A Reflection on Style & Subcultural Expression

Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style raises many thoughtful ideas and ways of looking at style within culture and moments of time. Hebdige’s articulation of subculture through the lens of punk and British subcultures (i.e., mods, skinheads, teddy boys, punks, reggae, beats, and rasta) reveals the complex “nature” that subcultures form out of. Generally, subcultures are forms of resistance and style is essential to the expression of this resistance. As I was reading, one film popped into my mind that illustrates subculture style and interaction: Horace Ove’s Pressure (1976). This film is about the intersection of race, ethnicity, diaspora, generations, socioeconomic status as different sites of style and expression through occupation, clothing, hairstyle, eating habits, music, romantic/sexual partners, and dance within one family of Afro-Caribbean immigrants living in Notting Hill (i.e., reggae is juxtaposed with British rock).

Like the expression of style, the expression of gender can also be understood in terms of subcultural practices. For instance, Hebdige uses the theory of bricolage to discuss the way that commodities are assembled to create subculture styles. This term is also used in relation to gender because gender can be understood as a practice of expression (and a social construct). As a woman, I am subject to specific scripts and fixed meanings which are complicated by socioeconomic characteristics, race, ethnicity, sexuality, geographical location, language, body image, and the list can go on. Given Hebdige’s argument, adopting practices that subvert intended meanings (and that are socially relevant) to create a style can be recognized as a form of resistance to a fixed meaning. One example is punks’ use of make-up: “contrary to the advice of every woman’s magazine, make-up for both boys and girls was worn to be seen. Faces became abstract portraits: sharply observed and meticulously executed studies in alienation.”

Because women are marginalized and repressed in so many ways, resistance to the myths and meanings of mainstream culture is essential for progress to escape out of the dominant script. However, one frustrating aspect that subcultures must face is the commodification of style which subverts the intended resistance by engulfing a subculture into a consumerist script. For example, you can go into a fast fashion store and buy a “punk” t-shirt (completely removed from its original meaning) because it is part of popular culture now thanks to commodification. Knowing the ideology and resistance that the punk subculture formed out of gives the “punk” t-shirt a different meaning and seeing it within that context is disconcerting. This is an ongoing, contemporary struggle that activists must continue to navigate and change in an attempt to evade the commodification of expression. With this view, fluidity and transformation are beneficial to the vitality of the resistance that subcultures can create. Given this model, it would be interesting to explore FemTech in terms of style, subculture, and resistance because it is still an emerging form and not easily defined (which could even be a form of resistance in itself).

Subculture: The Meaning of Style is a compelling and empowering theoretical foundation for looking at subcultures, expression, commodification, making meaning, and making noise.

 

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