A Comparison of Classical Punk & Contemporary Rockabilly Female Fashion

The Rock ’n’ Roll and Alternative Market in Tempe was a sea of swinging kittens jiving out to Elvis Presley in their sky-high patent pumps, skin-tight pencil skirts, flirty sweetheart tops and of course, cherry-red lips. Most of the female rockabillies were sucked into their Sydney subculture through this stereotypical 1950s style. Pia Anderson of Vintage Allsorts, a performance based production agency that specializes in vintage culture, says her passion for rockabilly started when she started working at a fancy dress shop at 15: “I found myself going back through the decades and when I finally reached the 50s I was completely hooked.”  Anderson believes the 1950s style “epitomizes the most attractive features of period design: bold shapes, bright colors, brave patterns, and above all sheer exuberance and a sense of fun…my passion for the 1950s is about the aesthetics and also an appreciation for the etiquette, manners and the simple pleasures that were not taken for granted as the slower pace of life meant that people had time to enjoy them.” Anderson stresses her interest was a result of her thirst for luxury, extravagance, and glamour.

Candice DeVille, a vintage model from Melbourne who regularly does hair, makeup, and styling for the retro photography studio, Bexterity, says her style “has come to represent a whole new breed of fashionistas, bored with the offerings of the mass market and looking for a way to become a more vibrant and better version of their stylistic selves.”  DeVille says she only dresses casually, meaning gym clothes, at the gym “or en route–not picking up the shopping or hanging out for coffee…it is just that for me if I spend a day dressed like this I don’t feel like myself and that doesn’t make me happy….the only time you will find me in a dressing gown for the whole day I must be near death’s door with illness.”

Rockabilly/1950s style is about exaggerating feminine curves: petticoats, standout colors, loud prints, Mary Janes, porcelain skin, bright eyes, and flaming red lips—all of these attributes subconsciously are meant to entice men. There is a distinct element of sexual fantasy that contemporary female rockabillies feed into. Although Anderson and DeVille both do not fit into the stereotypical 1950s housewife role and disagree with its corresponding values, their roles as fashion models, makeup artists, hairdressers, singers, and fashion bloggers may be a modern day equivalent. The lack of an intellectual or pragmatic element to their work can be considered as frivolous as arranging flowers or baking chocolate chip cookies.

Another interesting subculture in terms of female fashion is the classical Australian punk scene from the 1970s. In just 20 years, female alternative fashion had changed tremendously. The most recognized version of punk style first broke in the United Kingdom with the Sex Pistols and their distinctly “offensive” and “threatening” sense of style. Punks would use “the most unremarkable and inappropriate items—a pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon” to create a customized anti-fashion statement.  Both men and women had become more androgynous: “conventional ideas of prettiness were jettisoned along with the traditional feminine lore of cosmetics…make-up for both boys and girls was worn to be seen.”  British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood at the time was known as “punk’s prototype,” with her aesthetic of “platinum blonde spiked hair, pale skin with dark lipstick, and wonderful little mini kilts with outsized bondage boots…punk was such a powerful statement. Kids were dyeing their hair pink, green, purple, putting safety pins through their cheeks, wearing chains and spikes.”  Westwood’s early designs were an “emancipation of sub-cultural style” and “parody of pornography and sex-shop dressing [that] was central to the whole of punk fashion for women…bondage dress allowed women express the crudest will to sexual power, or, indeed to sexual victimization, while preserving a central ambiguity…they looked like prostitutes but were not. They were women but were not ‘feminine,’ ‘tarty’ but not tarts.”

In regards to music, the British and Australian punk scenes were very dissimilar: “In Britain, punk incorporated a good deal of hooliganism and choreographed violence (kicking, spitting, cursing, bootboy fashion) and aimed its ‘to hell be damned’ outrage at the overfat megarockers (Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, etc.). In Melbourne, however, post-punkers battled an entertainment industry and media diseased with homophobic tendencies and a Hotel California-inspired senility—the older, ‘discerning’ listener was replacing the teenager as the new market.”  The Australian punk bands, like The Saints, had almost entirely conflicting strategies with their British counterparts, such as the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols exploited their rage and desire of “fucking up the record industry and creating a new, disobedient cultural consumer;” while The Saints articulated their hatred of the being part of a country where “the condition of the individual living in a stagnating colony poised between two imperialist cultures—Britain and America—and a victim of both” in songs like “Ostralia.”

