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Mark Petty, trendsetter

August 3, 2010
by the gentle author

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.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. August 3, 2010

    I am filled with empathy for Mark. What a brilliant ‘Dandy’? When he talks about being torched out of one of his houses I can really feel it. This too has happened to me in the past. I am an ‘out and proud’ transexual woman living on an estate in Islington and when I started presenting female after living here 5yrs I got the same reaction. I had my windows broken, doors bust in and once I had a pack of about 50 residents and their kids baying for blood! The police had to come and disperse them. In time one familly was evicted and others moved away and slowely I have managed to feel more safe and at ease. Unlike Mark, I have calmed down the way I dress, as when I started I too was so flamboyant, mini skirts, bright red hair and platform boots.I used to frequent Brick Lane every Sunday but I never met Mark. I stopped going regular when last year I had to have my hip replacement replaced, followed very soon after with sexual reasignment surgery. I hope after my next surgeries to be on my feet again and I do hope I will have the delight to meet Mark. He sounds like a fabulous chap!
    PS Your daily blog has become my daily morning newspaper, keep up the good work!!! all my love Angella~Dee x x

  2. Clement permalink
    August 4, 2010

    With regard to the Gentle’s daily posting I agree with you Angella-Dee,it is essential (for me);every day there is something more than just interesting;I especially like Thursday’s and Sunday’s offerings and also,of course any post about the more mature residents/ex-residents of this fascinating bit of London.
    So,this is with very best regards to you Angella (remain strong)and to “our” Gentle Author (please keep posting)and of course to Mark (you have a great deal of admiration from many folk so I’m sure you’ll take any form of adversity in your stride),bless you all.
    I’ve not seen any mention of Mr.Pussy lately,I trust all is well with him….(maybe he’s on holiday in Devon).

  3. mat bickley permalink
    August 8, 2010

    Legend

  4. Nick permalink
    August 11, 2010

    Mark Petty, I salute you – you are a wonderful living riot of spring. I will say hello if and when I see you.

  5. Mark Pett permalink
    March 20, 2012

    Looks like he is running the marathon too:
    http://www.justgiving.com/Mark-Petty

    Saucey

  6. Aussie Sheila permalink
    August 1, 2012

    What a lovely lovely man. So glad you don’t let the drab folk of this world win. I lived in London until the late 1960′s when I emigrated with my family to Australia. I have never been back although I’d love to…and if I ever do I hope I have the honour and privilege to meet you, Mark.

    You’ll know me, I’m the old lady with bright purple hair (or it might be blue or pink or….)

    cheers

    I’m working on my own coat of many colours……I just don’t have a handy local tailor LOL

  7. Albert Premier permalink
    October 31, 2013

    My respectful salutations to Mark. I also wish to express my appreciation to the people who have taken te time to write supportively aboout/to him on this blog, regrettably so very few in number…
    I am retirement age so I can live where I want. I was planning to have a look at the East End or, more particulary, Spitalfields to live or to extended holiday there because from reading about it from the GA (et al.) I had the inpression that what I would find there is an interesting, tolerant, divers & easy-going community. I think a little bit different now.
    I am aghast at the intolerance & violence of some people over there. It reminds me of the fifties here in the Netherlands. I’ve had more than my share of the same when I was young then. In a slightly lesser degree though. But Holland has changed into a country with a reputation for tolerance. I would say only relatively tolerant. But I have to admit that being an androgenous europeanized asian homosexual (and dressing accordingly), these days I can pass any building-site without suffering abusive language. Even so I am still carefull where I go. Not really necessary now, but the unpleasantnesses experienced in my childhood & youth left their scars…
    So Mark, I know what it takes to stay alive in spirit & in body, to keep your integrity intact & above all not allowing yourself to become victimized. I think you are doing a great job about it.
    And Gentle Author thank you for writing so insightfully about Mark. In Dutch colourfull people like him that have found the courage to live & express themselves according to their needs & convictions are called “Paradijsvogels” = Birds of Paradise. Isn’t that appropriate?
    Friendly greetings,
    A.

  8. Paul Savage permalink
    August 4, 2016

    Well, well, well. Just read elsewhere about the move out of Bethnal Green and I dropped a line of encouragement to the Viscountess. However, I was intrigued to read more. There’s a funny coincidence here.

    I titled my mail to Viscountess as Greetings from an ex-pat Londoner. And that’s true. I am a Londoner, born in the London Hospital in Whitechapel. However, I was flabbergasted to read that like me, our subject here, Mark, Viscountess etc. grew up in the same town as me: Braintree. And in the seventies, to boot.

    Now, I moved from there too, but much further afield as I now live in the deepest, darkest America (Florid’oh) but have never forgotten whence I came.

    Best of luck to the Gentle Author and to the Viscountess, should anyone see her.

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