Although the face of punk rock is often represented by white males and their rage and nihilistic attitudes, it was actually a black woman at the forefront of shaping punk’s political consciousness—and 1970s aesthetic. Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliot Said, was a half-British, half-Somali pioneer of punk rock music and the leader of the short-lived but influential band X-Ray Spex. Her music was instrumental in advancing punk’s sound in the Seventies; she was a pioneer in creating infectious melodies that fused horns, electric guitars, and Caribbean rhythms backing her lyrics—unprecedented by her punk peers of that era, and poignantly observant of her life as a Black woman living in Brixton, London. The peak of her musical career lasted from 1976-1978, but her lyrics and ideas surrounding consumerism, feminism, racism, and the environment are still relevant today. Although most might not know her by name, her impact on pop culture is palpable—so much so that a book about her life story was followed up with the release of a documentary called Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché. The film premiered at this year's South by Southwest festival, then received a wider release on March 5. The book, titled Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story, was published in 2019 by co-authors Celeste Bell (Styrene’s daughter) and Zoë Howe; it chronicles her life through a series of interviews with people who knew her, as well as those who were influenced by her—including punk icon Kathleen Hanna.
Howe, a rock ‘n’ roll biographer who has written books on The Slits, Stevie Nicks, Lee Brilleaux, and more, worked with Styrene on various occasions, but most notably did provide a press release for the final X-Ray Spex show in 2008 at The Roundhouse in London. A year later, she got to know Bell when she interviewed her for “How’s Your Dad?,” a book about the children of famous musicians. Through those interactions, she kept in touch with her throughout the next decade. Bell was sitting on a massive visual archive that she inherited from her mother, and reached out to Howe to collaborate on what would become Dayglo.
Poly Styrene’s legacy as a punk singer and lyricist is well-documented. But after I read Dayglo and spoke to Belle and Howe, I realized that style and self-presentation also ran deep in Styrene’s life and career. She was, simply put, a fashion girl—what’s so striking about the book and accompanying film is the rich personal commentary, supplemented by documentation of incredible personal style. Styrene was ahead of her time—conscientious about quality over quantity (a basic pillar of sustainability) and adamant in rejecting fast fashion.
“I definitely discovered a lot about my mother through other people’s memories and people who knew her before I was alive,” Belle said. “You really only know your parents through your family. And I was speaking to people who knew her as a teenager.”
As a mixed-race person of color growing up in Britain in the 1960s, Styrene lived through a wave of migration that the country regarded as “a phenomenon,” Bell said. A Somalian immigrant, Styrene’s father experienced anti-Black racism on top of high anti-immigrant sentiment from that time. “There was already an idea that, if you were mixed race, you were going to have difficulty,” Bell added. “There was this idea that you would probably be confused and would have mental health issues. Sadly, my mom did have mental health issues. She grew up in an environment where racial abuse thrown at her and her parents was an everyday occurrence.” Living in a rough part of London, Poly grew up having to fight and defend herself. These experiences, in turn, informed her music and art.
While she explored identity within her music, Styrene also dealt with the constant struggle of not conforming to preconceived labels concerning her gender or race. She famously refused to be defined by those two categories, and her strong feelings around her personal identity also manifested in the way she dressed. Poly saw the idea of stardom as a way to flee her social and economic circumstances. The compassion, vulnerability, and contradictions in characters wrapped in her performance art stemmed from feeling like an outsider within the constraints of the punk movement, as well as how she navigated being a bi-racial woman in Britain. The feelings of isolation were very real for her, but she was able to use clothes and fashion to solidify her stage persona and express herself.
Styrene was known for her distinct look of untamed curls, teeth clad with braces, and an unmistakable “Dayglo” style: fluorescent hues, wild prints, and busty shapes—an aesthetic that constituted the antithesis of the moody and reckless ways of punk. Her interest in Dayglo and her mission to establish vibrant colors as a marker of her look was a reaction to the darkness and the nihilism of typical punk style.
The musician had an existing relationship to the fashion world; One of her first jobs before joining X-ray Spex was as a junior buyer for a High Street shop, which led her to start her own stall at Beaufort Market called “Poly Styrene.” Later, she was at the forefront of sustainability long before we heard about it from her punk counterpart and fellow designer, Vivienne Westwood, who had a shop nearby Styrene’s on Kings Road in London. There, Styrene was known to upcycle products and materials to feature in her creations, mining various plastics and tchotchkes to give any given garment the “Poly Styrene” signature.
“She took the DIY ethic very seriously,” Bell said. “There weren’t actually a lot of punk musicians doing what she was doing—making her own clothes, styling the band, making all of the artwork for the band, making all of her own posters. One of the reasons her style was so unique and stood out among her contemporaries was because she was making it all herself. She wasn’t into what we consider 'classic punk.'”
“I think back to her heritage—Somali people, especially the women, traditionally wearing bright colors. Even though it’s a Muslim country, the dark robes and hijabs were never part of their tradition,” Bell said. “It was more colorful, flowery—and she was very interested in that aesthetic.”
Bell was born in the 1980s, during a time when Styrene wasn’t fronting a punk band, and instead was active in the Hare Krishna movement. The first time she saw the Krishnas, she was captivated by their collectively happy spirit, chanting, and flowing Saffron-colored robes. This era was her biggest post-punk influence, sartorially speaking. Once she joined the Hare Krishnas, she stopped wearing Western clothes and switched to Saris and Punjabi suits. She grew her hair long, wore it braided to the side, pierced her nose, and donned gold jewelry. She no longer felt that she needed to conform to unattainable standards of beauty perpetuated by the West. “She always said she felt her most beautiful during this period—her late 20s and early 30s,” Bell has said in a previous interview. It was a time of spiritual exploration, a newfound liberation, and the creation of a new identity around fashion.
Poly Styrene’s style legacy is a reflection of the self-discovery, motherhood, stardom, and spirituality that defined her life. She wasn’t a conventional rockstar, but existing beyond those conventions as a woman of color was pretty radical during her time. She is remembered as an innovator of punk music and fashion as it’s referenced in pop culture today—and if there was one thing Poly Styrene wanted to do, it was to just be Poly Styrene.