A challenge to the average

TWO things about the young man stuck particularly in my wife's mind. First were his Rumpelstiltskin shoes, with their toes of improbable extension and upward curl. And second - since she saw him on the Glasgow subway both going to and coming back from town - was the even more improbable fact that he was on a shopping spree with his mother.

Since the word ``punk'' tends to be applied somewhat loosely to any young person with way-out dress and surprising hair, this youth, broadly speaking, could be said to be of the punk fraternity. He was, apart from his highly original footwear, rigged out in black leather decorated with studs and chains and safety pins, his ears ringed variously like those of a bull tagged for market, his head crowned with a hair effect of shaved and bristled defiance.

That he had a mother at all - least of all a decidedly middle-class, conventionally dressed Scottish matron - seems extraordinary. From their very inception a dozen years ago, the outrageous punks forcefully suggested that somehow or other they had simply sprung into existence complete. One day, there were no punks. The next day, there they were. Such alien-looking creatures couldn't possibly have mothers! And, if by some circumstance they did happen to have mothers, then the last thing they would ever do with them was go shopping.

But my wife said that the youth she saw was not, in fact, one of your most thoroughgoing punks. His hair wasn't transformed into an Iron Age club of purple and green spikes, he didn't wear a dog's collar, he didn't sport among his badges an iron cross, and he didn't proclaim on his back a laconic message of obvious subversiveness.

Possibly he was a case of punk styles modified and absorbed by the culture against which they were originally pitted. To a lesser degree, evidence of this absorption is quite often encountered: the college kid with the vermilion hair streak; the fondness of numbers of innocuous teen-agers for black clothes and jet black hair exploding in all directions as if suddenly petrified; the piercing of ears so they can dangle countless gewgaws like display stands in a trinket shop; the lesser or greater degree of shaven-headedness, finding favor with even the most conservative and suburban of women (whose scalps look, as a result, so unexpectedly small). All such skews of ``fashion'' can probably be traced back to the extremities of the punks and their fellow travelers such as the neo-mods and rockers, the skinheads and the pinheads. Strange how a mode that amounted to a political scream by ferociously disenchanted street kids eventually creeps into the wardrobes of comfortable young people who really only want to seem to rebel a little or suggest a certain solidarity with the more daring members of society.

But that's the way with clothes, as it is sometimes with art. Chameleon-like, it can change from expressing all-out minority protest or displaymanship, to becoming the tamely amusing venturesomeness of the almost-with-it crowd: the pleasantly thrilling shudder on the distant, safe fringes of what had originally been a cataclysmic earthquake.

One recent writer about clothes suggests that in the last decade we have become so inured to changes of style that even the punks went by almost unnoticed. I'm not convinced. The popular press recorded, with its usual blend of delight and indignation, their shocking antics and appearance, and there is little doubt that they presented a subversive challenge to the average.

TODAY, the fewer and fewer remaining punks in British cities and small towns still manage to turn heads. After all, it is very difficult not to notice them. In other words, they do manage successfully to offend against the dictum of that 18th- and 19th-century arbiter of taste, George (Beau) Brummell (which still holds sway in the timid heart of most men of sense): ``If John Bull,'' he said, ``turns round to look after you, you are not well dressed, but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.'' Clearly, the punks are too everything. But how different are they really? Aren't they just one of the more recent examples of what Quentin Bell called the motive of ``conspicuous outrage'' that recurs throughout the history of dress?

Yes and no. They are surely more visually aggressive than most earlier extreme styles. Extremity in the past was often to emphasize wealth or membership in the leisured classes. It was therefore often excessively impractical, but at the same time aimed at being beautiful, too. Clearly punks have pursued a deliberate cult of ugliness. The awful irony is that they also dress to show they are members of a leisured class - that of the unemployed and unemployable. Their dress, for all its imaginativeness (which one writer believes suggests a certain art-school input), is cheap, and denotes the opposite of wealth. By the same token, its elaboration and impracticality indicates ample - or too much - time to spare. In some of these respects, they are different indeed.

