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Women on the Verge: An Introduction to Punk, Kinderwhore and Heroin Chic

February 23rd, 2011

Methods of overt fashion rebellion are often conceived within subcultures as a way to resist the dominant culture’s ideology and propagate new counter-arguments against the mainstream, be it a political, social, economic or moral focus.  These three styles: punk, kinderwhore and heroin chic herald a subversive aesthetic, particularly fascinating in regards to women, because they diverge with such polarity from the general notion of prettiness and instead concentrate on the woman as vamp, temptress, juvenile, drug abuser, androgyne.

Over the course of the twentieth century, fashion became more accessible to the everyday person with a trajectory toward technological advances and mass-marketing.  As a result, the Western population at large began to implement fashion in the “general design for living” (Ewing 230) as an indicator of personal taste.  But as the leading class decreed a more conventional approach to personal taste, punks took to the streets.  Derived from the seventeenth century term, which “denoted a gaudy prostitute,” (de Marly 143) punk caught on largely because of its “do-it-yourself” (Barnard 130) ethos in the face of a “monolithic, unadventurous and predictable” (Barnard 130) culture. Punks reappropriated clothing associated to the establishment but ravaged them with slashes and rips.  They also sought out materials previously dismissed and wore them in an unexpected manner, like “safety pins…plunged through cheeks” (Barnard 131) or tampons repurposed as earrings.  Punks approached fashion with a violent flippancy, seeing the potential and the protest in the lowliest of sources.  Consequently, punk accentuated the “unnaturalness” (Barnard 41) of the dominant class’s aesthetic and, thus interrogated the legitimacy of its prevalence and its authority over society (Barnard 41-2).  Still, as punk excelled in popularity and expanded, the mainstream swallowed up the anti-fashion movement by commercializing its look in a twist of sad irony.

More interesting, perhaps, is women’s role in punk. Rebecca Arnold mentions how “previous subcultures had usually cast women as marginal figures” (47) whereas punk invited women to adopt “a strong, if intimidating dress code” (47) that refuted standard femininity but not the feminine form itself.  Female punks donned items such as ”ripped fishnet stockings, plastic mini-skirts and garish…make-up” (Arnold 47) that alluded to imagery of prostitutes yet “with a violent retraction of the sexual invitation” associated to them.  These women invented a brazen, surly figure not previously connected to femininity.  They emancipated garments of “bondage” and “sexual perversion” (Arnold 47) to fabricate a persona of rebellious power.  Vivienne Westwood, an iconic and dynamic sartorial director of punk, cultivated the movement alongside Malcolm McLaren in their King’s Road boutique, and she even designed herself into long-term commercial success.  Her original formation of punk liberated women from a singular physical ideal and constraining their bodies within the latest silhouette.

Kinderwhore, an offshoot of nineties grunge commonly attributed to musicians Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love, does not refute traditional femininity in the same the way punk did.  Rather, it marries the concepts of adult femininity to adolescent dress-up to render a crude, perplexing, albeit more ordinarily appealing, sensuality.  Scarlet lips and heavily lined eyes partnered with ringlets adorned with plastic barrettes and sugary, baby-doll frocks, frequent components of kinderwhore, produce an appearance akin to sweets laced with razor blades.  The items individually hold little shock value, but when partnered form a discomforting countenance that fractures “the expected neatness of femininity” (Barnard 147).  The combination corrupts the innocence associated to young girls through its perilous juxtaposition with a dangerous, free-wheeling sexuality of adulthood.  Kinderwhore seeks an ironic Lolita effect through an incongruous coupling, but critics object that the fashion disempowers the wearer and imprisons her within the standard confines of feminine values (Barnard 147).  Even though kinderwhore agitates, it peculiarly panders to the “the tiredest trick in the paedophile book” (Barnard 147) by acquitting men of their sexual satisfaction in imagining adult women as overgrown children.

Another movement from the nineties, heroin chic differs from punk and kinderwhore in that it originated within the mainstream, but aroused much rancor.  Heroin chic retaliated to the material excess of the eighties and emerged during the same time as the grunge subculture and punk revival, when the economy spiraled toward recession and the disaffected Generation X reached its zenith.  The look revered “bruised and drug-hazed images” in defiance of “fashion magazine’s airbrushed notions of beauty” (Arnold 52), and signaled the vulnerability and isolation of modernity and urban lifestyle.  With the shifting political and economic climate, the glassy-eyed waif, personified by Kate Moss, ushered in the new anxiety-ridden aesthetic.  Designers and photographers “claimed that their style was natural, that it reflected their real lives,” (Arnold 52) however the drug-fueled pictures of underweight, androgynous models connected with heroin chic are problematic and indicative of an exclusive existence.  More likely than not the average consumer doesn’t engage in habitual drug use and possess a skeletal physique, although the consumer could possibly identify with the melancholy symbolized by the battered, dirty models during a period of existential interrogation.  But realism appears termed so only if it depicts an extreme gritty nihilism in contrast to healthy, idealistic perfection.  Realism remains questionable in fashion.  Still, “we seek validation from media representations, in images that are projections of desired selves,” (Arnold 52) and heroin chic undermines that easy, submissive adoration of the latest female archetype.  What’s more, heroin chic triggered unrest in the moral core of the mainstream.  Calvin Klein, proponent of the trend, underwent an FBI investigation for “not only potential drug abuse but also references to child pornography in the very thin bodies of his very young models and tatty motel settings” (Arnold 54).  Because of its controversial nature, heroin chic didn’t last long.  Then again, not much lasts long in the fashion world.  Heroin chic pandered to a sensational, outrageous portrayal of the modern woman and paved the road for the painful rail-thin shape favored on runways today. Women’s involvement both in fashion and anti-fashion eludes straightforward classification.  In either sphere women grapple between achieving bodily perfection or finding an avenue to manipulate and edit that formula without erasing the feminine or undermining a new draft of femaleness.

Works Cited:

Arnold, Rebecca.  Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Barnard, Malcolm. Fashion as Communication. London: Routledge, 1996.

Barnard, Malcolm.  Fashion as Communication. 2nd Ed. London: Routledge, 2002.

de Marly, Diana. Fashion for Men: An Illustrated History. New York: Homes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of 20th Century Fashion. New York: Costume & Fashion Press, 2002.

Image Credits:

“Courtney Love in Blue Dress.” Photo. 12 October 2010. 16 October 2011.

“Courtney Love on Bed.” Photo. 13 September 2011.

“Courtney Love Sitting.” Photo. 23 March 2009. 22 February 2011.

“Kate Moss in Calvin Klein Ad.” Photo. 8 December 2010. 22 February 2011.

“Punk Woman Close-Up.” Photo. 21 July 2008. 22 February 2011.

“Punk Woman.” Photo. 21 July 2008. 22 February 2011.

“The Slits.” Photo. 23 October 2009. 22 February 2011.

Day, Corinne. “Giorgina, Brixton 1995.” Photo. 29 November 2010. 22 February 2011.

Sorrenti, Davide. “James King.” Photo. 31 January 2006. 22 February 2011.

One Response to “Women on the Verge: An Introduction to Punk, Kinderwhore and Heroin Chic”

  1. I was attending college in my early 20s when this aesthetic graced the runways. I tried very hard to
    affect the look featured in those ads and whittled my weight down to dip below
    100 lbs on my 5’10 frame. But it was a time I will look back on with fond
    remembrance of my wobegotten hyper-glam youth

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