But the Australian punk movement was less fashion-oriented and more of a ‘middle-class thing,’ music writer Nazz says “They [British punks] created a kind of cartoon punk, with the mohawks, safety pins and piercings. Australia picked up on that a bit, but generally speaking, we had a much more individual, natural approach Australian punk band The Saints were considered to be “overlooked sulky adolescents, their dress suburban and downbeat: no dyed hair, no safety pins.”  The punks at the Crystal Ballroom scene in Melbourne were commonly described as “a ‘funeral party’ because of the preponderance of black makeup, black clothes, dim lighting and morose facial expressions.”  Bruce Milne, owner of Au-Go-Go records also admits that the punks had “a bit of a uniform” that avoided blue jeans along with other popular fashion trends, “so it was largely that we’d wear black.”  Punk style was also seen as “home-made” and “do-it-yourself” resulting in a “messy, unkempt, and exaggerated look…a kind of urban ragamuffin. Sexy, skinny, but not simply to be there to be looked at.”

Vikki Riley describes her preparation before frequenting the Crystal Ballroom as a teenager in 1979: “I dyed my short cropped hair blue/black and scoured opportunity shops for black clothes, very old, often shapeless and decrepit. I avoided sunlight and other healthy pursuits…after careful preening—stabbing lit cigarettes into black tights, cutting off hems of skirts to manufacture raw edges, continually reapplying black kohl around the eyes, white pancake makeup and blood red/purple lipstick—we would venture out into the night: a mad dash on public transport to the safety of the ballroom in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda.”  But most of the Crystal Ballrooms clientele did not fit the exuberant punk rock style: “Nobody, not even the Boys Next Door, looked like rock stars in the conventional sense that they stood out or dressed up different.”  Instead the “waif-like” crowd chose to depict themselves as “egocentric art stars, actors, and poets” that hoarded Kafka paperbacks as proof of their intellectual prowess.

The punks were more concerned about portraying themselves as “aloof,” romantic artistes consumed with the obsession of “a fantasy of living out a drama of ‘art in the making’” rather than hipsters who strategically planned every outfit.  Punk in Australia became the worship of the “doomed anti-heroes” of domestic bands like The Saints, Jab, X-Ray, The Boys Next Door, Negatives, Teenage Radio Stars, Survivors, and Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party.

It is important to consider the role of women in punk rock not just as consumers but also as creators. Janie Clifton, former singer for the Melbourne mix-gender band Stiletto, said “Women who are in rock ’n’ roll have one job to do: what the men want them to do…I used to think women could make it in rock ’n’ roll—of course they can play and sing as good as anyone else and in their own style. But nobody wants to know about it. I think any self-respecting woman shouldn’t have anything to do with rock ‘n’ roll.”  Vicki Gordon, artistic director of Australian Women’s Contemporary Music Inc. said “the industry is still run by men,” ranging from the owners of major record labels, music publishing companies, record producers, sound engineers, and performers in general.  Vivien Johnson, author of “Be My Woman Rock ‘n’ Roll”, argues that Ari Up, vocalist for the all-girl punk band The Slits was refusing to affirm her objectification as a female rocker when she crouched down wearing only a T-shirt in front of a predominantly male audience during a performance. Up dives into the crowd and instead of grabbing at her, the audience backs away, which “implicitly recognises the sexual reification of women in rock on which its machismo depends. When the woman refuses to affirm their objectifications—no longer presents herself as the (sex) slave—the master is left helpless, alienated from his own identity as the dominant player.” Wendy ‘O’ Williams of The Plasmatics would often perform “clad mainly in shaving cream, making what were described in media reports as ‘obscene’ masturbatory gestures. Her intention, she said, was ‘to end sexism in rock ‘n’ roll’: ‘It’s cathartic—usurping the male role…taking the dominant role. What we’re aiming for is a mixture of fear and sex that gives such an orgasmic rush.’”   This notion of being half-naked to liberate yourself from a man is ridiculous. If a pant-less front man dove into a mixed gendered crowd, the audience would most likely react the same way as they did to a female—they would back away. These women were exploiting their sexuality in order to gain recognition in the music industry; in under a year “The Plasmatics rose from being the opening act at New York’s CBGB’s to headlining at the 3000-seat Palladium: ‘It was more exciting than the time I was getting fucked while hanging over the edge of a 36-storey building,” Williams said.  The world was shocked with “their assertion of an independent female sexuality” but today it comes across as “cold, calculated obscenity” and a desperate act for attention.

