I’m all for any subculture that endorses looking like a twat. Bear with me now, I need to clarify this: there’s a special kind of magical power—a Patronus shield, if you will—that hangs around people who don’t take themselves too seriously. If Harry was protected from life’s hardest knocks by the residue of his mother’s love, these characters are touched with the charm of lols. Basically, I really really don’t think you can underestimate the importance of taking the piss of yourself.
Gangs of die-hard goths, fervent emos and whole swathes of particularly cultish scene kids would probably lynch me with a well-aimed doc, tie me up with an MCR band tee and then glare at me really angrily through their prescription-less thick-rimmed glasses for the next statement. But I think all these subcultures, any badge of belonging defined by a particular look should be a bit about taking the piss of yourself. Right? Maybe. Just a little bit.
Surely though, I hear you cry with my bat-like ears, it’s beyond flippant to dismiss these visible identities as nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek send-up? Clearly the people who tout these badges of belonging identify themselves strongly with them, often with all the zeal of a religious believer. Well, grab a pen and paper cos what we’re about to delve into here is the ole gnarly fashion/feminism equation in a really roundabout way, via neon, subcultures and twattery. It’s gonna be a huge headfuck. Because I know the two are uneasy bedfellows, but I reason it must be possible to dress yourself, and still believe in gender equality… right? Of course right.
We all know from the age of 5 upwards that appearances can be deceiving and it’s usually worth looking beneath the surface. Take Rihanna for example. On the surface, she’s a loud-mouthed diva who’s often seen with a ‘suspicious cigarette’ in hand and the word cunt on a necklace. Yet look a little closer and you’ll see a deep thinker who uses her lyrics to deal sensitively with issues like Alzheimers (‘oh nana, what’s my name?’). But what of those people who use their surface to project the fact that they reject a surface level value system? It’s seems as if, counter-intuitively, despite rejecting these superficial values and visibly defining yourself apart from them, you can become all surface, just by making your surface so shouty.
But at its best, subculture fashion is a joyful expression of an image that isn’t necessarily directly linked to making yourself sexually attractive, affirming that all it is is an image to have fun with, apart from the real substance of the person wearing it. It’s not to say that these groups make themselves look funny for a laugh, but more that part of the power of these identities is in their revelling in an image that’s apart from conventional standards of beauty. And in a funny kind of way that’s exactly what high fashion, when it’s done well, achieves. For all that it has become fetishistic in its own way, the body type that—rightly or wrongly (and obviously, it’s wrongly)—is enforced by the fashion industry is really about making the body the least significant thing about the spectacle. It needs to fade into the background in favour of the clothes adorning it: a literal, asexual clothes hanger. It’s not about flaunting or even really about the body that’s inside the clothes at all; high fashion aspires to something otherworldly and incorporeal.
It’s no coincidence that it’s usually adolescents who adopt subculture fashion. In the middle of an intensely transitional phase, some growing-up rites of passage are best experienced in a park, in neon jeans, with a shitload of glitter on your face, and not in a slick bodycon in Mahiki with a 39-year-old rubbing their boner into your back. I know that I simply wasn’t equipped for that kind of carry-on. A friend and I were recently reminiscing about those heady days of Sharpie-customised plimsolls, poppers and Panic at the Disco lyrics, and lamenting how 15 year olds now are all identikit Topshop models in teeny tiny crop tops, all totally un-embarassing and Vogue-ready. So far, so clichéd. But I do think there’s something genuinely quite sad about this. I mean come on, kids, why so serious? (Now say this with a Joker grin and watch them scatter). You’re too young to be taking yourself so seriously. Hell, we’re all of us too young for that- death is soon. There’s quite literally not enough time to have a stick up your arse; the chafing alone is going to seriously eat into your dancing on tables time.
Back in’t day, in the misty distant years of 2006-2007, I was a little nu-raver. I spent most of the years I was 15 and 16 swathed in t-shirts with lego stitched onto them, improbable neon attire and a decent covering of glitter face paint, topped off with a hairstyle I’d haphazardly cut myself and backcombed to Russell Brand-worthy heights. I faced a newly adult world armed with mostly defunct technology as jewellery (hi cassette, hey Gameboy), and I may well have enough embarrassing photographic evidence for a lifetime of blackmail. This was me. I thought I looked pretty rad:
But despite buying into it all, I never lost the acute self-awareness of my style’s silliness. I had a hella fun but I certainly wasn’t dressing with anyone else’s delectation, or even the idea of making myself attractive, in mind. I’d basically made myself into a caricature, a giant colourful crayon scribble. And the thing about being a scribbled abstract crayon drawing instead of a sumptuous realistic oil painting is that it makes people look for the hidden meaning beneath the surface, instead of being absorbed in the beauty of a totemic surface image. By focusing on the clothes and colour, and not on the body parts they cover, the surface can become just an arbitrary external canvas to express yourself through, and ultimately to have fun with. Maybe the caricature-like elements of subculture style can depoliticize fashion, and rescue it from the claws of The Media/The Patriarchy/The Man. It’s fine to have zeal, but lose sight of the humour, forget the value of taking the piss, and you risk becoming religious, an authoritarian purveyor of rules just like the ones your leather and tongue piercing was supposed to be up yours-ing. And that, fashion friends, is no way to stick it to the man.