Three punks are posed on a street corner along Kings Road in London.
"Do you know how much money we have between us? Maybe five p. Do you know the last time we ate? Wednesday (four days back). We don't live. We nick. We have to steal. There ain't no jobs."
"You try looking like us. They don't want us. I'm not going to change the way I dress for a job."
"They get me for the way I dress. My boss was prejudiced about the way I dress . . . He didn't like the swastika on the back of my T-shirt. He wasn't even born when all that happened. He's just narrow-minded. If it wasn't for the Negroes and the Pakis we'd have jobs. There are 2 million jobs. I went to 12 post offices in my area and couldn't get a job. Every one of them who got jobs is a Paki."
"My family has chopped me off. They don't want me back. They don't want me in the area. I can't even get on the dole with no fixed address."
"Some people say it takes a lot to dress nice. But when you have been dressing punk it takes more. We don't pay nothing to look the way we do."
Punk dressing, the expression of youth alienation in the mid-1970s, is on the decline except for the hardcore types who cluster and drift on Kings Road or in Covent Garden on a Saturday afternoon. Some kids fade in and out of the punk style with its vinyl pants, safety pins and chains. And the blackened or colored spikey-cut hair lingers.
But the current costume thrill is the antithesis of punk. Dubbed New Romantic, it features ruffled and romantic blouses, waistcoats, colorful sashes and baggy britches. It's part pirate, part musketeer, part Louis XIV -- a mix of Captain Hook and Prince Regent.
For many kids, dressing punk had become ordinary and expected, hardly worth the effort. And it never accomplished anything for them. Youth in England are still at loose ends: Crime is up and many of the offenders are young; unions have considered closing subways at sundown because of vandalism; unemployment is 10 percent, higher for kids. For those anticipating college, there are interminable delays in getting financial aid, if it comes at all.
But punk's major legacy, besides painted hair, is the idea of dressing in costume and makeup (although that remains a reason for traditional employers to reject applicants for already scarce menial jobs). Now, kids, both male and female, stroll Kings Road on Saturdays in makeup and ruffled blouses, looking a bit like 18th-century dandies. Once-a-week nightclubs such as Beet Root and Blitz burst like a costume parade with young women in lace ball gowns and cascades of ringlets, young men in lace jabots and tassled knickerbockers and both in capes and patent dancing slippers.
Just as the punks pegged their garb (or anti-garb) to such musical groups as the Sex Pistols, some of the New Romantics take their cue from such popular English groups as Visage, The Bow Wow Wows and Adam and the Ants. These musicians use fancy dress to brighten record covers and videos promoting record sales. (In New York stores, where New Romantic is starting to appear, the look has been pegged to "The Pirates of Penzance," the current Broadway hit version of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic.)
"The dressing-up thing is good for breaking down class and gender barriers," says Vivienne Westwood, whose Kings Road shop, Seditionaries, was once the major punk outfitter. Now, with boyfriend Malcolm McLaren, who was manager of the Sex Pistols, she has traded in bondage for buccaneer, vinyl for velvet and safety pins for ruffles at the shop she has renamed World's End. And they are selling not only to kids but grown women as well.
"The kind of kids who dress up are people who are annoyed," Westwood says. "They don't have the kind of pretty face that would get them on the cover of Honey magazine. It is a . . . rejection of everything like that. They wish to exert themselves in some way against it all."
Westwood is not selling the kind of status things that Calvin Klein makes, which she believes are boring and old-fashioned."You can never look old-fashioned and be sexy. If you look in control, ready to take a step forward with some kind of confidence, that is the most sexy thing."
Westwood, who manufactures and sells both wholesale and retail around the world, is making money on the new look. She says she never made much off her punk stuff. "I always wanted it to be carried by Marks & Spencer," she says. "I felt rather a fool producing so many ideas over such a period and not getting the juice out of my own ideas."
Like Westwood, Helen Robinson has shifted with the times. Having moved from punk to military surplus to futuristic clothes in her shop called PX, Robinson now sells the most extravagant of the New Romantic designs. A blouse alone can easily cost a young person a week's salary or total month's dole. And the commitment is not just money. It takes time to press ruffles, tie on sashes and put on makeup.
Robinson, who added Barclay charge cards to accomodate the increasing number of older customers, says everything she designs is for men . "If women want to buy it (and many do), that's their business." But she admits it is hard to educate traditional businessmen to wear shirts with frills. "They think you're a puff," she says.
The New Romantic look can also be found at more modest prices. In fact, art students without jobs -- and there are many in London -- fill time by making elaborate costumes for their friends. Theatrical costumers are finding a rousing business selling off old costumes to kids. And many find the cheapest version of the New Romantic look at jumble, or thrift shop, sales.
Besides New Romantic and the last signs of punk, the 1950s Rockabilly style is being seen more in London. "One look is never enough for kids," says Carla Knight, 20, a London fashion editor who says the Rockabilly phase in music and dress is growing once again. "They get off the buses from the country dressed that way," says Knight. In the north, she adds, parents still dress that way.
