Western subcultural style uses the dressed body as a place of social critique and artistic expression that does not follow the conventions of mainstream style. Subcultural dress can also demonstrate lifestyle and community participation, as well as individual experiences that pertain to the subcultural interests. Scholarship on the dress practices of punk, goth, hip-hop, hippie, and other underground lifestyles has shown that subcultural dress can be a catalyst for change in the mainstream fashion cycle. Research has also shown that there are unifying group aesthetics as well as individual interpretations of how to perform subcultural style; also that there is evolution of the dress styles as the culture changes in mass society and within the subculture itself.
Subcultural dress is a way of modifying and supplementing the body that differs from the commonly expected way of dress within a cultural group. In contemporary Western cultures, such dress primarily exemplifies the body as a site of political and social commentary and demonstrates participation in a contrarian lifestyle that has its own social order separate from the mainstream. The way the body is dressed is often an entrée into subcultural participation, as it is a visible symbol of affiliation and allows the wearer to make a strong statement regarding standards of beauty, gender, sexuality, social mores, and consumer values.
Punk, with its antiauthoritarian commentary presented stylistically through black leather, hooded sweatshirts, silk-screened patches featuring band names, and asymmetrical, vibrantly colored hair (among other design features) is the most prominently featured subcultural group in peer-reviewed journals and academic texts. A smaller number of articles chronicle the characteristic styles and idiosyncrasies in dress of goths, skateboarders, nonracist skinheads, hippies, and aficionados of hip-hop and underground dance cultures, as well as communities that formed to draw a lineage to a historic time period, including the Teddy boys who reveled in Edwardian dress, or the twenty-first-century mod scene that pays homage to the 1960s.
A study of subcultural dress is valuable in order to gain an understanding of how alternative lifestyles develop, how they are maintained, their fashion cycles, and how others interpret those wearing subcultural dress. This article focuses only on Western subcultures from the mid-twentieth century into the twenty-first century, featuring those who have played a significant role in the development of popular culture, often serving as a catalyst for mainstream styles. High-fashion designers have been inspired by subculture, and mass-market fashion of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century is commonly based on a method of bubble-up from the street instead of a trickle-down from the runways.
Subcultural appearances are a frequently discussed yet often misunderstood component of Western life regarding socialization, employment, deviance, and people’s perceptions of one another. Although outsiders may perceive a group as a unified subculture—and indeed there are many communal aspects, including some iconic forms of dress to represent communication and community—it is actually a broad-based movement that allows for deeply personal interpretations. Subcultures may have a perceived link to deviance and crime; however, further understanding of such dress, with its complex series of symbols and signifiers, gives outsiders a depth of perspective into the full meaning. In order to distil a subcultural lifestyle for mass understanding, some distinct aesthetic characteristics, including hairstyle, fabric, or pattern choices, come to signify the entire subculture. Outsiders may then frame their understanding based on a narrow image or even a caricature. Generally, those dress particulars are accurate for some participants and circumstances, but do not represent all of the possibilities for dress within a subculture. However, for simplicity, this crystallized image is picked up in the mainstream media and circulated as wholly representative. Subsequently, an outsider who generally sees the subculture primarily through the media and becomes a new convert may then shape his or her dress by this stereotype, creating a cycle that continues. Once a participant is further ingrained, there are more nuanced styles understood to represent the subculture. True engagement with the subculture often results in dress that includes an authentic embodiment of the attire, expressing ease and comfort in the body’s aesthetics and nonverbal cues, as discussed by sociologist Mike Brake, whose 1980s work is often cited in studies of subculture and youth culture.
Definitions of subculture are partially determined by the time frame in which they are developed and the research approach of the scholar. However, many of the definitions of subculture share core characteristics, and thus affect what is considered to be subcultural dress. It is a challenge to frame which groups qualify as being a subculture. The core idea of individuals banded together does not indicate the existence of a subcultural community. The relatively accepted definition of subculture has to do with lifestyle, societal critique, and the arts, and functions both collectively and individually in interpretation. This article does not cover examples of regional or situational small group cultures, demographic minorities, sexual orientation that is not heteronormative, political uprisings, or criminal organizations.
