Politics of Style: Subculture and Circulation

While the zoot suit remained more or less subcultural—it was never picked up by the (white) mainstream as anything other than a nostalgic emblem of a depoliticized jazz age—other forms of subcultural style circulate more widely and suggest a more complex relationship between subculture and mainstream than we usually suppose.

The Ramones do subcultural style circa 1976
The Ramones do subcultural style circa 1976

Last time on Politics of Style, we discussed how personal style intersects with a whole host of problems related to personal choice and political action.  What does it mean for self-fashioning to be political, and what are the limits of collective political action in the arena of style?

Subcultural style offers an interesting way to think through these questions precisely because of its relationship to both elements in this problem: the group and the individual. We are concerned here with how individuals perform identities that diverge from the mainstream by identifying with particularly visible divergent groups. Subcultural style reveals not only how personal expression in the arena of fashion can (and sometimes cannot) be a deeply political act, but also how politics is enfolded and resisted in choices about self-expression.

Subculture, loosely defined, is a social and cultural formation of individuals that find themselves at ideological odds with the mainstream. We should keep an eye on the two terms we are working with here, subculture and mainstream, because they are so unstable and tend to mean different things in different contexts. Dick Hebdige, one of the first scholars to theorize subculture, suggests that subculture is fundamentally concerned with setting itself up against what it views as an oppressive mainstream. Subculture, for Hebdige, is “a form of resistance in which experienced contradictions and objections to [the] ruling ideology are obliquely represented in style.” Style, in other words, offers a space in which people can register opposition to the status quo as a form of political performance that reaches beyond a traditional political sphere concerned with voting, policy-making, filibustering, etc.

Instead, the political potential of subcultural style resides in its capacity to challenge standard or “normal” ways of living and looking—it is usually a provocation of normativity rather than a codified political position.

Think, as only a few of many possible examples, of biker gangs, punks, or the emo scene. Each of these subcultures represent a group of individuals who self-consciously style themselves in social, aesthetic and sometimes political formations that resist normative modes of being. Subcultures are rarely exclusively concerned with politics—though some like punks or Riot Grrrls have deep ties to political movements such as anarchism or feminism—but often pose political provocations that challenge “business as usual.”

When we talk about the politics of subcultural style, therefore, we would do well to think of it in terms of a provocation of normativity rather than as a political performance aimed at policy reform.

I went to college at a university with a particularly preppy and greek undergrad culture. They were known for their sundresses, cowboy boots and Southern charm. This was a culture with which I did not identify much, yet it made finding friends pretty easy. Wearing black jeans and Doc Martens was a simple way to signal that my cultural sympathies lay beyond frat row, and for a lot of my undergrad career, finding my people included scanning the crowd for those who weren’t wearing the standard prep uniform. By Hebdige’s definition, this is subcultural practice within the context of my university. In this case, the mainstream was the visible prep culture and the subculture were the hipsters who self-consciously deviated from it.

And yet, this might reveal a major flaw in how we talk about subculture and politics. There are limits to the political efficacy of style as provocation. My crew were not anarchists or even punks—most of us would have more or less identified as mildly disaffected kids from the middle-class—and our style had less to do with political expression than with a certain distaste for the aesthetics of Southern Charm. There are, of course, deeply embedded gender, race and class politics in the Southern Charm aesthetic, but I am not sure that the resistance signaled by hipster style offered a properly political response. While we were interested in signaling our dis-identification with the preppy culture of the university, that dis-identification did not, in many instances, translate into political action.

It is imperative, therefore, to think about what is actually political about provocation. This is one of the central questions of this series.

For a historical example of the interaction between subcultural style and politics, look to the zoot suit. Today, the zoot suit is probably associated most visibly with black entertainers. It reached the height of its popularity in the 1940s when it was worn primarily by black and latino men as part of black nightlife. Figures such as jazz singer Cab Calloway and Mexican film actor Tin-Tan made the zoot suit famous beyond the nightclub subculture in New York and California. Most white Americans would have known the zoot suit from touring jazz bands or films featuring big band leaders.

Above: Cab  Calloway in his zoot suit performs Geechy Joe in Stormy Weather (1943)

The zoot suit is all about excess — the pants are high-waisted and wide, the coats are commonly knee-length, the lapels and shoulders are aggressively large, and a fedora and long chain often accompany the look. The excessiveness of the suit is what makes it so iconic and so troubling to the mainstream. The amount of fabric it takes to create the elaborate draping effects of the suit made them a luxury during a time in which luxury was frowned upon by normative—that is, white middle-class—America. To own and wear a zoot suit during World War II was seen as spitting in the face of the Americans who lived on ration books and recycled their out of style clothing to save resources.

