Safety Pins: Solidarity or Punk Rock?

Johnny Rotten
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Johnny Rotten photographed in 1976.

The days after the U.S. presidential election were among the most tumultuous and uncertain in recent American history. As the reality of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory began to register, both pro- and anti-Trump Americans were galvanized. On one side, donations to progressive organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood rose dramatically; on the other, hate crimes spiked.

For Americans opposing Trump and the values he campaigned on, the question became: What else can we do? In response to the wave of xenophobia tapped into by the Trump campaign, some began wearing safety pins as a outward showing of solidarity for marginalized groups -- a small beacon indicating that the wearer would do their best to protect anyone being subjected to targeted harassment. An innocuous gesture on its surface, it has been strongly critiqued for both its efficacy and its intent.

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The safety pin has a long history as a hallmark of another movement: punk rock. As much a fashion trope today as a genre of music or political outlook, punk rockers’ affection for the safety pin was born of utility: Punks needed something to hold together ragged, ripped clothing and to affix patches celebrating their favorite bands to the backs of their jackets. Fashion historian Shaun Cole of the London College of Fashion explains: “Although punk -- and this is a simplification -- began as a free expression in style and music, it quickly became codified, and the safety pin became one of the elements that signified punk.”

In the video for The Sex Pistols“God Save the Queen,” one of the earliest documents of punk rock that went global, lead singer Johnny Rotten wears a grubby white long-sleeved shirt held together with a series of safety pins. If the pin weren’t already a cornerstone of the punk look before, the video’s release cemented it.

Fashion works by subsuming subcultures, flattening them, and distributing a few of their tokens to mass market; this is how it refreshes itself. As a result, the safety pin has come to symbolize punk’s scrappy, DIY ethos, even when it appears outside of a punk context. Take, for example, the infamous Versace dress Elizabeth Hurley wore in 1994: a clingy black gown slashed open along the torso and held together with oversized, golden safety pins. There are few things less classically punk than attending the premiere of a rom-com starring Hugh Grant, but the dress transmitted an air of insouciant countercultural mischief.

Last week, Joe Corré -- son of punk originators Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren -- publicly torched his archive of punk memorabilia in a symbolic critique of the fashion system and consumer culture. Punk, according to Corré, is an ethos rather than an aesthetic. It is about what you do rather than what you wear -- an important reminder for today’s safety-pin solidarity wearers, as well.

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Joe Corre, the son of Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols creator Malcolm McLaren (not in picture) burns his entire £5 million punk collection on Nov. 26, 2016 in London, England.