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Fashion and style can have effects on societies and cultures on a much grander scale than the individual; a person’s fashion choices do not merely represent their taste in clothes or hairstyle, but the attitude they adopt to the world and the people and objects with which they choose to surround themselves (Merleau-Ponty 2004, p.63).With the arrival of mass communications technologies in Western societies, it became possible for individuals or entire subcultures to become famous on national or international scales, and for individuals and groups to seek fame with the use of fashion and style.
These newly-formed groups engaged in a struggle over cultural ‘space’ and expressed themselves in new ways, but were not able to solve many of the problems associated with the peripheral social position of youth (Hall & Jefferson 1976, p.1).
The exact definition of a subculture is always in dispute and boundaries remain a problem, but the concept style is important as it is “the area in which the opposing definitions clash with the most dramatic force” (Hebdige 1979, p.3).
Indeed, possibly the most important aspect of a subcultural group is its use of symbolic style (Brake 2013, p.12), with the dominant values of style being image, demeanour and ‘argot’, or a special vocabulary and how it is delivered (Brake 2013, p.13).
The nature of subcultural groups’ clothes is very complex: they are the “system of signals by which [they] broadcast [their] intentions, projection of [their] fantasy selves, weapons, challenges, insults” (Carter 1967, p.10).
By the fourteenth century, trade expansion, the growth of urban life, and the increasing sophistication of aristocratic and royal courts led to an increase in tailoring (Wilson 1985, p.16).
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Communications technologies introduced at the end of the nineteenth century helped spread knowledge of the latest fashions worldwide, and fashion and style have been a part of Western societies ever since.
Youth was a metaphor for social change in ways which took many years to pinpoint, and an idea aided by media constructions and exaggerations about what was organic and what was forced (Gramsci 1971, p.177).
Images of youth were self-destructive, misdirected, criminal, impressionable, apathetic, victimised, cool, and cutting edge (Wilson 2006, p.5).
When John Lydon – then know as Johnny Rotten – wrote the lyrics to his band the Sex Pistols’ single ‘God Save the Queen’ in late 1976, at a time when young working class English people were facing grim economic prospects, little did he know of the cultural and social impact his band and songs would have.
The social meanings created by English punk bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Slits and The Damned, their American counterparts the New York Dolls and the Ramones, and Australia’s The Saints, have been pored over in the ensuing decades, and for good reason: very few youth subcultures have had such an impact on Western society as punk.