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Social Identity, Subcultures and Style
Social identity is often tied to the concept of “subculture,” the members of which generally advertise their allegiance by making distinctive and symbolic choices in such things as clothing, hairstyles and footwear. Other elements, including common interests, slang and dialects, musical genres and meeting places are also important factors. Subcultures offer participants an identity outside of the ones ascribed by social institutions such as work, family, home and school. What follows will be an exploration of the role subcultures play in shaping social identity, with a particular emphasis on fashion.
Youth subcultures can be defined as “meaning systems, modes of expression or lifestyles developed by groups in subordinate structural positions in response to dominant systems, which reflect their attempt to solve structural contradictions rising from the wider societal context” (Brake, 1985). The term can also refer to specific subsets of a subculture, that is, sub-subcultures, or “scenes,” which are largely geographical, such as the London goth scene or the American drum and bass scenes. Scenes tend to be volatile, purposely marginal and tribal, with some members acting elitist towards those considered to be less fashionable, and with an overall oppositional attitude towards the culture at large (Thornton, 1995).
Many subcultures define themselves as being against the “mainstream,” or the commercialised culture promoted by the media. This dichotomy, the subculture versus the mainstream, is often more of a way of maintaining individuality than an actual social distinction (Grönlund and Holme, 2004). For what is the mainstream, really, but a set of subcultures? And how do the most obscure subcultures find their way into the minds (and wardrobes) of young people, if not through the media, which is essentially the mouthpiece of the dominant culture? The truth is that there is much overlap between cultures, both big and small, both prevalent and obscure, and this back-and-forth exchange of ideas is crucial in identity formation, no matter what the source or overall outcome.
Subcultures may last for extensive periods, like the punk or hip-hop movements, or fade away almost as soon as they are born. They may be centred around sports (such as the surf or skateboard culture), literature (such as the Beat generation), fashion or religion (Rinehart and Sydnor, 2003). To look at a a subculture is to examine the ephemera associated with the group – clothing, music, politics, etc. – and also the ways in which these symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture (Straw, 1991). Each subculture has a distinct individual style, with certain ways of dressing (clothing, shoes hairstyles), speaking (slang) and gathering (ravers at dance clubs, bikers at bars, etc.). Subcultures are continually combining and recombining old symbols in new ways, in a sort-of kaleidoscope of youth lore and culture. Youth identity itself shifts in concert with these genre transformations (Damrell, 1978).
Punk, for example, embraced a variety of accoutrements that, worn all together, appeared almost as a uniform. As seen in the photograph below, these include ripped, modified or “distressed” clothing; studded bracelets and necklaces; tattoos, piercings and other body modifications; spiked, dyed and eccentric hairstyles; etc.
But what do these clothing choices mean? What do these symbols represent? One way to analyze the punk aesthetic is to contrast it with its predecessor, the Teddy Boy revival. While the “’Teds’ revived cultural accoutrements in order to effect a magical return to the past, or an authentic stylistic aesthetic, punks deliberately assaulted meaning entirely, mocking not only those ascribed by persons outside their group, but those they developed themselves, in an attempt to evade closure on meaning of their emblems” (Hebdige, 1979).
The punk adoption of the swastika, for example, was a somewhat contradictory signifier in the negotiation of punk subculture. While it was adopted as a symbol of opposition, as an effective way to inspire anger, the punks themselves were not fascists whatsoever, but the opposite, aligning themselves with the Labour party, anti-poverty activists and the radical left (Brake, 1985). Wearing a swastika, therefore, became a symbolic opening, an invitation to negotiate meaning. In contrast, while the Teddy Boy revivalists of the early seventies developed a style based on nostalgia, made up of long coat tails, bouffant hairstyles and rockabilly music, all in an attempt to hark back to a bygone era, the group was “symbolically closed…meanings ascribed to their symbolic adornments were fixed, and the same whether viewed from inside or outside the group” (Hebdige, 1979).
While historically memorable, subcultures like punk are highly unstable, and vulnerable to co-option from the outside. There is a similar process of identity and style negotiation in the case of hip-hop culture:
“Hip–hop artists use style as a form of identity formation which plays on class distinctions and hierarchies by using commodities to claim the cultural terrain. Clothing and consumption rituals testify to the power of consumption as a means of cultural expression” (Rose, 1994).