Not only did the women of the punk rock revolution exploit themselves, but also the subject matter of the music itself often was misogynistic. Historically, “punk is regarded as a liberating time for women, a moment in which the limits of permissible representations of femininity were expanded and exploded. Women were free to uglify themselves, to escape the chanteuse role to which they were generally limited and pick up guitars and drumsticks, to shriek rather than coo in dulcet tones, to deal with hitherto taboo topics.”  However, the content of some of the most commercially successful punk bands openly discussed their intense hatred of women. The Stranglers, whose first two albums sold a quarter of a million copies and had more Top Ten hits than any other ‘punk’ group in musical history, were known for their misogynistic lyrics. Their 1977 song “Sometimes” is about singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell hitting his girlfriend “as a protest against her behaviour.”  The bands hatred against women is also displayed in the song “Ugly” in which a man imagines strangling a girl after sex.  On their second album, the song “Bring on the Nubiles” is “a sex anthem whose chorus summons a faceless plurality of passively fuckable girls.”  Even the name “The Stranglers” is associated with the murder technique usually used on female victims.

Although the flirty rockabilly female style is bold and colorful, historically it is strategic in drawing the attention and acceptance of men. Female rockabilly style suggests the role of an updated 1950s housewife sans a provider husband and rosy-cheeked children, in a sense the rockabilly aesthetic, although fun can be considered a step backwards in a world where women fought for the right to wear jeans and a t-shirt like their male counterparts. On the contrary, the understated punk fashion of the 1970s was more interested in feigning depth with a drab lack of color, although some British punk style, like that of Vivienne Westwood and female-fronted bands concentrated on exploiting a women’s sexuality as liberation and some punk music also exploited women through their content, as The Stranglers did. Both subcultures fashion norms for women in some aspects, exploit the female population, women should be able to bake pastel cupcakes in high heels just for themselves, as well shriek and scream on stage just as loud as the boys, but with their clothes on.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Pia. E-mail interview. 23 Sept. 2010.
Clifton, Janie. ex-lead singer for Stiletto, in an interview with Radio 2JJ for International     Woman’s Day 1979

DeVille, Candice. “About SKM.” Super Kawaii Mama. 22 Sept. 2010     .

DeVille, Candice. “Will The Real SKM Please Stand Up? | Super Kawaii Mama.” Super     Kawaii Mama – A Glamorous Life Isn’t All Black and White. 22 Sept. 2010     .

Evans, Caroline, and Minna Thornton. “Fashion, Representation, Femininity.” Feminist     Review 38 (1991): 48-66. JSTOR. 22 Sept. 2010

Gordon, Vicki. artistic director of Australian Women’s Contemporary Music Inc. in an     interview with Vivien Johnson, Sydney 1991

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture the meaning of style. London: Routledge, 1979.

Johnson, Vivien. “Be my woman rock ‘n’ roll.” From pop to punk to postmodernism:     popular music and Australian culture from the 1960s to the 1990s. Sydney,     Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1992. 127-38.

Krell, Gene. Vivienne Westwood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

McRobbie, Angela. Feminism and youth culture: from ʻJackieʼ to ʻJust Seventeenʼ. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1991.

Milne, Bruce. Interview by Morgan Langdon.

Reynolds, Simon, and Joy Press. The sex revolts: gender, rebellion, and rock ‘n’ roll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. 33-35.

Riley, Vikki. “Death Rockers of the World Unite!: Melbourne 1978-80 – Punk Rock or no Punk Rock?” From Pop to Punk to Postmodernism: Popular Culture and Australian Culture from the 1960s to the 1990s. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992. 113-25.

 

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3 thoughts on “A Comparison of Classical Punk & Contemporary Rockabilly Female Fashion

    1. Hi Melynda,

      I am the author of this article. I used Morgan Landon’s interview with Bruce Milne as a source for this article. Here is the link to the quoted interview entitled “The Melbourne Punk Scene in Australia’s Independent Music History”.

      Thanks for reading,
      Renee

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