The Rebel Dykes were the forgotten lesbian punks of 1980s London, whose lives have been documented by members of the community in an upcoming film as well as a history project. The term “Rebel Dykes” was made up by the filmmakers, but it encapsulates the ferocity, the difference and the unashamed lesbian-ness of various communities, all of which were connected by their lifestyles, their clothing, and the spaces they congregated in. They were outsiders, and obviously so; their spaces were limited, so some safe havens like music bar The Bell and SM club Chain Reaction were sites of congregation. Many stories and photographs of the Rebel Dykes feature them. Communities were forged by actions rather than names.
This post is a discussion of the fashions of the Rebel Dykes. The film’s producer and original Rebel Dyke herself, Siobhan Fahey, was kind enough to talk about them with me, and her insights will be quoted throughout.
Fig. 1: Rebel Dykes in the 1980s, London. Photograph credit to Laney Shimmin.
Communities are formed through fashion time and time again, and though the Rebel Dykes smashed tradition in many ways, the use of self-presentation to signify identity and group affiliation was not one of them. These outsider lesbians knew each other at a glance, and so did those who cast them out. Fashion theorist Ruth Rubenstein has written about “tie-signs”: essentially, fashion signs that tie non-mainstream groups together. She discusses how “Individuals adopt the attire to announce commitment to the group and are aware that it places them outside the confines of established and institutional order.”1 This framework is a way to understand the Rebel Dykes, their difference from the rest of society, and the strength that they drew from that difference, together. We can see some of this in the photograph above, which features a mass of dykes in leather jackets. Other items of clothing recur, too: there are bandanas, mostly tied around the neck; flat-top haircuts; and I’m sure if the camera had panned down, the group’s feet would all be tied into black “monkey” boots.
Siobhan told me that Rebel Dykes were easy to spot – no one else was dressing like them. She explained how “fashions today are similar to the ‘80s, but then it was the first time people saw them.”2 While now, brightly-coloured hair is popular among all sorts of people, in the ‘80s it was “much more extreme.” While now it’s popular to have multiple tattoos, then even one was a sure sign of cultural deviance. Piercings, too, were far more common among Rebel Dykes than the general population. These lesbian punks stuck out, and while they were pioneering some of the routes that fashion would take in the coming decades, it “frightened people” in their own time.
Fig. 2: Rebel Dykes in the 1980s, London. Photograph credit to Laney Shimmin.
They could spot each other and form community bonds through looking at clothing and adorning themselves in certain ways. They were also spotted by others. This would sometimes be a threat to their safety, and Siobhan told me how the leather jackets that so often graced the shoulders of the Rebel Dykes were in part worn for protection. Thick leather was the armour of the day. Leather had other consequences, though – by its association with “sex-radicals” and SM, and the SM club that so many Rebel Dykes frequented, Chain Reaction, it secured a firm denial into lesbian feminist spaces on the other side of the lesbian sex wars.3
In the words of Siobhan, “It’s incredible to think how political the leather jacket was […] specifically a leather biker jacket because they were associated with SM dykes.” Leather jackets were worn by many London lesbians in the 1980s, and while not all of them would have been SM dykes, their acceptance and celebration of them tarred them with the same brush in the eyes of those who opposed them. The climate of sex and feminism in the 80s is more nuanced than I can pay tribute to here, but it’s important to understand just how rebellious the Rebel Dykes were. They were outsiders even within other lesbian communities, and their clothing was how they spelled out their personal resistance to the world.
In a quote featured on the Rebel Dykes website, Sabrina talks about her experience with fashion as a Rebel Dyke, and “of course” her “leather jacket, without which I wouldn’t leave the house, whether it was winter, summer or whatever.”4 The jacket was a staple, an symbol of affiliation to a lesbian community of her own. This was true for so many of these dykes, and yet their fashions were also deeply personal.
Fig. 3: Debbie Smith, a Rebel Dyke, in the 1980s, London. Photograph credit to Laney Shimmin.
The Rebel Dykes were punk, and one of the staples of punk fashion is the customisation of clothing. Anti-fashion rather than fashion, ripping up clothes and starting again, drawing symbols that contest the norm, covering garments in badges and pins. “Everyone would paint on their jackets” Siobhan said when I spoke to her, “and badges were huge.” Sabrina, who was quoted above, said how she had “German army parachuting boots” and would “put loads of studs all the way round, and drew on lesbian signs and double axes and stuff.”5
Symbolism was huge, as it so often is in queer communities and activism. There was the labrys, a double-headed axe that is often used to symbolise lesbianism and refers to Amazonian warriors and the strength of women. The pink and black triangles were also used, reclaimed by queer people after their use in Nazi Germany to persecute homosexual and “anti-social” people. Lavender was another symbolic colour, with a long history of lesbian associations – from Sappho and her violets to Betty Friedan’s declaration that lesbians were a “lavender menace” in the women’s movement. These symbols were fierce; they were about pain, reclamation, and liberation. They were symbols that were not commodified, unlike the rainbow flag is today. They had to be painted onto clothing because there was no other option, no Primark or Boohoo at which to buy a rainbow-printed “love is love” tee.
For the Rebel Dykes, fashion was often intertwined with craft, and craft with politics, and these are well-worn connections. Forms of craft, things that are handmade and often for practical use, have always been devalued when it comes to the skill and intent put into them. The hierarchy of art over craft is rooted in class and gender, where anything made by a working class person or a woman is intrinsically lesser. The political and artistic significance of crafted items have spent years unacknowledged, and because this reflects womanhood in general, craft has been taken up as a tool for many feminists.6 It has been reclaimed: when lesbians craft or customise their clothing, their clothing becomes an imagination of life outside of all forms of hierarchy. When the Rebel Dykes ripped up their t-shirts or painted symbols onto their jackets, they symbolically refused the hierarchies and the categories that constrained them.
Fig. 4: Rebel Dykes Peri, Robyn, Aimee and Pat in the 1980s, London. Photograph credit to Laney Shimmin.
We owe a lot to these lesbians who were true to themselves in the face of adversity from all sides, but especially when it comes to fashion. If not for them leading the way, who knows how many of us lesbians and queer people – or even straight people – would have coloured hair or tattoos today. When we wear a leather biker-style jacket that might have been bought in a highstreet shop, maybe we should wonder about those who were wearing them 30 or 40 years ago. The lesbian punk scene in the 1980s was a carving out of space that so many more people inhabit now. It deserves to be recognised for it.
1: Ruth Rubenstein, Dress Codes, (USA: Westview Press, 2001) 253.
2: Conversation with Siobhan Fahey, Producer of the Rebel Dykes film, 1st March 2021.
3: ‘The Lesbian Sex Wars,’ Rebel Dykes History Project, 2020 Rebel Dykes History Project CiC, rebeldykeshistoryproject.com.
4: Sabrina, quoted in ‘The Fashion,’ Rebel Dykes History Project, 2020 Rebel Dykes History Project CiC, rebeldykeshistoryproject.com.
5: Sabrina, quoted in ‘The Fashion,’ Rebel Dykes History Project, 2020 Rebel Dykes History Project CiC, rebeldykeshistoryproject.com.
6: Rozsika Parker, ‘‘The Creation of Femininity’ from The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine,’ The Craft Reader, Glenn Adamson, ed, (New York: Berg, 2010) 494.