In a recent Guardian article, music journalist Alex Petridis set out to investigate the state of subcultures in 2014. He makes a valid and interesting point; that, to anyone on your average western high street, it would seem the extreme (at least visually) subcultures of the eighties, nineties, and noughties had all but died out.
The range of subcultures which have graced the malls, coffee shops, and cinemas for the last half century have almost all reached the point of extinction, and have been replaced by somewhat vague subcultures identified by the umbrella terms of ‘metalheads’ or ’emos’. Before the rise of the internet, it seems – as any good American Teen movie will show – that what you wore, listened to, and talked about defined you in a much deeper way than it does today. Subcultures now change so rapidly that’s it’s difficult for a group to form an identity before it’s adapted by the online cultures, warped and popularised.
In order to celebrate the oddities which used to roam our streets, we’ve decided to compile a brief history of some of the more exotic modes of self-expression from around the globe. This list dates from back as far as WWII all the way up to what passes as a subculture in the modern day.
10. Zoot Suiters (1940s)
Appearance: Suit trousers that hug the waist, bulge at the knee, and come back to a tight ankle. Suit jacket with arms reaching to the fingertips. Often accessorised with a knee length key chain and natty feathered fedora.
History: First appearing in Harlem in the late 1930s when the Zoot Suits were generally worn by young African Americans, the increasing popularity of these oddly shaped suits coincided with the dance crazes like the Jitterbug. During WWII the suits were deemed wasteful, and in LA in 1943 white servicemen and civilians started attacking the young Zoot Suit wearing Mexican-Americans in what would become known as the ‘Zoot Suit Riots’.
9. Teddy Girls (1950s)
Appearance: Female, Tailored jackets, broaches, rolled up jeans, pony tails, straw boater hats.
History: While most people know about the British post-war subculture of the Teddy Boys, few know about their female equivalents: the Teddy Girls, or Judies who began to populate the streets of London in the early 1950s. The style stems from that of the Edwardian Dandy, and quickly become closely tied to the rock and roll movement of the time. Though there are very few records of the female side of the counterculture, it’s been said they were notoriously sharp witted and capable of matching the male members of the gang in every way.
8. Skinheads (1960s)
Appearance: Closely cropped, skinny jeans, high boots. Often accessorised with braces, tattoos, and piercings.
History: The post-war economic boom meant that Britain’s young had a new found disposable income, and many of them chose to spend it on the Carnaby Street fashions popularised by soul groups and film stars. Despite the subculture’s reputation for racism and the hooliganism of the 70s the earliest form of the movement often included black members, and were influenced by the Jamaican rude boys.
7. Sapeurs (1970s)
Appearance: Eccentric, dandyish, three tone colours.
History: The Sapeurs have recently entered Western consciousness -via YouTube- in the latest Guinness Ad which features The Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo. The movement was founded back in the 1970s by men who ‘defy circumstance, and live life with joie de vivre’. The style’s roots lead back to the salons of Paris, and its followers were recognisable from a distance for the ostentatious eccentricity. A large portion of the subculture refused to dress in more than three colours at any given time.
6. Gothic Fashion (1980s)
Appearance: Pale complexion, black everything else. Sometimes modelled on Victorian or Elizabethan styles, and often with elements of Punk.
History: The Gothic scene is widely recognised as a part of the post-Punk subculture which emerged in the mid 1980s. The Goth movement, in its 80s incarnation, had close ties to fashion and sections of the music industry. Some followers of the trend did maintain links to the literary history of Gothicism, following authors like Edgar Allen Poe. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, the first single of the band Bauhaus, which was released in the summer of 1979 is often credited as the cause, or at least the popularisation of the Goth movement.
5. Sukeban (1980s)
Appearance: Young, female, vaguely threatening, Japanese gangs.
History: In the 80s the Japanese police described the members of this movement as ‘omens of downfall’, which must have made the young gang-members very happy. The school children were associated with shoplifting, drug-use, and general delinquency around the greater Tokyo area. The Sukeban were identified by their modified school uniforms, and ‘coloured socks’.
4. Lolitas (1980s)
Appearance: Knee length skirts, petticoats, knee high socks.
History: Japanese designers began producing styles which closely resembled that of the Lolitas as early as the 1970s, though the fashion was widely popularised before the early 1990s when it was spread by bands like Princess Princess. Some Lolitas claim that the movement was founded as a reaction against the growing sexualisation of the body, and isn’t intended to infantilise its members. The subculture has now split into a variety of offshoots including ‘Goth’, ‘Sweet’, and ‘Punk’.
3. Ganguro (1990s)
Appearance: Tanned, bleached blond hair, heavy eye makeup.
History: This subculture is mostly made up of young Japanese women, and emerged in the early 90s. A deep fake tan, often a shade of orange, is combined with bleached or silvered hair. The result of this is an appearance that directly contrasts the traditional Japanese conceptions of beauty which are pale white skin and black hair. The subculture has since been eclipsed by the more extreme but related styles of Yamanba and Manba, which feature glittery facial stickers, synthetic brightly coloured hair, and day-glo clothing.
2. Haul Girls (2010s)
Appearance: On screen, surrounded by recent purchases.
History: The posting of ‘Haul Videos’ on video sharing sites, particularly YouTube, began sometime in 2007, and has evolved into one of the larger internet phenomenons of this decade. By late 2010 almost 250,000 videos of girls showing off their newest acquisitions had been uploaded, making Karl Marx roll in his grave. This overtly materialistic subculture has spawned its own fashion-and-beauty industry celebrities, some of whom have been offered sponsorship deals and even editorial positions. Haul Videos have been described by their makers as ‘an art form’, which involve details of scripting and framing, though this has been disputed by some.
1. Seapunk (2010s)
Appearance: New Age, home made, poorly photoshopped, aqueous.
History: The term Seapunk was first used on twitter in 2011, though the real home to the subculture is Tumblr. Originally just a genre of music, the title now applies to an entire micro-aesthetic. Neon colours, geometric shapes, and a general 1990s Web 1.0 feel make up the bulk of the imagery associated with the movement. In the last few years it has begun to work its way into popular culture – much to the disdain of the original creators – and has been referenced by Azealia Banks (pictured above), and Rihanna in her SNL performance.
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