A Clockwork Orange and fashion: Why the droogs never go out of style

From David Bowie to Madonna, fashion icons and designers have looked to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange for inspiration, in concert and on the catwalk. What’s behind their fascination with the droogs’ dresscode?

Elena Lazic
Updated:

Malcolm McDowell as Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Malcolm McDowell as Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

You know the look – even if you’ve never seen Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). Long since established as a Halloween staple, the peculiar outfits worn by Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his ‘droogs’ are easy to reproduce: against a basic canvas of white shirt, white trousers, white braces and a white cricket codpiece, the few black details of a bowler hat, a cane, long fake eyelashes and bovver boots stand out sharply.

It’s this simplicity that has helped make the outfit iconic, and could help explain its enduring presence on fashion mood-boards and catwalks. But while other similarly popular films have seized the imagination of designers, most of them have turned out to be passing fads or occasional homages. With A Clockwork Orange’s lasting influence, something else is at work: to quote Coco Chanel, “Fashion fades, only style remains the same.”

Indeed, the droogs might be delinquents whose violent tendencies border on psychopathy, but you can’t deny their sense of style. Unlike most futuristic outfits from sci-fi films, their 48-year-old get-up does not appear dated one bit.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

A startling mix of class symbols, Alex’s droogs outfit was designer Milena Canonero’s first ever film costume, but it might well be her crowning achievement, engaging directly in the film’s discourse on class, money and power.

Though the bowler hat was worn by the working classes in the 19th century, it’s also long been associated with upper-class living, and so has the wooden cane. Canonero could have opted for more contemporary 1970s symbols of an elite lifestyle, but these items give Alex’s look an eerily timeless dimension, incidentally ensuring the outfit’s continued relevance.

The cricket codpiece that covers Alex’s genitals is another symbol of privilege. For viewers unfamiliar with the sport, the sexual dimension of the item is even harder to ignore. But even then, that is Alex’s – and Canonero’s – intention: our ‘hero’ wears it on top of his trousers rather than underneath them.

In his use of those accessories, Alex thus makes a mockery of the fair play, elegance and integrity of the class they are associated with. But the items that Alex uses to symbolically attack the upper class also help him in physically attacking them: our hero uses the codpiece as protective gear and the cane as a weapon when he beats up innocent (upper-class) people.

Turning objects of oppression into weapons and armour for his fight against the oppressors, it isn’t surprising that Alex DeLarge was, for a time, a punk icon. Add to this the working-class symbols that are bovver boots and braces, and you have a perfect outfit for rebellion, degrading items which the rich consider sacred while reclaiming working-class gear as a fashion choice. The fake eyelashes on the one eye, meanwhile, denote a blurring of gender boundaries.

Alex DeLarge’s subversive blurring of class and gender signs will be relevant as long as class and gender structures persist. But it’s perhaps even more pertinent to fashion designers looking for new definitions of beauty season after season. Alex’s own play with notions of chic (upper-class) and vulgarity (working- or lower-class), and with the codes of femininity and masculinity, echoes the reworking and re-appropriation of symbols that is at the centre of many fashion designers’ innovative work.

Fashion icon David Bowie proved one of the earliest adopters, incorporating elements of Alex’s wardrobe to his Ziggy Stardust persona as early as 1972, the year of the film’s UK release. The artist, whose creativity when it came to on-stage looks could rival that of the most inventive designers, was inspired by the subversive and provocative aspect of Canonero’s creation, but wilfully took the violence out of it. Though he loved “that type of terrorist ‘we-are-ready-for-action’ kind of look”, he subverted the aggression of it by using “very florid, bright, quilted kind of materials”. These colours in turn beautifully emphasised the sexually ambiguous aspect of the outfit, which he complemented by having Alex’s long eyelashes on both of his eyes.

Ziggy Stardust’s droogs-inspired get-up underlines the difference of context between the release of the Anthony Burgess source novel and Kubrick’s film. In 1962, the 1960s weren’t exactly swinging yet, but young people were becoming an increasingly important demographic of society and England was terrified by the prospect of juvenile delinquency. Were it not for the novel’s ultimate condemnation of the men in power, Burgess’s tale of cruel young men could appear almost reactionary.

In 1971, the hippies were on their way out, and in came economic inflation. The Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam war sparked international outrage, and faith in the authorities steadily declined. Burgess’s vision of a disaffected youth revelling in amorality now appeared almost logical, if not entirely justified. Ziggy Stardust’s sexually liberated persona was not “the bloody hippy thing”, in Bowie’s words, but a more aggressive, less peace-and-love vision of liberation.

Though the artist’s flaunting of his sexuality was decidedly progressive, Bowie did not risk being shamed for it in the way female artists such as Madonna did, and still do. This could be why, when the Queen of Pop offered her own variation on the droogs outfit for her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, she retained the costume’s original aggression, while Bowie erased it. In combining the boiling sexuality of Liza Minnelli in Bob Fosse’s Weimar Germany-set musical Cabaret (1972) with the provocative violence of DeLarge, designer Jean-Paul Gaultier transformed Madonna into a kind of dominatrix who, with her conic bra, quite literally weaponised her sexuality.

It’s not hard to see Madonna’s outfit – and her persona at the time in general – sitting in line with the beginnings of third-wave feminism in the early 1990s. As the movement especially focused on sex-positivity and on expanding feminism into an intersectional domain, Madonna was taking control of her body, of her sexuality and image in a way few female artists had done before. On the same Blonde Ambition tour where she was wearing Gaultier’s Clockwork Orange-inspired outfit, she was also singing her new song ‘Vogue’, bringing vogueing to the mainstream and dancing on stage with the dancers of the underground gay scene who taught her their moves.

