When I was younger, defining oneself to the outside world as edgy, difficult, different was comparatively easy. There was a pretty straightforward list of symbols and codes in which one could participate or not. Soccer shorts and sneakers meant you were a jock, whether or not you were really interested in playing sports of any kind. Black band t-shirts and a wallet chain meant you were a rocker kid, a badass with an interest in bands with guitars and a disdain for authority. Goth, of course, had the most fun symbols and so many ways to play dress-up. Fishnets, long black skirts regardless of gender, black eyeliner and lipstick, anything made of vinyl, all daringly worn to school where, I now reminisce, nothing was really at stake but one’s own vanity.
You know all of this already. Well, one of my favorite pieces of this code was and has always been the bold black and white striped tights, beloved of alternachicks and goth girls ages 12-32 coast to coast. Any plain black dress and boots ensemble could be made “cool” with a pair of these tights. They were like hipness armor at a vulnerable age when I felt I really needed such a thing. I probably still have my first pair somewhere, full of holes, this pair of tights, this very small thing that made me feel somehow protected from the horror of being mistaken for a slave of dreaded mainstream fashion and therefore boring mainstream thought.
It’s easy to make fun of teenagers. They don’t always get that major fashion brands aren’t purveyors of the new, they’re delimiters of the accepted. Their status as such depends on their continued marketing of themselves as edgy but this is marketing only. If it weren’t the money would dry up and disappear like steam. So I suppose the presence of the Coach advertisements currently papering most of New York amuses me just as much as it makes me feel wistful. The ads feature a close-up shot of a foot, shod in a new $300 Coach black leather Mary Jane style pump, the leg lovingly clad in that familiar black and white striped stocking.
When I first saw this ad, I admit it, I stopped and looked at it for a moment, thinking about the predictable clichés of my youth and feeling sorry for myself. I recognize it as yet another sign of the mainstream having absorbed what I once considered a vibrant subculture. This feels bad in the way that anything feels a little bad when it’s being shared, like seeing a fondly-remembered ex-lover smooching someone new in a bar: it’s good that it’s being shared and other people are enjoying it, but it’s painful to be reminded that something you loved isn’t really yours and never was, and anyway, just how many people will enjoy the corpse of this poor dead notion of edgy, sexy, dangerous subculture before we have some respect and bury the stinking thing?
The funnier joke of it is that I am 26. Perhaps there was never a subculture, even in my own lifetime. Perhaps by the time it got to me, all “subculture” I believe I have experienced was in fact a watered-down shadow of itself, already pre-digested by years of issues of Spin and W magazines. The wise old denizens of the spooky nightclubs I once frequented would probably say this is so. I write about the death of subculture like I really know what I’m talking about but then, also, in the back of my mind is the thought, like a hope, that subcultures haven’t died—I’m just too old and un-hip to find them anymore, infected though I still might be with this Romantic disease of seeking something called authenticity, and seeking it in the only way I know how: self-conscious consumer capitalism.