2014 the year of... internet fashion subcultures
"I think if anything, instead of being all about teenage angst, we are trying to exude a feeling of being suspended in an ever changing internet environment, just trying to remain chill and comfortable at a time when a lot of horrible shit is happening on and offline." Health Goth founders Chris Cantino, Mike Grabarek and Jeremy Scott said in an interview with Complex earlier this year, as their Facebook page dedicated to images of hyper-real monochrome sportswear went viral. Health Goth was being picked up as an underground fashion trend in the The New York Times,Marie Claire and The Guardian, places usually not so concerned with fashion's underground trends. Like Normcore, Street Goth, Sea Punk and Vaporwave before it, Health Goth was going mainstream and was being met with broadsheet derision and delusion.
Sure this has all happened before though; from the Teddy Boys, Skinheads, Mods and Hippies, the Punks and New Romantics that i-D began documenting straight up in the early 80s, the youth have always used fashion as a way of creating a new culture and differentiating themselves from their parent's generation and the history of youth culture is equally the history of the adult world's ridicule, fear and misunderstanding of it. Youth fashion subcultures are naturally tribal, and this tribalism lends itself to media scare mongering.
It's not a British phenomenon either; writing in the 50s about the Mexican-American Pachuco youth cult, the poet Octavio Paz wrote of a subculture of second generation immigrants who, feeling distant from their parents' Mexican heritage, and sharing nothing in common with the America they found themselves in, expressed themselves with clothes and a lifestyle that rejected both. They were a generation who existed in the hyphen between Mexican and American. But Paz's description of the Pachuco could apply to any number of fashion's subcultures; "Since the Pachuco cannot adapt himself to a civilization which, for its part rejects him, he finds no answer to the hostility surrounding him except this angry affirmation of his personality."
This angry affirmation feels like it could be the root of much of Britain's post-war youth identity, there's nothing, of course, more satisfying to a teenager, than a parent's cry of you aren't going out dressed like that as they leave the house, or a look that mixes fear and disgust on the street. And it's this rebellion that lies at the heart of the moments when we've pushed things forward by transgressing upon an adult world of appropriate taste and attire with a youthful desire to test the limits; whether its copying Boy George's make-up or Sid Vicious' swastika t-shirt, it's not simply out to shock but also differentiate between us and them.
But the most sticking of youth fashion trends this year, Normcore, is about exactly the opposite. It's not about a shocking differentiation from the past, it's about fitting in and assimilating, a fashion statement against flamboyance whilst rejecting the sleekness of minimalism. It's appropriation instead of innovation, integration instead of opposition, and instead of howls of how awful they look, parents were glibly commenting below the line that they'd been Normcore all along and had never even known it.
K Hole, the group who coined the term, put it thus; "The most different thing to do is to reject being different all together… Having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness." Normcore hit the nail on the head of a social moment, not just in fashion, but a wider reaction against the neoliberal mantra of choice that's dominated Western politics for the past 35 years. K Hole described it as Acting Basic;"Normcore doesn't want the freedom to become someone."
What seems most interesting, in this new wave of fashion subcultures to proliferate from the image-sharing world of the internet, is that they are met with derision and humour instead of fear. On the surface you could read Normcore and Health Goth as resolutely apolitical, which may seem strange as its not like there isn't anything for our generation rail against. But maybe we are looking for politics in the wrong places and trying to see in them an old style of fashion politics that isn't relevant any more.
But it does begs the question then whether we should even consider Normcore or Health Goth as subcultures if they no longer seek to exist outside of the larger culture and instead are trying to replicate and assimilate into it. Like much of our current cultural landscape it's been totally recalibrated by the internet.
"More of the same, forever", is how the music writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher described our current cultural climate in a piece for E-Flux earlier this year. Our internet generation has had a lingering fascination with dredging up and revisiting the past because it's suddenly become so easily available to us.
Think of all the youth cultures and movements to come about recently and they've all been prefixed with nu- and post-;in the last 15 years we've had nu-rave, nu-metal,new lad, the new rock revolution, post-punk revival, post-internet. The last 15 years of mainstream and underground culture has been defined by its relationship to something else that happened before.
Mark Fisher writes of "music culture's role as one of the engines of cultural acceleration," that subcultures are intimately mixed in their relationships between music and fashion. "From the late 50s onward," he writes, "music culture became the zone where drugs, new technologies, (science) fictions, and social movements could combine to produce dreamings — suggestive glimmers of worlds radically different from the actually existing social order." It isn't a problem, he explains, that these dreamings were co-opted by the mainstream, it was that pushed things forward and imagined a new world. It's not a problem that Punk became a cartoon, because by then it's already changed the world.
It's a point that the founders of Health Goth brought up in an interview with i-D earlier this year. "Accelerationist aesthetics," they explained "are really about how subcultures can develop in our 'capitalist' society while acting destructively towards it by appropriating the visual elements used to perpetuate it." They are suggesting that the transgressions Mark Fisher speaks of have run their course, and subcultures now have to find a new way to exist in the age of the internet, and to exist within a new kind of political spectrum. Interestingly both Health Goth and Normcore seem to definitively reference the here and now, are not harking back to an old vision of Britain or America's subcultural past.
K Hole say as much in their trend report. "It used to be possible to be special — to sustain unique differences through time… As long as you were different from the people around you, you were safe. But the Internet and globalisation fucked this up for everyone… The assertion of individuality is a rite of passage, but
generational branding strips youth of this agency. The anxiety that there is no new terrain is always a catalyst for change."
They seem to say that our subcultural fashion past can no longer transgress or shock the mainstream, when these elements they pushed have been so completely co-opted by the mainstream. In the face of this, when transgression can no longer transgress, and the shocking can no longer shock, 2014 felt ripe for a world that pushed intergrational aesthetics of Normcore and futurist sportswear of Health Goth, as K Hole said, "the most different thing to do is to reject being different all together." And it's this that provided a more honest and plausible attempt to push culture forward in 2014.
Text Felix Petty