Youth Subcultures – Where have they gone?

Photograph: Victoria Johnson Photography via Wikimedia Commons
A young Skinhead; Photograph: Victoria Johnson Photography via Wikimedia Commons

By Molly Higginson 

An interesting thought hit me as I recovered from the first episode of Shane Meadows’ long awaited This is England ‘90: What has happened to youth subculture? Literally, where did it go?

Beginning in 1983, Meadows’ vision follows the story of a group of young Skinheads, a subculture identified by their Dr. Martens, braces, rolled denim and Fred Perry polos. But just as, in its third season, the traces of Skinhead culture were becoming evermore sparse, so is any evidence of youth culture in 2015. Where are today’s equivalents to the Mods, the Punks, the Teddy Boys or the Futurists?

Sat here in the 21st century, I’ve got nothing. The odd Goth springs to mind, Haul Girls maybe, but the closest thing to a youth uniting movement I can think of is the infamous Neknominate craze, and even that has faded into eternity (thankfully). Where’s the distinction, the instant recognition, the obvious allegiance?

Photograph: "Old Mods photo" by Sergio Calleja via Flickr
Photograph: Sergio Calleja via Flickr

There once existed a time whereby a quick scan of a college canteen could reveal much more than what was for lunch. Just looking at a group of adolescents could reveal a lot. If you saw black leather and motorcycle boots, they were a Rocker: they liked (shockingly) rock and roll music and if you were a clean-cut suit wearing Mod you should probably steer clear – the Clacton riots of 1964, anyone? Quiffs, eyeliner and frilly shirts said New Romantic; Mohawks and safety pins said Punk. The clothes you wore and the style you sported swore your allegiance to a culture that determined what music you liked and even what people you’d get on with.

Of course, groups live on in some ways. This year’s Leeds Festival, for example, saw a revival of the Metalhead. Thousands of Metallica fans showed their support, donning classic black t-shirts, leather arm cuffs and biker jackets. But part of me doubts that they sport this attire every day. It is rare that you run into a Metalhead kitted out in all of their gear in Tesco.

What struck me most was that it seemed to be much more of a family affair. Former hardcore Metallers, now Mums and Dads, had educated the children in their old ways. They’d dug out their old biker boots and were enjoying a family day out. It appeared to be more of a celebration of memory than an expression of current, popular culture. Subcultures are still present, but they are just not as relevant and they certainly don’t belong to the youth.

Photograph: Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Haul girl and vlogger Zoella; Photograph: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Even much more current movements such as the grime scene aren’t as distinctive, or indeed as permanent, as their predecessors. Followers of the likes of Skepta and JME don their all-black Nike tracksuits and AirMax, but that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally lose it to Taylor Swift too. And you’re hardly going to be kicked out of your crew for taking a fancy to a pair of loafers.

While your style used to define you, it is now a much more brief reflection of your personality. One morning you might want to channel your interest in grime, another just a love of Topshop.

So, why have we experienced this decline in subculture? Some have blamed the abundance of entertainment available to youths. Young people simply do not feel the need to rebel through dress. Others have pointed the finger at the age of the web. The Internet, after all, enables us to constantly reinvent ourselves. Simply changing a profile picture on Facebook can change the way we are perceived – hands up who did this just before Freshers’ Week?

Most significantly though, the current lack of subculture seems to be a reflection of the fast-paced fashion and music industry. The quick turnover of high-street style and chart music means there simply isn’t enough time to swear your allegiance to a specific genre or style. The fuss is over before you can shout Skinhead. Not to mention the fact that it makes being culturally promiscuous actually affordable.

The 21st century has a very different mindset. In 1984, a pair of Dr. Martens were for life, not just for Christmas (or until Elle informs you that ballet pumps are just so much more chic). Nowadays, what you wear today can seem so last year by the next week – so who can blame us for mixing it up every now and again?

Sure, part of me wishes I could walk into a lecture and point out the Hippies, the Glam Rockers and the New Romantics. But, in many ways, fashion is more diverse and accepting than it ever has been, especially for youths. You can be whatever you want to be, even if that changes every day. Being a part of a generation that is constantly labelled as judgemental and image conscious, surely this development can only be a good thing, even if Meadows’ characters appear to disagree?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.