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Poly Styrene Dayglo Celeste Bell
Photography Ian Dickson, 1991 via @art.ii.ficial

Inside unorthodox punk icon Poly Styrene’s wild, day-glo style

Ahead of the launch of a new book and knitwear collection dedicated to the X-Ray Spex founder’s legacy, her daughter Celeste Bell breaks down her pioneering punk aesthetic and its influence on fashion

“I had a total obsession with synthetic things and the modern world, so I dressed to fit – it went with the name and the songs and everything. I wanted it all to be interrelating. Clothes are never really you, that’s why people wear them. You can create an image with them, they express a certain kind of attitude. They take you away from reality, because reality is pretty boring.”

Rising out of London in the late 1970s, the radical, riotous band X-Ray Spex pioneered a sound and aesthetic that would go on to influence everyone from Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill, to Sonic Youth and Henry Rollins, with lead singer, songwriter, and founder Poly Styrene – otherwise known as Marianne Joan Elliot-Said – renowned for her unique, thrown-together second hand ensembles. At a time when punk was taking over the capital, and leather, chains, and bondage were being adopted by the masses, the singer stuck two fingers up at the scene with her thrifted granny cardigans and shift dresses, plastic-fantastic dayglo jewellery, and signature dental braces.

Before starting X-Ray Spex, Styrene had long had an interest in fashion. Setting up her own market stall on the King’s Road, not far from Vivienne Westwood’s SEX boutique, she sold what she called ‘plastic trash’. “Before she started doing music, she had her own store, and she was really into making jewellery and selling secondhand clothes,” explains Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell. “She also worked as a junior buyer for a high street store before the whole music thing, and could have ended up going in that direction. So fashion was always something really important to her life.”

“You can create an image with clothes, they express a certain kind of attitude. They take you away from reality, because reality is pretty boring” – Poly Styrene

Though punk was supposedly all about anarchy, and carefully considered style might seem more the forté of a manufactured pop band, Styrene understood the importance of image, encouraging her bandmates to cut their hair short and dress themselves in similarly scrabbled-together, thrown-on ensembles. Much like their lyrics, X-Ray Specs’ outrageously original aesthetic was a warrior’s cry against consumerism, and a statement on environmental issues and equality – long before ‘sustainability’ and ‘feminism’ became co-opted by corporations and commercialised for monetary gain.

Released today, Bell’s new book DAYGLO – co-written alongside music biographer Zoë Howe – charts the iconic, underground singer’s legacy, and explores the impact she had on the world through both her music and her style. As well as contributions from those who knew her best, including former bandmates Lora Logic, Paul Dean, and Jak Airport, and those inspired by her, including Kathleen Hanna and Vivienne Westwood, the book also comprises a series of previously unseen excerpts from Styrene’s own notebooks and diaries, on everything from her love of fashion through to her struggle with mental health and the challenges she faced as a woman navigating a heavily male-dominated industry.

Having also pretty much pre-empted the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s, inside the book Bikini Kill founder Kathleen Hanna asserts that, had X-Ray Spex not come before them, her own band might never have come into being. “The idea that just anyone could (start a band) was really big to me,” she explains. “That people in your neighbourhood could start a cassette label or a record label, that you could see people who were making records walking down the street. And they didn’t necessarily have to be in a glossy magazine, and they didn’t have to weigh 90 pounds and have blonde hair down to their ankles or whatever was the fashion of the day.”  

Ahead of the release of DAYGLO, which launches alongside a knitwear collection designed in collaboration with cult British knitwear label HADES, we sat down with Celeste Bell to talk about her mum’s inimitable legacy, her relationship with fashion, and one particular look she calls her ‘ghost outfit’.

How did DAYGLO come about?

Celeste Bell: I’ve been sitting on this huge archive of my mum’s work – everything from artwork and drawings through to song lyrics and diary entries that she had written – for a while now, so I got in touch with Zoë and asked if she’d like to work on something with me. We met about three years ago after she interviewed me for her book How’s Your Dad, which was about the children of musicians. We kept in touch because she’d interviewed Poly a few times, and it all kind of went from there. I also wrote a few letters to my mum, which are in there, along with all the other interviews. Some of them will make it into the film we’re working on, too.

A huge part of Poly’s legacy is her style. How would you narrow it down in just a few words?

Celeste Bell: I think the most important word to use is dayglo, it was a huge thing in both music and style when it came to X-Ray Spex. My mum really went against what was happening at the time, the whole punk scene and this very dark aesthetic. Nothing she wore was fashionable, although you see them everywhere now – the pointy shoes, the leggings, the ankle socks, the granny prints. She was a bit of a pioneer when it came to what she wore.

