Trickle Down: Youth Subcultures and Mainstream

“Les Vampires”, Silent Movie Poster (1915, France)

In order to evaluate the meaning of clothing in relation with youth cultures, it is mandatory to clarify some theoretical notions that concern the evolution of fashion towards contemporary consumption, especially referring to a time in which people had no consciousness of what they were wearing, even if there were imposed severe sumptuary laws to maintain well defined boundaries among social classes.

Hereafter, we must consider previous factors that constrained fashion and style in two perfectly separate dimensions. Thus, it is required to mention what sociologists call ‘trickle-down effect’, meant as hierarchical process through which people from upper classes are imitated by the poorest.

For instance, we can imagine Paris during the Belle Epoque years, and observe many players moving in the romantic city. From Rimbaud to Baudelaire, From Monet to Toulouse-Lautrec, we explore a cultural heritage that makes evidence of contrasting realities coexisting in the same place.

From the end of the 19th century throughout the Roaring Twenties, there were years of compelling creativity bursting all over the world. During those years, it was common to many metropolis to have a large amount of people growing up and living on the street with no education (i.e. Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, Jack London’s “On the Road” tell about homeless social conditions) as much as the wider gentrification resulting from Industrial Revolutions.

Poverty, ignorance, violence, social disease represented the common ground for the emergence of urban groups, such as Apache, a french subculture made famous by newspapers, media and also cinema that in 1915 realised “The Vampires”, a silent crime serial film directed by Louis Feuillade.

Apache typical outfit

The gangs were composed by young boys aged 18 to 20 years, living in Parisian suburbs and rebelling against wage earners conditions(Savage, 2007) (they used to gain money by prostitution abuse). They were mad about clothing and their eccentric wardrobe, which had nothing to do with indian tribes, included Bénard trousers, striped T-shirts, flat hats and colourful scarfs, so as that for media their clothing was a useful element to stereotype the criminal identikit.


On the other bank of the Seine, French people were assisting to the firing debate between Elsa and Gabrielle, about how a modern woman should dress up. Despite of the understandable collision, the Chanel’s little black dress and the surrealist apparel produced by Schiaparelli represented two sides of the same coin, in the sense that generally, fashion was conceived and still strongly anchored to high society’s interests and mostly exhibited via women (please note that we are not excluding men from fashion consumption, instead we want to stress on cultural implications of such patriarchal societies. Indeed, fashion studies showed that “the Great Male Renunciation” in England as well as Dandies were such cases in which men’s social status revealed the conscious use of clothing expressed by the quality of fabrics and other accessories. To the same extent, if we think about Flapper Girls or Wandervogels members, it would be wrong to say that before the Fifties subcultures were an exclusive male affair, despite of their minority in numbers).

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Other countries were experiencing similar situations, like with Hooligans in England and later in years with Zoot-Suiters in North America. Actually, it is not really important to list all of the subcultures preceding the birth of pop culture. The examples mentioned above aim to stress on the idea that before they could be considered as cultures, they achieved a negative aura that positioned them on the bottom of their society. Moreover, clothing was conceived as a key by which citizens could isolate young criminals/poor people from the wealthy and good ones. In these sense we understand that the use of extravagant clothes, accessories and colours has always been seen as a methodological escape from superimposed rules.

Fashion, meant as change in clothing, was conceived as a leisure game for respectable people as well as an instrument for bourgeoises and aristocrats to expose their endowments. Kawamura(2006:27) claims that fashion is the favourite daughter of capitalism, for it is understandable how it was mostly associated with wealth, beauty and power. As a contrast, the use of style to refer to clothing as we know it, it will come out together with the birth of the teen ager.

Youth Runs Wild

Bobby-soxers wearing ankle-socks during the Forties

Young people have always resulted as useful interpretation of their time and space, such as the Hitler Youth in Germany, Sessantottini in Italy or Flower Power in USA did in terms of political approval/refusal, or Bohemians, Dadaists or Nouvelle Vague followers did in artistic fields as well. As a consequence, worldwide youths caught up social studies and mass media attention, which understood their behaviours had something in common with social groups having precise rules and characteristics.

As Jon Savage suggests, people use to think that youth cultures are phenomena that appeared all at once after the World War II. Certainly they were much more visible and identifiable after the economical boom, the redefinition of shopping, and the contamination between the ‘third culture’ (also known as ‘mass’ culture) and the higher one (Morin:1965)1.

Yet there was a precise event that made people think that the passage from childhood to adulthood had to be rediscussed and lightened.

The American Situation


October 1944, 3:00 am, Paramount Theatre, New York City.

A long cue of young girls, the so-called bobby-soxers, is waiting for Frank Sinatra singing “All or nothing at all”, hours and hours before the offices opening. Theatre ushers are not trained to handle the unexpected flux of almost 30.000 boisterous fans that seemed falling prey to a hormonal storm. Then, the concert. Both adults and media assist to something incomprehensible: girls screaming like mad for Frankie’s sensual appeal. What is going on?

Years before people could get used to the “celebrity culture”, Sinatra’s case, which runs on a parallel lane if we consider that the wars have been fought far away from american land, deserves a little space in our analysis because it literally reformulated the cultural standpoints related to the problem of youth.


