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Subculture: Identity and Style

Design history must consider how design is consumed, who buys it and for what purpose. This entails studying the economic dimension of design and the symbolic meanings it has.

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The practice of consumerism plays a key role in the history of design. By the 1950s peoples’ lives were dominated by the consumption of goods. There is a lot of debate around the issue of consumption. Left wing critics have argued that advertising is used to manipulate consumers. Advertising promises us an imaginary future, which is continually deferred – we never quite achieve it. This encourages us to accept our social circumstances; it says buy this and your life will change.

However, this argument relies on a very pessimistic view of the consumer as a passive victim manipulated by advertising. More recently, theorists such as MacKendrick started to rethink consumption. They saw it as a creative and even a subversive practice. In modern consumer culture we don’t just buy products out of definite need, we buy things in order to make a statement about our identity, our personality or status. Thus, consumption can be used to construct identities.

It can also be used to articulate difference and dissent. We see this particularly in youth culture. One of the first people to study youth culture was Dick Hebdige, who wrote a book called Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Hebdige analyses the styles worn by British subcultures like Teddy Boys in the 50s and punks in the 70s. 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 clan is signified through style.

By consuming products you can define yourself as separate from the mainstream, but part of a subsidiary group, a subculture. Hebdige looks at punks, who had a DIY ethos. They cut their own hair, augmented their bodies with piercings; their aesthetic was a bricolage of discarded artefacts, like safety pins.

Shane Meadows’s film This Is England is set in 1983. It focuses on a young boy who gets in with an older group of skinheads, but they are not the racist skinheads that came later, they are the earlier type who dressed like original Jamaican rudeboys and listened to Jamaican ska music. The film gives a very clear representation of belonging to a subculture and expressing your identity through fashion and music. The trademarks of this subculture, as depicted in the film are:

  • Skinhead haircuts
  • Braces
  • Red DMs
  • Jeans (turned up at the bottom)
  • Ben Sherman shirts
  • Fred Perry shirts
  • Music – reggae soundtrack
  • Posters
  • Ska revival groups like the Specials
  • Trojan, the Jamaican record label
  • The Harder They Come, a film starring Jimmy Cliff, the reggae singer

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