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The Life vs. The Look: Subculture and Aesthetic

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

Collage by Sienna Williams
Collage by Sienna Williams

If you have been on the internet for any large capacity of time, you have encountered some form of subculture, and if you have been on the internet for the last year–specifically on Tumblr or Tiktok, recent popularity in “core” aesthetics may have piqued your interest. While scrolling through the social media app of your choice, you see a video of  two stunning women in flowy white dresses picking blueberries in a field, or watch as a band of leather-clad, punk-rock enthusiasts rock out with a positively electric dynamic and scream out lyrics detesting the government. All of these are vibrant subcultures that have cultivated through a group of shared interests. Unfortunately, another trend has been created: subcultures and aesthetics being confused with one another. Now, at first glance, how could this be such a bad thing? So what if they have a mohawk and wear Doc Martens. They’re a punk, right? A person wearing an ornate baby pink dress and knee-high socks out on the streets must be a lolita, right? If not, what’s the big deal? Can’t I enjoy a certain sense of fashion without being roped up into lace codes, safety pins, and random questions about a girl in red? The answer is more convoluted than one may think. So, to anyone who is confused about the difference between the two, here is an in-depth explanation of how subcultures deviate from aesthetic. 

To start, it’s essential to understand what a subculture and an aesthetic is before one can understand their differences.’s definition of a subculture is “a group having social, economic, ethnic, or other traits distinctive enough to distinguish it from others within the same culture or society.” Now, this definition is broad in the sense that it needs to encompass all forms of subcultures, due to the sheer variety of subcultures. In short, a subculture is a form of cultural or social deviance from a norm with a strict set of rules. 

On the other hand, defines aesthetic as “a particular individual’s set of ideas about style and taste, along with its expression.” Which frankly means that an aesthetic is someone's personal style, that, within this context, people collect under or imitate. When comparing simple dictionary definitions, there is a very prominent distinction between subcultures and aesthetics, but there is also a lot of room for confusion. This stems from the superficial approach to understanding that social media websites like TikTok and Instagram push through their video time limits. Which makes sense–if you have only one minute, you would much rather spend it showing off whatever cool stuff you have or made instead of explaining why it’s not a good idea to ladder lace your Doc Martens with those cool white laces you bought the other day.

Why is this important anyways? So what if I don’t care? you might ask. What are the consequences of not knowing the punk version of the Hammurabi code? Well, more than one might think. You see, in order for a subculture to develop, there needs to be history behind it, and much of that history happened long before the majority of us have been alive.

Let’s use Japanese streetwear as an example. A foreign subculture to the vast majority of Americans, it is the subculture that encompasses the vivid, exciting, and dramatic fashion you’d see while strolling through Harajuku, Japan. This streetwear is much more than just clothing in Harajuku fashion, specifically for lolitas. The popularization of lolita fashion in the 90s was actually a feminist movement. According to the wordpress article THE REJECTION OF NORMATIVE CULTURE THROUGH LOLITA FASHION, aside from rejecting the social norm of working in an office while pursuing a career, lolita fashion is also about ownership of the female body: “beyond the pursuit of money and career the Lolita subculture resistance to the growing normalcy of sexualized dress, male gaze and male-created beauty is highlighted.” Subcultures collect under shared desires that transcend aesthetics, but just happen to collect under them as well. 

These pieces of fashion have history, and ignoring that history is disrespectful to their intention.

If you’re still not convinced, the past is the past right? It doesn’t matter if that happened then, it doesn’t matter if the punk community drove neo-nazis out of their movement in the 80s and 90s by taking a violently leftist ideology and of course doing some good ol' fashioned nazi-punching, because that was 40 years ago, right? This is now, things have changed, why do we need to get caught up in political savagery and culture wars? Why can’t I just get a nice tattoo of the nordic life rune, or ladder lace my Doc Martens however I wish? 

Simply put; it’s happening again. 

No, the Los Angeles punk scene isn’t full of neo-nazis again, but there has been a rise in disregard for the original ideologies several communities follow. Specifically in alternative communities, as leftist beliefs become more popular. The new wave of punk and alternative blasphemers aren’t skinheads–they're conservatives. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a conservative, but being conservative and punk is a different issue. Videos like ShortFatOtaku's The New Counterculture or Paul Joseph Watson's similar claim rise to shocking popularity as many teens and adults claim to be punk, disregarding the long standing punk repulsion towards consumerism, sexism, racism, and conformity. This trend of leftist beliefs in the punk community also goes as far as to detest the abysmal United States Healthcare System and subscribing to anarchical beliefs. In Edward Anthony Avery-Natale’s book, “Ethics, Politics, and Anarcho-Punk Identifications: Punk and Anarchy in Philadelphia,” out of all the interviewees from the sample group brought in for questioning, “Only one interviewee said that he would oppose a government implemented universal health care plan or similar social welfare provisions.” 

So, while conservative commentators in dry cleaned suits smile for the camera and claim they are a part of the “new punk rock,” remember that punk ideologies aren’t inherently apolitical, and are more importantly anti-establishment. Not anti-establishment just because they oppose the government, but because they oppose an unjust one. 

Perhaps know what the costume means before you wear it, and don’t wear it if you don’t mean it. 

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