The Meaning – or Meaninglessnes of Style

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The Meaning – or Meaninglessnes of Style – In Youth Subcultures


This essay investigates the concept and meaning – or meaninglessness – of style in youth subcultures. It does so in the context of the sociology of youth, particularly with reference to themes such as control, resistance and identity. The study builds on Dick Hebdige’s ideas on the post-war, music-related youth movements, which he saw as a form of resistance, if not revolution, in the young population’s repudiation of adult culture. The essay examines ‘style’ in the sense of popular culture, and namely fashion. Teens in the USA alone constitute a formidable group. In 1999, the spent $153 billion, and viewed shopping as a social necessity (Grant 2000: pp.08B). What meaning, if indeed any, youth subculture gives to ‘style’ is the main focus of this paper. It analyzes the capriciousness of the teen market – what is ‘in’ tends to show no rhyme or reason, and is dependent instead on the unpredictability of peer pressure. But fashion and style are analyzed here in the context of what they have to say about ideas of resistance and identity in youth culture. It is the claim of this paper that ‘style’, capricious and rapidlychanging as it is, reflects the issues of control and resistance in the shaping of youth subcultures and identities. To capture this up-to-dateness of the fickle meaning of style, this essay has relied on contemporary newspapers from various countries to assess these issues.

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This essay investigates the meaning – or meaninglessness – of style in youth subcultures. It does so on the basis of Dick Hebdige’s ideas on style and youth subculture, as fleshed out in his seminal study, Subcultures: the meaning of style (1979). Hebdige’s main thrust was based on the post-war, music-related youth movements, which he saw as a form of resistance, if not revolution, in the young British population’s repudiation of adult culture. This essay will explore these ideas not in the context of music, but in another relevant realm concerning ‘style’ in modern youth subculture: fashion. It explores the nature of style, insofar as it is possible to define an already slippery concept. But in the context of its meaning in youth subculture, not to mention the role that it plays in developing a sense of identity (consistently changing as it may be), style will be fleshed out as a significant concept in youth cultures. This paper will argue that style has meaning within this youth culture in the sense that it is integral in shaping identities, and in expressing issues such as resistance. But I will also argue that style has an in-built meaninglessness. By this I mean that ‘style’ is not easily defined, nor is it stable and lasting. In fact it is quite the opposite, changing on whim, seemingly without reason. What is ‘hip’ one day, can be passe the next. The point is that the concept of style is significant, and therefore, has meaning. Take it literally, however, and the core of what constitutes style turns out to be hollow. It is fickle, and far more related to expressions of identity and resistance. Those who attempt to research, serve and understand this market find themselves challenged at best, and at worst completely frustrated. As one journalist has said, teenagers are ‘fringe shoppers who defy demographics and neat marketing plans’ (Bond 1999: pp. E04). Youth style is at once fleeting and superficial.

‘Style’ and youth culture

We begin by investigating the concept of style as it is understood in the context of this paper. Style can be defined in a host of ways. It can refer to a genre of music or dress, a lifestyle or image. The Webster’s Dictionary describes style as ‘the current fashionable way of dressing, speaking, acting, etc.’ The way that this applies to a specific group, youth, will be part of youth subculture. As such, an investigation of ‘style’ will help us to explore the way in which teens or youth dress, speak and act, and will suggest what these attitudes and behaviors have to say about ideas of resistance, control and identity as part of teen subculture. Due to space constraints, this essay will focus on fashion as a tangible aspect of ‘style’. Others could be used, though broad themes can be drawn out on this basis.

What exactly that ‘youth subculture’ is, is, of course, another matter. We do know that teen subculture is very different than it was 20 years ago. As one writer has argued, today’s youth culture emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when young people lost interest in changing their parents’ world, and began to construct their own (Sharkey 1997: p.10). New fashions emerged, as did music, electronic consumer products, technologies, media and even new drugs, which inspired a vision of a world in pursuit of endless pleasure and self-knowledge (Sharkey 1997: pp.10-11). Sharkey’s idea is worth fleshing out at greater length. She argues that the concept of ‘mode’, in the French sense, is more applicable to today’s youth subculture that the English term ‘fashion’. The difference, she argues, is that there has been a rupture between ‘style’ in the conventional understanding of the fashion’s meaning, and what is currently happening in youth subculture. ‘Mode’ carries a sense of the transitory, implying a mode of being which one can enter into – as well as out of. It also implies a lifestyle that can be changed at whim by altering one’s image. Change one’s hair, clothing, jewelry and makeup, and you change the ‘mode’ or the way of being (Sharkey 1997: pp. 11-12).

The point here is that for Generation X, definitions of identity were rooted in class structure, gender and community. Therefore, one was born into a ‘style’, a youth subculture that gave it meaning and substance, not to mention identity. This no longer holds. Familial and community life has become far more disrupted. New media has created more lifestyle choices for Generation Y (generally defined as children born from 1980 to 2000, numbering some 31 million in the USA alone), and has made these images far more accessible (Sharkey 1997: pp. 11-12; Keating 2000: p.1; Bond 1999: pp.E04).

