style in the Second World War to intimidate enemy combatants and the style was also popular amongst fringe Jazz musicians in the 1950s.
Devilocks were also popular in the US thanks to Horror punk bands such as the Misfits. A devilock is one long, flat spike pulled down over the face. This was particularly popular amongst American skateboarders and Glenn Danzig of The Misfits has stated in interviews that he was inspired to don his version of it by Eddie Munster, thus cementing the bands commitment to horror references.
Boots: Combat, military and Dr Martens were the most common boot choice in 80s punk, for both men and women. The brand Dr Martens has been a staple of almost every major youth movement in the UK since they were first introduced here in 1960 (the company had been going since 1947 in Germany and other parts of the world but the Northamptonshire factory where they are still made was opened in 1960). Skinheads, punks, grunge, goth…..all have been known to ‘don a Doc’ which is a testament to how versatile and enduring the design is.
Crust punk: Not the most appetizing of names for this cohort of punks but that’s the term given to those in this punk/folk fusion. Crust punk has many of the hallmarks that are associated with the general punk look and some of these aspects are still pretty popular today, particularly with the resurgence of environmental activism. Crust punk originated in the UK (widely cited as being Bristol specifically) but still has very strong followers in the US, particularly in New York. Crust punks sported a dishevelled look that sought to communicate their anti-capitalist, pro-environment and animal rights agenda. To that end, many of their clothes were made from materials that were ethically sourced (before that was such a widespread thing) such as hemp or faux leather, with hair fashioned into dreadlocks negating the need to waste water by frequently washing it. Look to bands like Disorder, Lunatic Fringe and even Chumbawumba for a bit of crusty goodness.
Goth: Goth was the exception to the garish dandy look of some 80s subcultures with a colour palette that was decidedly dark. Whilst describing Goth as simply black is obviously incredibly simplistic, it’s also not a bad place to start. It’s been 30+ years since Goth first appeared as a popular fashion movement in the UK and yet you would be hard pressed to find one town/village/street corner in the UK that doesn’t have at least one teenage Goth hovering round it. By 1981, the New Wave, erm……….wave(?) had started to take over where punk was tapering off. New Wave fashion was considered by some to be a bit fancy– ruffled shirts; floppy hair and colourful make up and accessories- so some sought to find their own niche that was far removed from this frivolity. Goth subculture focused (at least aesthetically) on the morbid, the grotesque and the……black. If you hung around original UK Goth club The Batcave in London’s Dean Street, you would have spotted all the ingredients that make up a classic Goth look- mesh and lace, dyed black hair, Christian paraphernalia (think crosses, rosary beads etc); velvet; pale face and black make up. Leather jackets were also popular in this look creating a cultural bridge to the punks who were sporting the garment at the same time. Sexiness was accepted- corsets and fishnets were juxtaposed with occult imagery to create a jarring subversion of traditional feminine sex appeal. Goth took off like a rabid crow on both sides of the Atlantic and the look was adhered to by fans of many different genres of music such as punk; metal; indie, deathrock and Horror punk.
Dressed down hardcore: On the complete opposite end of the spectrum looks-wise from the overtly adorned crust punks and elaborately coiffured New-Wavers, you had the basic look of the American 80s hardcore scene. Jeans, basic t-shirts, short hair and hooded sweatshirts were the building blocks of this look. Looking ultra-casual was multi-purpose: it was anti-fashion in the truest sense of the word; it was low maintenance, so anyone could afford it and also provided comfort during all the ultra-hectic early hardcore shows. That early scene became known for the level of violence at gigs and when brawling in the pit you may soon find rubber pants and a 2-foot mohawk more of a hindrance than a help. The ethos of the early hardcore scene was a rejection of anything seen as bourgeois or pretentious and so bands like Black Flag, Descendants and Circle Jerks made a conscious decision to separate themselves from the UK punk scene.
Tartan: Look up 80s punk fancy dress costumes and you are likely to find some element of tartan incorporated into it, such is the connection between the two. And it’s true, tartan was a big part of 80s punk and new wave fashion. The utility of wearing tartan was to signal ones’ discontent and rejection of the ruling class and authority as tartan (until that point) was heavily associated with military pomp and ceremony, thus punks wearing it was a subversion. Of course, it could also have been a rebuff of Scottish pop band Bay City Rollers. I guess we’ll never know. Tartan is still a key staple of the American pop punk look as is its close cousin Plaid.
So, whilst the 1980s is often derided as the decade that style forgot, a lot of the trends mentioned above still endure to this day. For every dozen Flashdance fans in leg warmers and sweatbands, there were a mixture of Goths, New Romantics and patch emblazoned Crust punks all blazing a trail in identity fashion which made the UK a bit of a hub of key trends and creativity.
Alas, these new looks were to face a challenge from the cultural revolution that came in the 1990s. Grunge, Riot Grrl and Pop Punk brought new brands, styles and attitudes such as skater wear; body painted slogans and Courtney Love’s ‘Kinderwhore’ motif.
Read our next feature to get the low down on those looks!