To maintain its relevance and desire, fashion’s survival needs to be with, and even ahead of, style and culture. To use that most hyperbolic of terms, it must be forever sharpened and wielded at the ‘cutting edge’. But in recent years, arguably since most of us logged on to the Internet and gained instant access to the latest styles and the cultures that birthed them, the cutting edge has become duller and duller as some of the exclusivities of haute couture and subculture dissolved.
Depending on your carbon dating of subculture – the hooligans of late 1800s England or the hot-rodders of 1950s America – youth groups throughout modern history have been defining themselves in opposition to a so-called mainstream by striving to be oxymoronically unfashionable. For them, transgressive, disheveled, apathetic or just plain grungy styles or anti-fashions have been an instant way to communicate values, behaviors and meanings that sit far to the left or right of the Ralph Lauren equestrian blazer crowd.
Inevitably, however, the styles of subcultures are co-opted or adopted for wear and sale by the very mainstream that young, culturally creative rebels sought to distinguish themselves from in the first place: those James Dean jeans are now acceptable office wear; the Doc Martens of bad-boy Brit skinheads are now for sale on shoe shelves everywhere, right next to Crocs; and the mohawks that punk rockers used to scare the shit out of old ladies in the late 1970s have been neatly trimmed down to fit on the heads of teen idols everywhere.
Back in the day, Plato observed that truth does not reside in what we simply see. Like most of his favorite topics and like the many other philosophers who sought to identify the true qualities of objects, he was correct. The idea that clothes make the man or that platform shoes with a 6-inch heel establish unassailable sexiness is nonsense. They don’t. We only think they do.
Culture bridges the distance between style and consumption. More specifically, style – the information we send out by wearing clothes – is an arbitrary agreement made by the social majority to see things as filled with meaning. This importance and meaning is supported only by convention, what Roland Barthes would have called a mythology. People see such signs as stylish, fashionable or valuable only because, as parts of symbolic language, we have decided this is what they are supposed to tell us. If we all woke up tomorrow with collective amnesia, having forgotten this social agreement, these things would have no meaning.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” These lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It illustrate Erving Goffman’s sociological theory of dramaturgy – that social identity is created as it is performed both to our selves and to others. Using the theatre as a metaphor to analyze social interactions, he described people as actors playing roles on stages of everyday life: back stage, where performances like getting dressed in the morning occur privately; and front stage, where rocking Louboutins on the street is a public statement. As symbolic enactments through which our experiences are ordered and we represent who we are, all action is meaningful social expression and all spaces, places and objects help make that meaning. In these performances, our preferred products and brands function as props that communicate cultural narratives of identity. For Goffman, we make the most of our performances and props to control or guide the impression that other people will have of us.
Adapted from an article by Idris Mootee and Paul
Hartley in the upcoming Dec isseu of MISC the STYLE issue available in bookstores in 28 countries or ipad edition.