In 1976, all-girl band the Slits burst brazenly onto the London music scene marking a vital chapter in the evolution of punk — a refreshing move away from the genre’s macho-meathead-spit-at-fans origins towards something groovier and more complex. Comprised of singer Ari Up, guitarist Viv Albertine, drummer Palmolive and bassist Tessa Pollitt, the Slits, with their mix of early punk aesthetics and the hybridised stylings of post-punk and new wave, profoundly confused the sex drives of their spectators. Their cut-and-paste looks rubbed together BDSM style bondage-wear with Girl Scout uniforms and ultra-femme Pierrot clown gear, resulting in assemblages of a brash contradictory nature. Albertine has famously said that men at the time “didn’t know whether to fuck us or kill us.”
Their music similarly served to shake up punk convention, drawing on a diverse set of references — from heavy bass reggae and the kind of noise and free jazz associated with New York’s no wave scene to iconic American vocalists like Dionne Warwick, and the frenzied atonality of early “no future” punk. The Slits kicked off their career as music writing virgins, the compositions they produced put together without even the slightest awareness for compositional convention. This made for a truly unique discordance that would come to define their sound.
At long last, this mythologised but somehow never really canonised outfit has been given a closeup, in filmmaker William Badgley’s documentary, “Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits”, currently midway through its US theatrical tour. The documentary tells the story of what it describes as the “godmothers of Punky Reggae,” interlacing interviews with remaining band members with acidic interludes from punk academic, Vivian Goldman. Badgley and longtime friend Jennifer Shagawat, who served as the Slits’ tour manager when they regrouped in the early 2000s, teamed up with Ari Up to explain what, at the time, felt like a totally un-excavated legacy. Up became aware around this period that she had cancer, giving a timeliness to the filming process, which Badgley describes as “haphazard”.
The heavy dose of Slits archival video footage and photography splicing through the film means that it’s a documentary about aesthetics as much as it is about a moment in music history. And, apparently, this footage was hard won. “I mean no amount of DIY work ethic is going to pay major label music rights or license rare footage from the 1970s … We left a lot of blood on the sidewalk,” Badgley tells us.
The result is a film essay about a certain outré vibe and all of its way-out aesthetic trappings. Here, we’ve rounded up the film’s best fashion moments, culled from stills from the Slits’ archive.
The Slits pioneered a singular mullet, reworking the controversial punk hairdo into a hybrid greasy-biker-meets-dreadlocks-meets-prom-queen-shag. Often, they’d mix it with a nice backcomb à la New York Dolls, and would be good to go.
Really Oversized newsboy caps
The newsboy cap at these proportions becomes a topper triangulated by leather daddy, Oliver Twist, and Brigitte Bardot. Here, Ari Up sits statuesque, a big-hatted silhouette against the bleak late 70s English skyline.
Mud on Top
The group’s 1970 LP “Cut” sports a cover showing the bare-breasted band members standing in a Surrey rose garden, mud-encrusted ta-tas to the wind.
Shark Tooth Necklaces
The ’90s accessory often associated with frosted tips and light-up Sketchers has had several iterations. Originally, the shark tooth talisman became popular in mass culture in the ’70s thanks to cult thriller, “Jaws”. Today, it evokes an aspirational surf-punk art-hoe look.
Sleeveless but also a collar and also a tie
The Slits were visionaries in terms of shifting notions of gender, employing a distinctly performative and collage-like approach to their on-stage outfits. Often, there would be a sense of cut-up drag: in this example, a skintight, lycra, sleeveless, aerobics number is daintily mismatched with a prefab collar and tie duo.
Suit Jacket and Skirt Sets
The “women’s suit” was one of the first post-corset moments that brought women’s tailoring closer to men’s sportswear in the ’20s (thanks to Coco Chanel). Ari Up here is nodding to this collateral, in a look that might have been called power dressing at the time — the fashion movement that rocked the ’80s as corporate feminism began to push the concept of dressing for success to the fore.
“Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits” is now showing in selected UK and US cinemas. To find out more about screenings, visit the documentary’s website here.