Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Subcultural Power

by Emily Kearns


Dick Hebdige “Style”
Dick Hebdige is a British media theorist and sociologist who is most well known for his studies of subcultures. He wrote a book on the subject called Subculture: The Meaning of Style, which was published in 1979. He is currently a professor of film, media studies, and art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. These excerpts of Hebdige’s writings were written in 1979.

In this selection, Hebdige looks at style and subcultures, specifically the style of punks. He begins broadly, by defining the meaning of style in relation to subcultures. Subcultural style is very intentional and thought out. Additionally, members of subcultures dress themselves in a way that sends a message. Their ensembles are “obviously fabricated,” “display their own codes,” and “go against the grain of mainstream culture.” The goal of the style of subcultures is to communicate a difference and a group identity.


Next, Hebdige looks at “Style as bricolage” and begins the section by noting that, aside from the fact that many members of subculture are working class, they are also “cultures of conspicuous consumption.” To further explain this idea he illustrates the concept of bricolage and offers the following definition of the term: “the means by which the non-literate, non-technical mind of so-called primitive man responds to the world around him” (258). Bricoleurs change and subvert the meanings of signs that normally have a certain meaning.

Sex Pistols

In the next excerpt, Hebdige closely focuses on the punk subculture. The punks chose ordinary objects and made them a part of their style, giving these objects new meaning in the process. For example, they removed safety pins from their context as useful and utility and chose to wear them instead as facial ornaments through the cheeks or lips. The main goal of the punks was to go against convention and to make a statement. Both men and women wore makeup, contrary to standard practice, and parts of school uniforms were “symbolically defiled” (260).

Vivienne Westwood

Hebdige also explains how the punk subculture went beyond just clothing and wardrobe. It went against every “relevant discourse” at the time (260). The dancing style of the punks was deliberately different from every other relevant style. Dances like the robot were popular among the subculture because they were very far from mainstream dance moves. They were a reaction to what was mainstream and popular at the time. Similarly, punk music was very different from typical pop and rock music at the time.


In the last section, the author examines how although the punk culture signified chaos, it was actually extremely orderly. He explains this paradox with the concept of homology and uses the skinhead subculture as an example. Finally, he talks about the significance of the swastika as a symbol in the punk subculture. Punks did not wear the symbol because they necessarily agreed with the beliefs behind the symbol. They wore it because as one punk said, “punks just like to be hated.”

Appropriation is the gesture of taking an object and reusing it, as in the swastika or safety pin. Homology is when a group appropriates and makes sense of those aspects as one group, such skinheads who repeat the style among one another and in then end look conforming. We have also seen that almost all previously rebellious signs have lost potency and are used freely among youth and alternative subcultures in mass.

Sophie Woodward “The Myth of Street Style”
Sophie Woodward is currently a research fellow and lecturer at Nottingham Trent University in the School of Art and Design. She is also a faculty member in the sociology department at the University of Manchester. Woodward’s research interests include feminist theory, material culture, fashion and consumption. Her article “The Myth of Street Style” was published in Fashion Theory in March 2009.

In her article “The Myth of Street Style,” Woodward examines the mythologization of street style and the relationship between street style and many parts of fashion industry, including fashion magazines and high street retailers. Through her research, she explains the myth of street style, its emergence, and examines the relationship between the myth of street style and actual street style. She begins her article by talking about Andrew Hill, who wanders around the streets of London and observes what people are wearing. He expects to find people in quirky outfits that express their individualism. However, he finds that's people dress “boringly” (84). This anecdote sets the framework for Woodward’s further investigation into street style. The “quirkiness and sartorial expressiveness” that Hill expected to find are major elements of the myth of street style (84).


The article is based on Fashionmap, which is a research project at Nottingham Trent University. The study is based on two key components: the documentation of fashions and styles at high street stores and photographs of people taken on the streets or in bars. These photographs were collected over a four year period in Nottingham, England and tend to feature young people between the ages of 18-26. By comparing these photographs, researchers can determine any “common trends” and “potential areas of innovation” (86).


Next, the author explains the origins of the myth of street style. It began in the 1940s with Polhemus’ observation of defined style groupings, starting with the “Zooties” in Harlem. Groups like this, as well as other subcultures like punks, dressed as “a reaction against established mainstream fashion design” (87). Although these distinct style groupings are less present today, they are still an important part of the history of street style in that being “alternative” is a major element of street style. In Woodward’s research project, nearly 78% of the people interviewed pointed out that part of their outfit was from an “alternative source” such as a second-hand store.

Terry Jones created street photos for i-D magazine and later Fruits magazine developed in Japan

Woodward also explains how the idea of street style trickles down into the mainstream, thus becoming “sanitized” (88). She gives the example of the magazines The Face and i-D, which claimed to offer authenticity, but photograph ordinary people. The styling of these shoots soon appeared in mainstream fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle. However, in these magazines the styles appeared on models wearing a “fantasized imitation of The Real Thing” (88). The depiction of street style in magazines has continued to evolve and today the street style pages feature images of people on the street. She then introduces the idea that current street style is paradoxical, as it claims to show something other than the mainstream, but it features people wearing lots of garments from high street stores.

The high street stores play an important role in street style according to Woodward. These stores, like Zara, Topshop, and H&M, are particularly present in the UK. They are able to provide their customers with constantly changing goods as opposed to “predetermined seasonal collections” (90). This has led to the term “fast fashion.” Although there is a rapid turnover in stock at these stores, Woodward’s research shows that the styles change subtly over time and some styles keep reappearing. In high street store windows and in fashion magazines, fashion is presented to consumers as looks and every season there are distinct new trends. However, if trends in fashion are considered through what people actually wear, then it is evident that these shifts occur much more gradually. This is a result of people buying new pieces but then appropriating them into their current wardrobe. In summary, Woodward argues that although fashion is supposedly faster than ever, fashions actually evolve very gradually, so perhaps “fast fashion” is not an appropriate term.


The fashion industry absorbs styles and street style has been used as a basis for editorials and campaigns above model Agnes Dyne and below Juergen Teller


Woodward then focuses on observations made at a bar in Nottingham. All of the people at this bar have a very clear “look.” These looks are identifiable at this particular bar, which is less mainstream than many others. Although the people at this bar are more alternative, Woodward notices that many of the women are wearing items that were from high street stores, carefully mixed with clothing from vintage or alternative sources. She reaches the conclusion that many people dislike high street stores in theory because the clothes are mass-produced, not because they dislike the styles of the clothing.

Therefore, an important element of street style is where specific elements of an outfit are sourced from and how they are combined with other articles of clothing. Many of the people interviewed for the research project expressed a desire to appear “different.” As a result of the street style pages in magazines, the current idea of street style is “now characterized by the ordinary person that manages to set themselves slightly apart” (92). Young people then internalize this idea and, even if their outfit is from the high street, talk about their love of vintage clothing and the importance of wearing secondhand items with high street items.

In her conclusion, Woodward summarizes the article by arguing that street style should not be looked at as those possessing “quirky individuality,” but as “the intersection of different arenas” of fashion (99). She ends by noting that, despite the omnipresence of the term fast fashion, the rate of change in fashion today is really no faster than it was in past centuries.

The images above and below are from Scott Schuman’s street style blog The Sartorialist. While Schuman is known for shooting people on the streets, these images were styled and shot specifically to appear in a magazine editorial (British Elle 2007). According to Woodward, editorials like this further propagate the “myth of street style.”


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