Bubble-Up Effects of Subculture Fashion
The notion that trends in fashion take part in a phenomenon known as the trickle down effect has long been recognised by fashion pundits. A process of social emulation of society’s upper echelons by the subordinates provides myriad incentives for perpetual and incessant changes in fashion through a sequence of novelty and imitation. Dior’s ‘New Look’ of 1947 consisted of creations that were only affordable to a minority of affluent women of the time. Fashion was governed by haute-couture designers and presented to the masses to aspire toward. However, this traditional prospective has been vigorously challenged by many throughout the fashion world. Revisionist observations have introduced a paradoxical argument that fashion trends have, on numerous occasions, inadvertently emerged from the more obscure spheres of society onto the glamorous catwalks of high-fashion designers.
These styles can originate from a range of unorthodox sources, from leather-jacketed punks and dramatic Goths, the teddy boys of the 1950s, to ethnic minority cultures from all edges of the globe. Styles that emerge from the bottom of the social hierarchy are increasingly bubbling up to become the status of high fashion. There has been significant concern over the implications of this so-called bubble-up effect, such as the ambiguity between the notions of flattering imitation and outright exploitation of subcultures and minority groups. Democratization and globalisation of fashion has contributed to the abrasion of the authenticity and original identity of street-style culture. The inadvertent massification of maverick ideas undermines the ‘street value’ of the fashions for the very people who originally created them.
The underlying definition of subculture, with regards to anthropology and sociology, is a group of people who differentiates from the larger prevailing culture surrounding them. Members of a subculture have their own shared values and conventions, tending to oppose mainstream culture, for example in fashion and music tastes. Gelder proposed several principal characteristics that subcultures portrayed in general: negative relations to work and class, association with their own territory, living in non-domestic habitats, profligate sense of stylistic exaggeration, and stubborn refusal of massification. Hebdige emphasised that the opposition by subcultures to conform to standard societal values has been slated as a negative trait, where in fact the misunderstood groups are only attempting to find their own identity and meaning. The divergence away from social normalcy has unsurprisingly proliferated new ideas and styles, and this can be distinctly observed through the existence of fashion diversity. Ethnicity, race, class and gender can be physical distinctions of subcultures. Furthermore, qualities which determine a subculture may be aesthetic, linguistic, sexual, political, religious, or a mixture of these factors.
Sigmund Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays investigated the drivers of social control and the engineering of consent. Their psychological theories provide insight into the causes of deviation, by members of a subculture, from social norms. They highlighted the irrationality of human beings and discovered that by tapping into their deepest desires, it is possible to manipulate unconscious minds in order to manage society. Freud believed that stimulating the unconscious was crucial to creating desire, and therefore is conducive to economic progress and mass democracy. Bernays argued that individual freedom was unattainable because it would be “too dangerous to allow human beings to truly express themselves”. Through various methods of advertising, a distinctive ‘majority’ can be created in society, where a person belonging to this group is perceived to be normal, conventional and conformist. By using techniques to satisfy people’s inner desires, the rise of widespread consumerism plays a part in the organized manipulation of the masses. However, through the unleashing of certain uncontrolled aggressive instincts, occasional irrationality emerged in groups, and this repudiation of the banalities of ordinary life is believed to be a key factor in the generation of subcultures.
The expansion of youth styles from subcultures into the fashion market is a real network or infrastructure of new kinds of commercial and economic institutions. The creation of new and startling styles will be inextricably linked to a process of production and publicity inevitably leading to the diffusion and spread of the subversive subculture trends. For example, both mod and punk innovations have become incorporated into high and mainstream fashion after the initial low-key emergence of such styles. The complexities of society perpetuate continuous change in style and taste, with different classes or groups prevailing during certain periods of time. To deal with the question of which is the most influential source of fashion, it is necessary to consider distribution of power. It is not the same for all classes to have access to the means by which ideas are disseminated in our society, principally the mass media. In history, the elites have had greater power to prescribe meaning and dictate what is to be defined as normality.