“Subculture” is a contentious term that has gone through a great number of revisions. It has been in use since as early as the 1920s, mapping groups delineating from the dominant culture. It then came into prominence in the 1940s and was popularized in 1950s youth studies, as noted by Shane Blackman. There has been reflection regarding use of the term “subculture” because of the possible negative or hierarchal connotation of its prefix “sub-”;however, alternatives including “counterculture” haven’t garnered the same frequency of usage. Phrases such as “neo-tribes,” “street style,” and “extraordinary dress” have all been used by sociologist Andy Bennett, anthropologist Ted Polhemus, and apparel and merchandising scholar Marcia Morgado as other alternatives to “subculture.” “Street style” has a relationship to “subculture” but it is not synonymous with it, as street style is not communal but primarily a mix of contemporary trends and individual preferences, and not using the body as a place of community and contentious statement aligning with a specific lifestyle.
From the late 1970s to the 1990s, the definitions of subculture eventually morphed to include reactions to society and also discussion of the developments of alternative cultures, particularly regarding music, dress, and lifestyle. This enhancement would receive criticism from some scholars. These structured parameters of the definitions of the past appear too rigid in the twenty-first century, because the aesthetic seems more fleeting or arbitrary, not necessarily planned. Subcultural participants provide input into its evolution and individuals and communities have their own interpretations, lending to the postmodern nature of a subculture’s progression.
The items of dress and ways of modifying the body act as symbols that separate them from the mainstream, and address social issues of concern such as inequalities and alienations. Bricolage, appropriation, identity, and cultural authentication are some of the ideas that dominate subcultural dress and its subsequent literature. A frequent tenet of subcultural dress is the plucking of objects from varied space and time and putting them together in fresh applications that comment on previous styles. This method utilizes available materials on a budget and highlights visual influences, making the dress heavily coded. The deciphering of those symbols is a root of subcultural dress scholarship.
The concepts and theories found in the literature vary widely. The beginnings of modern subcultural study can be found in the 1920s and 1930s, through the naturalistic research at the Chicago School that specialized in urban sociology, often associated with the University of Chicago’s sociology department. That led to the behavioral and normative foci of the 1950s and 1960s, which equated subculture with deviance and criminal behavior, as early subculture scholars Levine and Stumpf have argued, and which resonated through the decades, as indicated by design and merchandising scholars Ogle and Eckman, who scrutinized the perceptions of black trench coats worn by the 1999 shooters at Columbine High School.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the common research approach had moved away from viewing subculture as a negative and criminal reactionary group, but saw subcultures as resulting from an outcome of complex interactions between and among power groups. In the 1970s, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) had produced cultural theorists Hall and Jefferson’s oft-referenced book, Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, and the seminal Subculture: The Meaning of Style by film and media studies scholar Dick Hebdige. Hebdige’s book evaluated the relationship of subcultural movements with their visual identities. He looked at the motivations, context, and background, which created, facilitated, and perpetuated the significance of these styles. Hebdige introduced the idea of racial and ethnic issues entering the development of subcultures, which were previously positioned as class-based reactionary movements. Subculture: The Meaning of Style is also known for in-depth discussions about the connection of dress and subculture, not as a descriptive tool but as primary variables. Postmodernism and the notion of multiple meanings through individual and group identity have created scholarly debate about the accuracy and continued relevance of the CCCS and Hebdige’s theories.
Some concepts have endured throughout the entirety of subcultural dress scholarship and these include: evaluating subcultural theory itself, deviance, labeling, and structuralism. Yet each decade does feature trends in research. Studies of the 1980s frequently addressed personality, self-enhancement, labeling, and values. The 1990s continued discussions on subcultural theory and definitions, and expanded to include hegemony/power, social resistance, queer theory, collectivism, primitivism, modernity and postmodernism, appropriation, the self, agency, claims-making, and target marketing. Multiple theorists and philosophers became frequently referenced in studies with the most repeated being the philosopher Michel Foucault and his discussions of perception, power, and control.
