Fashion and the rise of youth culture

At the turn of the last century, it was often but not always the rising generation which displayed this defiance. Those most burdened by convention were the ones most likely to fly in the face of it. Wharton's populations of young married women in flight from husbands and homes testify to the social weight they bore; eventually, those coming into this social inheritance in a supposedly democratic and free-thinking society bridled at these strictures from the get-go. Before many decades had passed, the generation gap was clearly evident, its two sides of older/reactionary and younger/rebellious demarcated as sharply as the lines of rich/poor, acceptable/unacceptable, had been. The post-war period in the U.S. is generally agreed to have seen the rise of our youth culture, and one can pick this out of nearly any of the popular culture of the middle of this century. The Catcher in the Rye, Rebel without a Cause, The Subterraneans, On the Road--all classics, all offering portraits of disassociation and the emerging value of defiance. Ultimately, the loner grew to become the martyr, the leader, the hero--that bravest of creatures, the early adopter.

This phenomenon continues to be repeated as social fact, in addition to being spoofed, satirized, and deconstructed. [5] Now, youth culture is in many ways our only culture. It is the one most vital and volatile, the one governing the bulk of prime time and with it our attention. There are far fewer befuddled, pipe-smoking dads and kitchen-bound moms shaking their heads and asking "is that what all the kids are wearing now?" What all the kids are wearing now, or at least what the Gap is asking them to wear, is plainly displayed in the media. Society women were once our designated displayers, but they have been replaced by the kid on the street. As Malcolm Gladwell put it in a seminal article for The New Yorker, "sometime in the past few decades things got turned over, and fashion became trickle-up." (1997, p.78) Fashion in strictly sartorial terms bears this out. The dominant fashion trend of the period immediately following World War II, the New Look of Christian Dior, was the last gasp of the haute couturiers. Valerie Steele, chief curator at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, writes that after 1945 "couturiers increasingly sold their designs to the mass market, rather than to individual private clients. They also further developed the system of licensing. . . something much closer to the original could be reproduced, to be sold at a higher price as an 'Original Christian Dior [or whoever] Copy'." (1997, p.18) Eventually, the commodified, branded world of high fashion and Original Copies melted into the street-chic of new designers like Mary Quant, who aimed to reach the style-obsessed mods and rockers among the rising generation. (Steele, 1997, p.50) [6]

But the cult of the copy, once established, did not fade; it became part and parcel of where coolness has gone. Berger points out that as a consequence of new means of reproduction, "the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes on as unique; its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is." (1972, p. 21) Ironically, the reproduced original "is defined as an object whose value depends on its rarity." (Ibid.) There's no shortage of rarity; the question is, who decides which rare thing has value over another, and why do we pursue these rarities?

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