Fashion’s History of the Patch

History Patch Intro
Jacket by Gucci


A Visual Symbol of Poverty

A patch has always been shorthand for “poor”. In the third century BC, senator Cato recommended that agricultural slaves spend rainy days stitching patches to their clothes.

Later on, a patch was the sartorial synonym for humiliation – in Tudor England it was also another name for a domestic fool, one who would wear the shabbiest clothes. Patches are the epitome of despair and hopelessness in Dickens’ novels. Likewise, in Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms” clothes are symbolically patched and torn as Europe itself. Throughout history, the patch was nothing more than a nifty way for resourceful housewives to give clothes a few more years of wear. At least it was until the 1960s.

Punk Patch
Left: Vivienne Westwood, right: shirt by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for SEX boutique, image courtesy of the Met

The Sub-culture Takeover

The first sub-culture to subvert the patch was the hippies in the 1960s, whose patchwork clothes were laden with references to ethnic styles. However, it was the punks who really made it their own. As writer Andrew Gallix puts it, “The evolution of punk fashion was the doomed quest for authenticity” – hence why their bold DIY-aesthetic opposed to all things conventional. Punks would festoon themselves with condoms and toilet chains, wear garbage bags as tunics, spray paint on their T-shirts, tear their jeans, pierce themselves with safety pins and stitch patches to their sleeves. Each patch had a symbolic meaning and emblematically declared belonging to the punk subculture. It seems only natural that the punk movement, with its fascination for decadence, embraced something as marginal as the patch.

History of the Patch
Raf Simons AW03

High- Fashion Style

The punk ethos was referenced in high fashion in the 1990s by avant-garde designers like Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulmeester, Helmut Lang, Rei Kawakubo and Raf Simons, with the latter being particularly fond of the punk patch. It first appeared decorating an oversized bomber in Simons’ AW01 collection and kept coming back over the years – most memorably in his 2003 collection bearing the slogan “Be pure. Be vigilant. Behave”, and later as square graphic appliqués in the more recent SS15. In Simons’ work, the patch has grown into a symbol of rebellion, protest and youth.

OFF-WHITE SS15 Lookbook History Patch


On the Catwalk Today

It is not a coincidence that Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air and Virgil Abloh of Off/White cite Raf Simons as their major influence – and just like Raf they use patches as the ultimate emblem of nonconformism and protest.

The patch’s marginal roots and its punk background influence even its more recent fashion history. A rebellious outsider in the world of glitter, glamour and fashion, it gives a darker undercurrent to any collection it appears in.

W Magazine September 2016
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