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The Punk-Rock Aesthetic Shaped My Self-Expression Through Fashion

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Rock is having a moment right now. Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” is trending all over TikTok. Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker are ushering in the era of “Bad Boy Summer.” And punk-rock fashion aesthetics are popping up again among Gen Z (hello, wolf cut). But for me, rock music and the way that rock stars dress was never just a passing fad — the punk-rock aesthetic has shaped my self-expression since I was young.

My earliest memory of wanting to look like a rock star was when I saw My Chemical Romance perform on MTV during the golden age of commercial third-wave emo. I remember begging my parents to take me to Hot Topic so that I could buy red eyeliner to look like Gerard Way, and I have remained obsessed with rock ‘n roll fashion ever since.

Rock stars are largely aspirational figures; people either want to be them or to sleep with them. I was in the former camp. My favorite thing about the punk-rock aesthetic is the accessibility. I may not be able to afford the exact brands that rock stars wear, but replicating their style with cheap materials like thrifted denim, inexpensive plastic accoutrements, and bargain-store pleather was easy. Here’s a list of five rock stars who inspired the way I dress today.

Dee Dee Ramone

I have always loved early punk fashion. And no, I’m not talking about Vivienne Westwood’s overpriced clothing line. I’m referring to the working class people who resourcefully made their own outfits from scratch, stuck safety pins in their ears, and sewed homemade patches onto their jackets. It didn’t have to look elevated — in fact, it was better if it didn’t. The Ramones’ wardrobe — the leather jackets, white shirts, and tight pants — was inspired by disenfranchised queer sex workers, specifically gay male hustlers who worked at cruising spots in Midtown Manhattan. This is one of my favorite go-to looks, because it is low-key, casual, and easy to throw together. It all starts with the iconic leather jacket — check out this one on Poshmark.

Carrie Brownstein

With her shortly cropped hair and infectious childlike energy, indie darling Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney is one of those musicians who I have always been awestruck by. Her style is just as killer as her ability to own a stage. When I first cut my hair with a pair of paper scissors in my dorm room and started donning blazers and pant suits, she was the image that I had in my head. Her aesthetic always gives me “business casual but make it fashion” vibes, which I love. Outerwear from designers like Samuel Dong are my favorite way to match this energy – and guess what? They’re easy to find on websites like thredUP for a much cheaper price.

Julian Casablancas

If there’s anything Julian Casablancas excels at besides songwriting, it is aesthetics. The early days of The Strokes saw him donning leather, military jackets, sunglasses and tight pants. It was very reminiscent of early ‘70s CBGB punk with the Velvet Underground, The Ramones and Andy Warhol’s Factory. His wardrobe paired with his disaffected confidence and effortlessly cool swagger was irresistible. Julian was one of the first rock stars I really looked at at a young age and thought, “I want to be him.” And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try. When I first moved to New York City for college, I only shopped in the men’s department for military jackets and oversized sunglasses at thrift stores. The Marine Corps Dress Blues sells a military jacket that is perfect for this aesthetic.

Lux Interior

I love dressing up in outrageous, over-the-top outfits wherever I go out clubbing. Who doesn’t love a nice latex number or a pink catsuit? Lux Interior, the flamboyant and outrageously campy frontman of punk-a-billy rock band The Cramps, was the inspiration for many of the outfits I wore at nightclubs. Watching The Cramps’ performances online inspired me to wear things like fishnet bodysuits, iridescent safety goggles, and PVC fetish gear whenever I went out. You don’t even have to break the bank to look this bold; I found a leather catsuit on eBay for just over $20.

Patti Smith

Seeing the cover of Patti Smith’s 1975 album Horses was a massive game-changer for me. She was wearing a white button-up blouse with suspenders and a jacket draped over her shoulder. Patti’s simple, street-ready form of androgyny was very freeing for me to see as a young woman who wasn’t always keen on high fashion or wearing makeup. I shop at Kirrin Finch to achieve a similar look.

As a queer woman who didn’t come out until my early twenties, I lacked a lot of confidence growing up. But you know what they say: fake it til you make it. Dressing like my favorite rock stars has largely helped me achieve their level of confidence through experimenting with bolder looks, androgynous outfits, and not caring what other people think (perhaps the most punk-rock sentiment of all). It seems like with the recent punk-rock trends circulating the Internet, the rest of the world is catching on too. Long live rock ‘n roll.

Isabel Corp

New School '21

Isabel Corp is a third-year Literary Studies major with a concentration in non-fiction writing at Eugene Lang College. Isabel writes about Sex and Relationships & Culture, and her writing can also be found in the blog of the non-profit LGBTQ+ organization, Family Equality.