Trickling down to shape the views of the substantial passive parts of the population, designers from high places were able to set trends that diffused from the upper to lower spectrum of society. Subcultures, it was suggested, go against nature and are subject to abhorrence and disapproval by followers of mainstream trends. Regrettably, criminal gangs, homeless subcultures and reckless skateboarders, among other ‘negative’ portrayals of subcultures have been accused of dragging down the image of other ‘positive’ subcultures which demonstrate creativity and inspiration. There is an unstable relationship between socialising and de-socialising forces. Nevertheless, German philosopher Kant observed that actual social life should and always will consist of in some way its own opposite asocial life, which he described as “unsociable sociality”.
Without doubt, fashion exhibits a dichotomy of conformity and differentiation, with contradictory groups aspiring to fit in and stand out from a crowd. Previously, the pace of change that fashion went through has spawned social emulation, a phenomenon whereby subordinate groups follow a process of imitation of the fashion tastes adopted by the upper echelons of society. Veblen, a Norwegian-American sociologist and economist, criticized in detail the rise of consumerism, especially the notion of conspicuous consumption, initiated by people of high status. Another influential sociologist Georg Simmel, classified two basic human instincts – the impetus to imitate one’s neighbours, and conversely, the individualistic behaviour of distinguishing oneself.
Simmel indicated the tendency towards social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change. Indeed, to elucidate Simmel’s theory of distinction versus imitation, the distinctiveness of subcultures in the early stages of a set fashion assures for its destruction as the fashion spreads. An idea or a custom has its optimal innovative intensity when it is constrained to a small clandestine group. After the original symbolic value of the idea has been exploited by commercialisation and accepted as a part of mass culture, the balance will have a tendency to tip towards imitation over distinction. An example of the imitation of a distinctive subculture is the evolution of blue jeans, which originating from humble American cowboys and gold-miners, demonstrate a bubble-up effect of a subculture. On a larger scale, it can be said that Western style dressing ‘bubbled-up’ from 19th Century Quaker’s attire, rather than ‘trickling down’ from the styles of Court aristocracy.
Simmel describes fashion as a process by which the society consolidates itself by reintegrating what disrupts it. The existence of fashion requires that some members of society must be perceived as superior or inferior. From economist Harvey Leibenstein’s perspective, fashion is a market constituted of ‘snobs’. The phenomenon of ‘snob-demand’ depicts consumers as snobs who will stop buying a product when the price drops too much. The trickle down effect has been related to a ‘band-wagon effect’ where the turnovers of a product are particularly high as a result of imitation. Every economic choice is bound not only to the pure computational rationality of individuals, but is influenced by irrational factors, such social imitation, contrary to what Simmel calls the ‘need for distinction’. However, a ‘reverse bandwagon effect’ acts as an opposing force when a snobbish consumer stops buying a product because too many others are buying it as well. The resultant force depends on the relative intensity of the two forces.
Subcultures have often endured a less than agreeable relationship with the mainstream as a result of exploitation and cultural appropriation. This often leads to the demise or evolution of a particular subculture once the originally novel ideas have been commercially popularised to an extent where the ideologies of the subculture have lost their fundamental connotations. The insatiable commercial hunger for new trends instigated the counterfeiting of subculture fashion, unjustifiably used on the sophisticated catwalks in fashion dictatorships of Paris, Milan and New York. It is not purely sartorial fashion but also music subcultures that are particularly vulnerable to the massification process. Certain types of music like jazz, punk, hip hop and rave were only listened to by minority groups at the initial stages of its history.
Events in history have had substantial impacts on the rise, development and evolution of subcultures. The First World War had an impact on men’s hairstyles as lice and fleas were ubiquitous in wartime trenches. Those with shaved heads were presumed to have served at the Front while those with long hair were branded cowards, deserters, and pacifists. During the 1920s, standard social etiquettes were discarded by certain youth subcultures, as drink, drugs and jazz infiltrated America, intensified by the alcohol prohibition of the time. A crime subculture emerged as smugglers discovered profit opportunities with Mexican and Cuban drug plantations. The Great Depression of the late 20s in North America caused pervasive poverty and unemployment. Consequently, a significant number of adolescents discovered identity and expression through urban youth gangs, such as the ‘dead end kids’.
