Fashion and the aesthetics of counterculture

Kathleen Cleaver & Bobby Seale at a rally

Fashion has long appropriated the uniforms of various countercultures around the world. Whether it is the black leather jackets, black berets and afros of the Black Panthers, the clean, slim looks of mods; The Beatniks, zoot suits, hippies, there has been a lot of inspiration for designers to mine in their pursuit of "new" design.

Fashion can also provide a standard for various subcultures to assemble under. Providing a uniform for groups of people united by all sorts of pursuits. Whether that is people that grew up listening to various New Wave bands gravitating to the clothing of Raf Simons, or Hedi Slimane capturing the spirit of rock music through his work at Dior Homme.

Raf Simons Kollaps editorial

Dior Homme 2002 on the right, The Heartbreakers on the left from a picture taken in 1975

A uniform can have a lot of power. Not only does it make you identifiable to others of the same group, but it helps draw attention to yourself and your interests and ideologies.

An effective shorthand for a campaign against the status quo.

Black Panthers on parade

Black Panther Party members generally dressed all in black with berets, creating an urban paramilitary look that was aggressive and channeled an element of self-respect and self-determination. These were people who wanted to stand out and be recognised by the oppressive society they were living in at the time. Their look was a declaration of independence and a warning to those who would threaten it.

Zoot-suit riots 1943

In 1943, the zoot-suit riots were also another racially charged incident in which clothing played a role in helping to immediately signify protest.

In an attempt to institute a 26% cut-back in the use of fabrics, the War Production Board drew up regulations for the wartime manufacture of what Esquire magazine called, "streamlined suits by Uncle Sam."[21] The regulations effectively forbade the manufacture of zoot suits, and most legitimate tailoring companies ceased to manufacture or advertise any suits that fell outside the War Production Board's guide lines. However, the demand for zoot suits did not decline and a network of bootleg tailors based in Los Angeles and New York City continued to manufacture the garments. Thus, the polarization between servicemen and pachucos was immediately visible: the chino shirt and battledress were evidently uniforms of patriotism, whereas wearing a zoot suit was a deliberate and public way of flouting the regulations of rationing. The zoot suit was a moral and social scandal in the eyes of the authorities, not simply because it was associated with petty crime and violence, but because it openly snubbed the laws of rationing.

via Wikipedia

The interplay between fashion and counterculture movements around the world is one that has become a lot more cynical and exploitative in recent years, especially with the quick cycle of appropriation and death that most subcultures go through.

However, its ability to act as a core around which new communities can grow and aid in empowering minority groups should not be discounted. Human beings have long sought out banners to rally under, whether it be that of a charismatic warleader or director of a brand that makes clothing, one could argue that it is in our DNA to look for groups to join and causes to follow.

Fashion, particularly fashion with something more to offer than an association with luxury, can very easily be a critical point around which people can gather, especially those for who regular society is not enough.

From one temple to another. A Buddhist monk lies on his futon in his Tokyo pied-a-terre, surrounded by his Comme des Garcons collection. Once a month, religiously, the monk trades his robes for a head to toe Comme des Garcons outfit, leaves the temple and heads for Tokyo to pick up a few more pieces and visit his sanctuary. Strangely, he sees the designs as having a religious quality. His sister, a former delinquent, apparently reformed when she found Garcon.
via itwonlast, from Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s Happy Victims

As an aside, Kyoichi Tsuzuki's Happy Victims is an amazing book. The photography is blunt and disarmingly honest, presenting the living spaces of people obsessed with one designer brand and how that brand has affected their lives. These people definitely represent the far end of a bell curve when it comes to the potential impact a fashion brand can have on an individual, but I believe the bell curve exists and that means there is a much larger number of people who can rally to a brand and use it to represent an aspect of themselves that they would like to share with the world.


Fashion as tribal uniform

Rick Owens fans gather outside before a runway show
via Tuukka13

Outside a Yohji Yamamoto show in Paris
via Liam Goslett

Two guys in Supreme
via Mitograph

In this era of post-modernism and saturated media channels, people can switch cultural allegiances at the drop of a hat, learning decades of codified behaviour by simply following the right Instagrams and Tumblr accounts. With a whole multitude of options open to more and more people daily, it is no wonder that sticking to one ideology makes less and less sense for the individual with the internet at her disposal.

Any brand that wants to survive in this era needs to provide more than just the quick fix of "newness" that most people are looking for these days. It needs to have the ability to not only provide a standard to rally under, but also a continuous stream of culturally relevant commentary for its admirers and fans to draw on. Fashion, by its very nature of season-to-season reinvention, iteration, and/or evolution is in a great position to both capitalise on this and fuel it as can be seen by the success of brands like Supreme, Hood By Air, Givenchy, Rick Owens and many more, working very well with other industries such as music and celebrities.

These are groups of people united by their love of a brand and its image, by what they consume as opposed to what they create. It could be more than that though, especially in a place like Nigeria where a dearth of tangible subcultural movements and a society high in inequality means that a counterculture could still have a lot of traction and impact.

Nigeria as a country has existed for over 50 years and in that time, we seem to have only produced one subculture of any significance - the university confraternity or cult.

The Pyrates Confraternity was founded in the early fifties by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and a group of his friends. It was created partly in response to the status quo of the university environment at the time and valuing intellectual merit above wealth and family background, the Pyrates were the counterculture group of their day complete with the anti-establishment slogan "Against all conventions" and satirical send-ups of the establishment its supporters and benefactors.

