Essay: The Seduction Of Subculture

by Sophie Walsh on 11 February 2020

Exploring the rose-tinted nostalgia surrounding British subculture, following a reference filled A/W 20 menswear season.

Exploring the rose-tinted nostalgia surrounding British subculture, following a reference filled A/W 20 menswear season.

A young man hops on the 142 bus running to Manchester city centre just as the heavens begin to open. Passengers are afforded the brief opportunity to cast a curious eye over his person as he purchases a ticket. One hand runs through his shaggy mullet whilst the other fishes for loose shrapnel in the pocket of his wide-legged corduroys. He catches the attention of a sixty-something clutching a Tesco bag for life. The boomer takes in the younger man’s orthopaedic loafers and leather trench coat which gapes just enough to reveal a fair-isle sweater vest (worn commando). 'Where’ve you been, Wigan Casino?' the older man asks knowingly with a grin. Caught off guard, the confused recipient drops his £1.50 and chuckles awkwardly. It’s 2020 and somewhat unwittingly, the young man is dressed in a manner that fifty years ago would have associated him with Northern Soul; a hardcore subculture rooted in working-class dissatisfaction, notorious for its amphetamine-fuelled all-nighters in venues across the North West. All this chap wants to do, however, is arrive at his sociology seminar on time and scroll through @beam_me_up_softboi memes for personality inspiration.

At the dawn of the new decade, an age of astonishing technological advancement and social awareness, more and more of us are choosing to glance nostalgically back to the subcultural tropes of yesteryear. The recent menswear season finally called it quits on streetwear, having lost its fresh-out-the-box smell when Missguided jumped on the poppered trackies trend. How then, has the Triple S-shaped void been filled? A rummage in the archives it seems, collecting a substantial repertoire of socio-historic references. This, however, is part of a wider shift. The young man on the 142 bus is but a drip in the ever-expanding ocean of intrepid Depopers, scouring the resale app for that perfect pair of ‘1460 Dr. Martens’ or ‘vegan leather, 70s belt-tie coat’.

This season, London designers, in particular, paid homage to British subcultures from the seventies and eighties. Martine Rose and Charles Jeffrey for instance substantially evoked New Romanticism. Born in the sweat-drenched nightclubs of London and Birmingham during the late seventies, the flamboyant scene rejected contemporary gendered fashion norms and embraced experimentation. Taking inspiration from the early nineteenth-century Romantics, followers adopted androgynous clothing – notably frilled fop blouses and extravagant makeup. One of the most recognisable visual tropes of a New Romantic, however, was an ostentatious hairdo – something notably replicated by Martine Rose who sent her models out with a side-swept wedge cut, sometimes covering one half of the face in homage to a pre-balding Philip Oakey from The Human League. Shoulder padded duster coats, ruffle-trimmed shirts and the prominence of black latex further gave a nod towards the eighties New Wave. Likewise, whilst the A/W 20 Loverboy collection took inspiration from Orkney’s The Festival of the Horse, amidst the tartan and leather head harnesses, the air of New Romanticism was unmissable. Puff-shouldered tailcoats, balloon sleeved shirts, electric blue quiffs and abstract makeup were set off against the sound of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, perpetuating the same subcultural ethos for a new generation of club kids.

The glance backwards at pre-Thatcher Britain continued as Wales Bonner paid tribute to her paternal Jamaican roots with a Lover’s Rock inspired collection. The subcultural movement formed by second-generation Jamaicans in Lewisham during the seventies, combined reggae and soul music, springing from underground London house parties. Visually, it’s members referenced both Rastafarian culture and English dandyism, something Bonner was keen to reflect in her collection. Tweeds and sharply tailored suits were displayed amidst velvet track pants and colourful wooden beads strung around the neck, checkered flat caps juxtaposed against beanie hats displaying the stripes of the Jamaican flag. Nicholas Daley meanwhile, collaborated with Fred Perry, exploring the connection between fashion and music in UK counterculture. Referencing experimental jazz movements of the seventies, like Bonner, he weaved subcultural signifiers such as the oversized baker boy hat with Scottish tartans and jacquard materials developed in English mills.

