if punk never dies, how does it age?

The original punk generation are now well into their 50s with an arsenal of anti-aging technology at their disposal. But how has the generation that stuck its finger up at conformist beauty in the 70s adapted to the post-millennial beauty culture?

by Bethan Cole
Jun 2 2015, 6:10pm

It's hard to imagine just how rupturing punk was to conventional beauty norms. Brighton-based artist Countess Pasha du Valentine, 52, remembers her look back then as a vertiginous mohawk which was dyed weekly, plucked eyebrows, a Union Jack in the shape of a streak of lightning painted across her face, lips done in four quarters black and red, a pierced nose, and seven holes in her ear often chained up together. "I was definitely rejecting feminine beauty ideals. I hated the passivity of the status quo female look," she recalls of the motivation for her punk beauty manifesto. "I hated the sameness, the normality, the lack of imagination. Most of all I detested the lack of power... The 'come get me fluffy rabbit' look."

Gail Thibert, 50 now was a backing singer and keyboard player in the punk band Flowers in the Dustbin, also wanted to rail against convention. "I didn't feel like one of the 'normal' people. I wanted to be different. I felt I was different."

For Karen Amsden of the punk band Hagar the Womb, it was not so much a rejection of normative beauty as an appreciation of women who looked alternative. "I just had different ideas of what was beautiful," she says "We wanted to look like these women because we wanted to be performers with such distinct identities. I went to see the film Jubilee repeatedly mainly because I really loved the look of Jordan."

The objective was to reject a commercial and received vision of feminine beauty, not to stop being a woman. "If you mean was I de-feminizing myself by challenging and trying to destroy the patriarchal, cultural constructs of masculine and feminine, then yes we were." Says Michelle Brigandage, 55, who runs the clothes label Sexy Hooligans and sings in the band Brigandage. "I cannot explain how powerful it was to walk down the road where men would usually pass daily value judgements on your appearance and see them flinch and recoil in horror!"

Making such a bold political statement is relatively easy when you are young, but what happens when you get older? "As a young punk rock feminist anarchist I always swore I'd get old disgracefully," Michelle explains.

But ageing can be tough, punk or not, and more often than not, personal style does evolve over the years. "Yes, I have mellowed with age," admits Countess Pasha du Valentine. "I would still have a mohawk if I could get away with it. I did have an undercut (shaved one side) a year or so ago but couldn't rock it."

Karen Amsden, meanwhile, has come full circle. In 1981 as a 17-year-old in anarchist feminist band Hagar the Womb, she had a mohawk that varied in color between pink, red, blue and green. "A whole can of Boots extra hold hairspray was put on it every week to keep it staying up rigid." However, when the band split up her taste in music and style changed to become more conventional. Between the ages of 22-46, she describes herself as "not looking very punk." "I think that most people I knew during this time would have been surprised to find out about my anarchist punk past." But when her band reformed after 27 years, she rediscovered her punk roots, going from a self proclaimed 'housewife' and mother to two young children with greying hair to "a working mother in a punk band." She narrates how she has "reverted in many ways back to my original style of 50s style dresses, bright hair and make up. I think my original style was still lurking but just got lost for about 20 years, and it has been quite a shock for my family as I rediscover it!"

Zillah Minx, lead singer of the band Rubella Ballet hasn't mellowed in the slightest. From coming out as punk at 15 in 1976 when she would dye her blonde hair with food coloring, she has retained her confrontational hair and make up "No I haven't mellowed, I am more determined to keep my appearance; it is part of who I am. I want to look different from others, don't try and brand me with your ubiquitous blue jeans and sneakers." But how does such an appearance work with regard to employment in the mainstream of society? "Most punks are intelligent enough to have created their own employment with bands, fashion, and tattoo parlors, photography etc." replies Minx. "Since 15, I have maintained my punk identity and appearance throughout my band life and employment in the mainstream. As a punk with pink hair I have met and talked to the Queen whilst employed as a charity fundraiser. She didn't bat an eyelid as I introduced her to my trainees."

It seems that for punks and alternative rockers in the public eye such as Siouxsie Sioux and Viv Albertine, there is the pressure to stay youthful looking. Debbie Harry recently revealed to The Telegraph that she'd had some cosmetic surgery, commenting 'it goes with the job'.

Of course you could argue that surgery and injectables are a form of subversion in that you are putting your finger up to the onslaught of nature. But others might postulate that you are selling out and conforming to mainstream ideals of youth and beauty. "I can understand a few nips and tucks if it makes you feel better," says Brigandage, who is quite mellow in her attitude to surgical intervention. "I wouldn't consider Botox as I don't have many wrinkles at the moment and I don't want a static face! But my friend has had it and it's different and softer. But she has what I call the hound dog lines around the mouth and chin (as do I) which are hereditary and bloody upsetting and she's had filler and looks great!"

"Punk is about acceptance of the self and in all shapes and sizes." Say Gail Thibert. "Flowers in the Dustbin have a slogan--it's OK to be Ugly--and really, it is. Punk attracts people who feel they don't fit in with the norm and that would be people who have disfigurements and unusual body shapes. No one judges them on it and its safe to be who they are."

"Punk rock is an attitude, not a look," maintains Brigandage. "It's better to be punk on the inside," concludes Thibert. "You will find that many members of punk bands didn't actually look as 'punk' as their fans. It's more about attitude and if someone thinks all you have to do to be punk is put on some bondage trousers and spike their hair, then they are guilty of following fashion, which is exactly what punk was rebelling against in the first place."


Text Bethan Cole
Photography Rainer Theuer