Not too long after, the Pyrates gave birth to The Buccaneers and soon, more and more university cults began to rise with violence as their calling card and political rivals using them as tools against each other, their countercultural beginnings as intellectual rebels became subsumed by the status quo of greed and the lust for power. It started feeding on itself only, having no impact on greater society beyond being a cause for restiveness and insecurity.

However, the power of fashion could still be seen here playing a role, with the different cults adopting various colours and modes of dress. It was not sophisticated, but it was present. A subculture needs a language specific to it and part of the vocabulary of that language is expressed via clothing and how it is worn.

The colours of the cults signified danger to enemies and safe haven to allies, marking out students as members of one confraternity or another. It also provided a visual source of tension and aided in stoking rivalries and unfortunately, violence. Adhering to a particular dress code could get one beaten or killed and yet, the power of a tribe is that one never feels alone, even in madness. The colours worn always reminded the wearer that they were a part of something bigger than themselves and that works perfectly with the way we understand our brains to have evolved over the aeons.

At the moment, in Nigeria and around the world, most people dress conservatively in socially accepted ways. Comfort, a vague impression of responsibility, corporate comformity and sexual/social desirability are the goals most people have when choosing what to wear. In what is generally referred to as the "creative" community in Lagos, there is a big focus on things like natural hair, ankara prints, adire prints, beads and other decorations, etc. The look is what one would call Afropolitan or Afrocentric, and it can serve as a means of identifying oneself as a person who would like to be identified as someone not only proud of their being a Nigerian, but also interested in intellectual and artistic pursuits. A pretty visible tribal group.

As a uniform and a shorthand for placing oneself within that community, the Afrocentric look definitely works, in the same way a suit and tie can place someone somewhere in the corporate environment (or a wedding reception). However, in my opinion, this style has its shortcomings. I believe that it can only offer a shallow interpretation of what it is to be African much less what it is to be Nigerian. It lacks an intellectual depth to its conception and propagation that I feel will hinder it transcending the easy appropriation by outsiders looking for an easy way to identify and target this group. In other words, I am not sure how much depth a subculture with this as a uniform could offer.

The terms Afrocentricism and Afropolitan are problematic to me because I feel they simplify the African continent into one homogenous cultural mass. It is no wonder that the fashion these terms inspire has to be all-inclusive, and in being so, actually prevents it from saying anything that interesting other than how afrocentric an individual is.

Solange at a Burberry launch in an afrocentric-inspired outfit
via Styleincorporated

It is clear that a lot of people are looking for clothing to express their focus on their land of birth and their identities as persons of colour. The problem, as I see it, is that a lot of the symbols being used to construct these identities are basically those constructed by people that did not live in any country on the continet and so are processing a lot of information through the filters of being outsiders. These images are then reflected back at us and we use them to create design based on copies of copies. The simulacra in effect again.

Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no reality to begin with, or that no longer have an original.

Indigenous fashion design can help generate new codes and symbols for Nigerians to use in clothing ourselves, particularly those of us that are trying to send out a message. It can also help foster a community of counterculture individuals, giving them a uniform that could help them gravitate to one another and aid them in standing out from the rest of the community. This creation of a social "gap" will create tension as the major group now has something by which to identify those that are not part of the main order. Within this tension or inter-group discourse I believe, is where new ideas and processes can be found and can hopefully sublate into the greater society.

If the aesthetics of this countercultural fashion also happens to speak the same language as those of us who are yearning for something different from the status quo, it could potentially replace the shorthand available in the form of ankara print jackets and coral beads. Providing clothing that not only looks interesting, but also encourages in-depth discussion about the inspirations behind them and the issues addressed by their designer. At the worst, the clothing could even just be completely unobtrusive, a reaction to the current culture of ostentation and vulgar luxury prominent in society at the moment - history has shown that this can have a powerful effect as was seen in the Puritan movement of the 16th and 17th centuries that still have repercussions to this day in modern American life. Or maybe we could look to our civil war for a more literal expression of both the idea of uniforms and rebellion.

Soldiers during the Nigerian civil war
via African Examiner

If this is not inspiration for a subculture collection, I don't know what is...

A counterculture, by its very definition, is a reaction to an existing culture and does not operate in a vacuum. Fashion as a tool of social change has a long history as a partner and confidante all over the world. Maybe it is about time that we co-opt it for our own redefinition of our society and what it means to be Nigerian. Starting with the uniform as opposed to the organisation might be an interesting way to go about bringing people together and getting them talking. Maybe it might even result in them acting not long after.

The importance of being able to facilitate and harness the social dynamics between counter and mainstream cultures deliberately is a major component of progress in this day and age. With globalization spreading and an arguably privileged and racist Western culture leading the charge, the importance of well developed memes in non-Western cultures like ours is important in order to provide content to be subaltern into the gestalt world culture that is slowly, but surely developing. Diversity is the key to any healthy ecosystem or gene pool surviving in the long run and with clothing and identity being such key parts of modern day living, fashion has a key role to play for us in developing a new modern Nigerian culture more in tune with our needs and the 21st century.


via Coute Que Coute

Yegwa Ukpo

Yegwa Ukpo

Lagos, Nigeria