Mark Petty, trendsetter
This is what I consider a classic Mark Petty outfit. It has the high-waisted flares, wide lapels and tie – all in a vibrant colour scheme – and Mark wears it with the audacious flair that we have come to expect from him. Anyone that frequents Brick Lane on a regular basis will be familiar with Mark and his boldly coloured leather suits, because he has honoured us by adopting these streets as his stage, or rather his catwalk, upon which he performs his celebrated theatrics of fashion.
Mark and his clothing have become part of the fabric of our neighbourhood, and it always lifts my spirits to spot him among a crowd of unremarkably dressed people, bringing a splash of eye-catching colour to elevate the scene. It is a joy that is compounded when I see him later in an entirely different outfit – an event which can occur several times in the same day, increasing the delight and admiration of the many residents who hold Mark in high esteem, as our self-styled ambassador for colour.
Amongst all the snazzy dressers of Shoreditch, what makes Mark special is that he designs his own clothes, not merely to look fashionable but as an unmediated expression of himself. More than anyone else I can think of Mark uses clothing to express who he is. He shows how he feels – revealing his inner self openly – and in the process his liberationist example has become an inspiration to us all.
“The reason I started was because in the seventies I was too young to wear the fashions, and by the time I was old enough flared trousers had gone,” explained Mark as we sat in his pink living room in a quiet corner of Bethnal Green, “So I went round to Mr Singh at Batty Fashions in the Bethnal Green Rd to see if he could make me some. I have no training in fashion yet I cut my own cardboard patterns, though it wasn’t easy at first doing flares.
I tried going out in Bethnal Green and the reaction was very hostile – from children who threw bottles at me – but I thought, ‘I’ll persevere because fashion is too drab and life should be full of colour.’ I’m not the kind of person that gives in. So I went to Ridley Rd Market in my lilac seventies outfit and on the whole the reaction was good. I find each area is different, you can’t ascertain in advance whether you’ll get mugged or chased. The older people here say, ‘You’re a rebel,’ and I get requests to wear particular outfits. My most popular request is for pink.
I’ll never forget the gang of Scottish football supporters I met at a bus stop in Shoreditch High St, they said, ‘It takes a lot of nerve to wear what you’re wearing.’ and asked to be photographed with me. Hopefully something good will come of it and people will realise that life isn’t all beige and black, and you need to express yourself. It needs a kick up the backside. When I went to Tottenham, where they all wear baseball caps, track suits and have designer dogs, they said,’You’re ruining our culture!’ In Croydon, when they realised I was from East London, they said, ‘We don’t get a lot of people from the North here.’
I moved to London from Essex sixteen years ago. I was born in Oxford but my mother decided to marry and live in Essex. I had a problem in Essex at school because I had a West Country accent. They said, ‘You’re a foreigner so we don’t like you!’ My mother’s been there thirty years now and they still say to her, ‘You’ll never be one of us.’ I was forced out of of Braintree. It was all over the newspaper headlines. Once you come through that you can come through anything. I used to lie on the floor of my flat with my three cats in the dark and pretend to be out. This went on for months, until they came round at night with flaming torches and smashed all the windows.
Moving to London, I found people in pubs and clubs very cold, and I settled in London in Tottenham on the Broadwater Estate which had a fearsome reputation. I thought, ‘I’m here on my own,’ so I got Rose an English bull terrier, but it was quite terrifying even walking to the park with the dog. As they said to me in Islington when they saw my outfit, ‘There’s not a lot of people that’s got the courage.’
I must know everyone in Bethnal Green now, they say, ‘You’re quite a celebrity round here,’ but I never thought of it that way, I just did what I had to do. We had a lot of builders round here last year, so I used to try my designs out on them to see what they thought, unfortunately they’ve gone now. I used to get a lot of offers but none have been taken up. I went to Walthamstow Market recently and the girls were holding their boyfriends’ hands because they were looking at me rather than their girls. If only people could experiment more and show their bodies. Even women here dress like men. The worse thing they ever did was invent the remote control, no-one gets any exercise anymore.
I’ve noticed in Romford and Ilford that guys are starting to wear pink. You’d expect it to be the little skinny ones but it’s the big butch guys. A woman said to me in Bethnal Green Tesco, ‘You’re corrupting our men! It’s dirty and perverted.’ I said, ‘That’s pathetic.’ Her twenty-four year old son wants to dress like me apparently and I get the blame. If people don’t express themselves they’re always repressed, but you only have one life and you have to live it as you think fit. The kids still abuse me and the police are useless, so I have to take care of myself. You have to stand up to them. They say they don’t like how I look, and I tell them, ‘If you don’t like it you can put up with it,’ because I’ve been through so much that I’m not going to be persecuted anymore.”
It was a painful journey Mark travelled to realise the truth of himself and square up to the violence, hatred and ignorance he confronted as a consequence of his emotional honesty. Yet in the face of this resistance he has discovered moral courage. I was humbled to recognise Mark’s strength of character as he told his stories filled with magnanimous humour and sympathy for his tormentors.
Nowadays, the clothing he adopted as a declaration of fearless independence has become Mark’s life and, as we talked, he produced outfit after outfit to show me, each more extravagant than the one before. Simultaneously his armour and his joy, Mark takes great delight in his multicoloured wardrobe which incarnates the transformation act he has pulled off to emerge as the peacock of Brick Lane.
“A bit of colour highlights people’s moods,” Mark declared as, with a beaming smile, he proudly modelled his pink leather trousers with cupcake applique motifs which he created as a homage to a dress he saw Fanny Craddock wear. There is a certain holy innocence about Mark, like the jesters of old who were licensed to speak what no-one else dare say. It still takes courage for him to go out, but Mark Petty is a kind man who discovered bravery in the face of cruelty, and a neighbourhood dandy we are all proud to know.
Mark Petty aged nine, in the nineteen seventies.