In their willingness to suffer for their art, however, they are actually pretty much in tune with the highly fashionable of the past. One only has to look at the Cruikshank ``monstrosities,'' however exaggerated, to wince at the distortions men and women in the early 19th century were prepared to undergo to be `a la mode. But then, comfort and protection have rarely been much of a consideration for the ultra-fashionable. Medieval and renaissance armor is a dramatic case in point: Its design often put the latest fashion before effective defense.

Thomas Carlyle observed: ``The first purpose of clothes was not warmth or decency.... The first spiritual want of barbarous man is Decoration, as indeed we still see among the barbarous classes in civilized countries.'' And the punks might well qualify, at least in appearance, for the phrase ``barbarous class.''

What they have latched onto, however, is the historical fact that dress, whether beautiful or ugly, has frequently been unsettling and shocking to society. This is nothing new. Take trousers, for instance. Geoffrey Squire, in his fascinating book ``Dress Art and Society'' describes the advent of trousers for men at the close of the 18th century: ``...then, curiously to the horror of the majority, grown men who were not peasants were actually seen to be wearing trousers.'' Until then, no gentleman would have been seen dead in them. Sailors, perhaps; and small boys. But here was a proletarian, working-class, revolutionary form of dress invading the habits of the middle and upper classes. Even after trousers became universally popular, they were still known eu-phemistically as ``inexpressibles'' by the fainthearted.

Not dissimilarly, the utterly daredevil young men of the 1790s experimented with a new kind of coat called the ``frock-coat.'' At the time, it was a sort of sartorial madness. But in the next century it was soon to become the very badge of respectability.

MUCH more recently, one finds the fringes and beads of the hippies taken over by the fashion designers - even though hippie clothes had been deliberately, and shockingly, anti-fashion in their carefree sloppiness. Their patchy clothes and long, unkempt hair had made the earlier young Beatles look like Little Lord Fauntleroys. And yet, this is what one expert on the history of hair wrote in 1964 about that foursome's topknots: ``The wildly eccentric hairstyle of Liverpool's Beatles appeared to be a runaway development of the Caesar cut.'' Wildly eccentric! That writer didn't know that flower power and punks were waiting in the wings.

It is incredible, really, that mere clothes should so often have caused cries of dismay and disgust. It is as if they were automatically signals of degeneracy. Clearly they are not. Yet some sections of society, even today, remain persistently against young fashions, whatever form they take. My wife was at school in Scotland at the time of the miniskirt. While perfectly acceptable for a girl to play tennis in, this cheerful garment was subjected by the headmistress to the most rigorous controls: All the girls had to kneel down, and if their skirts were more than an inch from the floor they had to be lengthened. It wasn't shortness per se that such Gorgon-thinking disapproved of, however. When the mini was swiftly followed by the long ``maxi'' skirt, the girls were immediately told to shorten them. The same opposition was made to schoolboys who let their hair grow to shoulder length, hippie-style, and then again later to boys who shaved it ``into the wood'' in the skinhead mode. Some people in authority are never satisfied.

A Florentine critic called Giovanni Villani darts his critical tongue at the young who have ``taken to tunics so short and tight that they [find] it impossible to dress themselves without help, strapped round them like the girths of horses and ornamented with showy buckles and points, while elaborate pouches of the German style hang down over their fronts....'' Oh, and he goes on about ``their long beards to make them look fiercer'' and the ``hanging sleeve-pieces,'' adopted by both men and women, which he calls ``outlandish dress neither beautiful nor decent.''

The more things change, the more they remain the same. This die-hard was not writing about punks in the 1970s and '80s. His ire had been aroused by the fashionable youth of the early 1340s. Hanging sleeve-pieces! Now there's an idea. (And I bet they didn't like going shopping with their mothers.)

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