The Fluidity Of Style Politics: A Look At Catherine’s Board And The Cycle Of Subcultural Style

The last time I discussed the zoot suit riots I was in my 2nd year Spanish class in high school. Before our discussion in that class I, like many Americans, only knew of the famous 90s song “Zoot Suit Riots” and I was shocked to learn about the racial tensions and bloody riots caused by this style of dress. This lack of understanding of style politics is not an uncommon one, as these subcultural political statements often get reappropriated by mainstream culture to make them seem less dangerous. The disparity between those deeply involved in these cultures and those who simply purchased the clothing at their local mall, or bought the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies album because they liked the song, is a large one, and one that came up in all political styles we discussed during this week in class. This causes the original homology of a stylistic choice to be lost, as we saw time and time again in our readings, in class, and on Catherine and Lailley’s pin boards.

Before diving into each individual subculture we discussed this week, it is important to define the idea of homology. Originally discussed in Dick Hebidge’s book Subculture: The Meaning Of Style in class we defined homology as “the relationship or fit between the ideological content of the style & the actual material content of the style.” The Zoot Suits, seen in their traditional context in this pin from Catherine’s board, are a perfect example of the way a homology can be shifted or lost overtime. As Catherine’s pins of Dita Von Teese and designer Rebecca Sutherland‘s work, as well as Cherry Poppin’ Daddies video we watched in class illustrate, the zoot suit has been stripped of its original historical meaning, a meaning defined  in Stuart Cosgrove’s article The Zoot Suit And Style Warfare as “the product of a particular social context” (78) that arose from the tensions surrounding war time life for young African and Mexican Americans. Cosgrove goes further to claim that “the zoot-suit was a refusal: a subcultural gesture that refused to concede to the manners of subservience” (78). The documentary we watched on March 26th discussed in detail the problems that this refusal caused the pachucos who wore the suits, while Cosgrove argues that “in retrospect the zoot-suit’s history can be seen as a point of intersection” (89).  The main stream has stripped the zoot suit away from the idea of refusal to fit into mainstream culture, and in fact made it a part of the mainstream culture by singing pop music about it and editing its classic shape to make it more fashionable. Actions like this are effectively breaking the homology between the suit and the idea that minorities should be, and deserve to be, noticed for the mainstream popular culture consumers.

Another subculture discussed this week as that of the anarchists.  In Professor Portwood-Stacer’s article we were introduced to the idea of the “‘generic anarchist suit’” (2) and other stylistic choices made by certain members of the anarchist subculture. The “anarchist suit” consists of dressing in all, or mostly, black clothing that is usually dirty and visibly well used. Professor Portwood-Stacer cites many reasons that this has become a sort of anarchist uniform, including its ties to the anarchist Black Bloc tradition. Illustrated by Catherine’s pin, a Black Bloc is a “large group of individuals collectively attempt[ing] to inflict damage on corporate or government property, sabotage a political even, or physically confront law enforcement” (2). By wearing black even when not participating in a Black Block, anarchists are stating that they are a part of that tradition. Again, the clothing signifies a deeper ideology (that capitalism/consumerism/democracy is bad, and should be taken down at any cost), than the all black outfit would suggest to someone who was unaware of this anarchist practice. The use of this uniform, along with traditional anarchist symbols, most notably the A insignia, shows the astute reader of the clothing the political affiliations of the person wearing it.   However,  as Catherine discusses, this uniform is not worn by all members of the anarchist subculture at all times. This already complicates the homology of the all black everything look because not all members of the subculture are wearing all black or the A symbol all the time. On the other hand, there is also the idea that not all those wearing the anarchy symbol are anarchists. One can buy a jacket with anarchist symbology at hot topic. This leads to what we called in class a “bifurcation of identities” which creates two distinct groups in the subculture. There are those who, in this case, understand Anarchist politics and the symbolic weight of their various clothing items, and those who bought it in a commercial context, with out much, if any, thought to the signification behind it.  This second group breaks the link between the political context and the clothing, there by weakening the homology of the two items.

The final subculture we looked at in class the African-American culture, particularly in the context of the stylization of black hair. In his article Black Hair/Style Politics Kobena Mercer examines the use of African-American hair, specifically Afros and Dreadlocks, as a political signifier during the Black Power movement of the 60s and 70s.  However, Mercer notes that “once commercialized in the market-place the Afro lost its specific signification as a ‘black’ cultural statement” (41), drawing parallels to the use of the zoot suit riots in pop music, or the selling of Anarchy patches at Hot Topic and again illustrating the ways in which reappropriation causes a break in the homology of a style. In class we watched the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair, which brings this idea of black hair as style politics into the modern day because, as Catherine discusses in her pin, the way most famous black women look now can been seen as what Mercer calls “a deracialized selling out” (33). While this would not be seen as a break in the homology of black power, it can be seen as a strengthening of a dominant ideology that white, straight haired people are truly beautiful. And in someways this is more dangerous than a break in a subcultural homology because it is not even attempting to question mainstream authority. Even without the mainstream reappropriating a style, the politics of the whiteness of black hair is clear and enforces the idea that white women are the beautiful, and lucky, ones.

Also of note, both Lailley and Catherine offer an example of a modern day zoot-suit, the baggy pants worn by hip-hop artists. While these clothes are compared to a zoot-suit, they also have their roots in African-American cultural traditions, an interesting link between the discussion brought up in both the Cosgrove and Mercer readings. With the rise of white rappers like Eminem, and even non-rap artists like Justin Bieber wearing similar styles, it is easy to a break in the homology as yet another subcultural style becomes appropriated by more mainstream artists in the dominant culture.

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