Tracing the Style Influence of
A Clockwork Orange
Tracing the Style Influence of
A Clockwork Orange
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date March 14, 2018
Many films and filmmakers who have had an outsized influence on fashion have done so by creating expansive worlds. Wes Anderson, Baz Luhrmann and other visual stylists practically create entire lines of menswear for their films. Sometimes they even develop a style language that is all their own. But, other enduring fashions on film last because of their utter simplicity. Such is the case with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. One costume, from a single one of his films, has has had a tremendous impact on the fashion world.
A Clockwork Orange is a meditation on crime, violence, sexuality and youth culture. The Droogs, the chaotic and sadistic gang that appears both in Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel and Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation, are the manifestation of these themes. The film’s protagonist, the darkly charismatic Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell), is the gang’s ring leader. The Droogs dress dress simply yet iconically. They wear all white outfits accented with black bowler hats and canes. But, in that simplicity, there is so much being communicated. They are classy yet dangerous, rebellious yet uniform, perverse yet chic. They are such a clear embodiment of our collective id that they wear codpieces. But that id is clothed in elegance—hence the suspenders, bowlers and canes. Because the wardrobe of the Droogs communicates so much with so little, designers for all over the world are still drawing inspiration from their look nearly fifty years later.
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The chic look of the Droogs was no accident. Kubrick’s favorite designer, Milena Canonero, was steeped in the fashion world of the era before she broke into the film world. Though she is an incredibly versatile designer, with work ranging from Grand Budapest Hotel, to Titus to Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange launched Canonero’s design career with a relatively simple design. 43 films later, the Droog design may still be her most famous achievement.
Canonero consciously drew inspiration from London street style of the era for the film’s costume design.The black boots the Droogs wore, known then as “bovver boots,” were already known around the city for their association with stylish ruffians. Though bowler hats were standard issue in the London of the ‘50s and ‘60s, by the ‘70s the hat took on a retro, throwback feel. At the time, suspenders were associated with British skinheads; it’s worth noting that skinheads at that time were less a white supremacist sect and more icons of working class chic. Canonero harnessed and combined trends of the moment for the film.
The widespread popularity of various aspects of the Droog look only escalated after the film’s release. A Clockwork Orange touched off a craze in London, leading to the rise of the the “Bovver Boys,” who consciously dressed like the Droogs. The look grew so closely associated with actual street gangs of the era that the film was withdrawn from circulation in the UK in 1974. For years, most Britons could only watch the film as a bootleg VHS. Of course, this only added to the mystique surrounding the film.
Shortly after the look spread throughout the London style scene, it was picked up by major artists of the era. British rockers like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie brought the look to the world stage. In the early ‘70s, Bowie built wardrobes for entire shows around the film.
The Droogs style came around at an ideal time to have a lasting cultural impact. As the “Bovver Boys” look was taking hold, punk rock style was on the rise. British literature professor Andrew Bissell has gone so far as to say, “A Clockwork Orange is sometimes credited with having invented the punk movement.” Numerous punk bands reference A Clockwork Orange in their lyrics: The Ramones, Los Violadores and Scars, just to name a few. It’s hard not to see shades of the The Droogs in the combat boots and suspenders that are part of the archetypal punk look. Even the codpieces that the Droogs wore could be seen at hardcore shows. The influence of A Clockwork Orange on punk’s aesthetic is undeniable.
Part of the impetus for Droogs’ fashion influence is its broader pop culture appeal. There was something the youthful, anarchistic depravity of the gang that has influenced artists for decades. Though A Clockwork Orange is a cult classic, it’s influence has been felt in far more commercial venues. The music video for Guns ‘N Roses “Welcome the Jungle” offered an extended homage to Kubrick’s film. Another UK film about the young and the reckless, Trainspotting, drew heavily on A Clockwork Orange as an influence. Megadeth T-shirts featured Clockwork-inspired artwork. Cultural touchstones from The Simpsons to MAD Magazine featured send-ups of the Droogs, as the image of the gang (bowler hat, eye makeup and all) became cemented in pop culture history. These are just a few of the dozens of corners of pop culture where you can find Droog references and A Clockwork Orange influences. Today, it wouldn’t be a surprise to surmise that far more people have been exposed to the Droog fashion than have actually seen the film.
Though a number of designers and trendsetters have been influenced by A Clockwork Orange since its release, perhaps no one has been as deeply and consciously influenced by the film as Jean-Paul Gaultier. Gaultier has drawn from the Droog look at various times throughout his career. In 1990, he designed Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour, and rightly saw that her sexy, sleek and edgy reputation would be accentuated by Droog influenced fashions. Gaultier’s Fall 2008 menswear collection is perhaps the best remembered Clockwork runway homage in recent fashion history. The show was so influential that it reinvigorated the film’s style for a new generation. Gaultier readily admits that Kubrick’s film inspired him. At a film festival, he ran into Malcolm McDowell (the film’s star) and told him, “Thank you very much, because that film changed my whole design.”
In turn, Gaultier’s 2008 show inspired a new rash of Droogs on the runway. Alexander McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2009, Daniel Avakian’s Spring/Summer 2008 show at Sydney’s Fashion Week and Limi Feu’s Spring/Summer 2011 were just a few of the shows from subsequent seasons that echoed Galtier’s runway reinterpretations of the film.
The trend has continued both at fashion shows and in street style in recent years. A slight resurgence of A Clockwork Orange infused fashions have come from across fashion’s many stata. KTZ’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection was an elegant take on the Droog look combined with boldly patterned winter streetwear. Spanish label Macson’s Spring/Summer 2016 looks reimagined the Droog look for a warmer climate and a hipster attitude. Undercover’s Spring/Summer 2018 featured Clockwork-inspired looks as they continued their fictitious record label “merch.” Oh, and who could forget Supreme’s take on the Droogs as far back as 2003?
The broader cultural influence of A Clockwork Orange hasn’t flagged either. Lady Gaga often references the film in her music and stage style. Traces of the Droog can be seen in various subcultures, from Japanese Harajuku street style to high-end European menswear editorials. Wherever sartorial subcultures grow, there seems to be room for at least a shade of Droog. Whenever a rebellious artist takes the limelight, the eventually find an excuse to don a bowler hat and suspenders for their best Alex impression.
Burgess’ novel and Kubrick’s film will forever be associated with the sexy, sleek, recklessness of youth. This duality of sexuality and violence is inherent in youth culture, no matter the generation. It is no surprise then that the look of the Droog has appeared again and again over the last half-century. Though styles can change dramatically over the years and each generation looks to new icons, new generations don’t build their youth culture from whole cloth. There are enduring symbols that transcend the particular tastes of one group or another. With its combined sense of erotica and danger, sexuality and violence, it seems the the Droog is just such a symbol. If recent history is any indication, the dark, sensual history of the Droog is just beginning.