Generation Y

The journalist, Lauren Keating, has pointed out that each wave of teenagers defines itself by adopting new styles in fashion and music (Keating 2000: p.1). Clothes, makeup and accessories are the means by which teenagers take their first steps towards asserting their independence (Keating 2000: p.1). But before exploring this theme in greater detail, it is worth looking more precisely at the group that constitutes youth subculture and applies meaning to style. In the United States, there are more teenagers than ever before. The current surge in the population will not level off until 2010, says the Census Bureau (Bond 1999: pp.E04). According to Teenage Research Unlimited in the USA, teenagers currently comprise about 11% of the population (Keating 2000: p. 1). Aside from the size of this group, it is also significant that Generation Y is growing up in the most prosperous economic boom that the US has ever witnessed. Teens have money to burn (Keating 2000: pp.1-2). 88% of girls aged 13 to 17 said that they loved to shop, according to a 1997 Annual Consumer Survey by the retail consulting firm, Kurt Salmon Associates (Beck 1997: pp.4B; see also Bond 1999: pp.E04). It shows. In 1996, teens spent an estimated $103 billion in the United States, says Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm (Beck 1997: pp.4B). Parents are feeling the crunch. In Australia, children aged 11 to 13 place the biggest strain on the family purse, costing up to $261 a week to feed, clothe, transport and entertain (Patty & Baskett 2000: pp.007). A study has determined that Australian pre-teen demands for brand labeled clothes and the latest fads made them even more expensive to keep than babies and teenagers (Patty & Baskett 2000: pp.007).

Meaning or meaninglessness of style in youth subculture


The journalist, Alix Sharkey, has argued that ‘style [is] a kind of cultural currency, a means of establishing and maintaining one’s  status in a rapidly changing landscape’ (Sharkey 1997: p.11). She goes onto say that style was the engine of change for early 1980s British youth culture (Sharkey 1997: p.11). In this sense, style is of paramount importance in youth subculture. If ‘style’ can be viewed as a kind of cultural currency, how does it serve to establish and maintain one’s status in a fast-moving landscape? Style offers some purchase on ideas of control, resistance and identity. Baggy jeans, power beads and slip dresses – to name but a few – are means of assertion, a ‘currency’ to shape an image, often out of step with that perceived as acceptable by authority figures such as teachers and parents. As such, ‘style’ is one of the first means by which teens assert their independence and individuality. ‘Cookie-cutter clothes are no longer what teens want to wear,’ says the journalist, Becky Homan (Homan 2000: p.32). One American 18 year old says that ‘style’ is an extension of her individual personality at this critical stage of her life: ‘I’m not a mall person. I prefer to shop in a small shop rather than a department store because you can find unique things…I have a “unique” complex, I guess’ (Bond 1999: pp.E04). For more information go to

Style, as a ‘currency’ of meaning, is both reflective of and integral to the shaping of identity. Style, as it manifests itself through fashion, is not merely a reflection of an existing youth subculture, but an active and formative part of its creation. As such, the ‘style’ of one’s fashion sends critical messages about his or her image – or the image he or she is trying to portray. This takes place both on the individual level, and on the youth subculture level as a whole. Some individuals will attempt to go against the grain of the predominant trends in youth subculture ‘style’ as an expression of their own individuality 6 (like our teenager quoted above). Hebdige might have perceived this as a kind of stylerelated youth movement, which had a sense of resistance if not revolution embedded into it. The concept of resistance operates on a number of levels in this context. Style might be resistance against authority figures, such as parents or teachers. It might also be a form of resistance to the predominant ‘style’ of the youth subculture itself, further stressing the individual’s desire to be unique. Style, as Hebdige argues, reveals a subculture’s forbidden identity, formed – as it so often is – as a movement of resistance, or a repudiation of adult culture (Hebdige 1979: p.14).

Ironically, however, in youth subculture, this ‘image’ or identity that is sought is quite often to do with appearing adult. What is fashionable for teens often closely resembles what adults wear, which reflects the adolescent’s desire to seem grown up (Corey 1998: pp.B27). The ‘meaning’ that emerges from that ‘style’ can be dangerous, according to Dr. Paramjit Joshi, director of clinical services for child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center:

Children are still children. They want to grow up quickly and there is this notion that if you dress in this fashion, you’re grown up…It’s this pseudo-maturity, so they externally come across as 18 even though they are only 12 or 13. They don’t look beyond the immediate effect. They don’t have the capacity to understand what that means…But it’s not in sync with their emotional level. When they get unwanted attention, they don’t know what to do with it. They get taken advantage of, or they get pigeonholed as loose or without morals (Corey 1998: pp.B27).