The 2000s sustained some of the previous concepts such as postmodernism, power, deviance, identity, claims-making, and structuralism, and then broadened the scope to include ideas such as semiotics, the self, symbolic interaction, and internalization. By the 2010s, many Western subcultures had existed for twenty-five to fifty years, and therefore the study of the aging participant has grown in popularity, as has the study of adopting subcultural styles into mainstream merchandising and related issues of cultural tolerance.
Variation in the application of theory within the literature may be due to the span of disciplines covering the material. There are similarities and differences regarding the way that scholars from distinct disciplines approach the topic. The literature by researchers within fashion and merchandising disciplines tends to focus on value, postmodernity, semiotics, structuralism, constructionist theory, claims-making, the self, symbolic interaction, identity, power, self-enhancement, deviance, subcultural leadership, target marketing, and labeling, among others. The literature by researchers who are employed in disciplines outside fashion and merchandising, yet who personally specialize in those design areas, tends to focus on subcultural theories and the CCCS, hegemony/power, resistance, identity, queer theory, postmodernism, antifashion, appropriation, the self, agency, claims-making, deviance, morals/values, and structuralism/roles, among others. The literature by authors in disciplines outside dress who also do not typically study dress varies the most as compared to the other two groups of researchers. Among this final group generating publications, there is some overlap with the other scholars in areas such as labeling, deviance, identity construction, postmodernism, appropriation, the self, and the theories related to the CCCS and subculture definitions. The biggest difference between the writings of scholars who typically study dress and those who are from outside dress studies is that those outside have a far heavier focus on philosophers and theorists such as Baudrillard, Weber, Derrida, and Foucault.
There are four dominant themes driving research questions. The first is the study of a subcultural group in relation to mainstream society and the perceptions and interplay from these interactions. This has led to discussions of concepts such as stereotyping, labeling, and prejudices, as well as reactions regarding the possible relationships between appearance and crime or deviance. Research questions addressing these concepts hearken back to the debates of the early to mid-twentieth century regarding the predictive and explanatory qualities of dress, and negative perceptions of outsiders. That does not indicate that the current writings in this area are dated or irrelevant, but instead highlights how some ideas continually resonate. Examples can be found in two articles by design and merchandising scholars Jennifer Ogle and Molly Eckmann, entitled “Dress-Related Responses to the Columbine Shootings: Other-Imposed and Self-Designed,” and “Appearance Cues and the Shootings at Columbine High: Construction of a Social Problem in the Print Media” with third author Catherine Amoroso Leslie. Other examples include “The Appearance of a Youthful Subculture: A Theoretical Perspective on Deviance,” by design historian Lynne Richards, and “The Criminalization of the Saggy Pant” by fashion design scholar Holly Alford.
Another way the interaction between mainstream and subculture is played out is in the fashion cycle. Research has also begun to show how subcultures develop internal fashion cycles and their relationship to the larger fashion system, for example “The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence,” also by Alford, as well as Free Stylin’: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry by fashion journalist and communications scholar Elena Romero.
The second common theme for research questions is to position the subculture in the context of its time frame and describe its existence and relevance as part of a historical narrative. Research focused on a time frame often asks secondary questions regarding the development of collective identities, and how they function internally in areas such as maintenance and structure, as well as how they react to societal changes. Fashion scholars Denise Green and Susan B. Kaiser do this in “From Ephemeral to Everyday Costuming: Negotiations in Masculine Identities at the Burning Man Project,” and it is also seen in “The Semiotics of Extraordinary Dress: A Structural Analysis and Interpretation of Hip-Hop Style” by Marica Morgado and “Anti-Fashion: The 1970s” by fashion historian Valerie Steele.
