The Kids Are Alright: Collaging The Past
Subcultures are the projects of youth. In the last century, young people have become responsible for turning innovation into trend, eccentricity into normality, and obscurity into culture. We’ve learned how to be shameless in our tastes—made popular styles as dull as the mop top and as inefficient as sagging pants. We’ve exposed talent via avant-garde dress in everyone from Peggy Moffitt to Lady Gaga. We’ve given rise to the meta-trend: recycling fads is a fad in itself. No matter its origin, though, no matter, even, how gauche it can get, fashion remains our most indomitable indication of the times. We’ve built ourselves a history out of clothing. Here, The WILD looks back.
In the early 1950s, the city dwellers and the country folk met half way for the greatest collaboration the two of us have ever managed: Rockabilly. A portmanteau of rock ’n roll and hillbilly, the subgenre found a following with Carl Perkins, the son of a sharecropper. In Jackson, Tennessee, The Perkins Brothers Band made famous the jive-infused country sound that would become the bedrock of The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley. With it, television pulled the world in closer. The pinup girl craze began, pomade-hardened hair became sexy, and Marilyn Monroe, all tragic romance with her low lids, was immortalized. Rockabilly was the beginning of well-defined subculture, the children beginning to sing—it’s doubtful the song will ever end.
In 1958, in East London, the sons of a tailor began dressing like the Europeans. They wore Italian suits with narrow lapels, dangerously pointy winklepicker boots, and a clean, combed head of hair. They listened to modernist jazz. They were the first of their kind: The Mods—love children of the Beats and the Teddys. Over the next decade meticulous dress and a cool, vaguely narcissistic temper presided over the young. The movement hit cult status in 1960, giving way to a generation defined by Vespa scooters, Twiggy, amphetamines, and The Beatles. Most importantly, though, progressivism took root: college became common, women more autonomous, and the well-dressed man no longer taboo.
Upon a distorted sound, bodily modification, and an anti-establishment mentality, Punk spread like a rash in the mid 70s. Spearheaded by the Ramones and Patti Smith, Sex Pistols and The Clash, the movement was a rebirth in rock ’n roll—a message to the Bruce Springsteens and Billy Joels of the country. They spiked their hair and tore their clothing, screamed their lyrics and moshed. In opposition to Ford, Nixon, and Thatcher, the youth—strung together by safety pins—united under anarchic liberalism. They were in protest of everything racist, capitalist, sexist, homophobic, and nationalist: a utopian disposition dressed in sinister clothing.
The New Romantics of the late 70s and early 80s introduced us to synth pop, and with it a new form of dress: androgyny. Boy George lead the movement in England alongside Duran Duran and Visage, infusing the U.K. with a gentle and very fashionable climate. When it hit the U.S., Ziggy Stardust appeared as the mascot for boys who wore eye liner and girls who donned suits. The Cabaret aesthetic, for a quick minute, made a comeback and Molly Ringwald (also for a quick minute) was the teen heartthrob. Between the rage of punk and the hysteria of the 80s, New Romanticism was youth taking a breather.
In tandem with the dawn of cell phones and PCs, the digitalism of Rave culture emerged. Padded shoulders had given way to baby doll dresses and it was Halloween all year long at strobe-lit parties across America and the U.K. The World Wide Web began to find its footing and, much to parents’ chagrin, AOL disrupted nearly every phone line across the country. Strung out on bass and ecstasy, we came to immortalize the DJ over the rock star, ushering in the era of Carl Cox, Fatboy Slim, and Paul Oakenfold. Quite successfully, we turned the decade into a dance floor. A jolt of acid house and techno reigned over the yuppiedom of the Clinton Administration, where the biggest issue, it seemed, was a creamy white residue on a cinched blue dress.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Such is the mantra of today’s youth. Gen Y has pulled, like pages from a book, the favored qualities of our predecessors. Against the futuristic landscape of the 00s, we’ve made them our own. We listen to indie-electronica on vinyl and pair 50s dresses with postmodern platforms. Oblong glasses are as ubiquitous as iPhones; plaid flannels returned in time for the organic revolution. The most defining feature of this generation though, is the possibility we’re afforded. The Internet has provided each of us the ability to put our own personal stamp on culture. But, really, there’s no other way to approach it—a new viral video arises faster than we could possibly watch them all. So we pick and choose our interests, find the likeminded, and make subsections out of our subcultures. Perhaps this marks the source of our nostalgia: inundated by options, we learn from the cool that came before us.