It has also become patently clear that children are becoming fashion-conscious at a much younger age. This part of youth subculture is known as the ‘tween’ group, which dips down to the age of 7, which is keen on big designer names in small sizes (Bond 1999: pp.E04).


How, then, can we explain this apparent paradox of youth subculture trying to repudiate adult culture, while trying to imitate it at the same time? Hebdige argues that youth style is at once fleeting and superficial (Hebdige 1979: p.72). He goes onto suggest that specific ideologies and interests prevailing at the time – such as resistance to authority – will be represented in ‘style’ by specific groups and classes (Hebdige 1979: p. 14). ‘Style’, therefore, be that in music, fashion, or some other medium, will constitute a form of resistance and identity. It may have aspects of imitation, but it does so on its own terms, seeing itself as distinct from the previous generation and the status quo. Some have argued that this defiance of authority through style and the creation of a separate, yet similar, identity, is a kind of rite of passage in the developmental process. Trendy clothes and makeup that might make parents grimace, can be viewed as those first tentative steps towards asserting one’s independence (Keating 2000: p.1).

Following Hebdige’s argument, this paper explores the argument that ‘style’ has an inherent meaninglessness, as well as inherent meaning. On the one hand, ‘meaning’, as we have seen, stems from the use of style as a political tool. It is both taken up and created by youth subcultures in their everyday discourse, defined here as ‘style’, and more specifically for the purposes of this paper, as fashion. Meaning is ascribed to a fleeting and evanescent set of looks or brand labels. The point is that this meaning has no lasting power. Just as quickly as a set of looks and brand labels acquire meaning for youth subculture, they change again without apparent reason. Then again, this constantly changing nature of style in youth subculture appears to be its very essence. It is, therefore, the broader issue of forming resistance, of trying to assert control and identity via style this is of primary concern. Style, in whatever form, is merely a kind of vehicle for this process, which thereby encapsulates both meaning and non-meaning.


This paper has investigated one, and only one, aspect of style in relation to the meaning ascribed to it by youth subculture. It has used Dick Hebdige’s concept of style and youth movements as demonstrating a form of resistance in the young population’s repudiation of adult culture. But it has not focused on the post-war music-related youth movements, as Hebdige has already done. Instead, I have tried to use the framework to investigate another modern aspect of ‘style’ in contemporary youth subculture: that of fashion. I have tried to demonstrate that style – as it relates to fashion in youth subculture – is a significant manifestation of resistance and a means of defining identity. I have also tried to show that Generation Y, as it is called, is a force to be reckoned with. For generations, teenagers have seen themselves as distinct from their parents, but Generation Y really is unique. They number in the tens of millions in the US alone, and have more of their own money than ever before to shape and demonstrate their ‘style’ as a subculture than ever before. More work needs to be done on this field to determine how Generation Y will use this difference, and what its impact will be on society.

My claim has been that ‘style’, as seen through fashion or indeed any other medium, has both meaning and meaninglessness. For the former, style is both reflected and ascribed by youth subcultures. Its ‘meaning’ is related to ideas of forming and demonstrating a sense of self and identity, of resistance and control. On the other hand, there is an in-built sense of meaninglessness in the concept of style, as it is fleeting and superficial, not to mention unpredictable. The conclusion is, therefore, that style is a medium, no more, no less, for reflecting and representing the interests of a specific group (here, that being youth subculture), which prevails at that given moment.

Works Cited

  • Beck, Rachel. (12.11.1997). ‘Teenagers on a wild shopping spree,’ Denver Rocky Mountain News, pp. 4B.
  • Bond, Patti. (02.15.1999). ‘MALLWATCH: Fickle teenagers elude best marketing plans: Retailers continually scrambling to keep their share of a pie that expanded 16% last year,’ The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, pp. E04.
  • Corey, Mary. (09.03.1998). ‘Style File: Fashion Friction – the annual fracas known as back-to-school shopping is even more contentious this year, as parents struggle over where to draw the line,’ Newsday, pp. B27.
  • Grant, Lorrie. (07.05.2000). ‘Like, be hip or be gone: teen clothes market stores go from trendy to totally uncool overnight,’ USA Today, pp.08B.
  • Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subcultures: The Meaning of Style. Routledge: London.
  • Homan, Becky. (08.12.2000). ‘Young Style on the march back-to-school fashions will be a medley of bold color, shine, denim, plaid and faux leather,’ St. Louis Post Dispatch, p.32.
  • Keating, Lauren. (05.01.2000). ‘The In-Crowd: Retail Rushes to Keep Pace with Generation Y,’ Shopping Center World.
  • Patty, Anna and Sasha Baskett (04.25.2000). ‘Brands add to family costs,’ The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia).
  • Sharkey, Alix. (05.10.1997). ‘The Culture of Clubs,’ Independent (London, England), pp.10-12.
  • Tsitas, Evelyn. (01.10.2000). ‘Get Pierced with Tongue in Cheek,’ Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia).

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