behind the seams

Tartan, Leopard Spots, and a Transparent Trench: How Pistol Re-created the Style of the Sex Pistols

Director Danny Boyle used real footage of the Sex Pistols to intercut the FX on Hulu miniseries Pistol. “Our artistic license went completely out the window,” says costume designer Liza Bracey. Photo: Rebecca Brenneman/FX

Working on FX’s Pistol with director Danny Boyle drove costume designer Liza Bracey a bit mad. The limited series, streaming on Hulu and Disney+, looks at the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols, the controversial British punk band that changed music and fashion forever during its short but illustrious career. The contentious foursome — John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, the late Sid Vicious, Peter Cook, and Steve Jones, whose 2016 memoir, Lonely Boy, inspired Pistol — was the brainchild of impresario and former New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren. However, it was McLaren’s partner, legendary British designer Vivienne Westwood (played in the series by Westworld’s Talulah Riley), who is credited with creating the Sex Pistols’ punk aesthetic. “These clothes were all coming out of Vivienne’s head and had this sort of energy, which I think is what both her fashion and the Sex Pistols’ music had,” the London-based Bracey tells Vulture over Zoom. “It’s all very fast, and being done there and then, which makes it tricky to re-create.”

Even trickier, Boyle wanted to use real footage of the Sex Pistols throughout the series. “He was like, We’re going to be looking for things right up to the edit, so everything they wear has to be exactly right,” Bracey says. “Our artistic license went completely out the window.” Yet she found herself embracing the complicated reproduction project with help from Westwood’s assistant of 30 years, Murray Blewitt, and the designer’s son with McLaren, Joe Corré, who brought a few original pieces from SEX, his mom’s famous ’70s London boutique. “I think he said, ‘You can use them if you want,’ but I know what filming’s like,” she says. “I didn’t want that responsibility!” Below, Bracey details how she re-created the punk-rock style of the Sex Pistols, Chrissie Hynde, and Jordan (née Pamela Rooke), the late model and actress who was known as “the first Sex Pistol.”

Jordan’s Provocative Entrance

There were no photographs of the real Jordan in her transparent trench, so Bracey reconstructed it from the model’s memory for actress Maisie Williams (pictured in the opening scene of episode two). Photo: FX

Episode two opens with the bleach-blonde, beehived Jordan (played by Maisie Williams) wearing a transparent plastic raincoat. As she rides her bike through the streets of her seaside hometown to the sounds of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” the camera zooms out to reveal she’s wearing nothing but a pair of high-waisted black briefs and black rubber stockings with a garter belt underneath.

The showstopping look was based on something the real Jordan had worn. There were no photographs of the punk icon and Pistol consultant, who died earlier this year, in the coat, so Bracey relied on the enigmatic model’s memory to design the technically topless look. (Williams wore a prosthetic to cover her own breasts.) “Jordan told us the raincoat was kind of a nicotine color but not really brown,” Bracey says. The costumer went with yellow since it photographed better, but kept any other details Jordan could remember: a belted waist, a funnel neck, and silver snap buttons running down the center. Most important, Jordan stressed it had to be completely clear. “It’s true punk, really. Jordan is being provocative, but she’s not being sexy with it,” Bracey says of the look she calls her favorite. “She’s sticking it to the patriarchy by saying, This is me. They’re my breasts and I can show them if I want to! She really was ahead of her time.”

Johnny Rotten’s Pretty-in-Pink Blazer

“At that time, boys didn’t really wear pink, and here he is, this tough punk with his pink jacket on.” Photo: Miya Mizuno/FX

For Bracey, designing Johnny’s costumes was “the most rewarding” part of the job because “getting it right was quite hard.” (Even harder, knowing Lydon was definitely not a fan of Pistol.) Most difficult was a pink rowing blazer the frontman, played by Anson Boon, wears while performing at Her Majesty’s Prison in Chelmsford, England. (Taking a page from Johnny Cash, the Sex Pistols performed at the jail in 1976.) “When I saw the pictures of him in it. I was like, We have to do it. The color’s so great!” she says. “At that time, boys didn’t really wear pink, and here he is, this tough punk with his pink jacket on.”

Lydon originally dyed a white rowing blazer to get the Pepto-Bismol shade, but Bracey’s team found a fabric in the proper hue. Once they had the jacket built, the hard part began: identifying all the flair Lydon had attached to the blazer. Bracey compared the singer to a magpie for how he covered the sport coat in all sorts of bric-a-brac — an Iron Cross, a Russian military patch, diaper pins, a Tic Tac box, and a syringe filled with paper. “Maybe it was a note to someone? Or lyrics he didn’t want somebody to see?” she muses. “It’s a mystery, so it can really be whatever we want it to be.”

A Visit to the SEX Shop

Bracey re-created Jordan’s conical bra-bodysuit from nylon jersey fabric covered in plastic, then stuffed the tips with cotton balls: “The points couldn’t be going in different directions.” Photo: Miya Mizuno/FX

Westwood’s ever-evolving boutique is the epicenter of Pistol, so Bracey wanted to make sure its designs were on full display. One of the more inventive SEX looks she re-created was a black bodysuit with a conical bra Jordan wears in episode four. The bodysuit was made from a nylon jersey fabric covered in plastic, which gave it a little stretch and a lot of shine. To build the bra, Bracey cut out a circle of the nylon, then sewed three strips of it together to make a pyramid. She then stuck a few cotton balls in the tip of the cone. “I think on the first fitting it was a bit, like, droopy,” she says. “We needed to put a little bit more padding in the bra to make it perky. The points couldn’t be going in different directions.”

