What Everybody Should Know About Alternative Fashion
“Joining a subculture, any subculture, for whatever reason, is as I see it never a legitimate self-expression. It is always a result of sheep mentality; a wish to belong somewhere.” Varg Vikernes
Alternative fashion: a topic that could drive anyone crazy, even the most prolific fashion journalist. That’s probably why I quoted Burzum in the first lines of this article (eek!).
Trying to find, identify, list and explain all clothing styles under the huge umbrella of “alternative fashion” is at the very least unrealistic. What I’m going to do in this article is:
- pinpoint the main youth subcultures from the 50s to our days
- identify the main alternative clothing styles that characterized those subcultures
- roll out all the smaller alternative fashion styles that stemmed from the main ones
- talk about what alternative fashion has really become today
Alternative fashion is absolutely inseparable from youth subcultures. It was born within them, and most importantly, youth subcultures and alternative clothing styles are always strictly connected to “their” music. Since we can document history, there have been “rebels”, “misfits” and people who went against what was considered the norm. All of them had symbolic clothes to identify with. Different clothing styles were always associated with something else, it’s never an isolated phenomenon. It’s a social phenomenon.
Yes, it’s gonna be long. Yes, I’m gonna do my best to keep it sweet, simple and non-judgemental. Just another disclaimer before I go on: if I made some mistakes in the post, please leave a comment and we’ll fix it together. This article aims to be a reference, an alternative fashion wiki if you want. I don’t want to take all the merit for it, so I’ll gladly take suggestions and give you credit for them, like I did with the lovely Jamie, Sarah and Steffi.
Sarah contributed to Greasers, Skinheads, 80s but especially Punk. Thank you for your precious contribution Sarah! PS: she also mentioned Riot Grrrls and Emo, which I chose not to include in the list. Jamie pointed out a lot of info about the Hippies and suggested I included Rivetheads in the 80s sections. Thank you Jamie! Steffi helped me with suggestions all over the post: she too pointed out I should place the Hippies in the 60s, so I was definitely wrong on this one! She also gave me tips on Beatniks, Punk, Grunge and Lolita. Love you Steffi!
Sarah contributed to Greasers, Skinheads, 80s but especially Punk. Thank you for your precious contribution Sarah! PS: she also mentioned Riot Grrrls and Emo, which I chose not to include in the list.The Walrus Room
Jamie pointed out a lot of info about the Hippies and suggested I included Rivetheads in the 80s sections. Thank you Jamie!Witchy a Go-Go
Steffi helped me with suggestions all over the post: she too pointed out I should place the Hippies in the 60s, so I was definitely wrong on this one! She also gave me tips on Beatniks, Punk, Grunge and Lolita. Love you Steffi!Anti.Muse
Main Youth Subcultures from the 50s on
I’m gonna start from the 50s because I feel like that most of the alternative clothing styles that survived are inspired by the 50s and the decades after that (if we take pinup in consideration, also a couple of decades before that).
During the 50s an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon was taking place: the end of the II World War meant a return to a classic look (think about the Dior New Look of mid-40s). At the same time, people were getting richer but they also suffered the consequences of the World War (especially in European countries).
Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls: an unlikely mix of 1800’s dandy inspiration and a passion for rock ‘n’ roll coming from the US, Teddy Boys were British boys that listened to rock ‘n’ roll. The Teddy Girl adopted the same dandy-inspired look, which resulted in a quite androgynous style that will influence fashion a lot.
The main features were the trademark drape jacket, narrow trousers, flat shoes and quiffs.
Greaser: the greaser style was mostly inspired by the Marlon Brando and James Dean look. White t-shirts, leather jackets and blue jeans, and hair styled in a quiff of course. They
ideally were into motors, so they rode motorbikes and drove hot-rods in races; they were more trouble making if compared to the other youth subcultures. They listened to American rock ‘n’ roll as well.
Alternative styles are called alternative because they most always are a counter-movement to something else, in this case, it was their parents’ working class and the preppies, that belonged to the upper-class and were much neater in both manners, behaviour and style.
Beat generation/Beatnik/Bebop: the most famous example is Jack Kerouac and his “On the Road”. Bebop was a jazz subculture, in opposition to the swing culture. The bebop movement was characterized by excess: long nights, smoking (pot as well), drinking.
The main features of the clothing style were browline and thick framed glasses, button shirts, white t-shirts, and a general shabby feel to the whole look. Black was also typical in their look. This famous 50s/60s movement morphed into hippies and hipsters, living several revival waves.
