The second time I was arrested, I was living in Los Angeles and wearing a skirt.
The garment in question was a detachable mini-kilt and was designed to be worn, by both girls and boys, over matching red plaid pants. These were adorned with buckles and zips. Dubbed “plaid bondage trousers,” they were the brainchild of the rebel fashion visionary Vivienne Westwood. It was all very 1977 and very punk.
The most striking aspect of this getup was not the detachable kilt. It was the bondage strap, comprising a loose adjustable belt, which connected the legs at knee level.
This leg strap was less constricting than it appeared. Normal activities-walking, climbing stairs, ice skating (noncompetitive), running for the bus, disco dancing, and even driving, which is what I was doing when I was arrested-could be performed while wearing these bondage pants.
I was twenty-seven years old, newly emigrated to America, high on Life and also on something called tequila. Ensconced at the wheel of my hearse-size, white ’65 Dodge station wagon, I felt like a million bucks.
This useful, trusty vehicle played a key role in my window-dressing career. It was invariably crammed with tools, paint pots, and a wide assortment of props. At the time of my arrest, I was transporting, among other things, a small taxidermied spider monkey, strings of plastic frankfurters, an oversize fake Oscar made of chicken wire and papier-mâché, a bag of fluorescent-hued go-go dancer wigs, and a huge stack of unused vintage colostomy bags. These had been given to me by a nurse friend who had purloined them for me from her place of employ, thinking they might form the basis of an amusing window display. Unable to find a suitable context for such medical oddities, I had driven them around for weeks.
Me and my colostomy bags were headed south on Alvarado Street, through the much-sung-about MacArthur Park. It was after midnight, and I was weaving. My nonconformist maneuverings were not the result of a tangled bondage strap. I would have loved to have blamed my poor driving on my outfit-“Your Honor, it was my punk couture . . .” But it wasn’t the strap. It was the hooch.
WALKING THE LINE
Two motorcycle cops with flashing lights appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and pressed the button which read Park. My Dodge was the futuristic push-button model.
The two strapping policemen dismounted and swaggered toward me. Handsome, chiseled, and bursting out of their skintight uniforms, these two intimidating specimens were straight out of a Tom of Finland homoerotic drawing.
One officer eyed the stuffed monkey lounging on the red vinyl seat next to me. The other politely asked me to step out of my “vehicle.” Whenever the word vehicle is used, it is safe to assume that things are about to become a great deal less fabulous.
There was no time to detach my kilt or undo my strap. Affecting an upbeat, cooperative, breezy demeanor, I simply swung my legs out of the car as daintily as possible and hoped for the best.
Both cops were about one foot taller than me. They looked me up and down. And up and down. And down and up.
It was spring.
The Santa Ana wind ruffled my mini-kilt.
They stopped looking at me and exchanged bemused glances. There was a pause. And then it started. They began to giggle. Here were two of the butchest-looking cops in America-straight out of CHiPs-and they were tittering like a couple of birdbrained schoolgirls.
Something was going horribly wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In fact, this was the very opposite of what Vivienne Westwood had planned when she conceived of my punky plaid bondage trousers. They were not designed to be funny. I was supposed to look alienated, aggrieved, postnuclear, and maybe even just a tidgy bit intimidating.
Nobody was supposed to giggle.
Eventually my two new pals got their mirth under control.
“So what’s with the kilt?” said Cop Number 1 somewhat rhetorically, while chewing tobacco. I was unable to furnish him with a response. Instead I embarked on an enthusiastic, somewhat slurred autobiographical ramble. I explained that I had recently moved from London to Los Angeles-“What a great city! Lucky me!”-and that back in the United Kingdom everyone, simply everyone, was wearing plaid bondage trousers. The giggling resumed.
Cop Number 2 finally got a grip.
“Time to walk the line, buddy,” he said, crossing his massive forearms. I lurched into the middle of the sidewalk and separated my legs. My strap dangled into view.
The giggling resumed once more. The giggling turned to seizures, and the seizures became convulsions.
I began to walk forward, placing one Doc Marten boot in front of the other as best I could. The kilt swung and the strap dangled and then straightened.
My memory of exactly what happened next is, thanks to the tequila, a bit foggy. I do, however, recall quite distinctly that one of the cops was slapping the seat of his cycle with uncontrollable laughter, while his colleague did the same thing on the hood of my Dodge. Or was he actually lying on the ground, slapping the sidewalk? I don’t quite recall. Either way, my new friends had completely abandoned all attempts to appear authoritarian.
Suddenly the action begins to fast-forward.
The paddy wagon arrives, and the giggly rapport comes screeching to a halt. Handcuffs are applied, contributing substantially to the bondage theme of my attire.
I bid farewell to CHiPs.
“Thanks for everything!” I say in a sincere and desperate attempt to put an optimistic spin on a really dire situation.
On the surface I appear cheery. Internally, I am in a state of screaming desperation. As far as I can tell, my life is completely and utterly over. I am headed for the Big House, and I am wearing a skirt. Within twenty-four hours I will be massaging the feet of some incarcerated Hells Angel, having become his Bitch! For life! Forever!
