This article originally appeared in the August 16, 1977 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Johnny Zero (the one with the studded leather dog collar around his neck) and Jimmy Blitz (he’s wearing the torn .44-Magnum Killer T-shirt) – both members of a New York punk band, the Dead Boys – are on stage at the Rat. Rita Ratt (it’s a combination name and title, she tells me), one of the better-known fashion plates of the local punk scene, is leaning against the bar toward the back of the club. She is concerned, so concerned that she is trying to talk over the music, a near-impossible task. Her problem: for the first time in the short history of punk rock, a history fairly dense with arrests, beatings and public outrage, many observers (including this reporter) are worried about its survival. The reason: punk music has somehow gotten involved with the fashion industry.
“Punk is shock chic,” People magazine declared a few weeks ago, and there doesn’t seem to be anything punks can do about it. They don’t like it; they know that any punk-fashion alliance would be an uneasy one (a Hell’s Angel’s boutique at Saks Fifth Avenue would stand a better chance) but they also know, deep down, that punk fashion – a style that synthesizes the influences of Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and others, an ingenious jumble of fish-net stockings, safety pins, rummage sale clothes, chains, torn shirts and sci-fi hairdos and makeup – could catch on in a big way. And public acceptance, for the hardened punk, is a depressing prospect: Sammy Davis Jr. with a torn black T-shirt and a dog collar, singing “I Got To Be Me” on Johnny Carson; Cher in a see-through safety-pin dress; Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme explaining their matching “Sex Pistols” T-shirts to Merv Griffin. A dangerous situation to be sure, one that would almost certainly drive the whole punk movement into shrimp-colored leisure suits.
But it hasn’t happened yet – so far, New York and London are the only cities to carry the look – and Rita Ratt, for one, doesn’t see why it should happen at all. “I just can’t understand why people would want to buy punk fashion in stores,” she says, “It looks so bad. The T-shirts say “Punk” in straight letters – straight neat letters – the rips and tears are hemmed, the safety pins are gold – it’s really sad.
“I mean, I wear T-shirts.” She opens her work jacket to reveal a black T-shirt with “Drop Dead” scrawled in white letters across the front. “I’m wearing this tonight for the Dead Boys, but I would never buy a punk T-shirt in a store. Punk is anti-fashion; we wear stuff that we find and make ourselves – like safety pins – you won’t find anyone in the Rat wearing that fashion stuff.”
“Punk may not be your cup of tea but, what the hell, some people will buy anything.”
–Boutique magazine, a retail clothing trade magazine
At Macy’s, a middle-aged couple and their teenage daughter are looking through the shirt department in the rear of the “New Ideas” department. The shirts are strange colors – purple, green, bright yellow. Some of them have rips, others have safety pins and small chains. All of them have sayings on the front: “Nasty,” “Reject!” “Good For Nothing,” “Punk Rock Rules!” etc.