Patched Up: Bricolage and Postmodernism in Punk Culture

7.1 / Sell Out Now

Patched Up: Bricolage and Postmodernism in Punk Culture

By Yi Shan Tan September 10, 2015

Today, the term punk conjures a visual style composed of iconic dress features such as the Mohawk, leather jacket, or metal-studded belt. And yet, many contemporary punks would argue that punk style is not conformist or the slavish embodiment of a specific image. Despite the popular media’s ongoing attempts to caricaturize the subculture and thereby reduce it to mere costumery, punk is a movement that embraces individualism and the freedom of self-expression. In fact, many punk individuals are now adopting a postmodern approach toward style and self-expression that is increasingly fluid and hybridized. Like postmodern art, which often borrows elements from historical art movements without seeking to replicate them, punks may pay homage to earlier styles but consciously avoid replicating a preexisting look. One way that the postmodern influence can be seen in the context of punk style is through a specific accessory, the cloth patch, which is used through DIY and bricolage approaches to generate meaning on personal, social, and political levels.

punk is inherently a bricolage of ideologies and styles from different cultural periods

Bricolage, which comes from the French word for tinkering, is one of the prevailing techniques of postmodern art, in which the work is composed from a diverse range of available materials; artists reconfigure them in unprecedented ways that create new contexts. From the outset, bricolage is a key concept that operates on several levels in punk culture. Like other subcultures, punk is a reaction to earlier cultural events, including the hippie movement. Much like postmodern art, punk is inherently a bricolage of ideologies and styles from different cultural periods, such as the Situationists in Paris. Yet contemporary punks also utilize the bricolage approach in a very material sense. Like the postmodern artists who work with preexisting materials, contemporary punks often make patches out of old clothing, selectively combining the disparate pieces of fabric in idiosyncratic ways. By wearing these accessories and physically carrying them around on their bodies, individuals are able to express their unique personalities, as well as their relationships with the world, in a highly visual way. 

Patches are usually squares of fabric and are available in different sizes. Smaller patches can be sewn onto any part of a garment, but larger patches are typically sewn onto the back of a jacket. John Shuba, the co-owner of independent punk store, Angry Young and Poor, explains that sturdier patches tend to be machine embroidered.1 Although a large majority of designs are silk-screened, there are also personalized, hand-embroidered patches from DIY methods.

One can trace the wearing of handwritten political slogans back to the Situationists, an organization of European artists in the 1950s.2 Traces of their influence can seen in the Anarchy Shirt, a garment featured in the 2013 exhibition, Punk: From Chaos to Couture, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Designed by Malcolm McLaren and his colleague, Vivienne Westwood, the fashion duo famous for instigating punk in mainstream culture, the Anarchy Shirt is an early-punk cultural artifact that sports patches with handwritten slogans.3 The Anarchy Shirt can be seen as having a postmodern visual character because it clearly utilizes the bricolage technique, bringing together preexisting materials that have no prior relationship to create an unprecedented visual style. Using patches and stencils—such as a blue silk patch of Karl Marx, found by McLaren in a Chinatown shop of Maoist literature—McLaren and Westwood were able to personalize otherwise ordinary articles of clothing and imbue them with political meaning.4 Today, the designers’ legacy is still felt in contemporary punk style; members of the community continue to express their individualism and political ideologies through bricolage and a uniquely DIY aesthetic.

Lissette Pomart, a self-identified punk with bright red accents in her hair, showed me how she takes preexisting materials and combines them to create her own visual style. She started with an old denim jacket that her grandmother had given her, cutting off its sleeves and turning it into a vest. She then sewed handmade patches all over it, reminiscent of the Anarchy Shirt. One of her patches is made from an old leopard-print bandana; it sported the word CRAMPS in bright-green fabric paint, a reference to the American psychobilly band, The Cramps. The second patch, which featured the name of a California punk band, NOFX, in bright-blue fabric paint, was made from an old purse of tartan, a happy coincidence given that the material happens to be associated with early punk fashion. By turning her old accessories into patches that become new accessories, Pomart incorporated elements from her personal history with elements from punk history and thereby generated new meaning.

the patches are like a striking kaleidoscope of visual clues that hint at aspects of a multifaceted personality

