Trends on Trial: Punk, Redefined (Somewhat Awkwardly)

the debut fashion column from molly and colleen hurford

Before we begin deconstructing a fashion trend that I love and my sister (Colleen) tolerates (barely), a word about what we plan to do here. This isn’t your average “what’s hot, what’s not” fashion column. Tempting as it was to write one, we realized that we have no real concept of exactly what is hot, or what isn’t- though we could certainly hazard a few guesses. Rather, we want to look at trends and first, define what they are, and second, look to understand why they are.

In this particular piece, I (Molly) am looking at the why, and Colleen, since she has third party perspective on the trend in question, will explain the what. This week, we’re looking at a trend that may be steeped in political controversy, despite its protestations of innocence. Can a style embraced by skinheads ever be “in fashion” without causing controversy? Is it even “skinhead” that’s in fashion, or is it a bizarre twist of fate that punks adapted the brands that were proudly worn by skinheads everywhere 30 years ago? That seems to be the case nowadays.

What are we talking about? Simply put, designers Ben Sherman and Fred Perry, and how they’re coming to define a new, more refined, generation of punk. When I was “young and punk rock,” the D.I.Y. ethos that pervaded the scene was also deeply ingrained in the fashion trends that came from it. Ripped shirts and jeans secured together with safety pins — and in some cases, dental floss — were trendy, as were beat up leather jackets, studded cuffs, and spiky hair. However, it seems like today’s punks are taking their fashion cues not from punks of the ’90s, or even of the ’80s. Rather, they’ve gone a different direction down the same dysfunctional family tree that is counterculture and found a resting place on the branch that holds the bastard child of punk and British nationalism: the skinhead.

What started as a movement in the U.K. defined by people who expounded British nationalist pride, shaved their heads, and wore Ben Sherman shirts with skinny suspenders (“braces”), the movement made its way into U.S. culture, though with a slightly more racist connotation. While not all skinheads can be defined as racists or neo-Nazis, a bastardization of what defined a skinhead has created that image.

However, while the “cool factor” for being a skinhead has declined to the point where it no longer is socially acceptable, they left behind a legacy of fantastic fashion. Ben Sherman, Fred Perry and Doctor Marten aren’t elderly businessmen. Rather, they are the brands that once defined a movement, and now grace the closets of punks and hipsters everywhere. This conversion to brand names for punks is a 180 from the idea of anti-consumerism and never buying anything new. However, while punks may still have their torn jeans and band shirts, lurking in their closets for nicer occasions are the Bens, Freds, and Docs.

So what prompted the switch to paying $90 for a button down rather than $5 for a T-shirt? Perhaps it’s an age thing- punks in their 20s and 30s can’t afford to show up to work in grungy t-shirts, but the thought of buying traditional America Eagle standards is simply appalling. Ben Sherman and Fred Perry still represent something, still are on the fringe of pop culture, but offer the ability to both blend in and stand out.

Colleen, as an outsider to the world of Fred and Ben, investigated to see what the fuss is about.

First and foremost, I learned that being familiar with the aesthetics of “skinhead” fashion isn’t the same as being familiar with Fred Perry and Ben Sherman. Looking at Ben Sherman’s collection of short sleeve shirts buttoned up to the neck, there is certainly a vibe that recalls skinhead fashion, but it just isn’t the same. In my opinion the label creates juxtaposition between charming patterns and fairly playful colors, and the sharp, tight fits as well as the almost stiff way each shirt is buttoned to the collar. There is also an element to Ben Sherman’s clothing that is far more cultured than what you think of when you imagine punks and skinheads.

Ben Sherman is what happens when the kid with the liberty spikes and suspenders stops beating people up and gets a real job and becomes a gentleman, although he can probably still keep the suspenders.

When it came to Fred Perry, I chose to focus on the line of women’s clothing and was surprised by how cutesy and almost twee that it was. Fred Perry for women is less like what they produce for men and more like what one would expect to see a guy who wears all Fred Perry merchandise’s girlfriend to be wearing.

The skirts and trousers have a nice high-waist that screams vintage, working girl. It’s cute, it’s charming, it’s a little nautical, it’s a little retro, but what it isn’t, is punk.

However, when it comes to Fred Perry, whether you are looking at women’s or men’s clothes, one thing I can get behind one hundred percent is the footwear. Maybe it’s because I am a woman and the love of shoes is genetically embedded in my brain, but those babies speak to me. They are no frills, no fooling around, simplistic sneakers and boots. These shoes are what would happen if a boat shoe and a tennis shoe had a badass child. They just look comfy and sturdy and like you could do pretty much anything in them, except maybe do a lot of walking in the rain … there is heavy use of canvas.

However, you can’t talk about punk or skinhead without calling to mind the reigning king of footwear, which is and always will be Doc Martens. The beauty of Docs is that you can wear them stomping through rain and snow and still have warm, dry feet while looking like you can kick anyone’s ass. I especially love that Doc is showing his softer side with pretty floral patterns splashed across shit-kicker combat boots. Actually, throw a pair of those on with a Fred Perry skirt and a borrowed from the boys button down, and you may just have yourself an outfit.

So the basic conclusion is that while it may be a skinhead style, it’s definitely open to be co-opted by another social scene. And while punks, who typically balk at spending any kind of money on clothes may have been an unlikely choice, it seems as though they are certainly willing to purchase a Ben Sherman button-down to wear on special occasions, and a Fred Perry polo to wear to work. Even the best-loved leather jacket with the pins may get exchanged for a Ben Sherman Herrington. Of course, this is not to say that punk as we knew it is dead. Rather, it’s just learned how to clean up for special occasions!

This is one trend that has survived for — literally — generations, and if we have any say about it, it will continue to do so. Because frankly, we can both agree that punk boys look damn cute in their Freds and Bennys!

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.