Never mind the Nineties, meet the pin-ups of punk: Roger Tredre visits an exhibition that marks the most provocative era of youth culture

ONCE punks were the scourge of society. Now they are the subject of exhibitions, lectures, and sociology students' essays.

In the late Seventies, they lived life on the wild side, hanging out at shady shops on the King's Road, west London. On Tuesday night, they gathered in the more sedate surroundings of a gallery in Bloomsbury for a preview of an exhibition 'of rare original couture clothes and unique items of ephemera designed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren,' which begins today.

They were greyer and wiser, and not so keen to acknowledge that they had been punks. Philip Sallon, 41, said: 'I was the first bloke to have blue hair, but I never called myself a punk.'

Mr McLaren stood to one side in a sensible pullover, sipping his drink, looking for all the world like a reticent university lecturer.

His former customers had donated much of their old wardrobes for the exhibition, organised by the Contemporary Wardrobe dress hire company.

During the Seventies, Mr McLaren and Ms Westwood ran a shop in the King's Road under a number of different names: Let It Rock (1971), Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die (1972), Sex (1974) and Seditionaries (1977).

Mr Sallon was wearing a black jacket full of buckles and belts. 'I got it off this heroin-addict girl who worked in Seditionaries. She sold it to me for pounds 4. I always used to pull in this.'

Roger Burton, organiser, had hung the clothes on plastic inflatable bodies dangling from nooses in an attempt to revive memories of youth culture's most provocative era. The exhibition includes many of the most infamous clothes of the period, including the T-shirt screenprinted with a photograph of a woman's breasts and the T-shirt depicting two cowboys naked from the waist down, which was seized by the police and led to a prosecution. The Bondage collection, inspired by fetishistic and sado-masochistic dress, is also well represented.

Mr Burton said: 'Some of these T-shirts took three days to make. They're little works of art. It was so blatant, so subversive, so sexual. Oh God, yes.'

Stephen Calloway, the writer, decorator and curator, was also getting excited about punk. 'The clothes look surprisingly interesting now. Vivienne Westwood is one of our great geniuses. Punk was one of the great image movements of the century.'

Controversy, however, hung in the air. John Tiberi, who managed the Sex Pistols with Mr McLaren, claimed that his protege, Johnny Rotten, had a substantial input on the designs, which now sell for thousands of pounds to aficionados in Japan. 'Johnny should take the credit for the pins. He ripped up his own jacket and stuck it together with pins.'

Other party guests found the experience mystifying. For Kate Moss, teenage supermodel, it was history. She wasn't even born when Ms Westwood and Mr McLaren opened their shop.

Vive Le Punk runs until 10 April at the Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1; open Tuesdays to Sundays 12pm to 6 pm.

(Photographs omitted)