Disney’s Cruella stitches punk’s overlooked female designers into the fabric

There was a time the very thought of Cruella would have been met with outrage. I know this because I would have been outraged. Of all subcultures to be hijacked by Disney, 70s London wasteland punk is surely the most heinous.

Now? Well, what punk could even mean in 2021 is open to offers. While Disney releases Cruella – a pop blockbuster filtered through $200m of corporate compromise – Danny Boyle is making Pistol, a TV adaptation of the memoir of the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones. And yes, one of these instinctively feels more punk than the other. And yes, it is Cruella.

If the question is why a punk Cruella, the obvious answer is the least interesting: Joker. Todd Phillips’ film surely laid the ground for another rebirth of intellectual property in a theme park ruinous 70s. Still. However cynically or haphazardly, Disney has now spotlit a version of punk history more reputable sources have undersold for years. You might even call it the real one.

Because the standard punk timeline – passed down from tattered NMEs into coffee-table books and exhibitions – treats fashion as a footnote. Vivienne Westwood, creator of the hacked-up bondagewear modelled by the Pistols, is just one more supporting character. Whereas in Cruella – Emma Stone’s antiheroine a Westwood proxy – she and the clothes are centre-stage. As they should be.

The tabloid infamy that diffused punk over Britain owed more to the getups than it did to the tunes. For the most interesting bands, the two were inseparable anyway. Viv Albertine, now a well-regarded writer but in 1977 guitarist in the Slits, was asked years later how punk music had inspired what she wore. “It was the other way around,” she replied. Watching Westwood make clothes, she said – self-taught, the imperfections left in – became the blueprint for her group’s scratchy, influential songs.

And Cruella signposts something else essential about punk: the power of reinvention. For the original punks, clothes weren’t just clothes but a ticket to a whole new you, cut to your own design. Take Westwood herself, the primary-school teacher turned scandaliser of middle England. See also Marianne Elliott-Said, a restless mixed-race Brixton teenager whose love of secondhand dress-up fuelled a bold new persona as Poly Styrene, frontwoman of X-Ray Spex. This year her singular life was the subject of the documentary I Am a Cliché. It was decades away from the glitterball of Cruella and not so very different: a self-realisation story.

Given the radioactive sexism of 70s Britain, it was no coincidence women such as Styrene embodied the most urgent lesson of punk – you don’t need to be who they say you are. Apt too that in that ultimate hall of mirrors, the movies, so many of the most enduring punk films have been female-led: Out of the Blue with fireball Linda Manz; music-business time capsule Breaking Glass; Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens; Sweden’s joyous We Are the Best!

The Sex Pistols movie was awful, of course. The Disney-baiting title of a failed first attempt – Who Killed Bambi? – was recycled as a tune in the film that did get made, the knackered, dribbly cash-in The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. I watched it years afterwards. For a boy discovering punk a decade late, it was part of the curriculum. God, it was glum. Never mind. Plenty more stuff would fill the gaps, a 40-year production line of films and autobiographies now joined by Danny Boyle’s group portrait. (Uncle Walt got the last laugh. Like Cruella, Pistol is corporate Disney property.)

Boyle’s series has made space for women usually nudged to the margins of the legend: Westwood, Chrissie Hynde, the talismanic model Jordan. The focus will still be the lads. Advance publicity has found cheekboney young actors restaging the video for God Save the Queen. If punk turned ordinary kids into wild alter egos, TV drama remakes them as Screen Daily Stars of Tomorrow.

If Pistol wants to bring punk to the youth of 2021, there are worse ambitions. The problem is misdirection. The trail that starts with Westwood and Poly Styrene passes through extraordinary places – the “girls to the front” war cry of Kathleen Hanna, and Pussy Riot, delivering truth to power in Putin’s Russia. But follow the Sex Pistols far enough and you just end up with John Lydon shouting about Brexit on Good Morning Britain.

Pistol will, you imagine, duly re-enact Lydon and Jones’s famous four-letter spree on Bill Grundy’s evening TV show. (A response to Grundy leering at the nearby Siouxsie Sioux.) The original moment will be for ever punk precisely because teatime telly in 70s Britain was the last place on earth a “fucking rotter” would be called such. Now it will happen neatly on cue for an audience of nostalgics. But punk was about the surprise, the gatecrashed front room. And that – for all the Disneyness of it – means Cruella, a blockbuster with a trace of something strange and sharp sewn in, about to be released into 100 million homes.