On Punk Pants: Duration, Devotion, and Distinction

A black and white photograph of a pair of much-patch black pants, from thigh to below the knee.

From fuckyeahcrustpants.tumblr.com

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, 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 the wear and tear that might otherwise 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 and reconstruction 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 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). That said, I do wonder how to we got to this point. In querying the thousand-dollar crust pants, I am less interested in whether these pants can be deemed “punk” than in understanding how “authenticity” and other values are attached to forms of labor (symbolic and material), and as well to the divisions between designer, sewer, and consumer that are in this garment renewed.

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. At the same time, none of the value of authorship passes to the sewer whose skilled labor is central to the pants’ appeal. Instead, authorship (or, if this pisses you off, blame) falls to the designer whose creative knowledge is readily perceived here. His is the name we know, even though the profession of design cannot do without the craft of sewing.

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’s SEX 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. Consciously so or not, putting Lil’ Wayne in crust pants and studded denim vests both demonstrates the historical confluence of both hip hop and punk as contemporaneous urban subcultures, but also their ongoing racialization as separate phenomena. (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. 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.

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25 Comments

Filed under FASHIONING RACE, SARTORIAL INDULGENCES

25 responses to “On Punk Pants: Duration, Devotion, and Distinction

  1. Nick

    one thing the blogger at Una Guerra Sin Fondo said (Una Guerra Sin Fondo?! fuck! one of my favourite Ultimo Resorte songs!!!) about punks stealing NYC gang looks, what about UK punks? i think they were getting their look from UK Biker Culture (black denim vests, leathers etc), which was heavily influenced by early 50′s and 60s’ US gangs like the Hell’s Angels. the punk look (and Thrash metal as well, to a lesser extent) owes its look more so to biker gangs and not so much to the NYC gang members, who were just co-opting the same look. especially the UK punks, because why would they care about what US gangsters in NYC were wearing?

  2. willg

    As for other design aesthetics the pants could be referencing, I am reminded of the liner notes to the album “After the Goldrush,” by Neil Young, which feature a close-up shot of the 1960s version of crust pants. Certainly there are other stories that could be told.

    Link: http://goldenwestclothing.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/after-the-gold-rush-lp-back.jpg

    Certainly there are other stories that could be told.

  3. Nick – Yeah the lineage of denim vest and leather jacket goes beyond the look adopted by gangs like the Savage Skulls. The Skulls actually do often state that their fashion was influenced by outlaw biker gang culture. However leather jackets/berets/military fatigues were from the Black Panthers and the Young Lords Party. Also Bronx street gangs had been wearing matching jackets since the 1930s. – Check out “The Education of Sonny Carson” or read “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” by Jeff Chang if you want some references on this.

    Part of the reason I wrote what I did is to show the connection between Hip Hop and clothing items that are claimed the sole property of “punk.” Hip hop did it first. Sorry punks! In all seriousness there is a lot of overlap between punk and hip hop, because both music cultures emerged around the same time, however it seems that now punks don’t want to acknowledge that fact.

    p.s. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCwDIq4evTM&feature=related
    Look at this! Afrika Bambaata with pink and blue hair??? with a studded headband???

    • I loved your post! And yes, hip hop (and apparently some hippies and folk rockers) did it first.

    • I don’t know what punks you’re talking about who say this style only belongs to punks. But I do know Weezy ain’t hip hop. At least he’s not true school hip hop, the kind you seem to be alluding to (the 4 elements and all that) who originated the style you’re talking about.

      And there’s no way, with his Amebix patch and Void crosses, that he’s making some sort of abstract statement about re-appropriating what was stolen from hip hop culture. That’d be giving him too much credit.

      Now if he wasn’t wearing lots of shit with punk band names all over it I’d say you’re right and whatever punk is up in arms needs to chill, but he’s not. This is Weezy dressed like a crusty. Nothing more, nothing less.

