Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Style Tribes and Youth

I'm not educated in the world of fashion, so the term "Style Tribes" was a new one for me when I picked up a video that I used when I was teaching.  It was an educational video, one produced specifically for the classroom, and it featured an interview with Valerie Steele, Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

She had used the term "Style Tribe" to discuss the phenomenon of folks dressing in similar ways, indicating a similar interest or intent.  The Hippies, the Mods, the Punks, Grunge, Goth--all of these different socio-political movements had their own "looks" or styles, and dressing similarly to others in the same style indicated you were part of the same "tribe", or group.  We look back now and can easily recognize specific kinds of dress that are indicative of these groups, and each had varying reasons and motivations for choosing to dress as they did.

Even today, the presence of Style Tribes are a major influence on how we dress.  We could look at this phenomenon as something very "high school" in nature,--indicative of immaturity--but the behavior never actually goes away...  It might not appear as blatantly for us as adults as it did when we were in high school wearing the gang jacket or colors, or the letterman sweater, or carrying the right purse or wearing the right shoes or wearing the right jeans...  But it's still there.

We might call it an unwritten dress code...  We instinctively know what is appropriate attire to wear with certain groups of people and what is not appropriate.  One probably wouldn't want to wear a business suit if one was going to watch a football game with the guys.  Or wear stiletto heals if one was going to their son's soccer game.  Or your own wedding dress to a girlfriend's baby shower.  Instead, we choose to dress in attire that we feel makes us a valid participant in whatever group of people we're going to be around.  Not wearing something that validates our membership in the group can be embarrassing and socially ostracizing.

That social validation is terribly important to us.  It's wrapped up in many levels of Maslow's Hierarchy of Basic Human Needs.  We need security and belonging--if we don't dress how others expect us to dress we stand out and feel less comfortable and included.  And that makes us feel, in a general instinctual sense, unsafe.

Susan, of Windrock Studio, made a comment on a post a couple days ago about the young folk that hung out in her local park,  appearing desperate for attention by dressing in outlandish attire, and probably making a spectacle of themselves.  Obviously this got me thinking--what a great opportunity to share the idea of Style Tribes!!!  I'm trying to cater my work to any number of different style tribes--this would be a great way to introduce the idea!!

So, I'm goin' with it.  Bare with me if I seem like I'm in "teacher mode"--after 10 years of teaching it's hard not to sound like a lecturer...    

My post had been about using fashion to express individual internal personality, and the concept of Style Tribes (in a way) works against that notion.  Style Tribes are all about prescriptive norms and the boundaries established to help define inclusion, and conversely delineate non-participation.  It's possible to "express yourself" and still be part of a style tribe, but only within established parameters--anything outside the societally set "box" doesn't fit.  Experimentation in attire is permitted as a novelty, and disregarding the norm established by the style tribe is a recognized exception.

Young people today are caught balancing these two extremes of individuality vs. their tribe's peer pressure.  The desperate need to belong is powerful at their age--in fact, instinctually it was the key to survival in our primitive past.  We've not lost that instinct.  That's why it's so common to rebel against parental guidance as part of a group...  "Let me be myself!" they say.  "I want to dress just like my friends!"  And we know this isn't new--remember Flappers from the 1920s?  The Macaronis of 18th Century England? Youth has spawned many a "style tribe" over the centuries.

In today's world--Thank you very much, Internet--the balance between individual expression and societal conformity is really taking a beating.  Never before have we had such a "democratization" of voices all at once through a media that allows instantaneous communication.  A single voice can have as much gravity as an entire government.  Gone are the days of individuality within parameters established by social norms...  Now we can set our own parameters, and expect society to accept them as a new norm instead of the other way around.

And thus, it's my personal theory that youth are experiencing a profound gestalt shift that none of us have ever experienced before, nor ever will.  Their understanding of their world is profoundly different than ours.  As part of the last generation that can remember life without computers, and a willing participant in its dominant proliferation, I can only begin to imagine the rift these young people must feel between balancing their individuality and the social expectations placed on them by others.  It's taken to an entirely new level--one we can't even imagine.  We only had a class of fellow high schoolers to think about.  They not only have that, but an entire planet filled with celebrity and diversity and television and advertising and  Youtube that helps dictate what they and their friends choose to wear.

Ponder this:  Is the outward manifestation of radical individuality now a survival mechanism in itself?  Is it possible to belong by being stylistically singular?  I wonder.  But I wouldn't want to live in their heads.  Not for a New York minute.  My own head is complicated enough--and I've lived through a huge part of the transition to globalization.  They were born into it... Or at least are trapped in it mid-birth...

So when we see those kids making fools of themselves and dressing like embarrassing idiots (hey, we've all done it),  consider that their definitions of their "style tribe" might be established by the ideals of a group infinitely bigger than we think it might be, or conversely (nee, "defensively"?) smaller than we ever experienced ourselves.  Consider how their instincts might be informing them in ways we can't comprehend, shaping their behavior and speech and beliefs.  I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but I'm not sure if my understanding of their looks and behavior and needs is relevant or required anymore.  Until I'm somehow part of their tribe--their chosen world--I'm inconsequential.

Maybe that's a defense mechanism for them, too.  Hm.

In essence, I dunno what they're doing or what they're about or why they need so much attention.  But I'm not sure I can.

Anyway.  Whew!  Blah blah blah ad nauseum.  Haha!!

Until next time--and I promise a lighter tone--Live Life with Relish!

First Image from apazo via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.
Second Image from Lord Khan via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.
Third Image from wonder via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.
Fourth Image from celebdu via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.


  1. Hey Corey, I would love sitting in your class room each & every day! You certainly taught me some things here, one is to try to have more patience and understanding. It would be easier if these kids at least had some of the color & style of your photos but it's a very dark, dank tattered look with much aggression & anger.

    So I'll try to remember all they have to deal with, send them love & light and hope they find their way ... and their style!
    Thanks, my friend.

  2. Susan, you are a true seeker of light and understanding, and have real compassion--it's evident in the photos you take on your blog!! I'm not sure if this idea applies to those kids are not, it just reminded me of the Style Tribes concept...

    Thank you thank you thank you for providing me the opportunity to talk about it! I wish there was an answer to the kids' behavior--I'm just contemplating how they look... The more I taught, the more I realized I really didn't know kids at all... By the time I left, I was teaching kids who could have been my children and they might as well have been aliens for all I could associate with them... I've had to back up over time and realize that's okay--maybe it's supposed to be that way, I dunno.

    Not sure there are any answers. Just empathy, I guess. And you've got that in spades! ; )


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