Existentialists like Camus and Sartre also played a significant part in influencing the subcultures of the 1950s and 60s. Emphasis on freedom of the individual created a version of existential bohemianism resembling the beat generation. This subculture represented a version of bohemian hedonism; McClure declares that “non-conformity and spontaneous creativity were crucial”. In literature, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” depicted the economic hardship of these times. Initially burned and banned to American citizens, condemned as communist propaganda, this book was given the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. It only took a few decades for the previously socially unacceptable book to diffuse into mainstream culture.
The popularisation of folk and cowboy songs led to their unique underlying patterns being mixed with elements of jazz, blues and soul, creating a new subculture of western swing. Technological progress facilitated “instantaneous mass media creating large subcultures from the ideas of a range of smaller subcultures”. Accordingly, a bubble-up effect can be seen where, through a process of innovation and diffusion, original ideas can spread into mass culture.
The process of integration has a potential to lead to the polarisation of warring subcultures, contributing to social disorganization. Shaw and Mckay assessed that although their data is not sufficient to determine “the extent to which membership in delinquent gangs produces delinquency”, membership is probably a contributing factor. They use the term ‘differential social organisation’ to depict how subculture formation is a result of broader economic and demographic forces that undermine conventional local institutions of control.
The institution of the family is weakened by these forces, and as a result, alternatives to the traditional family have arisen as various subcultures. Ethan Watters elucidated this social trend in his book defining urban tribes as “groups of never-married’s between the ages of 25 and 45 who gather in common-interest groups and enjoy an urban lifestyle”. Analysis of the long term perspective of street trends reveal that youth trends bubble-up every five to ten years, and that individualism, anarchy and self-realization, are universal in these trends.
In the process of bubbling up, there are two important concepts to consider, that of ‘diffusion’ and ‘defusion’. Fashion diffusion focuses on the individual and the crowd, particularly in this case the spreading of fashion in a systematic way from small scale to large scale institutions. It highlights the idea that fashion innovation and creativity drawn from subcultures are integrated into mass culture. In the process, non-conformist fashion may be subject to defusion, a diluting of the fundamental intrinsic meaning of the original subculture. The commercialisation of fashion is especially central to the danger of decontextualisation of trend origins. For example, the wearing of ripped jeans, an accepted form of attire nowadays, does not necessarily relate to the image of ‘hippies’ in modern times. The concept of identity and its modifications and transformations after a period of time should be carefully considered.
Analysis of street style is another fundamental aspect in determining the extent of a bubble-up effect in fashion. It is an idea that opposes the view that high fashion has given way to popular culture. Polhemus proposed that “styles which start life on the street corner have a way of ending up on the backs of top models on the world’s most prestigious fashion catwalks”. Prior to this new train of thought, the predominant view was that new looks began with couture and ‘trickle down’ to the mass market mainline fashion industry. Polhemus suggested that the evidence he found gave insight to a chain of events; initially genuine street innovation appears, followed by the featuring in mass media, such as magazines or television programmes, of street kids. In time, the ritzy version of the original idea makes an appearance, as a part of a top designer’s collection.
Polhemus identified two basic street-styles involving dressing up or dressing down. Those from a relatively affluent sector of society, such as the Beatniks and Hippies developed a penchant for the latter, preferring to descend down the socio-economic ladder in the interest of authenticity. Nowadays, the variety of attire seen on streets and nightclubs show that culture is no longer only a prerogative of the upper class. Although, the creatively democratic society that we progress towards optimizes fashion innovation, cynics of the bubble-up effect, such as Johnny Stuart, condemned in his book on rockers, “the fancy fashionable versions of the Perfecto which you see all over the place, dilute the significance, taking away its original magic, castrating it”.
Social crises of the 1950s and 1970s brought about new ideological constructions in response to the worsening economy, scarcity of jobs, loss of community, and the failure of consumerism to satisfy real needs. Racism became a solution to the problems of working-class life. Such periods of social turmoil resulted in fashion defusion, with many subcultures becoming increasingly detached from their foundation symbolisms. The connotations of the attire of the teddy boys during the 1970s bore little resemblance to the style of 1956. The original narcissistic upper-class style was somewhat irrevocably lost in a wave of ‘second generation teds’ that preferred fidelity to the classic ‘bad-boy’ stereotypes. The concept of specificity, subcultures responding to circumstances at distinctive moments in history, is depicted as vital to the study of subcultures.