And where you may ask, did the fellow on the 142 garner his style inspiration? Well, the subcultural tropes continued with the frequently referenced style emblems of Northern Soul, a movement that sprung up amongst the youth of northern mill towns who blew off steam with a new fast tempo genre of the American soul. Shaggy haired blokes with bum fluff moustache’s were ten to a dozen this season. The scene’s synonymous baggy flares could be spotted at key London shows, notably Per Götesson who introduced a floor-grazing pair of waist wrap jeans. The nipped-in v-neck knit tank, once worn shirtless by lithe Lancashire youths with dilated pupils, was also a repetitive feature across the entire season. Fendi styled theirs tucked into a pair of black leather trousers, whilst Gucci’s cropped number was worn with a wide lapel shirt, pressed wide-legged trousers and buckled loafers. In fact, the collection was reminiscent of Gucci’s A/W 17 campaign, which was coincidentally a tribute to Northern Soul.

So, yes. Lots of subcultural references this season, we get the picture. The question is, why? What is it about defunct subcultures that have really grabbed us by the balls in 2020? In order to answer this question, we need to contemplate the beginnings of subculture.

In 1968, sci-fi author John Brunner made a series of spookily accurate predictions about the twenty-first century in his novel Stand on Zanzibar, from electric cars and Wikipedia to same-sex marriage. He was, however, a little too ambitious when it came to prophesying fashion. Brunner like many of the age, quite understandably predicted that by 2020 we would be wearing garments such as a 'radio dresslet’ and using a ‘skintight fabric as harshly metallic as the case of a scientific instrument’. Most excitingly, he saw us in gravity-defying belts. In reality, A/W 20 brought us closer to 1968 (than apparently he was). When Brunner wrote the novel, he was arguably living at the peak of the British subculture, from the aforementioned Northern Soul scene to perhaps more famously, mods and rockers. In a post-war era when teenagers were recognised as a generational group and, unlike their parents, had more freedom and disposable income to explore emerging music scenes, there was an attraction in unifying with like-minded young things. Subculture was more than a similar music taste, however. Sociologist Dick Hebdige, in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, defined it as ‘a subordinate group, which has expressive forms and rituals, which denounce public order’. By this definition, the very basis of a subculture was built upon dissatisfaction or disenfranchisement from the mainstream, and whilst style may be the immediate signifier of affiliation, this is the tip of the iceberg in a deeper ideology.

So what of subculture today? Apparently it’s dead. Author Dylan Clark argued in his book The Death and Life of Punk, The Last Subculture that, 'classical' subcultures obtained their potency partly through an ability to shock and dismay, to disobey prescribed confines of a class, gender, and ethnicity’. Gradually, however, people ‘became acclimatised to such subcultural transgressions to the point that, in many places, they have become an expected part of the social landscape’. Living in an era of globalised communication means that we are constantly overloaded with various sources of information, in many ways desensitising us to so-called social disobedience. And, whilst political correctness has done much to improve general attitudes, it has also removed an element of outspoken rebellion and denouncement of ‘public order’, the building blocks of a legitimate subculture. Then perhaps most tellingly of all, Clark maintains that the ‘classical subculture ‘died’ when it became the object of social inspection and nostalgia, and when it became so amenable to commodification,’ he argues. ‘Marketers long ago awakened to the fact that subcultures are expedient vehicles for selling music, cars, clothing, cosmetics, and everything else under the sun’.

Whilst it’s possible that legitimate new subcultures still exist (as opposed to mere style tribes), our current attraction to the subcultures of yesteryear is undeniable. On a larger scale, the current stench of nostalgia is pungent. It emanates not only from the recent menswear shows but from our revived love affair with analogue cameras, record players, vintage shops, actual books, VHS, the reformation of Cherry B, hand-rolled cigarettes, the living room cocktail bar and eighties Ford’s (the likes of which have made a cameo in the backdrop for every crouching hype-beast’s Instagram post recently). There’s a general romanticisation of time before photoshop and Hinge, a palpable yearning for the gritty authenticity and seeming simplicity found in the youthful polaroids of our parents or grandparents.

