Subcultures: communicating difference

As a form of resistance to the mainstream culture, different subcultures have emerged throughout the history and the various groups have constructed their identity and expressed it greatly through the means of fashion. Transgressing from the mainstream style, subcultures have utilized clothes to distinguish themselves, communicating who they are and that they are indeed different. Not only was the separation between the subcultures and the mainstream became more distinct through fashion, but also the difference between each subculture was emphasized through the use of fashion. Dick Hebdige explains in his book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, that all styles, including both conventional and subcultural styles, are significant in that they are all communicating and signifying all whole set of messages. Maryam’s board takes a nice approach on how the various subcultures are expressing and signifying different values and messages as she pins images of each significant subcultures discussed by Hebdige. She pinned images of Skinheads, Beatniks, Hipsters and the Mods and each image allows the sense of how the subcultures could be distinguished by their use of clothing and style. As Hebdige explains, an average man could wear a ‘normal’ suit and tie, which were “chosen within the constraints of finance, ‘taste’, preference, etc”. And this is equally significant as the Skinheads wearing their Doc Martens and neatly lined pants and the Hipsters are in their zoot suits, because even the choice behind an average suit and a tie is expressing “‘normality’ as opposed to ‘deviance'” (101).

Hence, each distinguishing styles can be perceived as a sign, all communicating some form of ideology and belief. The element that sets subcultural styles apart from the conventional and the mainstream is that subcultural styles are “obviously fabricated” (101). The subcultural styles are constructed and ‘put together’ rather than just thrown together – someone took effort to create a specific style. Hence, by re-appropriating conventional commodities and reinventing the definitions of commodities, the subcultures communicate their “significant difference”, which is the ultimate “‘point'” behind the style of all subcultures (102). Moreover, the subcultures still engage in conspicuous consumption since it is key to consume, in order to express the point of difference. It’s all about the display of the codes and a group of people expressing the same codes that signify ‘difference’ through their fashion, lifestyle and slang etc. can be categorized as a subculture. Given this, the pin of Ziggy Stardust in Grace’s board exemplifies how the Bowie-ites, and the glam rock style used their flamboyant and glittery looks to question the stereotypical gender roles and to create “a space where an alternative identity could be discovered and expressed”, and ultimately to “construct an alternative identity which communicated a perceived difference: and Otherness” (88-89). Also Grace’s pin of the Sex Pistols poster of ripped up British flag, hooked partial with safety pins is also showing how the punk culture were breaking the rules of the mainstream via vandalism and anti-social acts to show that they ‘don’t care’. This pin illustrates how the punk subculture took a mainstream commodity, and reinvented it to communicate their message and their ‘point’.

The fact that blackness and their culture from the West Indies influenced the subcultures of white youth is fascinating for me. The white working class sought to express their own otherness from the mainstream culture, inspired by the West Indian culture, especially through Reggae culture. Influenced by the Rastas who accentuated their racial identity and difference from the dominant class, the white working class and youth were given an alternative and a chance to change and overthrow the dominant and mainstream ideology – to communicate difference. But as we discussed in class, the role of blackness in the subcultures of the 60s was a “present absence”. Though influenced by the black culture, there were not many black punks or black skinheads. The white youth was still privileged to be ‘white’ and still could choose to go back to the mainstream if they wanted to. This is why Maryam’s pin on Skinheads particularly intrigued me, because I think their subculture exemplifies the internal conflict between white and black youth, and displays how the white youth struggled to identify with the blackness and their cultural influences. Hebdige explains that Skinheads were “aggressively proletarian, puritanical and chauvinist” and they wore “cropped hair, braces, wide levi jeans or functional sta-prest trousers, plain or stirped button-down Ben Sherman shirts and highly polished Doctor Marten boots” (52,55). Maryam’s pin depicts two bare head boys holding up the British flag behind them, wearing Doc Marten boots and neatly lined pants. By borrowing items and ‘things’ from the West Indian groups, the Skinheads “’attempted to revive, in symbolic form, some of the expressions of traditional working-class culture’” (56). Skinheads were “embodying aesthetic themes common to both” the black and white cultures, in order to revive the “lost sense of the white working-class community” (56-57). Therefore, ironically, the rediscovery of the white working class culture and white nationalism was embedded in black West Indian culture.

A British film, This is England, directed by Shane Meadows, depicts the increasing tension between the white and black youth within the Skinhead subculture. (trailer) The film portrays a character named Combo, who expresses very white nationalistic and racist views. Combo and his gangs often engages in ‘paki-bashing’, which acutely portrays that the alliance between the white and black youth was only maintained by “scapegoating other alien groups” and through “aggression […] against another black community” that was sharply differentiated by “racial characteristics [and] religious rituals” (57). The film, overall, is a direct evaluation of the “precarious and provisional” alliance between the white and black youth of the time (57). It shows the irony of the Skinhead subculture, of how the culture was emerged as a form of togetherness of white and black culture, but the ideology of recovering the lost sense of the working class was emphasized only when the black contribution to the culture was played down. Hence, the black aesthetics, such as music and style of dress, may have incorporated with the white culture to create a new subculture, but the sense of otherness and blackness was never fully eliminated.

‘Blackness’, I think, was another level of distinction that even the subcultures couldn’t overcome by their effort to construct a new identity and significant difference. The West Indian culture may have influenced in constructing a subculture, but the people of West Indies and other ‘blacks’ like the Pakis were not predominantly part of the subcultures. They were always different, but in the sense that they were excluded even from the subculture scene, where difference was highlighted. Like I stated above, the white youth in engaging in subcultures could choose to go back to the mainstream and be conventional if they desired, but the black youth was always defined as an outsider. If Maryam’s board was more a broader introduction to the different kinds of subcultures, Grace’s board was more specific to the Punk and the spectacular subcultures. Overall, I think it would have been more interesting to see images more related to the roots of the subcultures, Reggae and other black influences, or a depiction of a mainstream conventional utilization of fashion in comparison to a specific subculture could have been interesting to see as well. 

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