The incomparable influence of Punk Legend Poly Styrene fashion
Although the face of punk rock is often portrayed by white men and their rage and nihilistic attitudes, she was actually a black woman at the forefront of shaping punk political consciousness – and the aesthetic of the years. 1970. Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliot Said, was a half-British, half-Somali punk rock pioneer and the frontman of the short-lived but influential group X-Ray Spex. His music was instrumental in the advancement of punk sound in the 1970s; she was a pioneer in creating contagious melodies that fused horns, electric guitars and Caribbean rhythms supporting her lyrics – unprecedented by her punk peers of that time, and a poignant observer of her life as a black woman living in Brixton, London . The peak of her musical career lasted from 1976 to 1978, but her lyrics and ideas about consumerism, feminism, racism and the environment are still relevant today. While most may not know her by name, her impact on pop culture is palpable – so much so that a book about her life story was followed by the release of a documentary titled Poly styrene: I’m a cliché. The film premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Festival and then premiered more widely on March 5. The book, titled Dayglo! The history of poly styrene, was published in 2019 by co-authors Celeste Bell (daughter of Styrene) and Zoë Howe; he chronicles her life through a series of interviews with people who knew her, as well as those who were influenced by her, including punk icon Kathleen Hanna and New Wave pioneer Boy George.
Howe, a rock ‘n’ roll biographer who has written books on The Slits, Stevie Nicks, Lee Brilleaux, and more, has worked with Styrene on various occasions, but most notably made the press on the latest X-Ray show. Spex in 2008 at The Roadhouse in London. She got to know Bell through these interactions and stayed in touch with her throughout the next decade. Bell sat on a huge visual archive she inherited from her mother and reached out to Howe to collaborate on what was to become Dayglo.
Poly Styrene’s legacy as a punk singer and lyricist is well documented. But after reading Dayglo and I spoke to Belle and Howe, I realized that style and self-presentation were also deeply ingrained in Styrene’s life and career. She was, quite simply, a fashion girl – what is so striking about the book and the accompanying film is the rich personal commentary, complemented by documentation of an incredible personal style. Styrene was ahead of its time – concerned with quality rather than quantity (a basic pillar of sustainability) and adamant in rejecting fast fashion.
“I certainly discovered a lot about my mother through the memories of others and people who knew her before I was alive,” Belle said. “You only really know your parents through your family. And I was talking to people who knew her as a teenager.
As a colored mestizo who grew up in Britain in the 1960s, Styrene experienced a wave of migration that the country saw as “a phenomenon,” Bell said. A Somali immigrant, Styrene’s father experienced anti-black racism in addition to the strong anti-immigrant sentiment of the time. “There was already an idea that if you were Métis you were going to have a hard time,” Bell added. “There was this idea that you would probably be confused and have mental health issues. Unfortunately, my mother had mental health issues. She grew up in an environment where racial abuse inflicted on her and her parents was rife. Living in a difficult part of London, Poly grew up having to fight and defend himself. These experiences, in turn, informed his music and his art.
While exploring identity in her music, Styrene also faced the constant struggle not to conform to preconceived labels regarding her gender or race. She refused to be defined by these two categories, and her strong feelings around her personal identity were also manifested in the way she dressed. Poly saw the idea of fame as a way to escape his social and economic situation. The compassion, vulnerability and contradictions of the characters wrapped in her performance art stemmed from feeling like an outsider within the constraints of the punk movement, as well as how she navigated as a biracial woman in Britain. . The feelings of isolation were very real to her, but she was able to use clothes and fashion to solidify her stage character and express herself.
Styrene was known for its distinct appearance of untamed curls, braced teeth and unmistakable ‘Dayglo’ style: fluorescent hues, wild prints and busty shapes – an aesthetic that was the antithesis of sullen manners. and reckless punk. His interest in Dayglo and his mission to establish vibrant colors as a marker of his look was a reaction to the obscurity and nihilism of the typical punk style.
The musician had an existing relationship with the fashion world; One of her first jobs before joining X-ray Spex was as a junior buyer for a High Street store, which led to her opening her own stand in Beauford Mark called “Poly Styrene”. She was later at the forefront of sustainability long before we heard about it from her punk counterpart and designer colleague, Vivienne Westwood, who had a boutique near Styrene’s on Kings Road in London. There, Styrene was known to recycle products and materials to feature in her designs, extracting various plastics and tchotchkes to give any given garment the signature “poly styrene”.
“She took the DIY ethic very seriously,” Bell said. “Actually, there weren’t a lot of punk musicians doing what she was doing: making her own clothes, styling the band, doing all the illustrations for the band, making all of her own posters. One of the reasons her style was so unique and stood out among her contemporaries was that she did it herself. She was not in what we consider to be “classic punk”.
“I think back to her heritage – Somalis, especially women, who traditionally wore bright colors. Even though it’s a Muslim country, dark dresses and hijabs have never been part of their tradition, ”Bell said. “It was more colorful, flowery – and she was very interested in that aesthetic.”
Bell was born in the 1980s, at a time when Styrene was not facing a punk band, and was quite active in the Hare Krishna movement. The first time she saw the Krishnas, she was captivated by their cheerful spirits, chants and flowing saffron robes. This era was his greatest post-punk influence, artistically speaking. Once she joined the Hare Krishna, she stopped wearing Western clothes and switched to Saris and Punjabi costumes. She grew her hair long, wore it braided to the side, pierced her nose, and donned gold jewelry. She no longer felt she needed to conform to unattainable standards of beauty perpetuated by the West. “She always said she felt the prettiest during that time – her late twenties and early thirties,” Bell said in a previous interview. It was a time of spiritual exploration, a new liberation and the creation of a new identity around fashion.
Poly Styrene’s style heritage is a reflection of the self-discovery, motherhood, fame and spirituality that have defined her life. She wasn’t a conventional rockstar, but to exist beyond these conventions as a woman of color was pretty radical in her day. She is remembered as a punk music and fashion innovator, as referenced in pop culture today – and if there was one thing Poly Styrene wanted to do, it was just be Poly Styrene.