If you talk about streetwear with a streetwear aficionado, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to “the culture” of streetwear. Writing in Complex a couple of months ago, Bobby Hundreds, founding father of The Hundreds, declared that “streetwear is a culture, not just a product.” In a recent op-ed here on Highsnobiety, digital fashion editor Alec Leach also referred to “the culture” of streetwear. But this “culture,” whatever it is, is always discussed in the vaguest of terms, giving little hint to what it means in context.
In his aforementioned article, Mr. Hundreds quotes a lot of people who talk about the subject in a roundabout way but fail to deliver a concise explanation. The closest he gets to this is by quoting the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of the word “culture,” which describes it as “the practices, discourses and material expressions, which, over time, express the continuities and discontinuities of social meaning of a life held in common.”
Again, sufficiently vague to encompass pretty much anything. In his recent op-ed, Leach implicitly ties streetwear “culture” to the dominant subcultures of the fairly recent past – like punk, goth, emo, and the rest of them. Although he doesn’t link streetwear to subculture directly, he does so by association – as do many streetwear fans – but the fact is that streetwear isn’t a subculture, and people really need to stop pretending that it is.
So what is a subculture? The dictionary on my MacBook defines it as “a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests in variance with those of the larger culture.” Punk is a subculture. Skinhead is a subculture. Goth is a subculture. Emo is a music scene with many of the characteristics of a subculture – namely a distinct way of dressing and its own musical genre that acts as an ideological vessel. And ideology is the key element here: every subculture stands for a set of beliefs that put it in direct conflict with the dominant values of wider society. Refer back to the dictionary definition: “beliefs or interests in variance with those of the larger culture.”
This variance is the whole reason subcultures emerge – groups of people, typically teens, actively separate themselves (to varying degrees) from the wider mass because their values are diametrically opposed to those of the mainstream. Fashion, like music, is a tool rather than a central pillar. It’s a way of visually separating themselves from society and explicitly marking themselves out to others of their subcultural tribe. Music and fashion are merely an embodiment of the ideology rather than the ideology itself, unlike in streetwear.
Streetwear might have a distinctive visual identity and have intimate ties to hip-hop, but that doesn’t make it a subculture because streetwear doesn’t stand for anything aside from brand and product. Take those two away and what are you left with?
When the first wave of punk dissipated and the hardcore scene emerged in its place in the U.S., hardcore’s devotees dropped many of the outward signifiers that had come to define punk (mohawks, studded biker jackets, bondage trousers, etc.) but that politically charged, left leaning, anti-authoritarian ethos remained. The likes of Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye looked like fairly normal kids, but they still represented the same core ideology of the Sex Pistols. Sure, streetwear might have a distinct and unique approach to clothes and the clothes do spawn their own rituals, but that’s a business model, not a culture.
Aside from an absence of ideology, the thing that disqualifies streetwear as a subculture is the fact that it doesn’t contradict mainstream society in any way. The skinheads, with their dogmatic working-class pride, represented a rejection of the British class system. The punks stood in opposition to everything that polite society deemed right and proper. Goths embraced the internal darkness that most people try to battle with Prozac and psychiatrists. Rather than repressing painful emotions, emo kids put them on display and adopted a feminine image that contradicted patriarchal notions of masculinity. By taking an active, very public stance against prevailing social values, subcultures offer an alternative and encourage others to do the same.
Streetwear, on the other hand, may represent an underground approach to fashion but that doesn’t separate it from mainstream values. The central pillar of streetwear isn’t really sneakers or clothes, it’s consumption. Brands cannot survive without turning a profit from their products, and streetwear cannot exist without the brands that comprise it. Streetwear drives consumption, which is the beating heart of consumer capitalism. As such, streetwear doesn’t contradict prevailing values, it represents them. Realistically, streetwear is actually a market segment rather than a subculture.
I understand how people get the two confused. As Leach correctly observes, streetwear fans’ consumption gives them the feeling that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Sure, that’s true, that makes them part of a larger mass, but that doesn’t mean that streetwear is a culture. I’m a subscriber to The Guardian newspaper. Like millions of people everyday, I turn to The Guardian as my main source of news.
Technically I’m part of something bigger than myself, but no one would ever speak of Guardian readers as if they were a subculture. If streetwear fans or sneakerheads qualify as a subculture, then so do art collectors, people who own yachts, those who buy vinyl records or who are Beliebers. I’m not trying to disparage the streetwear community, but there’s a difference and it’s a significant one.
But there’s a deeper dynamic at play here: this tendency to conflate streetwear with culture represents the broader triumph of advertising. Advertisers frame our purchasing decisions as expressions of our identity, which transforms products into something more significant than mere consumer goods – they become extensions of ourselves because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we are what we buy. This is precisely why streetwear feels like a subculture, even though it’s not.
Glad we’ve got that cleared up now.
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