The romanticisation of past subcultures is something that has been explored by contemporary artist Mitchell Vowles. His short film, It's still banging in 2019, excavates 'online representations of youth countercultures, combining historical and contemporary footage in order to create an evolving timeline that looks through the lens and limitations of the internet, to consider how an acceptance of the present day has been replaced by a romanticism of the past.' Vowles extracts clips from old TV shows, films and home videos, choosing the material that focuses on British working-class subcultures of the 20th century. From an opening clip from Quadrophenia referencing the 1960s mod culture to a clip of moshing skin-heads in the 1980s. Instant parallels can be drawn between the subcultural style codes perpetuated in the film and the current re-explorations of these tribes in contemporary menswear.

Speaking to Vowles, he said that whilst making the film, something he consistently identified is how, 'in society today, things are moving away from group mentality and further into the pursuit of the individual (working on yourself at the gym seems more of a contemporary subculture now), and that creates a complication in the way subcultures are perceived.' So, are subcultures dead? 'They can't exist in the same way', he responds. 'I remember attending a talk at Somerset House where Mark Leckey spoke about his connection to rave culture, there was a moment when the audience had a chance to pipe up and someone mentioned how they are involved in an online group of people that partake in virtual reality raves.' Vowles concludes, 'it's not that there's nothing new for subcultures it's just fundamentally explored differently. However, it all feels synthetic to me, both nostalgia of experience and also the virtual space.'

Subculture today, it seems then, is a complicated matter. Whether it has changed forms or not, ‘Postsubculture studies scholars argue there is no foundational subculture anymore; each includes copies’, lecturer and writer David Muggleton explains. Case and point – the visual tropes of various past British subcultures have been heavily drawn upon during the A/W 20 menswear shows and can be spotted in any fashionable quarter of a British city. Why people choose to emulate certain subcultural styles of dress is the key question, however. The apparent authenticity attributed to past subcultures, the uncomplicated finger up at the system, without the risk of a slap on the wrist from self-righteous Instagram police, is perhaps what feels so desirable to us today. Likewise, forging a unique path and identity in an oversaturated market of vapid consumerism has become increasingly difficult, the option to simply glance nostalgically back at previous subcultures is therefore tempting. As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said, the ‘ambition to connect with a core of meanings formulated in a romanticised past, is an embodiment of the struggle for maintaining artistic legitimacy within the cultural field of production.'

For some, there is an important aspect of nostalgia in aesthetically referencing subcultural tropes. There’s a yearning for the authenticity of a romanticised past in which subcultures were clear cut, without, however, the so-called ‘dirty work’ of actually having to attend rallies or feign enjoyment of death metal. For others, there is an arrogance in their blatant cultural knowledge, an enthusiastic display of ‘look, I’m clued up, I’ve watched Made In England and follow PAQ presenter Danny Lomas on Instagram.' Some meanwhile can still draw upon the old subcultural symbols, embracing, for instance, the gender codes of New Romanticism as a representation of their own sexuality. For the majority, however, it may simply be a case of setting themselves apart from the ‘mainstream’. The mainstream in 2020 being the hoards of Topshop skinny jeans, puffer coats and short, back and side haircuts, the packs of Love Island wannabe’s, the dare I say it – basic bitches.

Could the very emulation of past subcultures, be a new subculture in itself? For surely, this goes beyond a visual aesthetic and reflects an attitude; a general disdain for Boho, a self-proclaimed superior intellect, a chain-smoking habit and a knowledge of particular clubs, music and shops. To dress against the mainstream still packs a symbolic punch. The young man on the 142 bus certainly felt curious eyes upon him, and whilst admittedly, he didn’t fully comprehend the history of the subculture he had emulated, the feeling of standing apart from the crowd is, just as it was back then, the thing he truly relished.



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