      Just like crunk kids wearing skinny jeans. Black kids used to make fun of me for peg legging my jeans in high school. Now black kids wear skinny jeans too. So what?
      People should be stoked.
      After I first got into punk rock I saw Beat Street. After that I got into hip hop too, and the way I saw it hip-hop heads and punks were from the same sort of background. They were both made up of smart kids who were unfortunate in a lot of similar ways; from their home lives right down to their school grades, music and police records.
      These are the same ways the gangs of the 60′s and 70′s are similar to punks and kids from the projects now.

      And by the way ARMIES all over the world have worn the same jackets for thousands of years and leather jackets and studs came from bikers who’ve been around since the 40′s, end of story. All races from all decades have had gangs of delinquents. The only difference now is the music scene they identify with.

      Can we stop doing this blame game, rank pulling bullshit already?

    • Sarina

      That song with Afrika Bambaataa was released in 1986. At least in this case, his look was probably influenced by punk style, not the other way around.

      Historical contextualization is important, y’all.

  4. On Punk Pants: a great piece! My best friend had the most amazing pair, more holes than patches, aptly named “the real f*cking jeans,” ha. Every kid with a rock attitude, from Bad Brains to Bowie, needs a pair of punk pants. It doesn’t matter if they’re ‘authentic’ or ‘manufactured.’ What matters is true devotion to your punk pants. Wear them. Wear them often. Wear them well. Never wash them. Let them come alive with years of memories, mosh pits and malt liquors (that you spilled on them while drinking with your friends in the parking lot/alleyway). I don’t wear mine much anymore. But I’ll never get rid of them. They belong in a museum. All the cutting, tearing, stitching and patching of my punk wardrobe is what led me fashion.

  5. If I could write my senior thesis on this topic, I sure as hell would.

  6. This could be off, but as far as the patched-pants history goes, I think it actually goes back to American slavery. (This is a claim founded on one semester of a black style RAship and stumbling upon one image- but a whole field of scholarship exists I know of but am not familiar with looking at historical slave dress and what solving ‘the problem’ of dressing slaves said about the social and cultural dimensions of that time period, etc.) The picture was of a (slave/cotton sharecropper) man’s pants, white cotton, discolored, and patch upon patch running the entire length and width of the pants. This was before the mass production of clothes so all little scraps of cloth in existence was diverted to paper productions. If scraps were kept they were to be utilized further extending the life of things. Things were extensively repaired, darned, patched, and mended because there was nothing else available. The patches on the pair of pants I’m referring to were not honorary tokens of status but as visible reminders of slavery and marks of property, with no options to obtain a whole complete and unmarred pair of pants. (I’m no historian, but definitely an area of research I would love to learn more about)

    Anyway,
    Mimi! This piece is brilliant!
    Thank you for your excellent analysis and poignancy, and attention to this facet of punk identity! (For another modern designer runway example of ‘crust pants’ also see last year’s Thierry Mugler: http://thunderhorsevintage.tumblr.com/post/4058441246/north-baby-thumbs-up-for-tucked-in-button-ups)
    I also love the critical intervention you make in the discourse of, ahem, “shut up- talking about punk fashion ISNT punk!” to explain why this matters.
    And I really really love how you did justice to this topic not only in relation to you own identity but its intersections with race and class as well- thank you!

    • It goes back to PANTS! Shortly after there were pants there were PATCHED PANTS.

      Are you trying to say that slaves invented patched pants? Or that punks are ripping off slaves?
      Before the mass production of clothes?

      What do you think the slaves were picking cotton for? The South’s economy was nothing but textiles because they had the fields to grow cotton. The North’s was industry based which is one of the reasons the kicked hell out of the South: the south didn’t have the capability to produce a lot of weapons unlike the North who churned that shit out in the factories the south didn’t have.

      I’d say it’s more likely that, like anyone living in total poverty, they did what anyone who couldn’t get new clothes did: They patched them!