Therefore the resultant mass-consumed item may draw distance from the emblem of the original subculture, attainable to all who can afford it. The loss of identity may prove to be a serious problem as subcultures may feel exploited, estranged and meaningless without a sense of belonging. Subcultures established a sense of community to certain individuals during a new post-war age that witnessed the deterioration of traditional social groupings. Polhemus claims that subcultures like Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Skinheads, Rockabillies, Hipsters, Surfers, Hippies, Rastafarians, Headbangers, Goths, etc, as “social phenomenon style tribes cannot be dismissed as something transitory”. Known as the Kogal phenomenon, a subculture emerged where groups of young girls between the ages of 15 and 18 appeared on the streets of Tokyo with long dyed-brown or bleached-blond hair, tanned skin, heavy makeup, brightly coloured miniskirts or short pants that flare out at the bottom, and high platform boots.
‘Field’ has become more appropriate in the analysis of fashion changes. People engaged in similar lifestyles with intrinsically similar cultural capital, i.e. nationality, profession, family and friends form group identities interacting with others in the same ‘field’. This has been an important contributing factor to the birth of subcultures.The anachronistic belief that class was a determinant of fashion has reduced significantly, as confirmed by Bauman, who proposed the idea of ‘liquid society’, where fashion exists in a more flexible and malleable state.
A particular phenomenon of recent times, subject to both a trickle-down and a bubble-up effect of varying degrees, is the democratization and globalization of fashion. There has been an emergence of ‘prêt-a-porter’ invented by John Claude Weill in 1949. This development has increased the speed and diffusion of fashion trends across the world, which amplified the culture of fast fashion, massification and global standardisation. Standardised factory-made prêt-a-porter clothes, of which ‘wearability’ is crucial, sometimes descend from places of high fashion, for example inspired from couture. Designers such as Poiret, Dior and Lacroix produce a ready-to-wear line alongside their haute couture collection to take advantage of a wider market. Nevertheless, its mass-produced industrial nature detracts away from the exclusivity of traditional couture.
By 1930, couturiers like Schiaparelli, Delauney, and Patou began to design their own ready-to-wear boutiques, understanding the new emerging system of fashion whereby the moment that people stop copying you, it means that you are no longer any good. The democratization of couture disallowed it to sustain its elitist nature and therefore haute couture was beginning to accept that fashion was about emulation. Nevertheless, attire was not entirely uniform and equalised. Subtle nuances continued to mark social distinctions but mitigated the upper class penchant for conspicuous consumption.
Democratising fashion came hand in hand with a ‘disunification’ of feminine attire, which varied more in form and became less homogeneous. The fundamental attraction of making profit inspired innovation in styles and a perpetual search for lower costs through efficient industrial manufacturing. Institutions were evolving to an extent that the pretentious elitist sectors diminished in favour of universal mass production. The end of the Second World War brought about increased demand for fashion, encouraged by films and magazines of the time and the take off of global advertising campaigns, i.e. Levi’s, Rodier, Benetton, Naf-Naf, etc, highlighting the need for high standards of living, well-being and hedonistic mass culture. It is the globalisation and rapidity of fashion movements, as Kawamura amply discussed, that underline the fact that “fast-changing tastes of consumers are matched only by the cleverness of the department store that identifies trendsetters among young consumers and feeds their knowledge into the production cycle”.
It is impossible to conduct discourse in fashion without associating it with change, unpredictability and a high degree of uncertainty. It is very difficult to distinguish which goods will be adorned by the mass population and which trends will be instantaneously rejected. In general, industries need economic capital and political solidarity to function but these institutions are particularly difficult to uphold in the aesthetic industry. A paradox exists in that while on a superficial level everyone associates fashion with change, the underlying forces value stability. They argue that it is not possible to speak of one single fashion, but rather of different fashions existing at the same time. This is especially the case for an intrinsically fast-paced, competitive and fragmented industry. A bubble-up effect is inherent to a globalised fashion world, and the upward flow of fashion stemming from various subcultures contributes abundantly to this process.