How we wear our politics:

The history and reintroduction of punk and rebel-wear into mainstream fashion.

Naomi Lichter

All over runways and department stores, fetish and grunge-wear are making a comeback for the third time.

The term “fetish-wear” describes fashion derived from sex bondage costumes and BDSM. It was first made popular in the early 1960s, largely because of Vivienne Westwood. She designed and produced clothing that encapsulated the rebellious attitudes that we often attribute to the 60s. Westwood’s early lines displayed  ripped jeans and flannel on the runway, and made clothing representative of the concurrent sexual revolution. Westwood was the purveyor of daring punk fashion. Her ripped jeans, piercings, black and mismatched colors, and promiscuity all fall under the category of identifiable rebel fashion.

However, there is an issue today with major brands producing rebel-inspired clothing. In the 1960s, while the civil rights movement fought for radical social change, Westwood’s England produced popular punk and rock performers who were largely white. With their anger at society, combined with a desire to revive sexuality and reclaim their politics, these performers created an entire culture. Returning in the 1990s as grunge, there was, again, an effort to intertwine politics and style.

Legislation and systematic bias force Black and brown bodies and female bodies into a system of politics that they are simultaneously excluded from. Revived power comes from demanding ownership of ourselves. Individual rebellion in the form of fashion is once again an important force for empowerment and community unification. While a focus on dress and appearance is often connoted as a vain pastime, curating a look demands attention and allows one to express their individuality.

This activism is supported by intersectional feminist Audre Lorde who wrote extensively on the idea that there is power in the erotic.* However, her eroticism diverges completely from popularized ideas of sex and pleasure, which has been largely white and male. Instead, she claims that finding pleasure in one’s own body and allowing it the privilege of bliss—or even comfort—is a powerful political force. If one believes that they and their body deserve happiness, there is no end to what they will demand next.

*A reference to Audre Lorde’s essay Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Lorde was an influential writer during the 60s, resisting the United States government and white oppression of Black and brown bodies. She also worked internationally in Germany and her home Granada in Spain.