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Counter-Culture in Fashion: What it is and Where to Find it Today

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

Article by Paige Venturi

In the world of fashion today, no trend is new. They’re all simply forgotten.

Shoulder pads, neon colors, and athleisure scream of the ‘80’s while lace bibs and flouncing silhouettes seen on the runway this season reference as far back as the 1800’s. This recycling of trends follows James Laver’s Law of Fashion, which tracks a trend as it passes from daring (1 year before its prime), to hideous (10 years past its time), charming (70 years), and finally back to beautiful after 150 years.

Fashion in its raw form is defined as “when a society at large agrees to a style, aesthetic or cultural sensibility for a period of time,” highlighting the almost unanimous decision of what’s in and what’s out for the time being.

Counter-culture in fashion exists solely to resist what is popular with masses in culture, politics, and trends, creating a personalized representation of an individual’s ideas.

Think of your stereotypical “hipsters” but one step further.

This was popularized during the Vietnam War era, as American youth boycotted the draft and fighting overseas through protest with their clothing and hair, going against what was accepted culturally at the time and saying a big ‘Screw You’ to the corporate Man.

Indiana University’s Heather Akou, associate professor of fashion design and director of the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection, emphasizes details of the original counter-culture fashion as men growing out their hair, people wearing tie-dye and jeans, and a more open acceptance of sexuality. But she says today there are far more ways of expression of counter-culture.

“People might think, ‘Oh there’s no real counter-culture anymore,’” she says. “There absolutely is, it’s just more fragmented.”

Akou added that the circular movement of trends, constant availability of e-commerce, and overall greater acceptance in society support this fragmentation.

“We have such a buffet of things we can purchase today, it’s not surprising that you see so many different kinds of expression,” Akou says. “Which in many ways is great because we don’t all look great in the same things.”

It is those who stray away from accepted norms towards these forms of expression that ultimately spur the turn of trends, finding the next new thing that will be considered “daring.”

“Don’t adapt what’s cool for the sake of being cool because that really just takes a lot of the actual force we need out of it.”

Tony Abascal, an IU apparel merchandising major, doesn’t want to toot his own horn when it comes to fashion, but I will.

A young man with a polished-yet-grunge hip hop aesthetic, Abascal describes his personal style as “ever-changing.” He wears a tan checkered shirt half-buttoned, a camouflage bomber jacket with a safety-pinned patch from Scream the movie, and blue Dickies. He has piercings on his nose and ears, a tattoo openly displayed on his chest under a gold chain, chunky silver rings on his left hand, and a gold grill on his bottom front teeth.

“It took me a while to realize I don’t want to be in the norm when it comes to fashion,” he says. “For a while I couldn’t really wear what I wanted to wear, because where I’m from people are really judgmental. So, I was like ‘I don’t want to be an outcast, I’m just gonna wear what everyone else wears.’”

Now Abascal is inspired by those who stand out from the crowd and admires their confidence.

In turn, he has developed that sort of confidence in himself and inspires others—including me.

While he doesn’t pay much attention to major trends, he says one thing he notices as an act of counter-culture for this generation is the love to thrift shop and re-purpose vintage clothing.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re running out of ideas, I just think it’s more so how as a whole our generation is very open, and people feel like they can wear whatever they want to wear, so it’s no bars held,” Abascal says. “In the ’60s there were still certain standards for how you wanted to dress, 70’s same deal, 80’s. But nowadays you can wear whatever you want to wear with no judgment.”

Autumn Siney, a fine arts major focusing in ceramics, is also the designer and creator of her own clothing line, DGNERIT.

She describes her personal style as everything from pastel and Lolita to dark and grunge, wearing a satirical “Cig Milk?” halter top—which she screen-printed herself using stockings and a crochet ring– over grey cargo pants. Her blonde hair is dyed neon green and held up by a fuchsia scrunchie. She has multiple facial piercings and wears a handmade gun-shaped necklace constructed from brass wire and an old bullet casing.

“I guess I was just sort of used to not fitting in, and I’ve always been really comfortable with it,” she says. “I found my own way of connecting with people by being something else. And it made me feel really confident, because there’s not a lot that makes me feel awkward or weird or upset now.”

Sharing the same mentality of Siney, I can relate to wanting to stand out from the crowd. Don’t get me wrong, high school me loved shopping at Forever21 for all the crazy pieces no one else would buy.

But then I discovered all of these radical trends are just recycled, and at one point were not so radical, and most of them can be found at Goodwill or local vintage stores. And Siney reminded me of this.

“If you want to represent something especially in this kind of realm, there is vintage out there and you can be creative on your own,” she says. “If you want to wear it, own it.”

Siney also agrees that counter-culture in this generation is best represented by the recycling of trends and clothes themselves, but she stresses the importance of this as a cultural, political, and environmental movement rather than just for appearance.

“I feel like it sort of ends up turning into this sort of situation where you have to prove yourself,” she says. “You have to prove yourself, that you’re an alt-bitch, and I don’t need to prove myself. I don’t want to be in situation where people look at me an they’re ‘like ahh, you’re probably not real.’ Because this is as real as I can be.”

Siney says living in a world where everything we want is at the tip of our fingers, the most important element of counter-culture is just being authentic. And as a generation facing such extreme environmental and political crisis now is the time to act. Siney and I call you to it.

“Don’t adapt what’s cool for the sake of being cool because that really just takes a lot of the actual force we need out of it.”

Watch the full-length interviews here:


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