This kind of material excess alongside its association with black and brown people made the zoot suit a highly visible icon of racial and cultural difference that ignited a lot of simmering resentment from white Americans. This resentment eventually spilled over into outright violence during the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles in 1943. A series of altercations between Anglo-American servicemen and latino youths in zoot suits escalated into days-long riots during which white servicemen sought out and attacked young latino men wearing the suits.

White sailors during the Zoot Suit Riots, 1943
White sailors during the Zoot Suit Riots, 1943

The zoot suit, an emblem of a larger subculture of black and latino youths, became the scapegoat of the Anglo-American aggression against the subculture itself. Because the zoot suit lay so far outside of mainstream American style, it was read to represent a larger trend in which resistance to austerity during the war also represented resistance to the nation itself and therefore the political imperatives of the war.

It is interesting to think of this crisis not only in terms of nationalism or racism, but also in terms of subculture and mainstream. While the zoot suit is big and excessive, the military uniform worn by the servicemen is close-fitting and more or less lacking in expensive frills. But to read the zoot suit against the military uniform is not to read a subculture against a mainstream, but rather as an altercation between two subcultures. The military is a specific social and cultural formation that has its own rules and norms—discipline, honor, and courage, for example—distinct from civilian culture, just as zoot suiters had a set of norms distinct from middle-class white American culture. Both subcultures are set up against a different “mainstream,” yet the military gets to “speak for” or represent the mainstream as a kind of police force. My point here is that rather than thinking of the American servicemen as a disciplinary mainstream, it might be more interesting to think of them (and their style) as a celebrated subculture against which the zoot suiters were seen as deviant.

The politics of the zoot suit are revealed, therefore, both in the way that it comes to represent a racial and national group at ideological odds with white middle-class America, but also in the ways that it allows another subculture—the military—to think of itself as the defender of a normative mainstream through violent conflict.

While the zoot suit remained more or less subcultural—it was never picked up by the (white) mainstream as anything other than a nostalgic emblem of a depoliticized jazz age—other forms of subcultural style circulate more widely and suggest a more complex relationship between subculture and mainstream than we usually suppose.

One of the most iconic subculture styles to permeate contemporary fashion is associated with punk. Punk culture was one of the first objects of study for scholars of subculture in 1970s and 80s Britain. At that time, punk meant a very specific group of working-class youth associated with anti-establishment expression, particularly in music. Since then, punk style has become far more visible and accessible to those outside of punk culture. We see elements of punk style everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Coachella.

Bob Mazzer captures punks in the London Underground during the 1970s
Bob Mazzer captures punks in the London Underground during the 1970s

As we said in our last installment, the politics of personal style are complicated by the ways in which fashion is intersected by capitalism. Although the punk subculture is usually understood to be anti-establishment and anti-capitalist, its style and its music are commodities that are consumed by many people outside the subculture itself. Doc Martens boots, one of most iconic facets of punk style, has recently become a mainstream fashion trend, and the Dr. Martens website dedicates an entire page to celebrating the subcultural history of its product even as it also attempts to sell its boots to an ever-growing consumership. The subcultural ties of the boots actually function as an attraction to non-punk consumers interested in emblems of anti-establishment authenticity.

Docs, as I mentioned above, allowed my friends and me to identify against the hyper-visible preppiness of my undergrad college campus. Their association with punk culture allowed us to perform resistance and non-comformity because they function as a general sort of symbol for edginess and counter-cultural posturing even as they are increasingly worn by “mainstream” consumers.

I definitely do not mean to suggest that the use of subcultural style by consumers outside the subculture is some sort of adulteration of a pure authenticity. Fashion proves that originality and authenticity can never be accurately pinned down—every stylistic performance incorporates and alludes to other styles and other performances. Coco Chanel’s iconic tweeds, for example, refer to the textiles worn by poor fishermen in coastal French fishing villages during the early 20th century though they now almost exclusively signify high fashion. My point instead is that the “mainstreaming” of subcultural styles muddies the uses of style as political resistance.

And while I am very interested in the way subcultural groups can make cultural expression a political provocation using style, I am also sensitive to the limits imposed by thinking of politics exclusively in terms of style, performance or fashion.

This is, perhaps, something to think about. Stay tuned.

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