The 50s in Alternative Fashion Today
What survived today of the 40s and 50s aesthetic are not the subcultures, but the mainstream woman figure: the pinup. Pinups weren’t a subculture, and they weren’t connected to music. They were starlets whose photos were printed and sent to soldiers during WWII to give them some “relief” and distract them. All in all, pinups were a hugely patriotic symbol for America, and it’s weird how the pinup image and rock ‘n’ roll got mixed together and are today identified with the same alternative clothing style: rockabilly. This style is often associated with the tattoo world as well.
The pinup look is characterized by pencil skirts, capri pants, high waist, gingham, stripes, polka dots, flowers and floral prints, peep toe shoes, victory rolls, flare dresses.
For the guys, these items of clothing are typical: blue jeans, creeper shoes, printed shirts, flat caps, suspenders.
The Tokyo Rockabilly Club in Yoyogi Park – Credits: fakelvis
Rockabilly also evolved in many other directions, intersecting with goth and punk subcultures and creating gothabilly and psychobilly.
Another huge influence that was revived lately are the hipsters: today they don’t have much of the original hipsters, if not for the shabby look and the glasses (and the anti-mainstream attitude of course).
Current alternative fashion styles and scenes influenced by the 50s:
- Fetish scene
- Tattoo scene
Over this decade, everything happened. Dozens of subcultures and youth movements were born, across the UK and the US. Trying to list them all would be slightly kamikaze of me, but I’ll try to outline the main movements from which all the other stemmed from, and mainly the ones that we can still see the influences on alternative styles today.
Mods: short for Modernists, mods were young working-class lads and girls in the British post-war society. They listened to
modern American Jazz, rode scooters and danced in dance halls and were in strong opposition to the “dirtier” rockers.
The main features in the mod look were tailor-made suits, fishtail parkas, polos, ties. Oh, and Vespas of course.
Rockers: They were opposed to the mods and they rode bikes and customized them. They were initially against the use of drugs, and they attended cafes instead of dance halls.
The main features in the rocker look were t-shirts, leather jackets, motorcycle boots, jeans or leather trousers.
Skinheads: From the original mods, the equally popular Skinhead movement was born. Skinheads were born from the splitting of the Mod movement between the ones who cared more about the look and the music and those who were more connected to their working-class roots. The last ones were called Hard Mods: the terms shifted to Skinheads around the end of 1960. A vital influence on the Skinhead subculture are Rude Boys: Jamaican immigrants that brought ska music, thin ties and pork-pie hats to the equation (that’s why the original skinheads can’t be and were not associated with racism: the origins of the movement are biracial, and it wasn’t rare seeing black skinheads).
The main features of skinheads look were very short hair, Dr Martens boots, Ben Sherman and Fred Perrys shirts, tights jeans with hems rolled up and suspenders.
For a good collection of hard mods and traditional skinheads photos have a look at this collection.
Hippies: the Hippie movement was born across the 60s and the 70s, and it was one of the reasons why the original Mod movement split in two. The movement is the natural evolution of the 40s hipsters (the beat generation), hence the name. Hippies were travelers at heart, going to music festivals to experience togetherness and altered states of consciousness: they used psychedelic drugs such as LSD and mushrooms and usually smoked weed. They listened to psychedelic rock and were the first large movement to import Eastern spiritual philosophies in the Western world. Hippies hugely influenced the world as we see it now, helping the western world transition from the strict society rules of the 50s to the relatively big freedom of our days (think about drugs, the sexual revolution, pacifism and the female role in society).
The main features of the hippie style were batik clothes, maxi-dresses, long flowy skirts, bright colours and patterns, sandals, long hair, flower crowns.
The 60s in Alternative Fashion Today
Alternative fashion keeps next to none of the original features of 60s mods. What survives today is a widespread and generally not-categorizable skinhead culture that spans from those who follow the original skinhead cultures to neo-nazi inspired skinheads. The look has a general similar feeling to the original skinhead look though, despite having a lot of allegedly different features that should tell you what political wing and movement a skinhead belongs to.
Also, the skinhead culture somewhat merged with the punk movement that was born in the 70s, and that’s something that is very much alive today: the punk/skinhead Oi! culture.
Hippies have slowly morphed into what today can be identified as the New Age movement. Boho fashion, shabby chic, tribal fashion are all children of the hippie state of mind. The Hippie approach to life has evolved into the current psytrance scene: psychedelic drugs, spiritual quest, traveler mindset are some of the features that today’s psytrance scene has inherited from the hippie movement.
