Secret Style Icon: Switchblade Sisters

Be a bubblegum goth girl in polka dots, lace, and too much blush.

Vivienne Westwood's Pirate Collection, via Fashion Pearls of Wisdom and Le Modalogue.

In 1980, Vivienne Westwood, the designer who helped define the British punk aesthetic, was sick of the black leather jackets, liberty spikes, and ripped sweaters that are now worn with a mandatory sneer everywhere from Camden Town to Alphabet City. She’d become obsessed with 18th century costume, billowing romantic silhouettes, and blazing sunshine colors. In 1981, the runway debut of her Pirate Collection was a rare thing in fashion: a completely new look. Vivienne’s clothes were still inventive, androgynous, and deeply weird, but now they were as steeped in tradition and technique as her earlier punk collections had been in street culture.

More of Vivienne's pirates, via Flaunt.

New Wave kids in London immediately took to the new look, mixing Vivienne’s iconic squiggle prints and pirate hats with baggy men’s trousers and sneakers. But the new collection needed a muse to make it feel as relevant as punk had.

Annabella Lwin, via Dripped Milk.

Enter Myant Myant Aye, a 14-year-old British-Burmese girl hand-picked by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren to front the New Wave band Bow Wow Wow (he’d heard her singing along to a Stevie Wonder song on the radio at the dry cleaner where she worked). Within months, she’d changed her name to Annabella Lwin and was yelping and squealing all over Bow Wow Wow’s debut record, See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah! City All Over, Go Ape Crazy! (which wins the Mark E. Smith award for most absurdly titled album).

L-R: Photo by Phillippe Carly via New Wave Photos; photo via Dripped Milk.

Annabella also collaborated with Vivienne Westwood on her stage costumes, and she was a master of mixing Vivienne’s designer clothes with her own streetwear basics. She would wear a poufy vintage tulle ball gown with a shredded leather jacket and her mohawk, or sling a thick leather belt over two of Vivienne’s billowy minidresses and wrap her hair with embroidery thread. She made Vivienne’s historic silhouettes look young and effortless.

Madonna via The Stiletto Effect, and on the cover of i-D, March/April 1984.

Madonna was working a similar look during her early 80s “Boy Toy” phase. She would buy lengths of black lace at a fabric store and tie it in a big bow around her head (surely this is the fanciest way to deal with dirty or otherwise unpresentable hair), or make little braids in her hair like Annabella. I want to point out that there really only need to be two colors in a New Wave girl’s makeup palette: pink and black. The black goes on your eyes; the pink goes everywhere else.

Probably the queens of this look were the Scottish band Strawberry Switchblade. They would wear polka-dot prom dresses with vintage shades, white pancake makeup, giant bows, and long satin ribbons woven into their hair, sort of a proto-Gothic Lolita look. Like Madonna, they also observed the “black, white, and pink everything” rule, and their eyeliner game was strong:

Watch the adorable video for their song for “Since Yesterday” and be inspired to make polka-dot mobiles, tease your hair, and wear ruffly skirts and a sneer:


  • Michelle Renee May 7th, 2012 11:20 PM

    Madonna “boy toy” phase is my love.

  • Nickysperanza May 7th, 2012 11:21 PM

    Just the kind of vibes I’ve been feeling. Which is perfect,because I need new clothes! Girly, gaudy, and badass.

  • WinnieB. May 7th, 2012 11:24 PM

    so cute. :)

  • KinuKinu May 7th, 2012 11:39 PM

    Aw, I used to love the Switchblade Sisters….They were pretty darn awesome.
    That video is so polka-dotty *0*

  • Marlena May 8th, 2012 12:23 AM

    The Strawberry Switchblade girls will always be my main style inspiration. I’ll never not want to look/dress like them! *0*

  • Sonja May 8th, 2012 12:28 AM

    All killer no filler and: “their eyeliner game was strong” needs to be in a poem.

  • spatergator May 8th, 2012 12:36 AM

    I remember reading an interview with Rose McDowall describing how the outfits would get them beat up from time to time. Girls didn’t give a fuck.