Relatedly, a time-frame context can be a point in history, or a point in participants’ lives. Subculture is often aligned with youth studies; however, the term “youth” puts a caveat on discussions of subculture, as worlds and lifestyles can certainly thrive with no connection to youth. “Youth” can be a disposition or frame of mind when considering the idea of “lifestyle,” and may not be contingent on chronological age. Additionally, as subcultural participants age, they may no longer as blatantly express affiliation visually as they did in their youth, but often the subtle cues stick with them for the long haul and are a vehicle for communicating with likeminded others. Examples are sociologists Paul Hodkinson and Andy Bennett, who wrote Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style and Identity, and fashion, design, and merchandising scholar Monica Sklar and design and aesthetics scholar Marilyn Delong, who wrote “Punk Dress in the Workplace: Expression vs. Accommodation.” Further examples include “Punk’s Not Dead: The Continuing Significance of Punk Rock for an Older Generation of Fans,” and “Subcultures or Neo-Tribes? Rethinking the Relationship between Youth, Style and Musical Taste,” both by Andy Bennett, as well as “Dressed in History: Retro Styles and the Construction of Authenticity in Youth Culture” by art, design, and fashion scholar Heike Jenss.
The third theme for research takes the historical/time-frame idea to the next level, and discusses the process of change and growth within a subculture. The research has made strides to document some of the lifestyles, motivations, influences, methods, and perceptions of numerous subcultural groups and their dress. A great deal of research in this area contains discourse on the repositioning or reconceptualization of the meaning of subculture itself. It includes ideas about a subculture functioning with multiple meanings, utilizing ideas such as postmodernism and feminist and queer theories, and often leads to discussion of the diffusion, commodification, and appropriation of subcultural styles, which logically leads to discussion of the struggle of defining authentic subcultural identities. The contentious yet interwoven relationship of subculture and mainstream culture is often examined. Examples of research addressing these questions include “Shut Up and Dance: Youth Culture and Changing Modes of Femininity,” by cultural theorist Angela McRobbie; “Communities, Commodities, Cultural Space, and Style,” by communications and fashion scholar Anthony Freitas and colleagues; Punk Style, by fashion, design, and merchandising scholar Monica Sklar; Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style by sports and society scholar David Muggleton, and “Real Punks and Pretenders: The Social Organization of a Counterculture,” by sociologist Kathryn Joan Fox.
In conjunction with the third type of question about change, the fourth common research question not only looks at a subculture as a group, but also as individuals. This often develops from concern regarding the definitions and boundaries of a subculture, and positions the individual experience as pivotal to understanding the group. Sub-questions are asked about dress as personal identity and as a part of self-development, and this leads to further sub-questions about life cycles, agency, and self-presentation. Examples of articles asking these questions include communications scholar Derek Sweet’s “More Than Goth: The Rhetorical Reclamation of the Subcultural Self,” educational studies scholar Deirdre Kelly’s “Skater Girlhood and Emphasized Femininity: ‘You Can’t Land an Ollie Properly in Heels,’ ” fashion design scholar Theresa Winge’s Body Style, sociologist Mike Featherstone’s “Body Modification: An Introduction,” and anthropologist James Myers’s “Nonmainstream Body Modification: Genital Piercing, Branding, Burning and Cutting.”
Scholarship on subcultural dress has increased in popularity in the twenty-first century as it becomes increasingly relevant in the arts, merchandising, and social movements. The topic is seen in an array of research beyond academic publications. A notable development in the scholarship has been through the numerous museum exhibitions covering far-ranging aspects of subcultures. Generally, they feature an array of garments and related design objects, and frequently a written catalog or book featuring essays and strong imagery. Some of these exhibitions include the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture” and “AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion”; the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s “Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch” and “Gothic: Dark Glamour”; the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk”; the Bellevue Art Museum’s “Counter-Couture: Fashioning Identity in the American Counterculture”; the Museum of the City of New York’s “Hip-Hop Revolution: Photographs by Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo, and Martha Cooper”; and Racine Art Museum’s “A Whole Other World: Sub-Culture Craft.”
Another successful form of subcultural dress research beyond academia is in the array of representations published in photo and ephemera retrospectives, often produced by subcultural participants themselves. Ted Polhemus is widely cited for his publications of this nature, including Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk (related to the V&A exhibition) and Style Surfing: What to Wear in the 3rd Millennium. Further examples include Keanan Duffty and Paul Gorman’s Rebel Rebel: Anti-Style, Exene Cervenka and Jim Jocoy’s We’re Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy, SF/LA 1978–1980, Jamel Shabazz’s Back in the Days, Nick Knight’s Skinhead, and Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo’s Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music. Some photographic collections include in-depth text passages with interviews and insights, frequently emphasizing the importance of dress in the subculture.
