Thursday, November 16, 2006

What are the politics of the puffy shirt?

I’ve been haunted by Marie Antoinette, a glorious failure of a film, for several intriguing reasons. Not least of which was its curious reading of style and politics in pre-revolutionary France by invoking a glorious failure of a fashion movement in the early 1980’s U.K. While Coppola’s film charges itself with occasional trenchant analysis from Gang of 4 or with Jamie Reid style graphic interludes, the bulk the film looks and sounds like an issue of The Face, circa 1982 (though I’m guessing. At the time I was 7 and reading Cracked).

It’s very New Romantic, in other words.

As we all now know, the sequels to punk were post-punk and hardcore but those weren’t good enough for ex Sex Pistol manager Malcolm McLaren in 1980. Ever the music industry antagonist and always looking for a political argument for fashion trends, McLaren sensed that the greatest issue affecting the business during that time was home taping, something the industry considered “piracy.” And if pirates were threatening the merchants once more, McLaren would produce a reasonable facsimile in fashion (his then partner Vivienne Westwood’s pirate lines) and musically in Adam and Ants and then in Bow Wow Wow. Bow Wow Wow’s first cassingle, a paean to home taping titled "C30, C60, C90 Go” was shipped with a blank b-side heavy with temptation and implication. That really trumps anything the Pistols did.

Except mass influence. As far as fake subcultures go New Romantic wasn’t bad but it never caught on outside of London. It’s references and referents far more historical and complex that punk; Burundi drumming, subversive economics and puffy shirts would never play in Peoria. In cultural history it remains a micro fashion and thus all the more fascinating for it.

-Brian

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