Such shops as Ad Hoc and RockCha in Kensington have seen such a swell in demand for 1950s American clothes they've had to seek out new manufacturers to keep the goods coming. Sellouts have included strapless prom dresses, stiletto heels and pointed-toe shoes and zoot suits. At Flip, in Covent Garden, the hot sellers are surplus jackets, Hawaiian shirts, jogging clothes and British army jodhpurs for $20.
So far there hasn't been any real conflict between the three groups, only "bitches," as Knight calls them.
"It's a little hard to imagine a guy in a ruffle shirt throwing rocks at anyone," she says.
"I'm post-punk," says Ferrity Fletcher, 15, who is wearing a chartreuse waiter's jacket and jobot blouse. For school, she wears a traditional uniform with pleated skirt and middy blouse.
Simon Hobart, 16, calls himself a futurist. He's wearing a dress military jacket and satin sash and purple liner over his pink lipstick. He wears the jacket to school but when he shows up for class with the lipstick "the teachers say something."
Ulysses McKeown, 15, wore punk last year "but now I want to dress up and be different." For this day, different means lots of scarves, and a vest over his shirt. "Punk became stereotype because it was no longer fashion," he says.
All three say they get their clothes from the jumble shops. And they've all seen the Bow Wow Wows, Adam and the Ants and Steve Strange's group, Visage. But they insist they wore these clothes first.
"I'm no longer interested in teenage rebels," says Vivienne Westwood, whose store was once the center of the punk movement in London.
Westwood, wearing a full-sleeved buccaneer's shirt and petticoat breeches, stands next to a glass showcase with German helmets complete with pink feathers and painted brightly like they might be used in musical comedies. Beneath the helmets are Louis XIV-style high-button shoes. As she talks, she points out buccaneer costumes lined up on pole displays at the front of the shop.
"These clothes go back through our whole civilization. I've taken what has excited me from Apache Indians and pirates -- they are the strongest -- Louis XIV, the French Revolution . . . anything that cuts a dash or has some kind of power to it, something that captures emotion." Her partner, Malcolm Mclaren, does some of the designing. She researches the patterns, often starting with diagrams from old books. She thinks the pirates' calflength pants have the best chance of really catching on. "Malcolm likes the kind of cool feeling you get around the ankles."
Like the punk garb, the current dress is meant to attract attention. "But I don't do it," says Westwood, "for the 'Look at me!' I want people to think they can look like that and say, 'Gosh, I'd like to look like that.'
"If I could be as great a designer as Geronimo I'd be happy," she continues excitedly. "Such style. That's why you remember Blackbeard, he looked so terrific."
Unlike her punk clothes which in four years never changed, she'll constantly add new costumes to her new collection. "With sources so vast, we'll never run out of ideas."
"My name is what you want it to be," says Steve Strange.
He is sitting downstairs in PX, the darkened shop on a side street in the Covent Garden area where he was once a shop assistant. The place is filled with voluminously ruffled and bowed shirts, tassled knickerbockers and suede waistcoats. Strange's blond highlighted hair is spiked up and he is wearing gold-dusted eye makeup, a leather headband, one earring, a Byronesque blouse, gold Tibetan jacket and mustlin pants, black suede laced boots, a necklace of coins, lots of twisted brass and silver bracelets and lots of rings.
"I dress the way my mood goes," says Strange, school dropout turned shop assistant, designer, club manager and musician whose group, Visage, is climbing the charts.
He remembers growing up in Wales where his parents were well-off until his father left. "I didn't want his money," he says. "I wanted to achieve off my back."
He had a cousin who was a skinhead -- not into violence but into clothes, he adds quickly. Strange learned the importance of fashion from his cousin. "If you had two creases in your stay-pressed trousers you wouldn't go out until it was one," he remembers. "It was all down to looking sharp with your appearance."
At age 14 he was banned temporarily from school for having orange hair. Except for art he wasn't much interested in school so at 15 he dropped out. At 16, he was in London doing "adverts and posters for a band called Generation X."
He got into punk, "but I got fed up with the boredom and staleness of punk. All the music sounded like the Pistols, or the Damned or the Clash, and the clothes had become like a uniform, which is not what it set out to be." a
With a friend, Rusty Egan, now a partner in his band but then a dropout from the group Rich Kids, Strange managed a one-night-a-week club called Billy's. "Opening occasionally like that keeps it fresh," he says. "Sometime, ideally, we will have a club called People's Palace and it will change every night."
His clothes change often, too. Four years ago he got out of punk and into fitted clothes and girls' shoes and makeup. "I've always worn some type of makeup. It is something that sets off an outfit."
Strange predicts that popular music in London will shift to the classics played with sound effects, drum machines and synthesizers. "If you build up your own beat you can even dance to Beethoven's Fifth."
But he isn't sure what the clothes will become next. "Come back in a couple of months and find out."