Emma Hope Allwood tells the story of the New Yorkers who took the city’s safety into their own hands, and the self-styled uniforms that inspired a myriad of rebel looks
In the second week of February 1979, The Warriors hit cinemas across the US. Its story unfolds over the course of one long night in an alternative New York City, divided by rival gangs. Disorder reigns after dark, and woe on whoever should find themselves alone in the wrong part of town after the sun goes down.
An iconic image of Guardian Angels on the New York Subway, 1980
A significant element of The Warriors’ brilliance (and its subsequent notoriety) lies in its costuming. Beyond a single ‘gang’ colour, the groups, created by director Walter Hill, were vividly distinctive – they were rebel tribes marked out from each other by their custom, almost comic-book aesthetics. Who could forget the menacing Baseball Furies: the bat-wielding posse with striped jerseys and painted faces? Or the leather trucker hat-wearing Rogues, who set every gang in the city after our heroes, the waistcoated Warriors?
These groups were, of course, fictional. But the film, its immediate success and the controversial status it gained after being linked to a string of crimes at screenings, spoke to the reality of gang culture at the turn of the 1980s. That same lawlessness, the idea that the police were ineffectual or outnumbered, had a real grounding on the streets of New York. Even riding the Subway – back then filthy, smelly and covered with graffiti – was considered a risk.
Guardian Angels members in LA in 1991
Not long after the film’s release, New Yorkers began to notice an altogether different group lurking in the Subway. Like a crew dreamt up by director Hill, they could be identified by their distinctive uniforms – a red beret evocative of revolutionaries and a white T-shirt bearing a distinctive scarlet logo (an eye in a pyramid, overlooking a winged shield). But this wasn’t a violent gang – these were the Guardian Angels.
Officially christened by Brooklynite Curtis Sliwa just a few days after The Warriors premiered, the Angels were the antithesis of one of the violent groups ruling the city both on screen and in real life. Instead of starting fights, joyriding or going on crime sprees, their primary aim was protection – they trained in martial arts and went on ‘Safety Patrols’, watching over Subway passengers. Membership to the Angels wasn’t dictated by race, sexuality or gender – all were welcome and, for many of the city’s lost youth, a community-focused organisation hell-bent on reclaiming the streets provided an aspirational escape from a life that might otherwise revolve around crime.
Disliked by ganglords and police in equal measure, the Angels were outsiders and their uniform was a testament to this. It was also central to the group’s success and key to the way it accumulated new members, soon blossoming into a full-blown movement. The clothes were, after all, meant to be noticed; those branded T-shirts were a promotional tool for potential recruits and marked the Angels out as fearless beacons of public good, watchmen of the neighbourhoods of NYC. The uniform could be, and frequently was, customised. Berets, not unlike the ones that appear in Bally’s rebel-inspired AW17 collection, were studded or dotted with badges, peacefully transforming the army-inspired staple into a creative canvas.
The group’s look was less about homogeneity or fitting in than self-expression, as captured in an iconic image by NYC photographer Bruce Davidson (previous page). Two Angels stand together in a graffiti-covered Subway carriage, the logo emblazoned on their chests, proudly declaring their membership. Their sleeves are rolled up to reveal flexing muscles. One has accessorised his outfit with dark glasses, studded cuffs and a belt, swapping the famous beret for a red baseball cap. The addition of studs or spikes to clothing was common, connecting the Angels’ style to that of other outliers.
Lisa Sliwa, right, then-wife of the group’s founder Curtis Sliwa, patrols the Subway.
Of course, the Angels were just one in a long line of groups to create a strong, identifiable image for themselves. Since the rise of youth culture in the 20th century, different tribes have banded together behind common aesthetics and symbols, finding their own ways to announce themselves to the world and recognise other members of their gangs. The humble badge or patch could belie political beliefs, musical tastes or subcultural affiliations – from the mods of late-1960s Britain, whose patched-up parkas were a source of pride, to the peace-loving hippies of the early 70s and even the grunge kids or riot grrrls of the 90s. As fashion returns to subculture for inspiration, echoes of many of these styles can be traced to both the catwalk and the street – where today’s divisive times mean that berets, slogan pins and statement graphic T-shirts are once more the go-to mode of personal rebellion.
Pic credits: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos; Oliver Morris/Getty Images; Paramount/REX/Shutterstock; Universal Images Group/Getty Images