the economics of style – youth culture patterns

The original youth street style was all about poor kids dressing up rich. This observation, while watching this show, got me thinking about modern street style, and how it has flipped- rich kids dressing up poor. I was impressed by the pride that the Teds who were interviewed demonstrated, and how the modern attitude of hipsters is such a striking polarity – denial and distancing. It got me thinking about the relationships between money, youth culture, attitudes and perception. Is there a pattern here?

Like all fashions, youth tribes tend to fluctuate between rebellion and affirmation. Let’s take a look.

Rebellion – the Teds. Poor kids dressing up rich.

Teds were working class, blue collar workers, but on the weekend they cleaned up good, dressing inspired by the wealthy leisure class of the Edwardian era. Teds were, and are, proud. The style statement was upwardly mobile – they dressed to show that they were just as good as the upper classes.

Affirmation – the Mods. Rich kids dressing up rich.

Mods were proudly middle class. They didn’t want to just dress up on the weekend – they wanted, and got, the kind of jobs that allowed them to dress well every day. Mods have a lot of pride, reflecting how satisfying it must have been to achieve middle-class comforts unknown to any previous generation. That said, they provoked a lot of antipathy from other contemporary tribes, probably because taking pride in privilege is invariably perceived as snobbish.

Rebellion – the Hippies. Rich kids dressing up poor.

Hippies weren’t proud to be privileged. Even though they owed their considerable leisure, education, and liberty to the military industrial complex, they actively rebelled against their parents. Besides some major parties, they did have a major role in popularizing social justice, racial equality and sexual freedom. None of the other style tribes could claim credit for playing any kind of role in real political change.

That said, most people who look, act, and talk like hippies reject the label rather than taking pride in it, and the modern perception of hippies tends to be dismissive. I think this relates to “nostalgie de la boue”. This refers to when rich people romanticize poverty, for instance when Marie Antoinette and her ladies and waiting would dress up as milkmaids for fun and pretend to milk cows. Nostalgie de la boue provokes lingering distaste because it tends to be condescending and contrived. No matter what, rich dressing up as poor is disingenuous, and the result is that members of the tribes in this quadrant tend towards distancing and denial of their own membership.

Affirmation – the Punks. Poor kids dressing up poor.

Of all the tribes, punk strikes me as having the fiercest kind of pride, which makes sense because their style statement is an elaborate affirmation of authenticity – they embraced rejection, creating embellishment out of trash. These contradictions makes them an outlier on my axis diagram.

Affirmation – the Casuals. Rich kids dressing up rich.

Casuals were, like the Mods, proudly middle-class. The difference was a focus on sport and leisure rather than white collar work. Casuals take the hit from fashion circles for popularizing workout clothes as street wear and leading logo fetishization. Despite that, they display genuine pride – and share with the Mods an external perception of snobbishness.

Rebellion – the Chavs. Poor kids dressing up rich.

Chavs are essentially a further development of Casuals but without the money. From the outside they are almost universally mocked as the style statement is a tasteless exaggeration of the already borderline Casual ethos. Yet, they are essentially the last of the indigenous British style tribes, a modern iteration of the Teds, but without the redeeming factor of labour.

Rebellion – the Hipsters. Rich kids dressing up poor.

Modern youth suffers, if you can call it that, from an excess of advantage. When I walk through my gentrified neighbourhood in East London, there are upscale shops like Labour and Wait that sell tools and household cleaning items presented like precious objects, and the streets are full of boys wearing slightly too artfully paint-splattered jeans and un-scuffed work boots holding iPhones in their soft, un-calloused hands.

Nostalgie de la boue: we fetishize “functional” work because our own so-called work is so ephemeral and indulgent. Hipsters fixate on the trappings of manual labour with the same fervour that the Teds romanticized the clothing of a lost leisure class.

Hipsterism is fascinating to study and comment on for a lot of reasons. The self-loathing quality of it is quite striking. So much of its rebellion is turned on itself – a tangled Ouroboros of reactionary impulses that others have discussed at length. For the purposes of this post, I’ll limit the commentary to this: hipsters are hyper-aware that they are disingenuous brats, and unlike their counterparts the hippies, they have no redemptive qualities.

I say this as someone who admits to harbouring more than a few hipster traits. I have a blog and an indefinite 21st century job description, and sometimes I catch myself describing what I do in unnecessarily self-deprecating language.

So, is there a pattern? So much modern style movements reflect attitudes towards social mobility – but somehow, social mobility itself somehow still suffers from a weirdly feudal bias, like we’ve never been able to shake the birthright business. Rich>Poor and even Poor>Rich still have inauthenticity problems to this day.

Rich Dressing Up Poor suffer from the most complicated psychological contortions. Because they’re both highly educated and downwardly socially mobile – it doesn’t make a lot of sense relative to history, which is what makes the phenomenon so interesting.

Modern style tribes, Hipsters and Chavs, suffer from strong disdain – I think what they both have in common is a lack of meaningful work combined with hyper-access to products and information. They are spoiled and it is not endearing, though I feel sympathy for both groups. Their (our) future is so complex and uncertain, I don’t want to begrudge them (us) whatever indulgence they (we) enjoy now.

Future style tribes will likely be a reaction to hipsterism, which on macro terms will be precipitated by an end to prosperity. I think the next iteration could be a modern counterpart to punk – the aesthetics of scarcity. Cynical, perhaps? Is it weird that I consider the possible emergence of a new style movement an upside of a major recession?