More than a simple homage to Kubrick’s film, Gaultier’s creation for Madonna thus repurposed the hypermasculine uniform into a feminist armour. But the French designer contains multitudes, and opted for a much more conservative, male approach to the original costume in his 2008 menswear collection. Taking the aesthetic down a much more respectable, Savile Row route, the outfits nevertheless retain the kink and outrageous excess of Canonero’s original creation – qualities that also constitute a fundamental quality of Gaultier’s characteristic brand of provocation.

Though the cheap clothing was replaced with sophisticated ensembles, the heavy boots and the bowler hats were still present, and the overall collection retained the menace of the original – in the slick, dark leather gloves and boots, the imposing shapes of the trench coats, the lace on the front of the trousers, and the dark tones of the collection. As the models walked forward with their usual sombre attitude, the show seemed to be a contemporary remake of the striking scene from Kubrick’s film showing the droogs walking towards the camera in slow motion.

Looking at Gaultier’s collection, it would seem the juvenile delinquents now have respectable jobs and are well integrated into society – exactly the ending that Kubrick appeared to be going for in the movie.

Jun Takahashi, designer of the Japanese streetwear brand Undercover, seems to suggests quite the contrary in his 2019 autumn/winter collection, in which he unveiled their own take on the droogs’ set-up. Big and comfortable-looking jumpers, hoodies and raincoats adorned printed stills and lines of dialogue from the film. Models wore felt eye-masks similar to those in the film, and cozy rain boots instead of bovver boots.

The show was more about the iconography of and cult around A Clockwork Orange than it was about any kind of rebellion. The pastel tones, comfortable fabric and unrestricting garments of the collection in fact radically undermine the aggression of the film. Seeing the violent images of Alex’s gang framed by and absorbed into a soft aesthetic is unsettling in itself, suggesting the vacuity of Alex’s efforts towards emancipation.

When fashion appropriates the imagery of classic films, stripping them of their original context and meaning, and reducing them to their iconography, this can make a cinephile’s heart sink. The effect is even more depressing when this happens to films that are about protesting the status quo and fighting the rich, because, no matter how visually transgressive, fashion brands remain exclusive to those who can afford them. Finally, in their reappropriation of working-class rage, high fashion designers do not so much fight the system as contribute to it, rendering the accoutrements of the unprivileged acceptable and essentially defusing them.

Watch the droogs in action in the new A Clockwork Orange trailer

But regarding A Clockwork Orange as a punk manifesto would be like treating Scarface (1983) as a lifestyle guide; though inspiring on some level, both films are more complex than straightforward endorsements of their lead protagonists. When designers or regular people draw on the style of violent antiheroes such as Tony Montana and Alex DeLarge, it’s harder to talk of hypocritical re-appropriation of underdog fashion.

Indeed, the droogs are no heroes of class liberation, even less so of progressive gender politics – and Alex is the worst among them. Rather than fight the system and stand united with his peers, he only looks out for himself, using the powers that be to his own personal advantage. Completely shameless, his only real value is his love for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; when in prison, he doesn’t mind acting like the teacher’s pet if it can lead to his freedom.

Although he rejects the law of the state, he appoints himself as the boss of his gang, violently imposing his authority. Canonero foreshadows his tyrannical behaviour and the hierarchy among the droogs in their varying outfits: while Alex wears a respectable white collared shirt, his right hand wears a striped one, and the two other members of the gang sport the scoop-neck shirts commonly associated with the lower classes.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

Alex’s feminist cred is similarly undermined by his violent behaviour towards women throughout the film. Rather than playing with codes of femininity and masculinity, he reinforces the sexist logic of man as an aggressive sexual animal – an old-fashioned understanding of maleness already visible in the outfit’s emphasis on genitals and its association of sexual symbols with violent ones. In that ultra-violent context, the long, thick eyelashes he wears on one eye seem to simulate sharp blades rather than anything feminine.

Simply put, Alex just wants the best of both worlds: the chic and power of the upper class, and the vulgarity and mayhem of the lawless working class. Similarly, he wants to enjoy both consensual sex (as seen in the playful orgy scene, which Kubrick sped up to blur its explicitness and get past censors) and non-consensual rapports. As Kubrick himself put it, “you can regard Alex as a creature of the id,” a man who follows his chaotic impulses and instincts without ever restricting them with regard to laws or morals.

The total freedom of the id, this unrestrained embrace of all desires, could be a source of inspiration for fashion designers. In fact, this complete dedication to one’s impulses could almost be admirable and desirable – if only on a theoretical and psychological level. But A Clockwork Orange goes to great lengths to show that Alex never is, in fact, free. Indeed, whether he is brainwashed into being non-violent, or free to act as he pleases, Alex remains a pawn in the game of politicians throughout the film. Like him, the opposing political parties do not care about anything but their own interests. Ultimately, Alex’s crimes are futile attempts at liberation, his stylistic play on symbols of the bourgeoisie without effect on his true freedom.

Burgess explained the title of his novel as the “junction of the organic, the lively, the sweet – in other words, life, the orange – and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined.” The world of fashion is its own “clockwork orange” where, no matter how transgressive the outfits, high fashion will never overthrow the class system. As long as creations remain expensive items to be purchased by the rich, the artistic and unbound impulses of designers (their ‘id’) will not help them escape the rigid system they evolve in. Could it be that when designers reference the droogs’ deceptive outfit, they see in it an echo of their own paradox?

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