      This is getting ridiculous you guys.

      • I think the misunderstanding here is the difference between the patched pants as an aesthetic practice, which may or may not arise from circumstances of necessity (which is what Jen is suggesting), rather than a “purely” practical one, with no particular aesthetic or design emerging from the patching (what you’re arguing). Of course, all poor persons patch their clothes, but how and when do such practices of necessity become enfolded into an aesthetic or creative one, where necessity may not always be a factor (a.k.a. patching pants for the look, not the tear)?

  7. Rikki

    This makes me really happy. In my generation, you washed your jeans in a gallon of bleach to start … Skateboarding was a good way to get rips and tears.

  8. K

    Isn’t it more specific than patched pants and pyramid studs, though? I think the reactions have been more about the Amebix patch Lady Gaga’s GISM jacket and things – so, less general “fashion” imagery and more specific appropriations? And so, then it’s not like punk kids are upset because whomever is co-opting the style, but because they’re lumping Amebix and GISM in with the fashion, right? I don’t think anyone would care/notice if it was just generic patches and spikes and dirty denim. That said, maybe GISM and Amebix ARE just part of the aesthetic now (or have always been?) and maybe it’s silly to hold these things as part of some imaginary, precious underground, who knows…

  9. K

    Also, you know, what we do is secret!

  10. gary

    i could make an in-joke about peanut butter pants…guess I kinda did.

  11. my roomate made lady gaga’s jacket and hes punk as fuck. THIS ARTICLE IS AMAZING!

  12. Dan

    I agree that there is a great deal of racism in punk rock, and a lot of the anger directed at Lil’Wayne is racist in origin.

    However, I think that maybe some crusties are pissed because Lil’ Wayne is kinda, well, a misogynistic millionaire. I honestly think hip-hop people wearing punk-style clothes is radical and very awesome. It just sucks to see something that’s anti-corporate appropriated by millionaires and bandied about in trendy, self-congratulatory magazines and other assorted “high-end” culture. It’s like Kristen Stewart in a Minor Threat shirt – it’s something you love (that often speaks to your dislike of the rich and powerful) being co-opted by the rich and powerful.

  13. Mein Kunt

    This is so fucking inaccurate. The punk scene (especially the anarcho-crust scene) is strongly and vocally against any form of racism. It is also against capitalists like Lil’ Wayne using the image to further his career and sell more records.

    • There’s been a conversation about racism in punk since its beginnings — see Lester Bangs’ incredible essay “The White Noise Supremacists.” There is also an enormous archive of racisms in punk scenes, and of critiques of the same, often authored by punks of color. There do exist critiques of racism and misogyny in anarcho-crust scenes, as well.

  14. Maybe it’s just where I’m from, (California, I spend a substantial amount of time in both North and South) but bigotry and racism isn’t very prevalent. Sure, there are definitely sects of punk that preach racism and possibly white superiority, but those shouldn’t be looked at as the ‘punk culture.’ Isn’t punk about acceptance and embracing the outcasts? That’s what I hear all the bands I’ve seen preach. Every genera and ‘scene’ has sects that have different beliefs, but they’re just people. People are different. There’s a strong Hispanic and Asian force here in California in the punk scene, along with a thousand different ethnicities. It makes no difference to us.
    I think the Lil’ Wayne issue was less about his race than of someone from a different genera ‘posing’ as a punk, when there isn’t much to support his argument. He simply donned a different outfit because he liked it, thought it looked interesting or cool, not because he was pledging to be a punk. It’s like those kids that wear band shirts simply because they look cool or maybe they’ve heard they’re popular, we’ve all seen them. The kids with the Misfits, Nirvana, Sex Pistols shirts.
    I don’t know. That’s just how I see it.
    Fair winds and following seas

  15. Pingback: Mimi Thi Nguyen’s “On Punk Pants: Duration, Devotion, and Distinction” | barefoot on gravel

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