Further research has been published by auction houses, including Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which investigate items for sale, including from subcultural movements, and put out detailed catalogs. Often they are featuring garments of musicians or celebrities who have come from a subculture, or designer goods that are related to a subcultural influence. Additionally, personal collections such as the Contemporary Wardrobe Collection in London and global museums are cataloging and digitizing their collections’ data for mass access on the Web. Another source is documentary films such as the BBC miniseries British Style Genius and the documentary Fresh Dressed, which feature British subcultures and hip-hop culture, respectively. Finally, there are countless Web sites, blogs, and other Internet resources that chronicle subcultural history and report contemporary information on the topic, with various levels of research rigor and participants’ insights.
Variations in research methodology are derived from the discipline of the investigating scholar, the necessities of a specific research question, and trends in research. Qualitative approaches are vastly more common than quantitative, with a mix of primary and secondary research comprising the data. Critical literature reviews are one common form of subcultural dress research. These pieces examine previous writings and concepts on the subject, and then analyze, evaluate, or reconceptualize the material. Historical overviews are also widely seen and are similar to the critical literature reviews in how they gather preexisting data, but instead of attempting to rethink theories or definitions, they are concerned with placing the subject group within a historical context and showing their significance. Research using content analysis employs existing data in yet another way by reviewing material such as magazines to pull out ideas, concepts, or symbols and then analyze them for trends and significance. Interviews, participant observation, surveys, and fieldwork attempt to gather firsthand perspectives and aim to trace subcultural participants’ relationship to dress through self-reflection.
Within the various types of methodology, some prove more successful than others in their ability to be deemed accurate by the subcultural participants, and significant in findings by academic peers. There is a vulnerability to skewed data when using exclusively secondary sources. Historical records regarding subcultural dress are limited, thus there is a lot of room for conjecture, with few sources for cross-referencing. A distance from the subjects can cause problematic issues such as improper use of terms, slanting the text’s tone toward judgment or cynicism, or frame research from an angle that the subjects themselves would not deem accurate or pertinent. Primary research, including firsthand accounts and viewing the objects, especially in use, builds a larger—and closer to accurate—body of literature, and can allow the participants to shape the narrative about their existence.
Because of the assorted definitions of subculture and fluid nature each of the subcultures themselves, it can be a challenge for researchers to properly identify qualifying human subjects. Therefore, research that calls for self-identifying participants has efficacy over trying to determine the right people. Moreover, it should be emphasized that through individual experiences and the evolving nature of long-lasting subcultures, not all of those who self-identify with a subculture share the same perspective on dress. For example, opinions about defining a particular lifestyle and the particulars of its aesthetics can vary widely depending on levels of personal commitment, the time period when one discovered and embraced the community, and distinct individual experiences. Consequently, the most thorough subcultural dress research has been shown to have multiple interviewees or representations of design objects and is transparent that it is a chronicle of experience and not necessarily an entire community’s story.
Finally, a researcher who self-identifies with the subculture affects the way that interviewees interact with the researcher and the data they present; the fact that a researcher may have aspects of self-presentation that use the subculture’s aesthetics is also relevant. Interviewees express comfort in speaking with researchers who are not outsiders. Insider insights also have an impact on a researcher’s ability to comprehend responses. This carries through even to transcriptions, so words are properly recorded, as subculture is rife with slang, bands’ and artists’ names, and a fluid vernacular. Coding software applied to transcripts can provide a relatively objective balance.
There is a growing body of literature on Western subcultural dress covering numerous research questions, concepts, and theories, with the best of it featuring firsthand accounts and studies of the objects themselves, especially in use. In the information age monocultures are diminishing and subcultures are increasingly commonplace. Continued study improves the understanding of the cultural influences of the past and those impacting the future of political and art movements, as well as being catalysts for fashion change.
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