The Rocker look has also survived in many alternative styles and evolved throughout the years, but it’s no longer linked to the same music genre it was at the beginning. Today leather, studs, spikes and motorcycles are generally associated with the first heavy metal scene.
As you can see, alternative fashion starts to get unavoidably intertwined very soon, and labelling styles while defining their roots becomes harder every decade.
Current alternative fashion styles and scenes influenced by the 60s:
- Hard rockers
Punk: if defining and identifying subcultures was hard, from the 70s on is almost impossible. All subcultures influence the next one and share the same roots. When and where was
punk born? Was it in London, or was it in St Marks Place in New York? Many influences contributed to the evolution of punk, from The Stooges to Velvet Underground in the US to Sex Pistols in the UK. Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren largely contributed to the punk visual style popularisation with their boutique SEX. McLaren was also behind the Sex Pistols phenomenon (he also managed bands such as Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow). All in all, punk is a mix of many subcultures and influences, skinheads among them (the connection is not hard to make if you think about how the first punks looked). The fact that punk hasn’t just one place of birth and a clear history is kind of proved by the fact that it generated a lot of branches shortly after it was born (punk rock, pop punk, Oi!, skate punk, hardcore punk, horror punk, anarcho-punk, nazi punk, emo, straight edge…).
The main features in punk aesthetics were short cropped hair, often with crazy hairstyles like mohawks, ripped clothes, ordinary clothes customised with patches, studs and paint (the famous DIY culture). They wore (and still wear) brothel creepers, Dr Martens boots, drainpipe trousers, white t-shirts, leather jackets and the look was never gender-based.
The punk movement used clothes to express the ideology behind it all: it was another tool to show their anti-conformism, their opposition to the socially accepted norm. Some punks were also against fashion altogether and didn’t follow any style in particular.
Glam rockers: another huge movement that influenced any music genre it came after it. Glam rock was born in the UK and it must not be confused with the American glam metal. Glam rock is David Bowie, T. Rex, Sweet and Gary Glitter. The music varied from a classic rock ‘n’ roll to more avant-garde rock; what heavily characterised glam rock was the outrageous look. The glam rocker was extremely androgynous, bold, theatrical. Everything they did was to shock people (do you start to see a common theme among alternative subcultures?) but mostly in a positive way.
The main features in the glam rock look were sequins, heavy makeup, bright colours, glitter, feathers, playsuits, Asian-inspired patterns and shapes, volumes, long hair or colourful hair, platform boots and an overall androgynous look.
The 70s in Alternative Fashion Today
The punk subculture is still alive, and it often overlaps with what remains of the original skinhead movement. We can say that punk was never really dead, and it’s still very much alive in a lot of alternative fashion styles and in mainstream fashion too. Pins, skulls, tartan, ripped clothes, colourful hair are all reminiscences of punk. Whether people who have a punk aesthetic listen to punk music or have any idea left of the punk movement is not relevant: punk visual has become costume, and as such they’ve been completely swallowed by new trends and fashion movements.
Glam rock is pretty much dead and has left almost nothing of its excess and glittery colours, if not for glam rock aficionados. Of course, it has heavily influenced the American glam metal scene, where the look was re-interpreted in a more masculine (well, almost) way and a characteristic 80s feel to it.
Current alternative fashion styles and scenes influenced by the 70s:
- Heavy metal
- Riot Grrrls
Goth: Goth is at the same time the son and the nephew of punk. Early goth bands were part of the post-punk movement, in fact, they didn’t call themselves goth. They were a darker and more romantic post-punk offshoot. We’re talking about Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Joy Division and The Cure. Such bands are the very origin of the gothic look and the general sound of classic goth music; however, the goth subculture has survived over the years and has evolved in many directions, sometimes completely derailing from its roots. Someone says that the real original gothfather (see what I did there?) is Alice Cooper himself for his macabre theatrical style (but not for the music, which has nothing to do with the darker post-punk of the bands we mentioned before). Of course, The Damned widely contributed to the development of a goth movement, in fact they’re considered as the first gothic rock band.
Talking about the music, there are substantially different styles that fall under the same “goth” umbrella: darkwave (the bands we mentioned above), ethereal wave (Cocteau Twins), neoclassical (Sopor Æternus), gothic metal (which has different sounds like Paradise Lost, Theatre of Tragedy, Theatre of Vampires, Cradle of Filth, and more mainstream bands like HIM and Lacuna Coil) , deathrock (45 Grave).
Fans of artists such as Marilyn Manson are also considered goth by the mainstream public, but they’re generally frown upon by the “original” goths, who call them “spooky kids” or “baby bats”.
