Fashion subcultures and youth identity

by The Dyás Admin

Fashion has been used to communicate and express identities by young people for decades - and define youth subcultures. Synthesising the requirements of the individual with the demands of society, fashion fits into the broader landscape of culture as a sort of connector between people and communities. In this article, we’ll take a look at what a youth subculture is, how they're studied, and what they tell us about how clothes can be used to create a sense of exclusivity and authenticity. 

To be clear, a group of people coming together does not necessarily constitute a subculture. Unlike a counterculture, a subculture is not wholly against the values and norms of the wider culture from which it emerges. A subculture is concerned with societal critiques, lifestyles, and the arts, and can be interpreted individually and collectively. Subcultures can be thought of as meaning-generating arenas, that negotiate between the actor's inner reality and wider dynamic patterns of socialisation. The concept of a subculture also provides a lot of sociological knowledge on the way humans interact when they are seen as cultural and symbolic. 

The study of youth culture is very much a study of the intersections of identity. Identities are inextricably linked to subcultures and utilise them as a way to generate “authenticity.” Many have defined subcultural identities as “resistance styles,” or styles that exist to make a statement and symbolise what a subculture stands for and represents. Those styles develop meanings themselves and become closely associated with the sense of belonging, or identity, one experiences in a subcultural setting. Furthermore, because these ideas are expressed unconsciously via something ever-present and visible (clothing on people’s bodies) they can touch all aspects of culture and do so visibly.

But they also mean something to the individual - and in that sense clothes communicate more than just whether a person is a member of a subculture. They communicate the elements that subcultures are composed of. Furthermore, subcultural identities draw upon various interpretations and reactions to various relevant events, situations, and periods in time. As a result, subcultural identities are neither singular nor static, because interpreting and expressing identities in response to an ever-changing world is a non-stop process. 

Then there’s also the matter that the young people, who tend to be the majority in these subcultures, are themselves changing and undergoing the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Some scholars have posited that clothing provides a mechanism for teenagers to develop and find themselves as childhood attachments begin to gradually fade but adult habits and responsibilities have yet to fully form. 

However, the specifics of why and how the activity of dressing is utilised as such a crucial form of self-expression, and how it should be discussed, is a hotly debated topic. Subcultural theory was established in the 1920s by sociology professors at the Chicago School, who were particularly interested in investigating the occurrence of deviant conduct. Beginning from the premise that deviation was a result of societal problems, these early analyses of youth subcultures viewed their existence as evidence of greater social ills. As such, little emphasis was placed on exploring these groups as creative movements. Instead, researchers focused on trying to understand what made subcultures attractive for youths. 

The Birmingham University Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) carried on in this tradition, and eventually pioneered the establishment of a distinct British cultural studies paradigm. The Birmingham School’s contribution to subcultural theory was analysing the impact of subcultures on the behaviours of individuals - though they continued to investigate subcultures as loci for deviant behaviours. 

Nowadays, some theorists have a “post-subculture approach” that places the individual before the subculture in their analysis. They reason that the subculture doesn’t define collective behaviour, and therefore the individual should be the starting point for any investigation of identity. However, many modern academics continue to investigate subcultures to learn the reasons why they arise, why individuals choose to be a part of them, and what subcultures might teach us about social structures.

That said, the focus of these studies tends to be on youth cultures of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s - and not just because academics prefer to focus on topics they can look at with some historical perspective. Mass media and the rise of fast fashion have limited the ability of young people to use their clothes as the tools of a cultural revolution. The ubiquity and accessibility of clothing have made it more difficult to make a statement with what you wear, and it is only becoming increasingly common for growing cultural movements to find themselves absorbed (and monetised) by mainstream institutions. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for young people to find themselves a cultural niche in the future - but they will have to get creative and that may mean breaking the power of the old guard.


By: Nuria Revuelta 



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