    Rose McDowall did some nice records with David Tibet and Boyd Rice afterwards, including SPELL which was a bunch of airy atmospheric covers of death-related 60′s pop jams. Worth checking out.

  • monkeyfoofoo May 8th, 2012 12:38 AM

    I’m listening to this band called Bleached right now and it flows with this theme.

  • SpencerBowie May 8th, 2012 1:15 AM

    Shut up rookie, I’m sick of it.

    …..absolutely sick if y’all being in my mind!!!! I JUST this weekend bought my first designer item, a pair of Anglomanina Vivienne Westwood boots form my favorite vintage store in Memphis!

    BUT LISTEN! Some of these rookie readers may have lots of designer things, maybe even some vivienne, but this is especially special to me beacause…VIVIENNE WESTWOOD IS MY FAVORITE DESIGNER EVER! And my new white, pearlized rain boots with gold Anglo buttons look amazeing on me!

    So I don’t know how rookie knew to even mention Vivienne at such a time in my life, but thanks for doing so!

    P.S: Can I just share that I was in Memphis for The Beale Street Music Festival and Florence,(of the Machine), pointed and waved to ME as I blew kisses to her from stage left in the front row, then I got my Vivienne boots the next day annnnd got 1.Outside by David Bowie, completing my Bowie collection of all his albums! Yep, life has been good! Also, I’m a bull and my birthday is on the 17th although I feel like I lived it already! Plus plus, I LOVE ROOKIE!!!!!!

    • TessAnnesley May 8th, 2012 2:20 AM


      Your life sounds amazing, will you adopt me and take me on your adventures please?

  • myy May 8th, 2012 1:46 AM

    MADONNA + boy toy phase= the BESSSST! Love this article oh so much! Too much inspiration to take in at once!

  • mayaautumn May 8th, 2012 3:12 AM

    so much music and style that i LOVE here…strawberry switchblade are oojamafliptasticAWESOME – love em to bits, like this whole page!<3

  • Akua May 8th, 2012 3:20 AM

    My mum was in Vivienne Westwood’s Pirate Collection, in fact that woman in red in the first picture might even be her haha

  • Jenny May 8th, 2012 3:58 AM

    You/this article and the people and music and things in it are so cool, I can’t even take it!

  • A May 8th, 2012 4:42 AM

    you should put up some ideas for cheap “steal this look” stuff

  • SophieAnne May 8th, 2012 5:42 AM

    I am in secret love with Strawberry Switchblade! I can only recommend Jill Brysons own webpage, where she has a great Switchblade-gallery along with lots of music:

  • bellaumbrella May 8th, 2012 6:29 AM

    this is so dreamy – bloody LOVE madonna for iD!

  • Caden May 8th, 2012 6:42 AM

    These makeup looks are stunning!! There’s some wonderful inspiration here.

    Caden x

  • filmfatale May 8th, 2012 8:33 AM

    I saw the title and was kind of hoping this would be a tribute to the 1970s movie ‘Switchblade Sisters’. BAM, it was even better.

  • thefondest May 8th, 2012 9:13 AM

    Oh man, loving the recent Strawberry Switchblade influx on Rookie lately. I’ve been singing “Since Yesterday” to myself all the time this past month.

  • Rydersaysgo May 8th, 2012 10:45 AM

    *twiddles thumbs* If only I had the balls.

  • apb May 8th, 2012 2:48 PM

    my Dad was in Bow Wow Wow! Dad the style icon…

    • Anaheed May 8th, 2012 3:02 PM

      Whaaaat, that is so cool.

    • mayamayaya May 9th, 2012 8:31 AM

      NO WAY! That is the coolest thing ever.

  • caro nation May 8th, 2012 8:15 PM

    actually, the kevin barnes award:

  • Miarele May 9th, 2012 11:40 AM

    I ADORE the fact that you acknowledge and mention Gothic Lolita!

  • sully-bean May 12th, 2012 6:45 AM

    Why are you all so cool?! <3