What did you think of her style when you were growing up?

Celeste Bell: When I was really small, I thought she dressed like a mad woman, obviously, because kids are always embarrassed by their parents! I wasn’t usually that impressed because she would show up to pick me up from school in the outlandish, totally out-there things, and even worse than that she dressed me in crazy stuff, too. There’s this one Harlequin look, you know, with the ruffled, frilly collar, which I just hated. When I look back now, though, I’m like ‘okay wow, yeah I actually I had some great outfits!’

Why do you think fashion and style was so important to her?

Celeste Bell: I think it was a way for her to really shape her own image and explore her own identity, and she was very creative: always painting, or drawing, or writing, or singing. Fashion was just another outlet for that creativity. She didn’t go to art school or anything, but she was always very talented and full of ideas. She loved clothes, she made them for the whole band.

Poly Styrene influenced and inspired so many people that came after her. Who or what inspired her?

Celeste Bell: She loved the Golden Era of Hollywood, and in the days before X-Ray Spex, she really experimented with that whole 1930s and 40s sort of thing, the pencil thin eyebrows, the red lips, the very feminine silhouettes. And then later it was all about the Space Age and the 1960s, when she was really channelling Barbarella in her own way, with all the plastic and synthetic materials, and tank dresses and go-go boots in shiny fabrics. And, of course, she loved to surprise people by wearing really granny-ish things, that much, much older women were wearing at the time.

She also challenged existing beauty standards, with her braces, and, at one point, her shaved head. Was this important to her?

Celeste Bell: Definitely. She always set out to prove you could be stylish and cool without spending a lot of money, making your own clothes, buying second hand stuff, not following the crowd, which I think was the main thing she wanted to go against. She was part of the punk scene, of course, but she was totally different to them, she set out to be totally unique, so like wore loads of brilliantly bright colours in place of that dark leather and studded things that we all associate with punk now. In actuality, that was all quite pose-y I think, which my mum never, ever was. People consider her a punk, but she was always adamant X-Ray Spex made new wave, high energy rock ‘n’ roll, that’s what she called it.

“When I was really small, I thought she dressed like a mad woman, obviously, because kids are always embarrassed by their parents! I wasn’t usually that impressed because she would show up to pick me up from school in the outlandish, totally out-there things” – Celeste Bell

She was also thinking about sustainability, which has only really just started being a big conversation in fashion in the last couple of years...

Celeste Bell: Yes, that was so important to her! She really wanted to highlight environmental issues, which she does in many of her songs – you know, talking about consumerism and the synthetic nature of society, which carried over into what she wore. She was really a bit of a hippy, wanting to take things back to the land, making her own clothes. She was always at her sewing machine, after her mum taught her to use it when she was really young: I think it came off the back of the War, and having to make do with what you had. Sadly they’re not skills she passed on to me!

How did her style develop?

Celeste Bell: She joined the Hare Krishna movement in the 80s and it had a massive influence on her: she started wearing a lot of saris and silks, and she had her nose pierced, which made sense because she was always so massively into jewellery. But she was mixing this all in with New Romantic stuff, so her look was still really unique. By the time it came to the 90s, she used to get a lot of her friends, who were designers, to make her outfits. She had this one look, which I remember so vividly, which I used to call her ghost outfit. It was like this big, white, cotton tunic, with all these sort of rags all over it, and she used to wear it all the time. Her style was just constantly evolving as she moved through her life.

Do you still have pieces from her wardrobe?  

Celeste Bell: Mum wasn’t one to hold on to things to be honest, so I didn’t inherit much when she passed away, actually. One thing I do have that is something I treasure, though, is an army helmet that she used to wear a lot. It’s currently on show in an exhibition in Paris.

How did the collaboration with HADES happen?

Celeste Bell: Cassie (Holland, the founder) reached out to me, because she’s always been inspired by Poly’s style and music. I thought it was a really cool idea, and it’s a fitting collaboration because of the colours, and the fact that it’s all produced in Scotland on a small scale. It’s like an antidote to fast fashion, and that hyper-consumerist movement that was so opposite to what my mum was about.

Can you still see her legacy living on in fashion now?

Celeste Bell: For sure, I see it everywhere! At the moment, all these dayglo and neon colours are back in, which my mum did the first time round – no one was really doing it back then. And away from the Riot Grrrls, and even the grunge movement, I saw her influence run through Madonna’s 80s looks, and even in the indie kids of the early 00s. You can see fragments of her style everywhere.

Order your copy of DAYGLO here, and shop HADES X-Ray Spex collection here