Subcultures: Crime Against the Natural Order

Dick Hebdige’s 1979 text Subculture: The Meaning of Style delves into a facet of style that doesn’t receive as much recognition as it deserves: the subculture. Defining subculture as “the expressive forms and rituals of those subordinate groups who are alternately dismissed, denounced, and canonized, treated as threats to public order,” Hebdige walks us through the process of subcultural cultivation, how an idea is taken on by a silent minority and turned into a lifestyle. (Hebdige 2) It is at the surface of subculture where styles that would normally be deemed as mundane are appropriated with a whole series of meanings. By nature, subculture is an aggressive force, a gesture of defiance or contempt for the standards of fashion and style that are deemed acceptable by the hegemonic elite. Those who associate with subcultures want to be noticed, as their transgression allows them to stand out, communicating their identity to the general public to consume and understand. We as a consumers of style must have the ability to not only communicate the messages associated with our style choices, but also to discern the choices of others- conventional or not.

Hebdige’s book focuses on the youth subculture that dominated British fashion after World War II, as an act of resistance against a government that was struggling to keep the country afloat. In analyzing a variety of subcultures and their background; we learn how clothing, music, and dance, while ‘obviously fabricated’ can communicate a set of ideas that doesn’t fit within the current ideology (Hebdige 101). In class, we watched the opening of Julian Temple’s 2000 documentary The Filth and the Fury, a history of the punk band The Sex Pistols. In the introduction, the narrator refers to how the Labour Party promised so much change for a deteriorating Britain, yet did nothing as a series of images of trash bags and filth flashed across the screen. As we learn more about how The Sex Pistols came to be, we understand how their contribution to punk culture generated social upheaval, their music expressing the collective emotion of feeling powerless to do anything. Band member Johnny Rotten tell us how as a child he was punished for questioning everything because he couldn’t get the answer he had wanted. Grace’s pin about The Sex Pistols elaborates on this, as in conjunction with style, “deviant or ‘anti-social’ acts- vandalism, swearing, fighting, ‘animal behavior’- are ‘discovered’ by the police, the judiciary, the press; and these acts are used to ‘explain’ the subculture.” (Hebdige 93) To act out is one thing, but to dress in a certain manner attracts the attention that a subculture desires to make their ideas known to the public. Subcultural style, as Hebdige explains, is a spectacle- a costume for performance of sartorial and social proportions.

Maryam’s board this week is a good reflection of this rebellion, briefly explaining beatniks, skinheads, Zoot suits, mod, and reggae, all subcultures that Hebdige alludes to as examples as groups that through style and ideas, generated interest. Although vastly different, they also have the same life path, as Hebdige argues, in distinguishing themselves from the crowd. Initially forming through a common resistance, a subculture is first seen as radical, for its status as a bricolage or a cacophony of ideas is often dismissed. For example, we can look at mod culture, who were influenced by the growing West Indian community in London that expressed their disdain for being considered ‘other’, and produced their own style that reflected their experiences. As Hebdige describes them, the mod “was a ‘typical lower class dandy’ who paid particular attention to detail,” “inventing a style “which enabled them to negotiate smoothly between school, work, and leisure. (Hebdige 52)” As Maryam writes, by taking “the idea of neatness” and pushing it to an extreme, the mods “were always too much” for the British public to understand or take them seriously. By redefining “the conventional insignia of the business world,” stripping the suit, collar, and tie of their conventional meanings, the mods were able to distinguish themselves from a conservative British public- one that didn’t seem to have any idea as to how to fix the country. (Hebdige 105)

Style is a sign of one’s ideology and belief, meticulously put together by a group of people in order to make a specific, and correct impact on mainstream society. The reappropriation of style commodities that have long histories of meanings is significant in it of itself, showing that difference is possible from what is considered conventional. For example, Maryam’s pin about the skinheads is an excellent example. Growing out of the mod subculture, skinheads redefined the conventional work uniform of a t-shirt and jeans with their “cropped hair, braces, short, wide Levi Jeans or function staprest trousers, plain or striped button down Ben Sherman shirts and highly polished Doctor Maarten boots.” (Hebdige 52) In turn, skinheads turned what was considered a uniform into a second skin, a representation of their experiences and their struggles to make ends meet in a working class culture.

Something that Hebdige came back to time and time again was this idea of otherness, this idea that subcultures were generated due to a feeling of alienation from the majority. I particularly liked Grace’s pin of Ziggy Stardust, one of David Bowie’s many alter egos. Bowie has made his career about transgressing gender stereotypes, and creating an identity that is based in androgyny, which is both a social and political commentary. Hebdige refers to Angela Carter, who writes that Bowie’s music is an “ambivalent triumph of the oppressed” as well as an opportunity to “question the value and meaning of adolescence and the transition to the adult world of work.” (Hebdige 62) Style has never let go of the relationship between subculture, otherness, and style, for it provides the silenced the opportunity to speak out politically and sartorially, allowing new ideas to enter the realm of ideology. Society is unable to progress without defiance. Something that sticks out to me as a great subcultural fashion moment is Marc Jacobs’ collection for Perry Ellis in 1992, which presented a new type of femininity influenced by grunge music such as Nirvana at the height of the supermodel era. 


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