In Punk Style, the fashion historian Monica Sklar writes that some adopt an “entire punk-style persona of a previous era, rather than including his or her own story into the visual narrative, which was part of the original intensions of punk.”5 Like Pomart, many contemporary punks choose to approach style in a postmodern way, borrowing and incorporating elements from earlier punk history by making and wearing patches that serve as homage to older, well-known punk bands (such as Bikini Kill, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedys) alongside patches of newer punk bands. As patches are handmade, they can be readily customized to highlight an aspect of the wearer’s interests or personality, such as musical taste. In the case of Pomart’s vest, not all her patches hold meanings unique to punk culture. Pointing at an embroidered patch of Nicaragua, she says proudly, “It is where my family is from.”6 By sewing her band patches as well as a patch depicting her heritage onto a garment that had been a family hand-me-down, Pomart transformed her vest into a distinctly postmodern bricolage of disparate, preexisting elements drawn from contemporary culture. Being publicly displayed, Pomart’s patches map her identity in a way that is both visual and highly personal. For viewers confronting the vest, the patches are like a striking kaleidoscope of visual clues that hint at aspects of a multifaceted personality. “I would like people to know what bands I’m into,” she says. “I’m wearing my personality.”7 

Patches are also an inexpensive and creative way of directly infusing one’s personality into an outfit. Pomart’s friends, Alex Campbell and Tianna Mackey, described Pomart’s patches as freehand (hand-rendered without the use of a stencil). Step by step, they explain to me how it is possible to make a simple, stenciled patch from everyday materials. A design is first drawn drawn onto a piece of waxed butcher paper and then cut out with an X-Acto knife. With the waxed face of the butcher paper against the fabric, a hot iron is passed over the paper so that the layer of paraffin melts and sticks onto the fabric. If one does not have access to a clothes iron, a DIY solution is also available, Campbell recommends using a hair-straightening iron in its place. Paint is then applied over the surface, and the stencil is pulled away, revealing the completed design. Like Pomart, Mackey recommends using acrylic or fabric paint for durability.

Occupying almost the entire back of Mackey’s jacket is a large patch with a design of an old crone, silk-screened onto black denim. Intricately detailed, the patch features the name of one of her favorite bands, Blackbird Raum. Other than this oversize patch, Mackey has two smaller band patches featuring X-Ray Spex, an English band, and Dirty Kid Discount, a band from Portland, Oregon. Both band patches are screen-printed in small rectangles of black denim, a material favored for its durability. Band patches are often bought at concerts and pinned on immediately; after the concert, the patch wearer might decide to sew it permanently onto a garment. I am told that wearing a punk-band shirt did not necessarily make someone a serious fan, but taking the time to sew on a band patch would far likelier signify this. Punk patches in other words, can be interpreted as a visual signifier of one’s cultural capital in regards to punk music. Mackey became friends with a fellow punk, Moe, who had seen her back patch and struck up a conversation. Thus, patches not only serve as a form of self-expression but also play an active social role within the punk community—a bricolage of symbols serving as hyperlinks that connect individuals who share similar musical interests.

In her book, Sklar writes that some individuals “adopt pieces of histories they admire and place them together atop their selves, rather than embedding those stories into their own narratives.”8 Mackey also draws on elements from history, though in a broader sense than Pomart. Surprisingly, it turns out that not all the patches on Mackey’s jacket were her own additions. A roughly circular, embroidered patch on her jacket’s right shoulder had already been sewn there when she received it. Through this particular patch, Mackey was able to uncover more information about its previous owner’s past; her grandfather recognized the design as from the Gulf War

Like Pomart’s vest with the Nicaragua patch that reflects her family’ background, Mackey’s vintage military jacket is an example of a punk garment that displays a distinct overlap of two personal histories. A discolored rectangle above the breast pocket was where a nametag had been ironed on: the jacket’s previous owner had been a soldier named Park, and it had been used in actual combat. Mackey has made decisions to retain or remove particular aspects of the jacket’s original history, a distinctly postmodern approach toward style. Not wanting a “potentially dead guy’s name” on her jacket, she removed the soldier’s cloth nametag with a seam ripper, picking off his name slowly, bit by bit.9 Smiling, she says that it was an arduous process but well worth it in the end. After my conversation with Mackey, I could not help noticing how inextricably the jacket’s history has become intertwined with Mackey’s own family history—her mother had purchased the jacket from a garage sale for fifty cents and had given the jacket to Mackey as a gift. Also, if her grandfather had not recognized the military patch, a piece of the jacket’s history would certainly have been lost. 