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25 thoughts on “the economics of style – youth culture patterns”

  1. The Sunday Times did a really interesting article on the arrival and absolute adoration of Jack Wills by the teenagers/college girls and boys of today. Try and find it in the archives, I reckon you’d enjoy it. That’s definitely another ‘clique’ or culture pattern of today – it’s rich kids dressing in the teen version of Polo Ralph Lauren.

  2. Lucy – I’d say that is rich dressing as rich, and it’s related to the American version of the casuals – preps. It makes sense that as a reaction to hipsterism/chavism, there would be a desire for a sense of class affirmation.

  3. Exactly, it’s really an interesting article – the whole Jack Wills thing has exploded in Britain recently which is why it’s similar to the preppy movement but also has a whole new connotation to it in terms of class and reactions. The article explains it in much more depth and is generally really interesting! 🙂

  4. Not having spent my formative years in the western hemisphere I was completely unaware of these style tribes that you speak of Danielle. I knew somewhat of the hippies, due to their widespread reach and contribution to lasting political and social reforms. But hipsters/ chavs……now that’s a totally unknown territory. So thank you, for this entertaining and highly educational post. 🙂

  5. This is a fantastic observation. I wasn’t aware of the older groups, but seeing how your compared all of them, creates this rhythm of acceptance vs rejection. Amazing. I’m posting this to my facebook. My friends would love to read this.

  6. Great article.

    I think the next/current trend is the rich and poor dressing rich, with the men adhering to traditionally male silhoute and women wearing hyper-feminine styles.

    Why? 1. Royal wedding 2. Want to pretend the good times are back.

  7. Wonderful post! That last sentence spurred my “two cents” reflex! As they say, “The future is NOW,” so let me introduce you to crust punx, or (a newer term) Oogles: … Here’s your aesthetic of scarcity! Apocalypse now, complete with gas masks! The term “crust” is in part a reference to the “crust” that weeks or months of not bathing leaves.

    This is the sort of “genre” I grew up semi-surrounded with which I feel is an extremely interesting and valid cultural phenomena. It has really exploded in popularity over the past 5 to 10 years, definitely in reaction (NOT opposition!!) to the “rise” of hipsterism, especially in aesthetic or fashion terms. An extremely rote, specific uniform has become the social norm within cliques of crust punx: Black, black, black, with printed patches representing certain bands or ideals, but most imperative is a patina of dirt, grease, and wear.

    Notice on the blog link comments mention that some pictured people “look clean” or are “secret rich kids” or “run aways.” Those are meant to disenfranchise those punx within their own scene- to call them out as posers. Permanent extreme body modifications such as hugely stretched earlobes nostril plugs or lip plates, “tribalistic” facial tattoos seem to “prove” a crust punk’s dedication to remaining true to “the life.”

    While the “scene” was once based on strong political stances (Rooted in extreme anti-society anarchism or far left wing stances, proscribed by music and DIY media tradition) within the “scene,” I feel that a lot of the political gravity has fallen away in favor of simply socially projecting the furthest lengths of “extreme” living, to the point of self-deletion… Long story short, I have found the evolution of these issues enthralling for exactly the same reasons i LOVE your post! And maybe it will shed some light on what’s inevitably to come…

  8. Another tidbit.. Fairly often these kids were raised amongst extreme privilege (Notice the homogeneous racial makeup of the pictured people) and are routinely acting out the same guilt that you (correctly IMO) define hippies by. It’s so common that rich parents wiring their punk kids money (And the lengths punk kids will go to to hide it) is mentioned in lyrics of multiple songs.

  9. I do not think rich kids dress down at all, as they are too busy either studying and pursuing careers with strict conformist office dress codes. The glib labels are incorrect in my opinion – for example “Affirmation – the Casuals. Rich kids dressing up rich” are working class youths in what is probably the east end of London. The photos appear to be all from the UK.

  10. Chavs are poor? I thought chavs were just trashy rich people (that wear Burberry + rap-star bling at the same time) that got rich from either selling drugs/ pimping/ some other kinda crime (like the Lock Stock etc movie) XD

  11. You’re way too generous to the punks. They were doing the hipster slumming thing before there were hipsters. I was a middle class punk. I embraced it because I felt rejected, but more honestly it’s because I was rejecting my lot in life. All the record collectors I knew in the 1980s had parents with nice houses.

    Yes, I knew poor punks, too. But I knew plenty of guys who would bum change to get into a punk rock show who damn well drove there in a car their parents had bought them.

    Gen X cuts punk rock way too much slack, and it’s mostly self-congratulation in my opinion.

  12. Hi Graeme –

    After reading “England’s Dreaming”, I’m inclined to agree with you. This post doesn’t accurately reflect my views at the moment, punk is a far more bourgeois phenomenon than I realized when I wrote this.

  13. Hi Danielle I realise this is like years old now, but you are way way off with your statement that the Casuals were proudly middle class. They were EXTREMELY working class, the vast majority of them were manual workers, and many of them petty criminals who went on to bigger (illegal) things. They were also football (or soccer) hooligans. The Casual trend largely began in the 80s by English football fans travelling to europe following their team, and stealing sportswear from italian and french shops, then wearing those clothes to the game at the weekend while beating the crap out of each other. Organised violence between rival supporters was very common, and a huge problem to the police and authorities. I knew many many Casuals at the time and none of them were anywhere near being middle class.

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