First, Sinatra’s physicality was symptom of a new standard of male beauty that was replacing the typical virility. Even though he was almost 30, his body looked younger, skinnier, softer and above all in stark contrast with soldiers rough frames.


Secondly, the high concentration of people aged 14 to 18 years old required scrupulous observations of the elders, which centred the power of education over the state of criminality and the overall wildness dominating in those years. They also understood that, due to the high percentage of battlefield deaths, young people had to be seen as the future nourishment of the nation, for it was absolutely needed to pamper their desires in order to empower their creativity.


Motivating rather than imposing, it was the strategy coming along with the spread of ‘teen canteen’(Savage, 2007), places mostly frequented by high school students that worked as a compromise between the necessity of independence required by young people and the invasive parental control. In addition, in the same year it was published the first edition of ‘Seventeen’, a magazine about american youths and their identity. For the very first time in history it was discovered a new human being, the teen-ager, a fruitful consumer, national representative and ancestor of all the generations emerging so far. In particular, the teen-ager will expand the duration of youth overtime, as well as its pure body will both absorb cultural and social values and influence the apparel industry.

Although, being born in the same year is not enough to describe all people belonging to the same generational cohort.

The European Situation

Anna Magnani in Roma Città Aperta, R.Rossellini, 1945

Meanwhile, Europe was living a completely different circumstance. Both the World Wars, which succeeded one another so furiously (and during which all young people were asked to wear uniforms and uniform their life to the state’s ideals), played an enormous role in the reconstruction of entire nations. Over 30 years of instability, anger, fear, alienation and especially the death of millions of people represented one of the darkest moments of humanity. On the one hand these dramatical events crumbled the humans inner dignity. On the other hand, the emptiness following the catastrophes made survivors hoping for a universal and spiritual reconciliation, which stands at the basis of our lagerung.

Therefore, during the Fifties, governments made huge efforts to recover their civilizations, in the behave of a new era of democracy.

If it is true that in Europe the subsidies coming with the Marshall Plan have been seen suspiciously by communist parties worried about the ‘americanisation’ of cultures, it is also true that the economical contribution that the european countries could count on helped rebuild and reinforce entire cities, which bloomed again of vital enthusiasm.

“Lettera 22”, Olivetti commercial leaflet

From an industrial point of view, step by step entrepreneurs had the chance to convert and refresh factories production while developing marketing plans that trusted young people growing up after the war and look at them as the possibility to aspire to a better future. We can mention Italy as an example of such an enhancement, and the name Olivetti deserves a place in the first raw. Known as a typewriting machine’s factory based in Ivrea, they became famous worldwide because of the pioneering way they presented new technologies, but also due to smart initiatives promoted by Achille Olivetti together with famous designers and architects, which clearly expressed the adoption of a modern language in line with fashion and young people.

‘Lettera22’ personifies such a passage: the typewriting machine realized by Marcello Nizzoli was thought as a lighter instrument, a useful ‘scooter’ for any modern student that was inclined to become a successful professional in the forthcoming future.

“Roman Holidays”, W.Wyler, 1953

If the Twenties run vertically on the wave of individualism, cars and skyscrapers, the Fifties expanded horizontally with Vespa’s scooters in the behave of emergent communities, huge progresses in technology and spread of visual communication.

Additionally, the cinema industry continued to work as a dream factory and reality reporter, whereas the introduction of sound empowered its appeal over the Technicolor processes. Specifically we refer to ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’, a period during which Rome and Cinecittà studios became physical set in which movies like ‘Roman Holiday’(1953) were made in english for international release. At a first analysis, in the italian case it seemed much more readable an intent to narrate a mythology where the screen pushed girls and women to identify themselves with divas like Audrey Hepburn wearing Sorelle Fontana’s dresses.

“Rebel Without a Cause”, N.Ray, 1955

Secondly, we think about ‘Rebel without a Cause’(1955) or ‘An American in Rome’(1954) through which we witness the examination of the impulsive nature of a teenager and the ironic analysis of an italian adolescent that truly believes in american culture.

Therefore according to a semiological assumption, Alberto Sordi is not wearing branded clothes, he is actually using a baseball bat, hat and glove as symbols that help him communicate his inner nature.

Dean, Sordi, Hepburn and many others embody the characteristics that explain the approach between the modern global society, fashion and style. On the one hand, Rodolfo Valentino’s bequest created a fandom more and more interested in younger actors, namely a growing quantity of films starring adolescents.

On the other hand, the educational power deriving from images in motion started influencing audiences imaginary and, of course, taste.

To sum up, we can position the emerging teenager as a mannequin who, starting from the Fifties, will be more and more marked by societies communication systems, such as magazines and marketing strategies. Vice versa, it will learn how to impose its unknown language throughout the help of fashion.

In conclusion, we want to underline the relevance of cinema culture about the overturning of its negative connotations into something ‘cool’. In the past, only people belonging to upper classes could benefit from travelling, the advancements in photography and the art education. Indeed, movies showed people other places, other cultures and made common people dream of them (i.e. mods driving Italian vespas or sessantottini wearing eskimo jackets).

Along with images, the power of sound: as a matter of fact, music is intertwined with young people, and all of the most iconic subcultures refer to a specific genre, which is automatically associated with a way of dressing up.

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