“Get a grip, daughter!” I say to myself as the paddy wagon lurches off into the night.
All is not lost. I am an adaptable kind of person. I will adjust to life in prison. Anything is better than being ignominiously deported back to England. I had left all my London pals on such a glamorous up note. Being forcibly repatriated, with my bondage strap between my legs, only months after having left is more than I can bear. I decide that I would prefer to rot in an American jail in the tattooed arms of some uncouth brute.
I brace myself for the first round of humiliations down at the station. “If only they had not handcuffed me,” I say to myself as I sit in the back of the wagon looking like a wretched Weegee photograph, “I could have detached my kilt and bondage strap and stuffed them inside my jacket.” Without the use of my hands, I am unable even to arrange my kilt into a more discreet configuration. It is fanning out from knee to knee like a big old . . . skirt.
Hopefully, when we get to the station, I will be unhandcuffed and permitted to adjust my outfit, thereby rendering it less incendiary and provocative.
But we aren’t going to the station.
For two or three hours we drive around picking up more drunks, many of whom are a great deal less savory than myself.
They are a diverse bunch. Some are down and out, some are upscale, some are vomiting, and some are members of Mexican cholo gangs. The latter, with their hairnets, baggy trousers, and teardrop tattoos, have a panache and originality which rivals my own.
All of my fellow drunks have one thing in common. They are all fascinated by my plaid bondage ensemble.
I affect what I imagine to be a doltish masculine demeanor and pretend to be a mute.
Finally, the paddy wagon fills up. We then drive to the jail in downtown L.A., where we are all Breathalyzed and thrown in the slammer.
After five minutes behind bars, all I can think about are the repeat offenders. Why? Why? Why? Being incarcerated is such a vile experience that it is impossible to understand the whole concept of career criminals. It goes against every notion of human psychology. There is nothing delicious or hip about being locked up. It is smelly, incredibly scary, and horribly unfabulous.
After one hour in the holding tank, I have sworn off drink forever and devised all kinds of penances for myself. I will hike ten miles into the desert every Sunday and flagellate myself in a biblical fashion while lying on a sunbaked rock. I will shop at Miller’s Outpost for preppy khakis and never wear plaid bondage again. I will walk to Death Valley with dried peas in my shoes. I will go and live with my granny, Narg, and bake shepherd’s pie for her and set her hair with rollers and teach her how to blend her foundation.
Two things save me from becoming the tank bitch.
1. I somehow manage to unclip my skirt and stuff it into my pocket before being thrown in the slammer with all the psychopaths and drug-crazed lunatics.
2. A shrill, cheap-looking hustler who had been arrested for God knows what on Santa Monica Boulevard is monopolizing all the available homophobic aggression. He screeches for his lawyer and his mother and starts to drop minor celebrity names. I am probably the only one in the holding tank who has even heard of Melissa Manchester, so it does him very little good.
Inmates snore. Time drags. Inmates belch. Rumors fly. Apparently we are all to be kept inside for at least three days. It is Easter weekend, and there are no officers available to process our paperwork. I lie on a yellowed plastic rubber mattress and think about how soon it will be before I develop hepatitis and my eyeballs turn the same color as my bed. I dream of freedom. It’s been three hours and already I feel like Solzhenitsyn. A large tear rolls down my cheek.
I awake twenty minutes later to the sound of keys clanking and freedom. I am officially charged with driving under the influence and given a court date.
AMUSED BY ANARCHY
As I walk out into the sunlight, a feeling of unbelievable relief floods my hideously hungover consciousness. I am, give or take a legal problem or two, a free man. I skip home to the converted garage where I am living in downtown L.A.
Once inside I tear off my leather jacket and look in the mirror, expecting to see a long white beard and an emaciated visage.
Oh, my God!
I had forgotten about my shirt. This shirt was, in its own way, even more insane than the plaid bondage pants.
It was a forest green, short-sleeved garment, also from the fertile brain of Ms. Westwood. It had a contrasting Peter Pan collar. Emblazoned on the pocket were the words “Friend of Sid Vicious.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth. “Friend of Sid Vicious”! I was not a friend of Sid’s nor did I have any intention of being. I had encountered Sid in Vivienne’s boutique. I had trembled and left. He was a real punk. I was a mere poseur.
Prior to moving to Los Angeles, I was living with my friend Biddie in Battersea, just over the bridge from Chelsea, the epicenter of the punk phenomenon. What 1967 was to the Summer of Love and Haight-Ashbury, 1977 was to the Kings Road and punk.
Punk was a graphic, stylistic revolution which permeated everything within screeching distance of South London. There was no way to avoid it. One minute you were a regular person, the next you were wearing a garbage bag, painting your eyes like a raccoon, and shoving a safety pin through your ear.
For Biddie and me, every outgoing or homebound journey involved a bus ride down the Kings Road through the punk mayhem which was 1977. Everywhere you looked there were girls wearing leather dresses and black lipstick, and boys wearing T-shirts with nihilistic slogans, torn black jeans, and brothel creepers, the thick-soled shoes which punks appropriated from teddy boys, much to the latter’s annoyance.
