Gang-nam Style


george chakiris - west side story 1961

There’s something about dressing as a pack that works to iconic effect on screen, but doesn’t translate too well in real life. The embroidered satin bomber jackets of Grease’s Pink Ladies, for example, function brilliantly at visually distinguishing their wearers in huge choreographed dance scenes, but when work en masse in real life have overtones of the hen party about them. The real appeal of cinematic inspiration when it comes to the sartorial gang mentality lies in variation upon a theme. My personal favourite teen black comedy, Heathers, tracks the shifting power dynamics of a quartet of queen-bee adolescents through the subtleties of their fabulously ‘80s group style.

gang style 2
From the fifties jeans and sneakers uniform of the Jets in musical classic West Side Story (above right) to the hierarchical colour coded attire of Heathers in the eponomous eighties film (above), on screen gangs have made style choices to reinforce distance from society at large as well as more subtle divisions within groupings.

Starting off with wide-shouldered chequered blazers, coloured opaque tights and big, big hair, the girls each have their signature colour, Heather no. 1 sporting a bright, true red befitting her superior status. Dissident maverick Veronica (Winona Ryder) expresses a little rebellion in her off-duty kit; her Chinese robe and vintage monocle point up her intellectually frustrated state. As she says to her nihilistic, explosion-happy crush JD (Christian Slater), ‘I use my grand IQ to decide what colour lip gloss to wear in the morning and how to hit three keggers before curfew.’ By the time the film concludes, Heather no. 1 has been supplanted by her third-in-command, who triumphantly adopts the red regalia. Spotting Veronica-the-bomb-survivor in charred and torn rags with a lit cigarette hanging from her mouth, she exclaims, ‘Veronica, you look like hell!’. Veronica’s only response? ‘Yeah? I just got back.’ It’s a satisfying decimation, in both word and style, of the film’s original clique.

It’s easy to take cues from fictional gangs on the more marginal side of life as well. 1968’s The Mini-Skirt Mob is a gorgeously trashy flick about an all-girl biker gang bent on revenge. Identified by their eponymous multi-coloured knicker-flashers and matching jackets, accessorizing takes the form of vintage-hued neckerchiefs tied round the head, knee high Mod boots and a metric ton of flicky black eyeliner. This kind of group style is one level up from tribal dressing; the similar tones and motifs of the kind adopted by Goth and glam subcultures are concentrated into an instantly-recognizable, but not identikit, uniform, particular to a select group. Kubrick’s iconic film rendering of A Clockwork Orange brought out the foppish brutality of Anthony Burgess’ novella with all-white outfits designed to emphasize blood splashes, jockstraps worn over trousers and co-ordinated beverages in the form of drug-spiked milk. Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge is, famously, distinguished from his ‘droogs’ by a single eye’s worth of liner and spidery false bottom lashes.

The theatricality of roller derby offers both a less disquieting fashion avenue and a healthier expression of physical combat than gang warfare. Double score! With participants encouraged to adopt superhero-style pseudonyms like ‘Mazel Tov Cocktail’ and ‘Anna Mosity’, the sport combines a fiercely competitive team ethic with a staunchly individualistic streak. Typical tournament looks combine the practical – kneepads, athletic shorts – with the ironically frivolous – tutus, tartan, hacked-and-slashed-and-DIY-studded band tees. Blending elements of punk, camp and third-wave feminism, rollergirls have pioneered an aesthetic that transcends team spirit to promote a truly personal approach to getting dressed.

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