(Here is the written version of the piece that I read at Vol 1 Brooklyn’s Three-Minute Punk Stories on Thursday night. It is at its core about my various anxieties re my appearance and seeming “punk” and other things; it is lacking some ad-libbing that I did, including a profanity-laden bit about the specific slogans seen on t-shirts sold at Bamboozle et al. I was nervous but it worked out. When I was done I hopped off the stage and stuck the landing.)
When I was nine, I made the executive decision that I was going to dress up as a “punk” for Halloween. This was 1984, the first-generation MTV era, with fashion dictates being handed down by the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna; some of my classmates had decided to form a singing group called The Rubber Bracelet Girls, to give you an idea. (I was not cool enough to be part of the group and was instead made manager. Their first cassette was about manicures and called “Manicure Maina.” [sic.] It involved them singing, en masse, lyrics they’d wriiten over “Material Girl” and its ilk. I’m sure it would do boffo business now.) My mother surprisingly relented; my costume, as it were, consisted of an oversized pink sweatshirt that I wore as a dress; I’d taken a marker to it to make it look “graffiti’d,” affixed a couple of safety pins here and there, and cinched it around my just-beginning-to-bud body with a belt made of wispy links. The lacy tights I wore didn’t have holes in them — my mom was not very into the idea of ripping good hosiery just to make a point — but I did have my tufted, bi-level hair sprayed a bright color, and borrowed blood-red lipstick, a shock of blush, and a pair of patent-leather Mary Janes completed the outfit.
The effect was probably more “Disney’s Annabella Llwin” than anything even remotely close to what was being worn in the Very Special Episodes of prime time by the guest stars playing troubled teens, although I maintain that if you took apart that outfit now and added some 21st-century detailing — the sweatshirt would be American Apparel; the tights would be pre-ripped and cost more than the shoes I’d worn that day — you’d have an outfit worthy of at least one photo in an online gallery spotlighting the young and fabulous.
Fourth grade was probably as good as i got as far as looking the “punk” part. In high school I bought a pair of indigo Doc Martens at Utopia, the head shop in the middle of town that was decorated with Grateful Dead bears and that sold me Bikini Kill’s self-titled EP. Gritting my teeth as their hard leather rubbed against the backs of my ankles allowed me a somewhat rebellious pose, right? Leather jackets like the ones worn by Joey Ramone and Helen Love were expensive and looked weird on my top-heavy frame, so in college I tried to go the thrift-store route, scouring the racks for ill-fitting dresses that I wore almost daily, until they tried to willfully shed themselves from my body. I gave up trying so hard, eventually, although don’t think that I didn’t agonize over how I was going to present myself tonight. (bat overly lined eyes)
At those fests where the many-times-Xeroxed idea of “punk” is part of the defining ethos — Bamboozle, Warped — dressing the part seems to involve sloganeering via shirts that announced what sort of badassery was coming. Sure, in part these wearable billboards are the result of the DIY ecosystem at work; up-and-coming brands selling shirts to be worn at the fests where they were sold were taking a stand against the aggressive logos of your TapOuts and the Ed Hardys, via profanity-filled declarations declaring a lack of giving a fuck. But doesn’t wearing such a costume do the opposite? I learned a lot about what i came to see as the punk ideal from a magazine that was just as devoted to fashion as it was to the bands it breathlessly chronicled, which is probably a big reason I’m more confused about how to present as “punk” than I was when I saw it only as a series of sartorial decisions involving ripping up clothes only to pin them back together again.