Subculture: The Meaning of Style  

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"Maps of meaning [in society] are charged with a potentially explosive significance because they are traced and retraced along the lines laid down by the dominant discourses about reality, the dominant ideologies. Thus they tend to represent, in however obscure and contradictory a fashion, the interests of the dominant groups in society." --Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) by Dick Hebdige, p. 15

"I was sure that this puny and most humble object would hold its own against them; by its mere presence it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw down upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages."--The Thief's Journal (1949) by Jean Genet

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Subculture: The Meaning of Style is a 1979 book by Dick Hebdige, focusing on Britain's postwar youth subculture styles as symbolic forms of resistance. Drawing from Marxist theorists, literary critics, French structuralists, and American sociologists, Hebdige presents a model for analyzing youth subcultures. While Hebdige argues that each subculture undergoes the same trajectory, he outlines the individual style differences of specific subcultures, such as Teddy boys, mods, rockers, skinheads, and punks. Hebdige emphasizes the historical, class, race, and socioeconomic conditions that surrounded the formation of each subculture. While Subculture: The Meaning of Style is one of the most influential books on the theory of subcultures, it faces a range of critiques.


Hebdige studied under Stuart Hall at the Birmingham University's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Hebdige's model somewhat builds from Hall's understanding of subcultures, and his theory of Encoding/Decoding. Hall sees different subcultures as representative of the variety of ways one can handle the "raw material of social ... existence." Hebdige also incorporates and responds to the literary criticism of Richard Hogart and Raymond Williams; the Marxist theories of ideology of Louis Althusser, Bertolt Brecht, Antonio Gramsci, and Henri Lefebvre; and the American subcultural sociology of William F. Whyte and Albert Cohen, and the French structuralism of Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jacques Lacan.


In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Hebdige argues that the styles of Britain's postwar working-class youth subcultures challenge dominant ideology, hegemony, and social normalization through symbolic forms of resistance. Hebdige focuses, in particular, on the evolution of styles in subcultures such as Teddy boys, mods, rockers, skinheads and punks. According to Hebdige, style is constructed through a combination of clothing, music, dance, make-up and drugs. Hebdige emphasizes the historical, socioeconomic, class, race, and mass media contexts of each subculture. For instance, Hebdige argues that there is a common theme underlying the white punk and black reggae subcultures; both reject British national symbolism. Although seemingly unrelated, Hebdige proves this point by outlining the similarities in their styles.

Hebdige argues that all subcultures experience the same trajectory. In this model, subcultures initially form through a common resistance. The dominant society often sees these groups as radical, leading to fear, skepticism, and anxiety in their response. In some ways, this gives the subculture's resistance more power but only momentarily, because eventually entrepreneurs find a way to commodify the style and music of the subculture. Before long, elements of the subculture are available to the mainstream, i.e. Edwardian jackets of the Teddy boys. In this way, what was once subversive, rebellious, and radical, is now contained. For this reason, it is often the case that the moment when dominant society begins to recognize a subculture is the moment that the resistant power of the subculture begins to die.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Subculture: The Meaning of Style" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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