Connecting the dots between the stuff you buy and the lifestyle you consume.
We know. Marketing sucks. Enough already. But beneath the weight of advertising and bullshit, there exists a truism: stuff matters. The things people wear and the products they consume are a vital part of the culture they create. In fact, they are the concrete elements of the culture itself.
But true culture emerges from below; it is never imposed by marketeers – no matter how big or glossy their billboards get. How a product is consumed and reinterpreted by punters is impossible to predict. What follows are three lyrical sojourns into the cultural history of some of our most beloved products. It may just be a load of ‘stuff’, but it’s the stuff of stories – the way in which we connect across geography and time.
Thing is, in 2012, there is chaos, electronically motivated chaos. It was always unpredictable, but now, our cultural influences are as randomly improvised as how you decide which part of your screen to click your mouse. The fact that you can share your ‘cool’ over huge space and time can remove the human element – unless you know your history, that is.
Popularised on court by the lanky, froed NBA legend that was Kareem Abdul Jabbar throughout the 1970s, the iconic pro-model shoe transcended the basketball hoops of Harlem. By the early 1980s Run-DMC aped con style by wearing them without laces and with the tongue flapping out. Shell toes thus became part of the b-boy staple, and have been worn by skaters the world over, making a big comeback in the nineties with emo metal-heads and fans of Korn – you know who you are.
Snapshot: 1980, UK. Thatcher’s government one year in takes on the unions and other undesirables. The Special Patrol Group (the tooled-up, testosterone-fuelled police storm-trooper squad) provoke kids on the streets of Britain, helping to articulate the National Front and the British Movement’s hateful invocation of white, working-class fear.
At the end of the 1970s when the Sugarhill Gang launched the full-length, fifteen-minute version of Rapper’s Delight, it wasn’t long until Britain’s high streets were prowled by adolescents with rolled-up linoleum and heavyweight Hitachis on their shoulders. Electronica inherent in the beat of the earliest hip hop begat a keyboard focused way of being in the world. Kids all over the suburbs – white, brown, yellow and pasty – would meet up at huge nightclubs whose lager-stained parquet would host a revolution more akin to the post-industrial wastelands of Detroit or Philly’s downtown discos. Zero 6 and The Lacy lady in the Essex Hinterland hosted huge soul nights that laid the groundwork for the entry of House Music into the lexicon of British youth culture. You may have been from Basildon or Heaton, son, but the aesthetic that had superimposed itself on your way of looking at the world was all about the Northern end of the Mississippi.
Windansea is the original countercultural surf club based in the heavily localised beach breaks of La Jolla. Round here, you had to earn your T-shirt. In the 1950s and 1960s, Windansea was a byword for that jockishly aggro attitude that characterised Californian surf culture before everyone started tuning in, turning on and dropping out. Today the club retains its rep – albeit for an age when the whole idea of a surf club seems a tad twee.
Snapshot: 1945-65, The American Boom Time dresses down. The GI bill frees up a generation to explore their imaginations and has-beens obsess over the old version of the American Dream.
The Second World War created the T-shirt as a ubiquitous item of cheap, comfortable apparel. Army surplus cotton tees were available en masse for the first time in the post-war years, and as the buttoned-up 1940s gave way to the rock ‘n’ roll 1950s, youth culture adopted them as standard-issue. When Marlon Brando draped himself over his motorcycle in a white tee in The Wild One, and then James Dean emoted his generation’s angst in Rebel Without a Cause, the humble T-shirt’s image was sealed. Surf culture took the T-shirt to another level of cool when, some time in the late 1950s, surfboard-shaping entrepreneurs came up with the idea of screen-printing surfboard logos on T-shirts for their hottest riders. It may have been Californian legends Larry Gordon and Flloyd Smith – founders of the eponymous Pacific Beach surf shop – or longboard era Dewey Weber who fully popularised the idea, but either way it worked. The hottest riders not only got a surfboard, but branded T-shirts to boot, and soon a cult of aspiration was created around the look of Mexican-made huarache sandals, jeans or surf shorts and branded tees. The surfer became the cleaner-cut equivalent of the grease-ridden hot-rodder. They were cool, they were stoked, and they were wearing the right tees. You read it here first: surf culture predates rock ‘n’ roll.
The term Harrington was coined by London menswear retailer John Simons to refer to the type of cotton windcheater worn by Ryan O’Neil’s character in 1960s American soap Peyton Place. His check-lined blouson jacket with a two-button collar and zip exemplified the Ivy League look. The Harrington has now become an essential piece of style for everyone from skins and indie kids to a panoply of hip hop stylists. Ubiquitous faux-retro brand Baracuta created the Harrington as a contemporary staple, and streetwear stalwarts Carhartt make our favourite version.
Snapshot: 1975-1980s, UK. With post-war austerity starting to ebb, working-class British modernists ape Brahmin Americana to transcend their dull surroundings.
Deep in the heartlands of multicultural Britain, an exchange was taking place. Black kids led the rank and file in the style stakes. They raided their parents’ record collections and reignited two-stepping ska for a new generation. If Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker defined West Indian UK culture for their parents, The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat refreshed the rude boy aesthetic during the early eighties. This was a time when the clothes you wore reflected the music you listened to and the place in which you grew up. Material culture was intertwined deeply with your identity – as it is today. The Harrington in its Ivy references – filtered through Jamaica to the streets of Britain – was an arcane but powerful statement of working-class steeze.
[NOTE: NO money or products were exchanged in the making of this article. Honest.]