Smells like Teen Spirit Overview

This term, I was in the Smells like Teen Spirit constellation group, with Cath Davies. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot from this term in constellation – I’ve really enjoyed it and feel like it’ll be useful for me in my upcoming projects in Graphic Communication.

We began by looking at symbolic markings used throughout all subcultures. These markings create identity. For example, if you saw someone with a bright red, spiky Mohawk and wearing a studded leather jacket, it would be known that they are ‘Punk’.


We looked at a range of different case studies over the weeks, I enjoyed studying the Goth subculture in particular. There were emerging motifs and themes within, expressed both visually and through attitude. A description of the typical goth could be: dressed fully in black, with no skin showing, a tight bodice around the waist – a corset was a key garment to the goth fashion style – and black ribbon and lace. Hats and feathers would be worn to hide the face, which was painted in unnaturally pale looking makeup and thick black makeup around the eyes. Jewellery was sometimes worn, usually in the form of crucifix crosses.

It was interesting to learn that a lot of their style actually returned back to the Victorian era – I had not known this previously. The dresses Goths often wore were Victorian mourning dresses. I learnt that back in Victorian times, women weren’t allowed to show skin during their period of mourning, which links to why the Goths would cover their own skin up. Although it seems at first as if they are aiming for historical accuracy, on further assessment, it is clear that the Goths have added several new ‘bits’ and also ignored previous traditions. They do not wear Victorian mourning dresses with the intent to mourn whatsoever; they instead wear them for their dismal and disheartening appearance, to match what could seem a gloomy and miserable attitude. In the same way, they do not wear crucifixes as signs of their Christianity – in fact, one would find that the majority of the subculture would likely be atheist. New, added on ‘bits’ include the excessively white face which advertised the severely unnatural quality, contrasted by the black lipstick that they also wore. Overall, the Goths literally wanted to look as if they were dead. Even down to the smaller elements such as black lace, which looked like cobwebs, supplemented their desired style. Goths were certainly not afraid to stand out; in fact, it seemed to me as if they wanted to do just that – they wanted to be seen by others as outsiders, so would do everything that they could possibly do to transgress the social norms.

We learnt key points on what the re-signification of subcultures’ objects and dress intended to do:

  • To inflict ‘given’ meanings by combining bits borrowed from other subcultures or eras.
  • To modify, by addition, things produced and/or used by the subcultural group.
  • To intensify, exaggerate or isolate a given meaning.
  • To combine forms or a ‘secret’ language or code.

One clear example of these points is, the Goths’ Victorian mourning dress which I have just spoke about above.

I learnt that meanings are generated and emerge due to the ‘bits’ borrowed or revived from past subcultures or eras, which then become a new and distinctive stylistic ensemble, created especially by and for a particular subculture. It is considered crystallisation in an expressive form, thus defining the group. I find it really interesting, especially as one can spot the borrowed objects being used today, within new and different subcultures.

Hip Hop:

I had not really thought of hip-hop as being a subculture before, so it was really interesting to learn about them. Urban street style originated, in New York. Members of the hip-hop subculture, most importantly tried to show off their wealth, which they did mainly through the way that they dressed. Their key garment would probably be the thick, heavy, chunky gold chains that they wore. Obviously, the bigger the chain and the more accessories you had on; the more you had spent so were clearly wealthy. They would wear glasses to suggest intelligence and bucket or trilby hats, which was gentleman’s wear, to suggest high dignity.

We learnt about how some members of the hip-hop subculture would even steal car badges off of the front of cars, in particular the Volkswagen, and turn them into chain pendants. This actually really shocked me, because I had never heard of that happening before – it made me realise that it wasn’t just punk with an anti-establishment sense about them, many subcultures rebelled against society. Of course, Volkswagen was not impressed with the reputation they were fast gaining, so they began offering out VW badges for free.

Another key feature to their consumer-based style was brands – practically everything they wore was branded. Similarly to bling, brands would show your wealth. Adidas sportswear was worn by the majority of the subculture, such as bomber jackets, joggers and trainers. Although these clothes were initially considered unfashionable and their original function was purely for sport, the hip-hop subculture completely flipped this around and would wear the garments to make themselves seem cool, fresh and new. In the same way that Goths changed the signification of the Victorian mourning dresses, hip-hop did this to trainers. They would remove the laces from clumpy, high top trainers and completely destroy their sports usage, because as one can imagine, if you attempted to run around in a pair of trainers with no laces, they would just fall off.

My own course:

After looking at a range of different symbols that were iconic to each subculture, I want to try and possibly use some of the key features in my own work. For example, the punks’ safety pin, the Goth’s mourning dress or the hip-hop’s VW car badge. I could also use the technique of object re-signification, used by subcultures. For example, I could take an object or even a piece of artwork, then recreate and give it a whole new meaning. Perhaps I could create my own version of a famous art piece, put with a Goth, punk or hip-hop inspired twist.

I really enjoyed learning about the hip-hop subculture – there were a lot of things in it that I found really inspiring and could even use in my own work on my Graphic Communication course. For example, I want to try out a graffiti style of work, possibly with a punk cross-over.

Hegonomy, Binary & Heteronormativity

In week 3 of Constellation, ‘The Body in Society’, we looked at bodies and identity: reading masculinity on the body.

We looked at and learnt the meaning to three key words – hegonomy, binary, and heteronormativity. All three of these words were new to me, but they were really interesting to learn about and sparked many opinions and friendly debates among our group.

Hegemony: On the topic of hegemony, which is leadership or dominance over others, we looked in particular at hegemonic masculinity. In gender studies, hegemonic masculinity is the concept (made famous by sociologist R.W. Connell) that proposes the dominant social position of men, and the subordinate position of women. An example of a hegemonic man would be David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK. When looking at Cameron, one can see he dresses in an expensive suit, displaying his wealth and dominance clearly. The hegemonic concept also suggests that, just as a man in a well dressed in a suit and tie is a dominant and hegemonic male character, a man in just a casual outfit couldn’t be. In my opinion, I disagree with this concept, for example, Steve Jobs (the creator of Apple), was very rarely seen wearing a suit, although he is still considered in most peoples’ eyes as a hegemonic male.

Binary: We looked in particular at the gender binary, which is the classification of gender in two distinctly opposite forms of masculine and feminine. The term can describe a social boundary that discourages people from crossing or mixing gender roles. For example, a male would be assumed masculine appearance (such as short hair), character traits and behaviour, including a heterosexual attraction to the opposite sex. Personally, I feel that this is wrong representation and belief on genders, and that whether you are male or female, you have the right to both look and behave however you like, for example, a woman should be able to cut her hair short without it being considered wrong just because it’s not the ‘norm’. Also, homosexuality is not wrong just because it doesn’t fit with the stereotypical binary of being attracted only to the opposite sex. The gender binary reduces options for people to act outside of their gender role without coming under scrutiny, so instead, it is important to distinguish femininity and masculinity as descriptors of behaviors and attitudes, without tying them directly to the genders man and woman. There is plenty of evidence showing that dividing humans into the two distinct categories of men and women is problematic – by allowing for a more fluid approach to gender, people will be better able to identify themselves however they choose.

Heteronormativity: This is the belief that people naturally fall into distinct and complementary genders. It also asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation that is the ‘norm’, and states that relationships are most fitting between people of the opposite sex. Because of the view this concept, it is often linked to homophobia, which a lot of people, including myself, disagree with.