Subculture and Style

Fashion can be used to articulate difference and dissent. It can give a voice to a collective or people on the fringe of society.

Fashion is the system of production, dissemination and consumption of clothing and its inherent influences and meanings which change with time, social needs, technology and place.

Fashion can be used to articulate difference and dissent. It can give a voice to a collective or people on the fringe of society. This is most evident among youth subcultures. Subcultures have a shared group identity based on the consumption of music and fashion. They have their own philosophy and social codes, and their allegiance to this group is signified through ‘style’.

One of the first academics to study youth culture was Dick Hebdige, a sociologist based at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, which produced innovative research in late 70s and 80s. Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style looks at the styles worn by British subcultures like Teddy Boys, Mods, punks and skinheads. He argues that everyday objects can be turned via a series of ‘spectacular transformations’ and made to signify as ‘style’.

The most notorious British subculture was punk, which we can use as a case study. Punk emerged in the late 70s in response to the economic recession of the period. Revolving around groups like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, punk was defiantly working class, anarchic and aggressive: one of the Pistols’ first hits was called Anarchy in the UK.

Roger Sabin’s definition of punk is helpful:

Thus at a very basic level, we can say that punk was/is a subculture best characterised as being part youth rebellion, part artistic statement. It had its high point from 1976 to 1979, and was most visible in Britain and America. It had its primary manifestation in music - and specifically in the disaffected rock and roll of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Philosophically, it had no 'set agenda' like the hippy movement that preceded it, but nevertheless stood for identifiable attitudes, among them: an emphasis on negationism (rather than nihilism); a consciousness of class-based politics (with a stress on 'working-class credibility'); and a belief in spontaneity and 'doing it yourself’. (Sabin, p3)

Sabin continues:

If we accept that one of the key defining elements of punk was an emphasis on class politics, then it could only have begun at one time and in one place – Britain in the late 1970s. For example, if we think of punk as an explosion caused by the bringing together of various unstable elements, then the UK's economic recession during this period can be seen as the catalyst. (Sabin, p3)

Punk had a DIY ethos. Punks cut their own hair and augmented their bodies with piercings. This is an infamous feature from the punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue. It sets out three chords, then says ‘now form a band’. Punk is not about ability, it’s about attitude.

Punk was nihilistic and anti-establishment. Its acolytes reacted against the monarchy and traditional notions of Britishness. The Sex Pistols created a parody of the British national anthem God Save the Queen. They ripped it apart by using an aggressive musical style and turned it into a protest about modern Britain.

Please see my article on the Skinhead subculture:


Gelder, Ken (2007) Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. London: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart (1993) Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. London: Routledge.

Hebdige, Dick (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.

McKay, George (1996) Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso.

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Kimberley Heit
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Posted on Mar 3, 2012