On Punk Pants: Duration, Devotion, and Distinction
APRIL 5, 2011tags: authenticity, authorship, crust pants, Hiekki Salonen, Jen Ayres,labor-intensive, Lil’ Wayne, ownership, practice of duration, punk rock,punk rock racism, Thunderhorse Vintage, timeby mimi thi nguyen
In my wayward youth –a little over fifteen years now—I had a pair of black, straight-leg denim jeans, a central feature of my small and almost exclusively black wardrobe. Though I wore them day after day, I never washed these jeans. Instead, I let the dirt and the grease accumulate until these and other sediments fused to the fabric, and manifested as a semi-glossy sheen. Like others, I patched some of the inevitable holes from wear and tear with band patches –even though I was not much of a grindcore fan, an Assück patch went over a hole below the left back pocket, because duh, stupid-funny— and fuzzy leopard print fabric.
As a material artifact my denim told a story of a practice of duration, and an aesthetic of devotion — an accumulation of time and purposeful neglect as evidence of my punk pledge. (I no doubt wore these the night my then-best friend and I both swore we would be punk forever, sitting on the floor of his bedroom listening to records out of milk crates.) Though rumors and anecdotes about how to “speed up” the process were passed around, like rubbing motor oil or coal or ink into the denim, some punks dismissed these techniques as cheating – that is, a counterfeit pretense rather than an “earned” practice of duration. Punk pants therefore acted as the measure of continuance of one’s observance; shading into ontology, in this view these pants might even be conceived as a “clock for punk being.” (A horrible paraphrase from Roland Barthes, apologies.)
Mine were nevertheless not crust pants, which take the patchwork aesthetic to even those parts of the pants that would not normally be subject to strain. A tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-ethnographic essay called“Crust Pants: The Filth and the Fury” includes instructions for creating crust pants without putting them through to the wear and tear that mark the passage of time. (There is also a WikiHow entry titled“How To Dress Like A Crusty,” and a dedicated Tumblr, Fuck Yeah Crust Pants.) This is another sort of practice of duration that secures “authenticity” through handicraft, inasmuch as the deconstruction of these pants from their original form is also time- as well as labor-intensive.
Does it matter if the labor is yours, or another’s? Finnish designer Hiekki Salonen, a London Royal College of Art graduate and a creative consultant for Diesel, offers for sale (online at the Convenience Store) these “fully embroidered, hand patched jeans” for 720 pounds (or $1,150): “Hand printed, stitched, appliqued and with unbelievable detail they truly are a future collectible, a timeless design item and a unique take on a classic.” (I first saw these on I’M REVOLTING.)
Both images from The Convenience Store.
I am not at all bothered by the notion of instantaneous crust pants. Indeed, I find their existence –thousand-dollar crust pants!– fascinating and frankly, funny (I still can’t believe I’m writing a serious post about punk pants). Because I understood my own punk pants as a practice of duration and devotion, I’m caught by the play of time in these terms: “hand patched,” “future collectible,” “timeless design item,” “a classic.” These jeans both refer to a practice and aesthetics of duration (in the painstaking labor of hand-patching, enhancing the sense of craft and artistry embedded there), and the near-instantaneous delivery to a consumer for whom the exorbitant cost of the purchase includes that practice and aesthetics of invested time. Moreover, the fact that these jeans were not subject to wear and tear (the “usual” reason for patching pants) suggests that they will go a further distance, long enough I suppose to become a “future collectible.” What I am still wondering about is the lineage implicit in describing these jeans as a “timeless design,” a “classic”– to what other design aesthetics do these jeans refer if not punk (the recurring trope of tramp chic?), and if there are other paths and histories through which we might arrive at them, how have these paths been rubbed out, or hidden, by a punk story?
An April Interview editorial features Lil’ Wayne styled in what some could consider punk “classics,” including heavily-patched pants with an Amebix and other crust band patches, a tattered mohair striped sweater (shades of Sid Vicious), and a studded denim vest. As Jen from Thunderhorse Vintage informed me, some punks upon viewing the editorial felt trespassed upon by interlocutors erroneously imagined to be “foreign” to punk. Some were predictably outraged that punk is being “exploited” for fashion, as if one of its many points of origins was not Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’sSEX boutique. Others felt that cultural outsiders –and, in this instance, outsiders is a category racialized as hip hop, and commodified as less “pure” than punk— had plagiarized and pilfered their subcultural boundary objects,as if punk claims to the authentic are not immediately undermined by any historical sense of its ebbs and flows. Indeed, punk cuts and pastes from other cultures with reckless abandon (and indeed, proclaims its piracy proudly) and with often little regard for the troubling racial politics of “authorship” and innovation when those other cultures are indigenous, Caribbean, Pacific Islander, or African American and Latino. (And the also-manifested virulent racisms in response to a black hip-hop artist in studs –as if black participation in punk was unthinkable!– is unsurprising and revolting.) As the blogger at Una Guerra Sin Fondo astutely schools in “Who’s Wearing Whose Clothes?”
This is what punk fashion is – Punk is white people doing something black and brown already did.
During the late 60s and early 70s street gangs in NYC, especially the predominately Puerto Rican and Black South Bronx. Gang members wore the denim vests, leather jackets, and motorcycle boots that would get a whitewash during the late-70s with PUNK. Generally each gang wore a denim vests with outlaw motorcycle style patches that identified the club the wearer belonged to. – This vest was also decorated with silver studs and patches of skulls, daggers, Puerto Rican flags, black power imagery, and swastikas. Sometimes gang members would also roll around in trash and city scum to make their vests and other clothing look ragged and filthy. This look is associated with the very first appearance of HIP HOP culture, which includes graffiti, rapping, and break dancing. All of these elements from inner-city Black and Latino youth culture.
My punk pants are long gone. Though she denies it still, my mother threw out my punk pants once I left to New York for graduate school. I can’t remember the exact reason why I didn’t bring them with me, but I suspect I left them behind after punk rock broke my heart with its racisms and misogyny. (That’s a long story that can be found elsewhere.) Later, doing another degree in the Bay Area, I half-heartedly started a new pair, but I didn’t wear them as often, and the denim never accrued dirt or grease enough. I couldn’t readily wear punk pants on all occasions, and in any case, my sartorial sensibilities have shifted. (I am right now wearing slouchy black boots, black wool tights, black hoop earrings, an awesome New Wave white and black-dotted dress with a clear perforated skinny plastic belt, a Lilliput pin and UAW Local 2965 “UC Works Because We Do” badge.)
But I don’t need the pants to measure the duration of my ties to punk rock anymore. Indeed, the “scandal” about Lil’ Wayne in studs and crust pants is not that he wore them at all, but that punk continues to evacuate its own racial histories of both theft and “ownership,” and that feels to me like a broken record I’ve listened to for a long, long time.
I am so happy that something I wrote was quoted on Threadbared! Thanks Jen Thunderhorse + Threadbared!