Each music style has a characteristic dressing style, but the main characteristics are the same: the colour black, of course, black eye make-up, pale complexion, backcombed hair, Victorian-inspired clothing (lace and corsets for example), vinyl, bondage inspired pieces of clothing, crosses, esoteric symbols.
Metalheads: the first heavy metal bands were actually born in the 70s, and they had a mainstream following: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple. Over the years, the sound got more typical and heavy, distancing itself from the first psychedelic rock it came from, and many subgenres were born. One of the most commercially famous was glam metal in the 80s with bands like Motley Crue and Poison. Over the years though, the genres have become pretty much infinite, with influences from other genres (for example nu-metal with hip hop influences). With the different music styles come different fashion looks, but the original metalheads, the “true” ones have some features they all have in common.
The main features of the metalhead look are leather jackets, jeans (ripped off or not), chains, studs, studded leather cuffs, long hair, band t-shirts, motorcycle boots.
The 80s in Alternative Fashion Today
We can see a lot of influences coming from the 80s today. This decade is the star of many revivals, whether it’d be black vinyl, studs or heavy metal band t-shirts.
The goth scene actually never faded: it’s still alive in its own clubs, and it evolved in so many subgenres you might get a headache thinking about them all. The music is also flourishing, with second and third generation goth bands that are both following in their progenitor steps or evolving in other directions (industrial, metal, rock).
Goth is also still a huge influence on mainstream fashion: we have seen crosses, black lace, studs, vinyl and leather popping up in every high street shop and catwalk over the last few years. Black lipstick is all the rage, as it is the overall goth feeling.
Heavy metal rows are still crammed full with die-hard fans who rock the same core elements in their looks as they did in the 80s.
Current alternative fashion styles and scenes influenced by the 80s:
- Gothic Lolita
- Soft grunge
- Nu metal
Grunge: alternative rock was born in the 80s and it’s an umbrella that includes a lot of rock subgenres (even punk rock). What we mostly remember today when we think about the 90s tough, it’s grunge. When we say grunge we refer to a typical Seattle sound of alternative rock born in the mid-80s, that saw a huge breakthrough in the 90s. You surely remember Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains.
The main features of the grunge look where anything bought from a thrift store, and in the 90s it meant blue jeans, sneakers, slouchy faded t-shirts and plaid shirts. All in all, a scruffy look with long hair and a guitar on your back.
The whole grunge thing was a reaction to the bright and colourful 80s.
Ravers: one can argue that raves were actually born in the 60s with events like Woodstock; non-authorized gatherings that involved music, lots of love and drugs. The raver scene was born in the late 80s/early 90s and mostly referred to private and underground parties. The music played was house, acid house and techno. At the beginning, it was all about dancing and happy sounding music. What it evolved later in the years it’s another pair of shoes: the rave scene influenced a lot of different electronic music genres and corresponding scenes like hardcore, hardstyle, gabber, drum and bass, 2-step, trance. Even under the trance umbrella, there are different scenes (the psytrance scene is quite different and more influenced by hippies culture if compared to EDM).
The 90s in Alternative Fashion Today
Current alternative fashion styles and scenes influenced by the 90s:
- Soft grunge
- Indie rock
I have a feeling that 2000s is just a constant re-mixing and reviving old music subcultures and alternative styles. Nothing really new was born from the late 90s on, and nothing can be labeled as a style on its own anymore, if not a bunch of electronic music styles whose very first stages can be traced back to the 90’s anyway.
From 2000 on, there have been continuous and short waves of revivals of almost every decade we analyzed in this article and a meltin’ pot of subcultures and style that mostly took away the meaning behind the look. It feels like in this day and age, the most important thing is to dress how we like to dress, it’s freedom of expression, style flexibility and contaminations.
I think that alternative fashion is better when it’s fluid and not fixed on one style and one label. Labeling oneself is generally not a good thing in my opinion: it just answers the very basic “pack instinct”, which is very much alive in humans thanks to our ego (see the quote at the beginning of this article).
And we’re done! Please feel free to leave a comment below and point out anything we might have missed in the post. Don’t forget to share this post with your friends: they might learn something!
Featured photo credits: Spakhrin
About the Author
Hey, it's Elisa, founder of styleonvega.com. I'm a social media strategist & consultant by day and blogger by night (honing my multitasking skills since 2006 ;). I'm an atypical Italian, freedom lifestyle advocate and modern spirituality enthusiast. Feel like we could get along? Join me just above this box or get in touch with me on Facebook or Twitter.