In the late 1970s, every town would have a military surplus store. They would generally be down side roads, away from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping street and would often double up as camping or outdoor supplies stores, but behind their often cramped facades, there lay a treasure trove of punk possibilities.
Ex-military wear became the new post punk go-to. From combat trousers, to the more dressy options including coats, possibly even with rank markings or an insignia, through to berets, caps and “workwear” like donkey jackets. These could then be “decorated”, painted on, printed on, dyed, ripped, sewed, and customised at will.
On the face of it, the last place you’d expect a rabid mob of fashion savvy teenage anarchists to shop, was at somewhere peddling ex-military (government) supplies, but somehow it ticked all the right boxes.
Military-wear was hard-wearing, inexpensive and easy to re-purpose, so military surplus fitted right in with the new Punk ethic. Choosing small inexpensive suppliers over famous brands made us the enemy of consumerism, and that was a good thing.
It was also seen as subversive, to take a former article of uniform, and use it as a vehicle for self-expression, which we did using marker pens, scissors, printing ink and patches.
It wasn’t “fashionable”, therefore it was free from the taint (and the cut) of the mass-produced clothes available at your local High Street chain store. This was anti-fashion. Checkmate C&A.
Surplus was plentiful, most of these shops were stacked to the ceiling with variations on the theme of shirt, jacket, boots and trousers, all of them the same, but all slightly different.
It was practical, hard-wearing and tough, which was something, especially for girls heralded a whole new approach. The toughness suited our mindset, and military wear was another new radical. We were the army now.
For the 99.99999% of everyone else who didn’t have a massive disposable income and live within walking distance of the Kings Road or Kensington Market in London, military surplus was affordable, and every item was already jingling with various belt loops, D-rings, and deep, down the leg patch pockets.
It was another step along the road from Jumble sales and borrowed clothes, Army surplus was ultimately just another set of cast-offs – so we were well matched.