Everything which had preceded punk, the retro-glamour styles of the early seventies, now seemed pathetic and prissy and completely out of date. Biddie and I had no other choice but to jump onboard. It was plus grand que nous.
Biddie’s hair was dyed pink and black, which matched most of his clothing. I had my bondage trousers and various other garments. Our friends wore homemade clothes fabricated from Union Jack souvenir shopping bags. We were drowning in punk. And yet there was nothing punk about us. It was just a façade.
As soon as “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols hit the record stores, we ran out and snagged a copy. Here was the anthem of our times, sung by the antihero of the moment. On the record sleeve was the now infamous collage of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with a safety pin stuck through her cheek. Excitedly we took Yma Sumac off the turntable and replaced her with Johnny Rotten and Co.
By the time we got to the bit where Johnny Rotten is screaming “No future! No future!” we were rolling our eyes and laughing. It all seemed so insanely camp and funny. An angry adolescent pose. After a while the jackhammering music grated on our nerves. I couldn’t wait to pull that disc off the turntable and return to Yma.
We had no idea why the Sex Pistols were advocating anarchy in the first place. We barely knew what anarchy was. Apolitical, TV-less, and contentedly superficial, we were oblivious to whatever injustices were fueling Johnny Rotten’s rage.
I tore off my Sid Vicious shirt and my plaid bondage pants as quickly as I could without popping any buttons or breaking any zips, and showered for hours. It didn’t help. I still felt utterly putrid. I was a fake. A poseur. A drunk. A felon. I wasn’t in a rock band. I was a fey window dresser. And now I was far from home in a town without pity.
I felt a teary pang of homesickness.
Why had I left Biddie and all my friends and family and come to this godforsaken hellhole, where the sun always shines and where nobody in their right mind wears a hot, thick, itchy, plaid skirt?
I shoved my outfit in a plastic garbage bag, never to wear it again.
P.S. For my court appearance, I wore a nice little suit, a crisp white shirt, and a narrow red tie. Next to my giant lawyer I must have looked like an innocent prep school boy, or Happy Harry. Either way, the judge took pity and reduced the charge to reckless driving. I paid, with great difficulty, a nominal fine.)
MEN IN PLAID
Fall 1985 is, for me, a period of great contrasts. At night I crash on the floor of a benevolent friend in the East Village. During the day I am working in the legendary Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum as display designer for an exhibition called Costumes of Royal India. This is the most fancy-pants job I have ever had.
One day, while fluffing and draping a bejeweled sari, I overhear a colleague mention that the institute has begun to collect clothing designed by Vivienne Westwood. I still have tons of my old outfits, including stuff from the wacky pirate collections of the early 1980s and my arrest ensemble. I cannot imagine wearing any of this stuff again. I dry-clean everything and haul it to the Met archive, where it is greeted with shrieks of amused delight.
The soaring values attached to vintage Westwood clothing astound me. Even more shocking is the massive tax refund I receive the following year as a result of my donation. When the shekels arrive, I use them as a down payment on an apartment. So much for Johnny Rotten’s anarchy and the destruction of the bourgeoisie!
Fast-forward to 2004. The plaid bondage saga continues, paralleling my own odyssey from confused, marginal pixie to successful, establishment gnome.
The Met Costume Institute stages an exhibition entitled Bravehearts: Men in Skirts. There’s a fancy opening party hosted by Jean Paul Gaultier. Much air is kissed and much champagne is guzzled.
I have perfected my own particular brand of extreme air kiss. It involves angling each cheek in the general direction of the kissee, preferably at a distance of at least three feet. My goal is germ avoidance rather than Euro-sophistication. Regarding champagne guzzling, I am even less enthusiastic. I am now tea-total.
I gave up drinking in the mid-eighties. It was all quite easy. No Betty Ford. No Alcoholics Anonymous. No “one day at a time.” I climbed effortlessly onto the wagon after a caring friend informed me, in no uncertain terms, that I was “slurring like a tragic, drunken old hag.” That did the trick. A sucker for negative reinforcement, I renounced alcohol on the spot.
Clutching a mineral water, I scamper quickly through the exhibition. I am stone-cold sober and acutely aware of it. Attending these kinds of events without the anesthetizing benefits of alcohol is a nerve-jangling experience. The attendees seem like screeching AbFab parodies of themselves, i.e., me before I quit the hooch.
Something hauntingly familiar stops me in my tracks.
There, spotlit and resplendent on a teen male mannequin, is my plaid bondage arrest outfit, complete with kilt and strap. I feel as if I have bumped into a rather degenerate, long-lost friend. I let forth a shriek of recognition, garnering the attention of everyone within a ten-yard radius.
I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. As I regale the adjacent spectators with the whole plaid back story, I realize that we, I and my skirt, have a great deal in common: we are both survivors. Somehow, more by luck than by judgment, we both managed to stick around long enough to see me reach my half century. Maybe we were just a couple of silly poseurs. So what? The important thing is that we made it. The moths didn’t get either of us. It’s nothing short of a miracle. We could both so easily have been cut up and used to clean furniture.
From Nasty: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints, by Simon Doonan. Copyright 2005 by Simon Doonan. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.