7 Countercultures Co-Opted By High Fashion

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New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn is sick of punk. She is bored with hearing Sid Vicious’s version of “My Way” — a painfully appropriate cover that, in our opinion, never gets old. If she never had to see another safety pin, it would be too soon. The take-home, listeners of loud, snotty music, is that “punk is now a style cliché.” And the idea of Balmain putting a high-fashion price tag on a leather jacket covered in spikes is, frankly, “a joke — and not even a very clever one.” Got that, 15-year-old Johnny, with your ripped jeans and your mohawk?

For our part, we enjoyed the Balmain collection Horyn describes, which manages to balance punk and fashion in a fun, witty way. (In fact, there’s a pair of black-and-silver striped pants in there that we’ll probably dream about tonight.) And considering that designers have played a major part in the punk movement since its inception, we find it both historically ignorant and totally unimaginative to declare them antithetical to one another. What’s more, counterculture has provided inspiration for haute couture for as long as both have existed. After the jump, we review seven movements that have been co-opted, often to great effect, by high fashion.

Punk

Balmain Spring 2011, image via Fashionista.com

British punk’s major ideologue and impresario was, of course, Malcolm McLaren. In the mid-’70s, he was married to Vivienne Westwood, and together they conceptualized and created what we now know as the punk aesthetic: safety pins, leather, bondage accents, defaced T-shirts with nihilist slogans. It’s a look Westwood has continued to improve upon throughout her high-fashion career and that has served as inspiration for a few generations of designers by now. So to claim that there’s something absurd about a pricey label finding inspiration in punk-rock grit is to ignore the long history of punk as designer-driven fashion.

Hip-hop

Image via Style Registry

Now, here’s a truly odd juxtaposition: Chanel’s ladies-who-lunch brights and the kind of layered chains you might expect to see on Run-DMC. But this is no Photoshop disaster — it’s a real Fall 1991 campaign, one of several early-’90s Chanel campaigns that found the uptown line inspired by music from… well, much farther uptown. In fact, Chanel was not the first high-fashion brand to find inspiration in hip hop. Isaac Mizrahi sent models down the runway wearing “gold chains, big gold nameplate-inspired belts, and black bomber jackets with fur-trimmed hoods” in the late ’80s.

Of course, 20 years later, there’s nothing unusual about the juxtaposition of urban music and luxe clothing, with hip-hop stars ranging from Diddy and Russell Simmons to Jay-Z and OutKast launching lines of their own.

Goth

Alexander McQueen campaign, Fall 2002. Image via.

Alexander McQueen was certainly not the first designer to delve into the goth subculture — in fact, Vivienne Westwood got there, too, very early on, incorporating both bondage gear and historically-inspired pieces into her early creations. While the worlds of punk and goth may be fairly separate now, ’70s icons like Siouxsie Sioux incorporated elements of both.

But McQueen may have been be the designer to make the most consistently captivating use of the style. As Valerie Steele, author of Gothic: Dark Glamour , noted in an interview,

[W]ith someone like McQueen, the dark side is an intrinsic part of his entire esthetic. He is always looking at imagery of sorcery, superstition and persecution and he is attracted to things of the erotic macabre. This has run through his entire career. We can see it in the dress which is inspired by his ancestor who was executed as a witch in Salem. That is a perfect theme for him. He is drawn to the theme of witches as the outcast, as the persecuted, and yet there is something sexy and compelling about it.

Grunge

Image via

Nirvana and Pearl Jam hadn’t been household names for long when Marc Jacobs launched the heavily grunge-inflected Perry Ellis collection that set the pace for his career, featuring “flannel shirts, thermals (his reimagined in cashmere, a Jacobs signature to this day), Doc Martens, layers and layers, all of it topped with a little crocheted skullcap.” (It also helped to make Kate Moss the face of fashion in the early ’90s.) Jacobs’s enduring success — not to mention that plaid, flannel, babydoll dresses, and ripped jeans have returned to the runways in recent seasons — goes to show that even the most anti-fashion musical movement can change the way the ultra-rich (and mere mortals) wear clothing. As future Cobain biographer Charles Cross would note in a 1992 New York Times interview, “Kurt Cobain was just too lazy to shampoo.”

Rave/club kid/nu rave

Image via Style.com

Like any bright, fun, druggy movement, dance music and the ravers who bliss out to it have been an inspiration to high fashion since the ’80s. By 1999, New York Club Kid fashionista Richie Rich had co-founded (along with Traver Rains) his own high-end label, Heatherette, which reflected their plasticky pop aesthetic and lasted through 2008.

Now, rave has evolved into “nu rave,” an eclectic style that fuses electronic music with everything from rock to New wave and encompasses a loosely defined group of mostly British bands including Klaxons and the recently buzzy SHITDISCO. This crowd is a bit more stylish than their forebears (you know, not that those UFO pants you have left over from high school aren’t cute), and their influence on high fashion in the past few years has been notable, with loud neons making their way down runways from Christopher Kane to Karen Walker.

Hippie

The counterculture that swept the nation (and much of the world) in the late ’60s was as recognizable for its fashion — psychedelic, Edwardian, dripping in fringe — as for its music, drugs, and politics. But even before the thrift store-shopping, free bin-digging hippies had a chance to become yuppies, haute couture designers were co-opting their style. The image above, for instance, comes not from a Haight-Ashbury ’67 photo album but from a British Vogue ’68 fashion spread. Since then, the hippie look has shown up, in one form or another, on runways and in glossies just about every season.

Steampunk

Steampunk — that anachronistic, Victorian retro-futuristic aesthetic your science fiction-loving friends have adopted — has been percolating since the ’80s. But it’s only been a pop-culture buzzword for the past few years, influencing literature, art, and fashion. While Alexander McQueen was also a pioneering force in elevating steampunk from DIY to runway, it’s recently shown up as influence on many designers — including Lanvin, whose heavy, Victorian-influence Fall 2009 necklaces were full of big bolts and cylinders.