'Please kill me'

By D.C. DENISON  |  August 20, 2007

“It’s punk rock,” the girl explains. “It’s $16 for a ripped shirt,” her mother replies. Nevertheless, they continue to browse through the racks. But when they reach the shirts with the cigarette burns and the rubber bats dangling from the collars, the mother starts tugging at her daughter’s sleeve. “Pam, you don’t want these,” she pleads. The father, who has been observing the situation with a wry grin, shakes his head and says, to no one in particular, “What a racket.”

A few minutes later the mother is cheerfully showing her daughter some sportswear on the other side of the room, and salesperson Theresa Dillon comes over. “We have these shirts in the back of the store now because everybody’s already got them. When we had them up front and were advertising, hell, everybody was buying ’em. The funny thing was that most of the people were not punks at all: they were usually well-dressed young women looking for the black ones that said ‘Punk’ – nothing too crazy.” I hold up my favorite, a yellow T-shirt with a white skull and daggers above desperate lettering that reads, “BOREDOM!”

“No, we didn’t sell many of those,” she says politely. After a short search she picks out a shredded white turtleneck so weighted down with chains that she is having trouble holding it. “Now this,” she says with a grin, “didn’t do too well, either.”

A few blocks away at Bloomingdale’s, the saleslady, an older woman, is not exactly enthusiastic about the new punk look. In fact, she scowls when I ask to see it. But she calls over a younger clerk who leads me to the small punk display in the Zandra Rhodes collection. Zandra Rhodes, an English designer, is the first high-fashion designer to offer punk. She has been quoted as saying, “Punk is the first thing the ‘70s has produced that doesn’t look like anything else.” She is represented at Bloomingdale’s by a black evening dress with hand-stitched holes, random rhinestones, chains and beaded safety pins.

As we look at it, the saleslady tries to justify a $745 punk outfit. “Naturally the Bloomingdale’s customer is not a punk,” she says, “but many of our customers go for the punk look because it says ‘I’m hip, I’m anti-establishment.’ The customer wants to assure herself and others that she is adventurous; she wants it to be known that her whole life isn’t dictated by Calvin Klein and Halston. ‘I can be wild and exotic,’ that’s what this dress says.”

The other dress on display, a slinky green gown with fewer safety pins and smaller holes, apparently says the same thing, only not as loud. It costs $345.

Downstairs in the “Cul de Sac” department, a lady holding a white poodle is eying the selection of beaded safety pins that sell for $17 each. (Bonwit Teller’s and Saks Fifth Avenue are also selling safety pins as jewelry, at prices up to $100.) After studying them for a minute, the woman and her poodle leave. “I wish I could say that the safety pins were selling well,” the saleslady tells me, “but I think it’s going to be a long time before people will buy a $17 safety pin from Bloomingdale’s.”

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