Identity and style negotiation in the hip-hop community are often one in the same, as can be evidenced by self–naming in rap music, “branding” the streets by way of personalized graffiti tags, and the intense confrontations between freestyle competitors, breakdance crews and graffiti artists. Like punk, hip–hop’s opposition is directed outward, toward the dominant structure, or “the man.” Dominant, mainstream culture is mocked via symbolic assemblages which can reach ridiculous heights. As seen in the pictures below, these may include gaudy collages of jewelry or “bling;” enormous designer patches stitched onto clothing and other accessories; and a variety of other cultural accoutrements, from gold teeth and sports uniforms to fancy cars and champagne.
This all acts as kind of a “sartorial warfare against Fifth Avenue haute couture, for teenagers who understand their limited access to traditional avenues of social status attainment” (ibid).
Both hip-hop and punk, along with other subcultures, are subject to transformation and negotiation, much of which centers on notions of authenticity (Gunn, 1999). For example, in the “goth” genre, popular music may be defined or re-defined in terms of canonisation:
“Canonising simultaneously broadens and fixes generic boundaries, making room for the inclusion of new music in reference to the old. The logic here operates metonymically by fixing previously recognized bands of historical significance as the originators of a given musical genre, so that future musical acts with similar sounds may expand generic boundaries with the legitimate value of difference” (ibid).
The important factor here is authenticity. An inauthentic goth song or group would not fit comfortably within the subculture. Fashion functions much in the same manner. For example, a “true” goth’s uniform is generally black, which includes black nail polish, eyeliner and lipstick, along with belts, bracelets and the like. This is often paired with a “ghostly,” pale face, with the entire ensemble evoking something out of a fairy tale, or even the Gothic period itself. Some of these various choices can be seen on the group below.
However, goth style, in addition to punk, have both become absorbed by the mainstream. Nowadays, any teenager can go to a local Hot Topic, Urban Outfitters or similar retailer, that specializes in punk, goth, retro, rock ‘n roll or “alternative” styles, and try on the aesthetic.
The notion of authenticity sheds some light on our understanding of the negotiation of identity within various subcultures. Genre can be very territorial because of the degree to which self-conception is tied to a particular group. Rivalries over new styles, artists and lingo, and whether or not to include or exclude them, express the competition between unlike identities in what might be called a “canonization of selves.” (Damrell, 1978).
One can often distinguish youths from adults, not only by their age, but by their clothing, gait, posture and words. And in the West at least, prosperity has postponed the entry into adulthood, which has increased the importance of youth subcultures in terms of a search for identity. Subcultures allow a tangible way not only to view the world, but to be in it, providing, for the most part, a positive function in easing the transition from childhood to adulthood. And while the majority of practitioners leave these youth subcultures at some point, shedding their counter-culture personas for those of the mainstream, there will always be lingering reminders of one’s old allegiances, whether they be photographs, tattoos, or simply memories. And in this way, one’s connections to youth culture, along with the sources of identity that go with it, never fully fade away.
Brake, Michael. Comparative Youth Culture: The sociology of youth culture and youth subcultures in America, Britain and Canada. London: Routledge, 1985.
Damrell, J. Search for Identity: Youth, Religion and Culture. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1978.
Frith, S. The Sociology of Youth. Lancashire: Causeway Press Ltd., 1996.
Gronlund, A., and Holme, P. “Networking the seceder model: Group formation in social and economic systems.” Physical Review 70, 2004.
Gunn, J. “Gothic music and the Inevitability of genre.” Popular Music and Society, volume 23, number 1, 1999.
Hall, Stuart, and Jefferson, Tony. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London: Routledge, 1993.
Hebdige, D. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methvan & Co Ltd., 1979.
Rinehart, R., and Sydnor, S. (eds.) To the Extreme: Alternative Sports, Inside and Out. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003.
Rose, T. “A Style nobody can deal with: Politics, style and the postindustrial city in Hip Hop.” in: Ross, A., and Rose, T. (eds.) Microphone fiends: Youth music and youth culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Straw, Will. “Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music.” Cultural Studies 5, 1991.
Thornton, S. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge: Polity Press. 1995.
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