Rebel Girl: Poly Styrene Was The Feminist Punk Way Ahead Of Her Time
If you’re not familiar with Poly Styrene, otherwise known as Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, then now is a good time to get to know one of punk’s most radical women. The frontwoman of seminal band X-Ray Spex, Poly was a rebel and pioneer in ways that reached far beyond the raucous music she made. While the rest of the music scene was predominantly white and male, she was mixed race (her mother was Scottish-Irish, her father Somali) and she refused to participate in stereotypical gender roles, flipping the male gaze on its head at every turn. Her writing, too, was ahead of its time, her whip-smart lyrics tackling consumerism, feminism and environmentalism.
Born in Kent and raised in Brixton, Poly ran away from home with a mere £3 in her pocket, hopping between music festivals across the country before an early Sex Pistols gig in Hastings in 1976 inspired her to form her own punk outfit. Taking out adverts in the NME and Melody Maker calling for “YOUNG PUNX WHO WANT TO STICK IT TOGETHER”, X-Ray Spex was soon born. She adopted her stage name – a tongue-in-cheek nod to the consumerist culture she’d later criticise in her music – and after just six band rehearsals, they took to the stage at London’s legendary Roxy in Covent Garden.
Poly’s searing lyrics, which have been credited with laying the foundations for the riot grrrl movement of the ’90s, stuck two fingers up to the sexist and suffocating roles placed on women. Her howling intro on the band’s best known single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” is perhaps her most recognisable takedown: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I think, oh bondage, up yours!”
“It wasn’t even a punk thing, it was the music industry in general,” Celeste Bell, Poly’s daughter and the author of a newly released book about her mum’s life, tells Refinery29. “People always think of the band as being underground because my mum split the band up quite early on [in 1979, due to Poly’s then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder], but they had a lot of commercial success, on Top of the Pops and in teen magazines, and what my mum experienced was this very sexist, old school industry.”
Fighting the sex symbol expectations placed on her as a frontwoman, Poly’s whole look was intrinsically rebellious, down to the metal train tracks she wore on her teeth. “She had the braces on her teeth because of pressure from the record company to straighten them,” Celeste says. “These unflattering reviews written by men, things that come with being a female performer, it did affect her self-esteem, but her whole stage persona was about rebelling against this objectification. She flipped it on its head” Would she have identified as a feminist? “Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn’t, but my mum was never one for labels. She just lived the feminist life: she was always super independent, did things on her own terms, and I think she never really entertained the idea that being a woman would stop her from doing what she wanted to do.”
As well as the mouth full of metal, Poly was recognisable for her plastic-fantastic Day-Glo aesthetic, totally at odds with the prevailing punk leather-and-chains look. When she was 17, Poly made her own clothes to sell on a market stall at the end of the King’s Road, by the infamous World’s End pub. “She would sell customised and handmade clothes and jewellery she had made, like jelly shoes,” Celeste says. “Being at that market stall, she was there during the very early days of punk and she saw a lot of leather and bondage clothes and wasn’t really into it, despite being into the music.”
Instead, Poly turned to colour, donning fuchsia military jackets, paintbox-bright cardigans, yellow mini dresses and leather bombers adorned with multicoloured resin badges. “She was a very playful person and she was trying to be playful in the face of something that was becoming quite contrived and posery… People were starting to take punk very seriously, whereas she combined granny-chic with kids’ dress-up.” While Poly’s futuristic aesthetic, all neon and man-made fabrics, differentiated her from the rest of the scene, so too did her afro hair, which looked nothing like bovver girls’ feathered cuts or the erratic spikes of the Sex Pistols. “She couldn’t relate to it, so she came up with something else that worked with her as an individual.”
What did Celeste think of her mum’s style when she was growing up? “I wasn’t too keen!” she laughs. “She had an amazing style, and she was always really into clothes, and her style was constantly evolving. When I was a kid and she was in the Hare Krishna movement [Poly joined in ’83], she was wearing lots of saris and Punjabi suits; and then she got into the New Romantic look with lots of waistcoats, large wide-brimmed hats, and frilly shirts. She always looked really cool, but when you’re a kid you just want your mum to look like everyone else.”
Poly was aware of the damaging impact of consumerism way before terms like ‘fast fashion’ and ‘sustainability’ hit the mainstream consciousness. “She was really concerned with environmental degradation and had an album out in the ’90s called Conscious Consumer. When she was a teenager, if she saw something in a magazine – flares or hot pants, whatever was cool – she would ask her mum for the pattern and she would make it herself. My mum was never one to buy lots of clothes, and she almost saw the beginning of the hyper-consumerist muddle we’re living through now.”
So why is 2019 a good time to remind ourselves of the guttural wails and sharp lyricism, future-thinking social critiques and fluoro style of Poly Styrene? Alongside Celeste’s book, Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, which was released last week, small-batch cult knitwear brand Hades has dedicated its latest collection to the icon, working with Celeste on a 3 piece collection, taking inspiration directly from Poly Styrene’s original hand drawn artwork. With previous collections inspired by The Slits and Patti Smith, founder Cassie Holland has a long history of paying homage to music’s coolest women.
“I admire Poly because she bravely rejected mainstream concepts of how a life should be lived,” Cassie tells Refinery29. “She questioned everything that we inherit from society as sacrosanct – railing against mainstream institutions, disposable culture… When you read her lyrics today you can see she was not only a shrewd critic of the society she was living in but also foresaw the way it would evolve. She was a brilliant outsider.”
Poly, or rather, Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, passed away in 2011, but it’s clear from both Celeste’s book and Hades’ collection that her legacy is still alive and kicking down doors. Whether it was defying expectations on stage, spouting the cold hard truth through her lyrics or making a case for individualism in the face of mass consumption, Poly was a force to be reckoned with. How would Celeste want her to be remembered? “As a free-spirited person and independent thinker, a social commentator and insightful artist. She lived life according to her own rules.”
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