Like other punks, Mackey has chosen to work with existing materials, such as an article of used clothing, rather than purchasing a readymade outfit. Mackey’s patches allow her, in a thoroughly postmodern gesture, to incorporate aspects of her identity onto a garment with a preexisting history.  Describing her jacket as being “nature-y” in terms of its aesthetic, Mackey shows me two patches that depict a tooth and a bird skull, respectively; she chose them due to her interest in collecting bones and furs. By customizing the jacket and sewing on a bricolage of patches to express her personal aesthetic, Mackey is able to embody the jacket and claim it as her own.

Although Mackey’s military jacket may connote rebellion to some viewers, she had received the jacket through coincidence and liked it largely for aesthetic reasons. While military jackets have long been subverted by punks as public displays of anti-authoritarian sentiments, Mackey treated her jacket simply as an inexpensive garment that she could use for DIY purposes. By selecting aspects from history and embodying them, Mackey’s approach toward punk style is very much a postmodern one. And yet, although it is serendipitous that her jacket fits so well within the general punk aesthetic, this case illustrates that meaning cannot be generated or controlled purely by the wearer; the viewer actively interprets the meaning of the jacket. Regardless of how the wearer sees the jacket, critical viewers will proceed to analyze it within the larger context of punk culture. 

While Campbell does make patches and wears them for aesthetic reasons, she states that her concerns tend to be mainly political in nature. One patch, sewn onto her pants, boldly features the text “MARCH AGAINST MONSANTO SF CA” and depicts a highly detailed silk-screened design of a bee in a gas mask. While Pomart’s vest and Mackey’s jacket are bricolages of patches that visually express personal narratives, Campbell’s patch reflects the concept of bricolage in a very different way. By assembling disparate preexisting elements such as the bee, the gas mask, the abbreviations for San Francisco and California, and the corporate name Monsanto, Campbell created a single image that generates meaning on a personal and political level. Through bricolage and juxtaposition, Campbell conveys a powerful visual message that is particularly relevant to a time of deep ambivalence toward the advances of science and technology. 

Campbell, who is against Monsanto’s development and control of crops derived from genetically modified organisms, explains that her design is about the multinational corporation’s promotion and enforcement of undesirable farming practices and their adverse effects on the human and native bee population. Her patch originated as an illustration-class assignment to create an image that conveyed a political message. About the same time, she was involved in a San Francisco march against Monsanto. The march organizers liked her bee-and-gas-mask image and asked her to make a design for the march.  By adding on bold capital letters, Campbell was able to adapt her design and turn it into a wearable patch. With “SF” and “CA” on the patch, viewers are informed that the patch has a site-specific political meaning, thereby pinpointing it in terms of geography. 

Campbell and others involved with the march screen-printed the image onto black fabric, ten images at a time. The fabric was then cut into separate patches that were sold at a “pay what you will” price to help cover the cost of the march permits. Rather than a way of making money, Campbell explains, the patches were an effective way of conveying a political message to the public. Although she had started out wearing band patches, Campbell is now gravitating toward making patches that are political in nature in order to raise contemporary issues. This is unsurprising given the context of the subculture: the punk community has at times had a reputation for being politically progressive. “I like to challenge what people are comfortable with,” she says. “Sometimes people come up to me and ask me what my patches mean, and I’m happy to explain.”10

Although not all patches are connected to punk culture, it is unusual for an individual to wear patches for solely decorative reasons; most patches on a punk’s clothing are the result of a careful, selective process. While patches can appear small and innocuous at first glance, these handmade coded cues are significant in the context of the subculture as they allow an individual to assemble a variety of images and slogans in order to express his or her interests and beliefs before proceeding to embody them through the act of public display. In the same way that a curator selectively chooses works for an art exhibition, many punks are adept at using a combination of images in a powerful nonverbal way in order to create a visual narrative that reflects key aspects of their personalities, as well as their relationship with today’s postmodern world.

Notes

  1. John Shuba, in an email to the author, October 8, 2014.
  2. Monica Sklar, Punk Style (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 80.
  3. Malcolm McLaren, who managed the band Sex Pistols, owned a store named “SEX,” specializing in punk fashion on King’s Road in London. Although the London-based Vivienne Westwood is now well known as a designer of high fashion, she had been a primary schoolteacher. After she met McLaren, she began designing punk-style clothing for his boutique.
  4. Paul Gorman, “Blessed and Blasted: Roots of the Anarchy Shirt, Part 3,” http://www.paulgormanis.com/?p=1603.
  5. Sklar, 133.
  6. Author’s conversation with Lissette Pomart, October 15, 2014.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Sklar, 133.
  9. Author’s conversation with Tianna Mackey, October 17, 2014.
  10. Author’s conversation with Alex Campbell, October 17, 2014.

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