Once upon a time, Punks were Punks and Skaters were Skaters. In 2023, Ciarán Howley argues that style subcultures could not be less clear cut.
Thinking about the word ‘subculture’, there are a few images that immediately spring to mind. There is one in particular however and that’s Vivienne Westwood with Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols, clad in leather gear adorned in all kinds of prickly spikes, safety pins and chains.
This was of course punk, one of the first political movements associated with style - a look that was indeed pioneered by Westwood, who sadly passed away late last year. The fashion icon created the uniform for “anarchy in the U.K”, which became widely adopted by the public and remains a point of reference for contemporary designers today.
As a subculture, its tenure is easily defined. While punk in New York differed greatly from punk in the U.K., its impact as a subculture is said to be from the mid 1970s to roughly 1978, when punk was thought to have become too mainstream. Sid Vicious’ gruesome death the following year ultimately sounded the death knell for the short-lived resistance.
Every time there’s a slight vibe shift or the buzz of something new in the air, you can bet there’s a denizen of TikTokers hoping to adopt it as an aesthetic in some way and shove “core” on the end.
Now, if you can name a “subculture” from the late 2010s to the 2020s that has a clear origin, high point and resolution like those of the 20th century, you’re lying. That’s not to say counter-cultures can be mapped nice and neatly on a timeline - many are global and can have totally different inroads and cultural importance. But subcultures like goth, emo, hip-hop, grunge and punk feel real unlike the apparent ones that are occupying TikTok feeds today. From “cottage-core” to “clean-girl” and “Witch-Tok” to “bloke-core”, these are just some of the Internet subcultures that have made headlines for being just ever-so slightly preposterous. It’s debatable if they’re even really “subcultures” in and of themselves.
Time Out: what is a subculture? The Cambridge Dictionary defines a subculture as “the way of life, customs, and ideas of a particular group of people within a society that are different from the rest of that society.” New York’s Drag Ball scene, beginning in the 1920’s and continuing to the present day, is defined as a subculture by being a Queer space that celebrates free expression of gender in opposition to societal norms.
Save for streetwear’s takeover of fashion in the 2010s, when was the last time that we had a fashion movement? Something that manages to straddle the line of representing an identifiable movement hell-bent on social change while dominating catwalks around the world?
Basically, for a subculture to actually be a subculture you need to be telling someone - usually a wealthy bourgeois - to shove their antiquated values where the sun doesn't shine. Punk in Britain was a visceral reaction to austerity by the working class but its look would later be adopted into the mainstream. The divide between the aesthetic and the subculture is the people and their belief systems but among Gen-Z that barrier is far more opaque. We’re more online than we’ve ever been and living in an isolating state of a hyperreality, where everything feels like a copy.
And that’s exactly how these micro-cultures feel. Every time there’s a slight vibe shift or the buzz of something new in the air, you can bet there’s a denizen of TikTokers hoping to adopt it as an aesthetic in some way and shove “core” on the end. But ultimately, there isn’t anything new behind it. “Pearl-Core”, the subculture dedicated to Ti West’s horror slasher starring Mia Goth, is ultimately just an extension of the “ballet-core / Coquette” trends. Can a trend that promotes hyper-passivity in women with a core fixation on thinness really be dubbed a movement?
Even high fashion seems to be at a loss. Over the years, there have been some incredible moments of counter-cultural infiltration on the catwalk. Think Marc Jacobs’ scandalous grunge-inspired debut for heritage sportswear brand Perry Ellis. Jacobs brought the look and identity of grunge to high fashion because he wanted to portray what people were actually wearing. Mary Quant’s shows in the 1960s were well-known for their affront to the quiet displays of luxury fashion, with models dancing on the runway to the tune of the new sexual revolution. One model even brought a dead carcass with them, for good measure Belgian designer Martin Margiela’s Spring/Summer 1989 collection brought the fashion press to a derelict playground in the unfashionable fourth arrondissement of Paris. He even invited local kids and their families to watch the show alongside them.
Save for streetwear’s takeover of fashion in the 2010s, when was the last time that we had a fashion movement? Something that manages to straddle the line of representing an identifiable movement hell-bent on social change while dominating catwalks around the world. While global domination isn’t the point of a subculture, the proliferation of fragmented and hyper-niche ‘cores’ has led us all further into extreme individualism. I write this having just skimmed a ScreenShot article that predicted “Baked Beans” and “Hard-Boiled Egg” girls as the next frontier in 2023.
If there’s but one subculture of sorts that’s managed to survive the ‘core’ stage and has a political consciousness at heart, it’s that of the Vintage Vanguards. While second-hand shopping was once a cheap way to shop if you couldn’t afford to buy new clothing, it’s grown into something far bigger. Staggering statistics have indicted fast fashion as a massive pollutant and growing awareness about it have sent the ecologically minded in droves to vintage shops. It’s become a lifestyle - and a considerable enterprise. LOOT, Siopaella and Collected Treasure are among some of Dublin’s most successful second-hand businesses, while the charity shops on Camden Street and George’s St are packed full of sartorial scavengers week-in and week-out.
If you can look past the outlandishness of our TikTok’s feed revolving door of “cores”, then perhaps environmentally-minded consumers are something to be proud of. But it doesn’t make up for the lack of interesting ideas in style and fashion. I’m a firm believer that culturally across the board, we’re in a bit of a vertically integrated rut. Jacques Derrida’s idea of the simulacra seems well and truly enacted and everything feels like a copy of or a reference to something else. There is nothing new under the sun.
But as history will tell, something new will come along - and hopefully it blows our tiny minds.