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?