There is a divide within fashion and music which at times is passionately defended. One the one hand you have the ‘mainstream’ – the H&M shopping, Bieber-loving, capitalist fools (as far as some are concerned). Then you have anti-fashion people, and those involved in alternative music and style, who will wear anything but the common look of the time.
That is anti-fashion: a style of clothing that clearly and deliberately challenges the fashion of the day. It goes back at least as far as the Victorian era, but is most noticeable in the 20th Century. When rock and roll emerged, Elvis Presley led the formation of a new kind of youth listening to a new kind of music, contributing to the rise of Greaser fashion in the USA.
The most significant moment for anti-fashion, however, was the rise of punk. Anti-fashion looked down on those who took great care with their appearance, such as the mohawked leather-clad young men listening to The Sex Pistols. By the 1990s, this manifested in many choosing to wear very plain clothing with no apparent branding. The minimalist white t-shirt and black jeans outfit was adopted by both men and women, challenging gender expectations of the time by making no solid distinction between what women and men wore. In some ways, it moved beyond gender in favour of a shared, androgynous, common look.
Punk also gave rise to another movement with a very different emphasis. In the same way that post-punk music moved away from the mechanical simplicity of punk by featuring a more eclectic range of sounds, alternative fashion took inspiration from punk fashion but experimented with new possibilities. Examples include Goth and Steampunk, but there are others that also trace their style back to the Johnny Rotten wannabees of London. Even those who did not identify with such movements had massive influence within them: the outlandish costumes of David Bowie for instance.
Alternative fashion is believed to represent different ways of behaving for a distinct community of people. This has implications for the music they listen to and the people they mix with. It is not the case that metalheads will only ever hang out with other metalheads for instance, or not enjoy other types of music. It is the case, though, that their fashion choices are used as a means to communicate a shared identity.
The difference between the alternative and anti-fashion was clear by the 1990s. While many young people were reverting to simplicity, the alternative scene became, if anything, more outlandish with the arrival of grunge bands like Nirvana and the popularity of dark metal such as that of Marilyn Manson. Their appearance was anything but plain – Manson in particular is famed for his make-up and shock-value dress sense which, combined with his unsettling lyrics, caused a moral crisis among American conservatives.
The ‘anti-fashion’ and ‘alternative’ movements in fashion became opposites by the time of the millennium. The issue for both, however, is that they are being increasingly subsumed by what they bitterly label the ‘mainstream’.
Plain and androgynous clothing is incredibly common now in most high street stores, helped by the gradual breaking down of gender constraints which we have seen following the rise of feminism. An aimless wander through Topman or H&M will see vast collections of plain clothes present themselves to beady-eyed customers, sitting in harmony alongside band tees and trending styles.
Alternative fashion is looked at with great interest by designer labels and clothes stores too as indications of upcoming trends, as well as a way to target a specific consumer group without too much difficulty. Look through the same stores as before, and count how many studded leather jackets are available for women, or necklaces targeted at both genders if not explicitly at men.These styles have their origins in alternative communities.
Some within the alternative scene appreciate such attention, especially given the history of discrimination against such communities,however others see it as an infringement on the individuality which they achieve through separating themselves from what they perceive as the ‘mainstream’.
Whatever the truth of this is, it is clear that anti-fashion and alternative fashion movements are both in opposition to the mainstream but equally cannot escape it. At the very least, they depend on the mainstream in order to define themselves. The fact that all three can be seen in your average shop is a demonstration of how fashion boundaries have been broken down. What was once upon a time considered ‘going against the flow’ is perhaps now following in the other direction, and so it remains to be seen how distinct fashion indicators will be in the decades to come.
Image: Laura Spence