Malcolm McLaren's archivist on the Sex Pistols shirt that changed everything forever
The Met in New York will open Punk: From Chaos To Couture, a landmark exhibition of punk's impact on fashion. In this article, the writer and archivist Paul Gorman describes his time picking apart the story of the Sex Pistols' most famous and revolutionary statement of clothing: the Anarchy Shirt.
One of the most satisfying avenues I have been exploring over recent years is the picking apart and study of the extraordinary artworks, environments and garments Malcolm McLaren created down the years, in clothing often in tandem with Vivienne Westwood for their boutique at 430 King’s Road in World’s End, Chelsea. It is commonly held that these designs – the provocative t-shirts which now define the visual language of punk, for example – are beyond fashion, more akin to multiples, art pieces produced in limited number which belong behind frames, hanged on living room walls and held in museum collections. With primary source information from McLaren himself, I was helped in my investigation into the multifarious strands which fed into the creation in the summer of 1976 of McLaren and Westwood’s so-called Anarchy Shirt by Derek Harris of Lewis Leathers, who has an abiding interest in the activities of the 60s/70s radical activists the Situationist International.
The Anarchy Shirt is the visual equivalent of the music made by McLaren’s charges the Sex Pistols; jarring, violently expressive and an act of collage representing an exciting and scrambled manifesto of desires.
The Anarchy Shirt is the visual equivalent of the music made by McLaren’s charges the Sex Pistols; jarring, violently expressive and an act of collage representing an exciting and scrambled manifesto of desires. In the spring of 1976 McLaren began experimenting in this area by stencilling the Situationist slogan “Be Reasonable – Demand The Impossible” in black capitals across the front of a few plain white shirts.
All the elements were soon on display courtesy of the Sex Pistols in their first televised performance, recorded for Granada TV’s So It Goes in August 1976. In the clip the original variants of the shirt were modelled by Jordan, Matlock and Steve Jones.
“I was working towards the idea of the Anarchy Shirt but in the event only made three or four,” McLaren told me in 2008. The story goes that around this time Jordan, the shop assistant at McLaren and Westwood’s King’s Road store SEX, arrived for work in a man’s shirt which she had adapted by painting stripes over it’s body and sleeves. Amid the surplus stock held at McLaren and Westwood’s flat in south London were boxes containing 50 or so deadstock shirts bearing the 60s Wemblex brand bought by McLaren from an east London warehouse.
Inspired by Jordan, Westwood experimented with adapting one of these by adding paint stripes and showed it to McLaren, who suggested violent dyes and patches containing inflammatory slogans; after all the Sex Pistols had recently incorporated new song Anarchy In The UK into their set. “The Wemblex were in cheap cotton,” said McLaren. “Most were pinstriped with rounded, pin-through collars with a tiny embroidered hole on each tip, though some were plain with medium-spread collars. Vivienne and I turned the shirts inside out, hand-painted each with dyes, stenciled slogans and attached specific hand-made patches. We also replaced the generic shirt buttons with specific pearl stud buttons of the 60s period. Using my son’s stencil set we adorned them with slogans such as ‘Only Anarchists Are Pretty’ and ‘Dangerously Close To Love’ so that they took on the look of something disorderly and uncared for. Each shirt took four to five days to complete.”
“As well as layering the stencils to increase the impact, Vivienne and I came up with Mao-style red armbands declaiming ‘Chaos’ and I attached silk patches of Karl Marx I had discovered in shops in Chinatown which sold Maoist literature. I chose him because his book started the Socialist and workers’ movements in the 19th century. Also, Vivienne and I liked his beard. Marx was a writer/author, a creator of ideas. He represented a great significance and was important to us because he lived in London at one point.”
In line with other creators of manifestos, McLaren was interested in juxtaposition. “Around that time I would stop by the store operated by 60s singer Chris Farlowe in Upper Street, Islington,” he said. “He sold German and Nazi artifacts from the war. I was intrigued by the SS wedding rings and a number of patches and emblems. I purchased a lot and put some of them – such as an upturned Nazi eagle – with the Karl Marx patches on the shirts.”
Derek Harris believes the phrase “Only anarchists are pretty “ was a response to the statement “Of course, all the revolutionaries are pretty” - this appeared in a speech bubble in a 1971 comic circulated by the San Francisco-based Situationist cell Point-Blank!. Some Anarchy Shirts were also inscripted “The Black Hand Gang”, in reference to Spanish anarchists La Mano Negra, whose name was listed with that of their fellow countryman and revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti. “I simply dyed – not fast-dyed – pieces of material and, with a wooden twig dipped in Domestos bleach, wrote anarchic slogans that had appeared on the walls of Paris, such as ‘A Bas de Coca Cola’, an ode to anti-Americans, and to those great heroes of the anarchist movement such as Jose Buenaventura Durruti and the Black Hand Gang, famous in the Spanish Civil War. “I had been a student and the anarchic European student movements really framed my critique,” McLaren told me. “This particular shirt celebrated that.”
This is based on a series of posts on Paul Gorman’s blog.
Anarchy Shirt photography courtesy of Hiroshi Fujiwara Collection