During my cultural education lessons with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) I spend a little time looking at some applied arts. And amongst these lessons what better applied art to make use of than fashion. Nice and close to the range of interests and experiences of the pupils you would think. You might also think that they would relish the idea of the more experimental and progressive work of modern designers.
I acknowledge that I don’t teach in one of the more cosmopolitan cities of Europe. I actually teach in a relatively small provincial town. But even so, I am still regularly taken aback by the conservativeness of my pupils. Are there rebels amongst them? Well, when it comes to clothing, probably not!
I watched a film with them today about Vivienne Westwood that spent a considerable part looking at the Punk related fashion she, in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren produced in the late seventies and early eighties. We saw the bondage trousers and the near pornographic t-shirts that were intended to stir things up and to shock. The film certainly caught the attention of the class, to say that the pupils were shocked, in the same way that the general public might have been shocked back in 1980, wouldn’t be true. No, they weren’t shocked, they were bemused. They just didn’t seem to understand why someone would want to confront someone in that way through what they wear. They also wanted to know whether I had been a Punk back in the early eighties, but I had to admit to being just a shade too young for that!
I guess we are living in different times. I can think of plenty of things that you could put on a t-shirt nowadays that would be shocking too. The perception of the world today is such that a provocative statement of offense to others might involve a risk to yourself. It would really seem that sensibilities have shifted. We are exposed to so much through modern media, but simultaneously there does seem to be a creeping restriction in freedom of expression that didn’t seem to be the case thirty years ago.
Could the rebels clothed by Westwood back in the late seventies and early eighties have a place in today’s society? What shocks and offends today is not the same as what shocked and offended then. The Punk fashion point of reference seemed to be the establishment and society that was immediately around them. The explicit content that featured on their t-shirts then would probably now result in little more than a shrug of the shoulders of passers-by. The global village nature of the world in which we now live in means that frames of reference and potential offended audiences are spread over the entire globe.