The outfit Chrissie Hynde (played by Sydney Chandler) wears in the first episode — a black-and-red–striped rubber dress — was also based on a Westwood original the future Pretenders frontwoman had worn for a SEX photo shoot. “Chrissie’s got a mask on in the photo, but you can tell it’s her,” Bracey says. “She didn’t grow into that coolness, she just always had it.” To get Chandler into Chrissie’s rubber dress, the actress needed to be lubed up with a silicone gel, otherwise the fabric “just grabs onto the hairs of your skin like you’re wearing rubber bands,” Bracey says. “It’s a real struggle to get on. It can rip quite easily if you get your nails in it.” Helping Chandler into the dress was a three-person job, which is why Bracey suggests you “don’t wear rubber if you don’t have anyone to help you get in and out of it. Otherwise you’ll still be wearing it the next day.”

Vivienne Westwood’s Twin Tartan Suits

Photo: Miya Mizuno/FX

Johnny and his manager, McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), wear nearly identical versions of the same Scottish plaid suit in different colors, and finding the right pattern took some trial and error. “The first fabric we got, the squares were too big,” she says. “We were like, Anson, you’re not that much shorter than John and there’s not enough squares on your trousers!” To get the right design, Bracey’s team took a ruler to the original photos of McLaren and Lydon wearing their suits and measured the squares by hand.

The three-piece suit includes bondage trousers and a clip-on kilt that is “sort of two flaps, not a complete circle,” Bracey explains. “You get a bit of movement, but it’s essentially a very straight suit with a skirt on it.” Malcolm styles his red suit more conservatively, pairing it with a white oxford shirt and hunter- green V-neck sweater. “He definitely dressed for how he wanted to be seen,” she says. “He was the manager.” Johnny wears his blue tartan with a red-and-white–striped mohair jumper, which was hand-knit for the show since the “shape of it is quite strange,” according to Bracey. “It’s quite narrow on the hips so it doesn’t look like a big long dress.”

Sid’s Signature Style

The Pistol team needed four versions of Sid Vicious’s famous leopard-print vest: “Sid had a fight every time he walked into a bar, so he’d get blood all over his waistcoat.” Photo: Miya Mizuno/FX

Sid Vicious’s go-to uniform — a leather jacket, leopard-print vest, ripped jeans, and a padlock necklace — is pure punk-rock iconography, which put a lot of pressure on Bracey to get it exact. The trickiest part of the costume, worn by actor Louis Partridge, was finding the right fabric for Sid’s fluffy waistcoat. She ended up using teddy-bear fur — specifically, the fur of Steiff Teddys, a famous and expensive German brand made from mohair and alpaca. Bracey assumed they could copy a generic leopard print for the vest, but quickly realized the pattern of Sid’s garment was “less blobby” than the real big-cat breed. To make the print look more realistic, she had the individual yellow spots and brown and black shadows hand-painted onto each of Sid’s vests, of which they needed four. “Sid had a fight every time he walked into a bar,” she says. “So he’d get blood all over his waistcoat.”

Sid’s leather jacket was an eBay find Bracey customized after talking to Jones. Before filming began, Jones told Bracey the real Sid had two leather jackets he would wear, one of which was actually Jones’s. His jacket had “Steve” written in studs on the shoulder, a detail inspired by the motorcycle jacket Marlon Brando wore in 1953’s The Wild One. “Sid was always on him about wanting that leather jacket, so one day they swapped,” she says. If you look closely in later Pistol episodes, you’ll see Partridge is wearing a “Steve” leather jacket, a well-worn secondhand piece from eBay that Bracey studded herself. “It was quite hard to do,” she says, “but I really wanted to do it. I mean, Steve told me the story!”

Chrissie Hynde’s Punk-Rock Wedding Dress

“We couldn’t have it all white, it’d be a bit boring,” Bracey said of the wedding dress, one of the few original designs created for Pistol. “It needed that pop.” Photo: Miya Mizuno/FX

In episode three, the Ohio-born Chrissie asks Steve (Toby Wallace) to marry her before her visa expires. (In real life, Hynde almost did marry a Sex Pistol, but it was Sid Vicious, not Jones.) Despite it being a marriage of convenience, Vivienne decides Chrissie needs a dress to celebrate the sham occasion. The minute Bracey read this, she got nervous. “I don’t do wedding dresses,” she says. But Westwood does, most notably Carrie’s iconic gown from the Sex and the City movie.

Bracey knew she wanted to honor what Westwood was doing then, not now — “I didn’t want to predict the future in any way” — with this look, one of the few original creations she made for the show. Westwood’s longtime assistant Blewitt told Bracey that Westwood sold petticoats in Let It Rock, the first iteration of the shop that would become SEX. At the time of the Sex Pistols, she had also been dabbling in bondage tops that looked like early prototypes of the corsets she would become known for. “One day I had a WhatsApp message from Murray and it’s this little drawing he’d done. He said, ‘Oh, I was a bit bored and did this sketch,’” she says. She ended up using his design for the show, an unruly ball gown that could barely fit in Steve’s tiny car. “It was really difficult to wear and played up Chrissie’s anger at that moment,” she says of the dress, which includes a multilayered red petticoat made by the same company that makes costumes for Strictly Come Dancing, the ballroom-dancing competition that inspired Dancing With the Stars. The red details were her favorite part of the look. “We couldn’t have it all white, it’d be a bit boring,” she says. “It needed that pop.”

How Pistol Re-created the Sex Pistols’ Punk-Rock Iconography