A lurid green light strobes across a crowd of displaced aristocrats as a distorted bassline insinuates its way over the soundtrack. The camera whip-pans to reveal a makeshift runway built across a fountain. A platinum-blonde vocalist doing his best karaoke-night Iggy Pop impersonation shimmies to the side, revealing a line of models in identical black and white wigs. Each gamine presents herself to the camera in an outfit made from a combination of couture-worthy textiles and trash; here, an evening gown made from discarded newspaper and silk tulle, there a trash bag recycled into a cocktail dress with a ripped collar and snakeskin belt. That must be the woman of the hour, you think as each model sneers down the lens and steps to the side. Finally, she appears at the end of the queue, resplendent in a spattered coat dress that looks like it was made from dalmatian pelts. She strides towards the camera in her stiletto boots, a smirk playing on her perfectly made-up red lips, before throwing her head back and letting out a devilish cackle. The scene cuts to black.
It’s easy to see why director Craig Gillespie and costume designer Jenny Beavan would draw inspiration from the British punk scene for the costumes in Cruella. The punk aesthetic—with its body-conscious silhouette, exaggerated makeup and hair, monochromatic black palette slashed with primary colors, 1950s vintage details, and casual use of bondage gear—has been an inspiration for both couturiers and those looking for a cheap Halloween costume. Glance past the aspects of the early punk look that make for easy parody, however, and you’ll see a visual counterpart to the political statements in songs by the Clash and the Sex Pistols. How does a 1970s youth movement that opposed the military and the excesses of the British monarchy end up in Disney’s big summer tentpole movie?
The first movie to depict the nascent punk scene in the UK was Jubilee, Derek Jarman’s second feature. It opens in 16th-century England, as Queen Elizabeth (Jenny Runacre) consults with her astrologer (Richard O’Brien) and the spirit guide Ariel about time-traveling to the London of 1977. Instead of discovering a new era of enlightenment, however, the Queen happens upon a city in ruins, with gangs of petty thugs roaming the streets.
Based on the film’s aesthetic, much of the budget seems to have gone into the framing scenes in the Elizabethan era. The Queen wears a gown and headpiece that looks straight out of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s court portrait, which makes a jarring contrast with the costumes set in the 1970s. The gang of nihilists and assassins that’s the primary focus of the 1977 scenes is dressed in clothes they might have brought from home, like the graffiti-covered flight suit Mad wears in the first flash-forward. Jarman also satirized the Anglomania of the Jubilee year through the character of Amyl Nitrate (Jordan), a historian and schoolteacher who serves as a kind of narrator in the opening scenes. In the first musical number, impresario Borgia Ginz (Orlando) introduces her as “England’s entry into the Eurovision song contest.” As she lip-syncs a pop reggae version of “Rule Britannia”, she dances provocatively in a shift dress made from a pair of Union Jack flags that barely cover her crotch or her rear end. The tattered, faded flags look like the patriotic bunting popular in 1977… after it had been left to the elements for a few months.
Viewers could interpret the contrast between the high production values of the framing scenes and the low-budget scenery and costumes of the 1977 scenes as an implicit critique of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, which happened just as England was coming out of a recession. You could also read Amyl’s irreverent performance as a spoof on the unconditional patriotism that came with the Jubilee celebrations. Jarman’s apparent political leanings, however, complicate this interpretation. Describing him as “almost a monarchist”, production designer Christopher Hobbs said that the director “longed for an England that was the England he believed in, which probably had never existed in that sense.” Viewers could also read Jarman’s anger and irreverence as being directed not at the excesses of the Royal Family or the circumstances that caused the recession of the mid-1970s, but rather at the punks who “were tearing this wonderful country to pieces and rebelling on it and stamping on it.”
Like Jubilee, the American feature film Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains was made in what writer Jake Fogelnest describes as “the six months that it made sense to make that movie.” The film depicts the rise and fall of the Stains, an all-female punk band who become a pre-internet viral sensation when they open for British punk trio the Looters and cheesy metal band the Metal Corpses. When Corinne “Third Degree” Burns (Diane Lane), the 16-year-old lead singer of the Stains, ends up on the evening news after a member of the Metal Corpses dies, she gains a large following of angry teenage girls who identify with her message of “don’t put out”.
