Style & Grooming

How Joan Jett Defined Female Rock and Roll Style

As a new documentary about her career hits cinemas, we remember the original riot grrrl’s formidable fashion sense

  • TextZoe Whitfield

There’s a touching and slightly comical moment someplace towards the end of Bad Reputation, a new documentary chronicling the career of Joan Jett which arrives in the UK on October 26, where we see the inimitable frontwoman and her longtime producer and professional partner, Kenny Laguna battling the crotch of Jett’s PVC catsuit with strips of black tape. Demonstrating the warmth and familiarity of the pair’s friendship – they met in 1979 and set up Blackheart Records the following year – the scene also speaks volumes of Jett’s capacity to commit to a look.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, her family later moved to Los Angeles and at 17 she became a founding member of The Runaways with drummer Sandy West. Joined by Jackie Fox, Lita Ford and Cherie Currie, the group would spend the next several years upsetting the music industry’s furiously male narrative – most notably winning acclaim in Japan – before concluding work as a band in 1979. 

A vocal feminist with an attitude and confidence from which the Riot Grrrl movement drew inspiration, the Crimson & Clover singer has spent the last four decades engaging with music in a vein unlike any of her peers, as a solo artist, with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, and in a number of sister projects: she produced and appears on Bikini Kill’s 1993 track Rebel Girl, and collaborated closely with The Gits following the horrific murder of the band’s singer Mia Zapata the same year.

As her career has informed the trajectories of modern frontwomen like Jemina Pearl, Hayley Williams and Ellie Rowsell (of Be Your Own Pet, Paramore and Wolf Alice respectively), her style has lent itself to fashion’s undiluted romance with a certain kind of rock and roll uniform, most famously elevated by former Saint Laurent and now Celine designer Hedi Slimane. A firm champion of kohl-lined eyes and a coal-coloured mullet – a look immortalised by Kristen Stewart in the 2010 Runaways biopic – Jett’s aesthetic has rarely strayed from cult cotton tees, leather biker jackets and jeans, iconic classics dropped only for extravagant 80s shoulders, sequins and boiler suits.

Reportedly designed by Cherie’s sister Marie (after she turned down manager Kim Fowley’s intention for both sisters to front the band), Jett’s name-tagged tee, paired with her youth and some high waist jeans, is perhaps her most memorable look from her time in The Runaways, as elsewhere her support for punk rock band The Queers is preserved in a portrait in which her shirt wears the lyrics, ‘BEAT ME, BITE ME, WHIP ME, FUCK ME LIKE THE DIRTY PIG THAT I AM, CUM ALL OVER MY TITS AND TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME THEN GET THE FUCK OUT!’

Lensed by Mick Rock for the cover of I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll, the single that would follow a New York gig with The Blackhearts in 1981, marked by many as turning point for the group, Jett’s hot pink blazer echoes the concert’s significance, ultimately alluding to her astute understanding of the power of dress.

Bad Reputation is out September 28