Remembering Poly Styrene, the Frontwoman of X Ray Spex

Remembering Poly Styrene, the Frontwoman of X Ray Spex

The offspring of a trailblazing London punk recalls her mum’s outrageous fashion sense.

The offspring of a trailblazing London punk recalls her mum’s outrageous fashion sense.

Text: Celeste Bell

Marianne Joan Elliott-Said (1957-2011), aka Poly Styrene, lead singer of London punk band X-Ray Spex—or to me, Mum—was always one step ahead of the fashion game. She precipitated trends. That said, in most of my early memories, she wore clothes I hated and tried to put me in clothes I hated more. I vividly remember Mum pulling me out from under the bed, where I had been hiding so I didn’t have to put on a harlequin jumpsuit complete with frilly orange neck detail. Or when I refused to walk down the street with her wearing some white, floaty monstrosity—a kind of high fashion take on the white sheet Halloween ghost costume—paired with white leggings and white plastic clogs. But I was a kid, and anything my mum thought was cool was automatically the lamest thing ever. It would take me many years to realize what a sharp eye she had when it came to clothes. She was, unsurprisingly, a fan of Vivienne Westwood, especially as Vivienne made clothes that suited voluptuous figures. Being a 34 DD, Mum appreciated that. She formed her band in 1976 after seeing the Sex Pistols on her 19th birthday. Key X-Ray Spex-era attire was as follows:

• Plastic jewelry and PVC dresses

• Brooches and badges

• Military jackets, helmets, hats, boots

• Secondhand ’50s jackets and pencil skirts, tea cozy hats, and old shopping baskets

• American high school baseball jackets

• Lunch boxes used as handbags

• Day Glo colored ankle socks

• Mod dresses, like one with a fried breakfast design

• Leggings (Mum was convinced she started that trend, but I’m not so sure about that particular claim!)

As a young teenager in the ’70s, she’d try to recreate the looks of golden-age Hollywood heroines, like Bette Davis and Greta Garbo. She wanted to be sexy amongst the barely there hot pants and stupidly high platform sandals. She’d shoplift clothes with her gang of girls and go to parties, dance all night to ska and Motown, and kiss boys. But when she dropped out of school at 15 and ran away from home to travel around the pop festivals alone, she received the wrong kind of male attention. Instead of the boys of her neighborhood, she was confronted by lecherous men who’d offer to help her out, though always with the expectation that she would offer her body in exchange. I think this period changed the way she saw herself as a woman, and it helped her to reject outright any kind of sexualized aesthetic. She once said in an interview that she’d shave her head if she ever became a sex symbol—and she did.

She was in many ways a naturally shy and somewhat childlike woman, who had a real love–hate relationship with being in the spotlight. That being said, growing up in a deprived area of London meant that she could be a real tough cookie when she needed to be. This tiny girl (she grew to be 5'1") would get into fights with bigger kids because, as she said, she had no fear once “the rage” took over. This translated to her onstage persona. Poly Styrene was a character she created, an anti-Wonder Woman, a plastic princess who refused to look pretty or be quiet. She stuck her fingers up at anyone who expected her to conform to male expectations of beauty.

She scared the hell out of a lot of people. Because she was young looking, people thought she was this sweet little thing that needed protecting. And her thick cockney accent gave the impression she was uneducated. But when people actually spent time with her, they would realize she was full of attitude, highly intelligent, and took no nonsense from anyone. I imagine it would have been pretty disconcerting.

The androgyny of David Bowie and Marc Bolan influenced her tendency to play with gender stereotypes, like in the X-Ray Spex song, “Highly Inflammable,” when she sings, “Thought I was a woman, thought you were a man, I was Tinker Bell and you were Peter Pan.” The Slits, made up of all women, was one of the few bands in her own scene of which Mum was a big fan. She didn’t have such great friendships with male punk artists. I think most were intimidated by her, or just thought she was a bit mad.

The biggest influence, post-punk, on my mother’s style was her decision to join the Hare Krishnas—in fact their brightly colored robes were what initially attracted her to them. For years during my childhood, she only wore saris and Punjabi suits. She braided her hair to one side and wore lots of gold jewelry. She always said she felt her most beautiful during this period—her late 20s and early 30s. In many ways, I think her embrace of Indian beauty was about reconciling her femininity. But it was more than that, too. As a mixed-race woman in a society that was not yet accepting of mixed-race families, she struggled with her identity. People would ask her if she felt white or black and she found it difficult to answer. She grew up in a largely Afro-Caribbean neighborhood of London, but she had a white mother and a Somali father. By joining the Hare Krishnas, she was claiming an identity removed from all the baggage of her youth. The sari look would not last forever, but the love of gold jewelry definitely did—a love I have inherited.

My mother helped to pave the way for women in music. That female artists did not have to be sexually alluring to be successful and that they could scream onstage were novel ideas then. For a female artist to make it in the somewhat savage, male-dominated music industry, she had to push and shove her way in, on her own terms. She told me never to rely on looks and to avoid writing love songs. People take you more seriously as a woman if your lyrics are social commentary and life observations, she said. Her attitude empowered me. I have never at any point in my life felt inferior to any boy or man. Because of Mum, I haven’t even considered that being female could be an obstacle.

Photo Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy

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