CONSTELLATION: PUNK STYLE: Re-signification of Objects and Dress: Session 5 Cath Davies

RECAP: Subculture is based around material artifacts, values and territorial spaces and is defined by the active organisation of objects that they employ. Subcultures inflect “given” meanings by combining things borrowed from different contexts and giving them a different code. Subcultures Intensify, exaggerate or isolate through the modification of objects. New meanings are achieved by the re-signification of objects. Subcultures combine forms according to a “secret language or code, to which only members of the group possess the key.



Dick Hebdige was the first person to write about Punk, and the first person that thought punk was worthy of being analysed as a subculture. He refers to three main subcultural theories within his work – Subcultural Bricoleur or Bricolage, Semiotic Guerilla Warfare and Style as Homology.

Below  I have outlined my understanding of these theories:

Subcultural Bricoleur: Refers to Subcultures like the punks, gathering objects, signs and artefacts and combining them to generate new meanings out of them, different from their existing ones. It considers how subcultures use objects to respond to their environment and explain how they see the world. Bricolage is all about the visual, the aesthetics and all the items that styles incorporate to portray a message.

Semiotic Guerilla Warfare: Refers to the use of offensive language and poor attitude being displayed by punk culture which portrayed their rebellion against society. Offensive T-shirts that the punks wore were known as Guerilla outfits. The punks were waging a war on society and breaking societies rules. They adopted anti-establishment values via objects, music, style etc.

Style as Homology: Whereas Bricolage is about the visual within subculture, Homology refers to the values that go with the subculture, for example the anti-establishment punk statement that is being made through appearance and acts. A subculture looks like chaos, but in fact there’s entire structures and specific rules to follow if you want to be part of that culture.

Characteristics of Punk Style:

Ripped Clothes were not accepted in society. The punks either left their t shirts ripped or put zips in the rips. This is changing the meaning of an object to create a new meaning, zips are used to hold to bits of material together but this is not their function here. This also refers to the safety pins that the punks adored themselves with, their original function is also to hold material together but they used them in their cheeks and lips as a piece of jewellery, therefore creating another new meaning. The punks understood the accepted rules of society and because of this knowledge could rebel against them. Piercings are acceptable today because of punk.

On the subject of jewellery, the punks also wore lavatory chains, razor blades, television components, tampons and clothes pegs as necklaces or earrings etc. The punks wanted to shock society so they wore anything that was not accepted as jewellery. Shock is socially constructed. The breaking of societies rules is shocking and this is exactly what the punks did. Society changes over time and whats considered shocking changes with it.

Cheap, trashy fabrics made up the punk look. They purposefully chose fabrics that were not considered classy like PVC. They took bondage wear out of its original context and wore it on the streets. This was considered socially unacceptable. It had a shock factor and was seen to be threatening because of the fact that they were associated with underground society. They took anything “seedy” and wore it out in the mainstream.

Brightly coloured Dyed hair signified punk style. Hair dyes original function was to change the colour of your hair but so that it still looked natural or to cover up grey hairs. Hair dye is accepted in society if it looks as natural as possible. The punks are rebelling against societies rules again here because bright green or red or pink is never going to look natural. Punk was meant to look constructed. They deliberately advertised themselves as fake because societies beauty treatments are pushed as being natural. It is the same when considering make up – in society girls wear make up, so the male punks wore it too, make up is supposed to look natural and more beautiful, so the punks over did it, broke rules and wore make up to make them look unattractive and threatening. Part of Re-signification of Objects and Dress is to exaggerate.

The punks deliberately wrecked school uniform. School uniform suggests conformity so the punks slashed and put graffiti on it. The punks were very Nialistic and trashed everything Britain stood for. They claimed the symbol of the swastika and changed its meaning because of its shock factor. It was particularly shocking to the people of society who had lived through the war.

Music played a major part in punk subculture. Bands such as the sex pistols appealed to the punks. The music was angry and suggested that there was no future and no place for young people in society. At gigs, bands would spit on the audience and the audience would spit back. The lyrics of the music favoured by punks was deliberately shocking and antagonistic.


Above, is an image of cat woman, a groupie of the Sex Pistols. Her punk look is characterised by lots of eyeliner, masculine hair, black nails and nontraditional jewellery. The shaven short hair is making a statement here. In society it is known that hair should make women more desirable. The punks didn’t conform to this and it was threatening to society that women were doing more masculine things.

Punk Rock Mohawk Hairstyles1

Punks invented the Mohican hair style. In fights, the punk would use the large, hard points in their hair to harm the other  and hair literally became a weapon.

Homology implies the set of rules and shared values that go with subculture. For example, you couldn’t have been a punk and voted for Margaret Thatcher. A punks sensibility would be that you don’t vote for a political party but you go to vote and trash the voting paper to make a statement- anti-politics. It is implied, that subculture always has an anti establishment attitude, but we can challenge this. Today, items can be isolated from their meanings, for example, you could have a mohican and a safety pin through your nose and still vote for David Cameron. Punk is now merely a style. This poses the question: Can things now just be a style with no meaning? You are not making a statement about punk values when you go to a fancy dress party dressed like a punk, you are merely wearing a style.

Subcultural meanings do not just have to relate to clothes, hair and make-up…


Above is an image of the album cover of “God save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols, designed by Jamie Reed. The song “God save the Queen” was banned in the 1970s and no radio was allowed to play it. It was not allowed to be advertised as number one and has a strong punk sensibility.

The Flag within the image stands for establishment and Britishness and Patriotism. Jamie Reed has used an official photo of the queen within this cover, he hasn’t drawn here as he wanted her to be instantly recognisable to all. Both the queen and the flag are linked in this image. She is the figure head of Britain and both imagery stands for establishment. The punk meaning comes into this image through what Jamie Reed has done to existing imagery. Dadaism was a huge influence on punk style. Dadaism mastered the art of collage and showed how new meanings could be generated from combining and altering existing imagery. The Punks adopted this “cut-up technique”.

There are meanings within the image due to where the words are placed. The eyes and mouth of the queen have been ripped off. Ripped is a key motif in punk and here a damaged face implies violence and threat. This illustrates the semiotic violence towards everything the queen stands for by the punks. The punks are making a statement here saying that they are not patriotic and trash the establishment. The typography within the image displays a ransom note look and therefore implies a crime. A crime is being committed against the queen. This is strongly linked to Dadaism where things look deliberately put together but were not originally. Everything about the punks cup up aesthetic looks amateur. This is clearly visible in a page from the punk fanzine, “Sniffin Glue” below.


The cover of this sex pistols album fits in with Bricolage because traditional symbols of Britain have been taken and changed to have a new meaning. The punks changed these patriotic images to be rebellious and to shock society. It also demonstrated semiotic guerilla warfare because it is the epitome of an anti-establishment statement and they are waging a war against typical Britain. Homology is highly apparent, as within this image there is a Re-signification of Objects portraying the values of the subculture.

In his text, Hebdige makes the point that “the cycle leading from opposition to diffusion, from resistance to incorporation encloses each successive subculture”. He means that eventually, anything alternative becomes mainstream over time. Subcultures are only shocking at a particular time.

In conclusion, Punk as a subculture was incredibly shocking in the 70s and broke all the rules of society. They went against conforming to anything accepted into society and were all about being anti-establishment. Punk style demonstrates all three of Hebdiges subcultural theories and includes examples of bricolage, semiotic guerilla warfare and homology.


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