The Fabulous Stains is set in rust belt America, but it has a British punk imprimatur in the form of former Clash manager Caroline Coon, who is credited as a “special consultant” on the film. One of Coon’s responsibilities was to create a look for Corinne and her bandmates—and, by extension, her fans. The costume she designed looks like Vivienne Westwood’s provocative early work, taken to its logical extreme. Lead singer Corinne “Third Degree” Burns (Diane Lane) wears black underwear under pantyhose, with a bright red see-through blouse “and no bra on underneath” as a newscaster in the film observed. In the 2000 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains: Behind the Movie, Lane would say that the outfit made her feel vulnerable (“you could see my nipples!”), but Corinne’s wide strides and bristling posture gave her a combative appearance that would resonate with her new fans—many of whom showed up to Stains concerts dressed in similar outfits.
Jubilee and Fabulous Stains were relegated to arthouse screenings and late-night cable broadcasts, but Sid & Nancy became a dorm room poster movie before the concept had a name. After making Repo Man, which welded half-assed heist movie shenanigans to the LA punk scene, Alex Cox wrote and directed a fairly straightforward chronicle of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen’s doomed relationship.
Like Caroline Coon, and like some of Jarman’s collaborators, Cox was well-steeped in the first wave British punk scene—he graduated from Bristol University in 1977 and had a casual friendship with the Clash. You can see how this influenced the costumes in some of the details missing from other films of the era, like the striped or colorblocked mohair jumpers Johnny Rotten wears. Cox and costume designer Catherine Cook showed the bondage straps and harnesses Sid Vicious casually dons throughout the film, but the figure who put Sid in light bondage gear isn’t in the movie. Instead of alluding to the Sex Pistols’ formation at Vivienne Westwood’s clothing store Sex, Cox implies that Nancy got Sid to wear light fetish gear through her dominatrix roommate.
Jubilee, Fabulous Stains, and Sid & Nancy all center on performers, but how did the teenage punk fans dress? We get some idea from the protagonists of John Cameron Mitchell’s coming-of-age movie How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which remixes the star-crossed teenager plot for the punk era.
In its opening credits scene, you get a rare sight of a male character primping for the camera. In addition to the gestures you’d expect from a teen boy—like spitting on his reflection—Enn (Alex Sharp) carefully adjusts the badges on the lapel of his school uniform jacket and loosens his tie so it hangs just right over his open collar. This feels grounded in a real experience, in a way that the boobs shirt Enn’s friend John (Ethan Lawrence) wears does not. (Putting aside that it’s a designer piece, how would he sneak that past his parents?)
The boobs shirt—and the general fetish-adjacent aspects of punk style—have an interesting counterpart in How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ alien race. The Stellas, a group of aliens visiting England, are clad in brightly-colored latex body stockings with cutout-like black spots over their breasts and crotches. The actors’ clipped speech and jerky movements give them a defensive-yet-deadpan quality that suggests the “what are you looking at?” attitude with which many punk women accessorized their more provocative outfits.
The lineage of these punk movies can be seen throughout the second half of Cruella, in which the title character (Emma Stone) finally embraces her dark side. You can see Enn’s altered school uniform in a safety-pinned blazer the young Cruella wears in an early montage, and the narrow silhouette and graffitied eye makeup of Cruella’s motorcycle ensemble suggest Mad’s flight suit from Jubilee. The fluffy black sweaters Estella wears in her antagonist’s atelier suggest Johnny Rotten’s pullovers in Sid & Nancy. Cruella’s black-and-white hair and elaborate eye makeup gestures back to Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, while Jasper’s (Joel Fry) porkpie hat and corduroy jacket look like something Paul Simonon had worn in the same movie. Even beyond the hat tips to previous punk films, director Craig Gillespie and costume designer Jenny Beavan got the do-it-yourself attitude towards fashion right. The garbage truck dress, with its newspaper peplum and bin-liner train, suggests the trash bag dress Belinda Carlisle wore at early Go-Go’s gigs.
While the Cruella team evoked the aesthetic of England’s first-wave punk scene, they don’t engage with the political subtext in that specific era of punk. Since Disney wants to appeal to the widest audience—and offend as few people as possible—side-stepping the circumstances that led to the popularity of punk is understandable from a business standpoint. A few of the major fashion moments in the film, like the military uniform and tiara Cruella dons to taunt the Baroness at one of her fashion shows, seem like they were cut and pasted from another film that depicted the monarchy at all, never mind engaged with it. A Disney movie about the Queen’s Silver Jubilee would be in bad taste even now, over 40 years on, but the filmmakers want to just use the symbolism without considering its meaning.
As the closing credits sequence began, with its collage ransom lettering and unironic use of Union Jack iconography, a line from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains popped into my head: “You could have really been something… but right now, you’re just two white stripes.”