PRINT November 1991


Tribalism in Effect

FOR A WHILE NOW, the dopest versions of homeboy style have included items of clothing featuring their original price tags. This is nothing if not a fiercely logical move in the street-style wars, and its meaning belongs to common sense more than to any individual act of bravado, even though we can’t help imagining that someone, somewhere, was the first to do it. There are no iron laws of fashion, but it is equally misleading to perpetuate the theory of individual taste-makers, whether it applies to singularly inspired fashion victims or to haute designers, who have been ransacking street style for over twenty years now.

With youth style going international at breakneck speed, the logic of the marketplace has itself become an object of sartorial terrorism, and so, for outsider sleuths in pursuit of the vox pop, the best tip is to “follow the money.” The visibility of the homeboy’s price tags, then, may remind us of the B-Boy’s ripped-off Gucci paraphernalia of a few years back, but it also signals that there’s a new game in town—calling the commodity. The Gucci appropriations fit very neatly into classic subcultural theory that sanctioned the cocky emulation of a status well beyond the social reach of the style pirate. Confrontational dressing was thus said both to resist and to affirm the subordinate status of the subculture. But the function or meaning of these price tags is less easy to discern. To certify that the goods are freshly purchased or freshly stolen? To supplement the visual address of the clothes or to hijack their fetish appeal? To parade the wearer’s buying power or to savagely expose middle-class phobia about the dollar value of taste?

Semioticians might say this uncertainty proves that while everything has its price, the price is never right. But the price tag is no Barthesian floating signifier, liberating the use value of the goods from their exchange value. On the contrary, it hangs as a kind of challenge to the subcultural premise that street style is created by reference to an alternative market economy—either by withdrawing goods from the orbit of their target taste markets or by elevating the value of neglected goods well beyond the currency of the market. Whatever else it does, the price tag bluntly comments on the ritual omnipresence of the “enterprise culture” within youth marketing in the last decade. Consequently, today’s codes of youth style embrace not only the act of creative consumption but also the very terms of entrepreneurship—design and style as market value. Sometimes this involves more than simply choosing against the corporate consumer grain; the growing preference, for example, for Old School sneakers—the early Adidas, Nike, and Converse classic hightops once available only to college/pro teams—as a reaction against the technologically overdeveloped high-octane boots that have fueled the intercorporate sportswear wars in recent years. It can also involve the bootlegging of brand names by backstreet screen printers. Ever since the multinational sportswear manufacturers declared their unwillingness to produce clothes for fashion purposes, their logos have become fair game for clothing bootleggers who ply a necromancer’s trade at producing not only fakes, but also originals that don’t legally exist—a sweatshirt, for example, bearing the logos of Nike, Fila, and Champion.

Street style and fashion marketing are now locked into a frantic polka, a spectacle that MTV has succeeded in programming around the world. But often it is too hastily assumed that the production of sumptuary style, especially in youth culture, is now global: that the world has become a wardrobe of pure exchange value to choose from and to cruise with; that it is outfitted according to the just-in-time production schedules pioneered by Benetton; that it markets street style as fast as the street can produce it; that its consumer class marches inexorably to Nike; and that the once “resistant” DIY ethic has done itself in. Some of this may be true, but just as the new global politics has developed in tandem with the sectarian upsurge of ethnic nationalism and regionalism, so too local style tribalism, with a new eye on international trends, has never been more pronounced.

The classic third world example is the cult of the sapeurs (devotees of the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes [Society of ambience-makers and elegant persons]), a community made up primarily of young men in Zaire’s Kinshasha, who boast their own dialect, their own religion of the cloth, kitende, and who worship at the fashion houses of Gaultier, Kumagai, Matsuda, Versace, Armani, and Miyake in a culture where Western hyperconsumerism is officially discouraged in favor of ethnic authenticity. The dandyism of the sapeurs (who parade their status appearance but who do not enjoy the wealth and power associated with these clothes) clearly has something to do with the vestigial patterns of village initiation rites, but its more dynamic function is to allow the socially down-scale to employ the designer products of global style in order to challenge the rigid pecking order of cultural capital in Zairian society. There is obviously much more going on here than Western cultural imperialism going through its paces.

In the West itself, the most advanced forms of tribalism are still to be found in Britain, where the savvy mechanism that churns out teenage subcultures is as well-oiled as ever: in recent years, clans of casuals, smiley-bearing scallies, and ragamuffins have reigned, long since matched in sartorial fervor by the uppercrust dynasties of Sloane rangers, new Georgians, and young fogies. This ever-changing style map of regional, class, and ethnic divisions seems to have deepened in the face of what Tory nationalists phobically fear as the “federalist” absorption of British sovereignty into the United European States, another example of transnationalization being saluted with an explosion of sub-national diversity.

Britain’s youth cultures may boast the highest batting average, but New York City alone has more than its share of territorial divisions and style communities; in Manhattan, Alphabet City’s “theory of poverty” bohemians, SoHo hippychicks, gay West Village mannerists/East Village new cloneboys, Upper West Side lipstick-and-nylon girls, and even the Masters of the Universe, still “hemorrhaging money,” albeit less loudly, en route from the Upper East Side to Wall Street in their taxicab caravanserai. In the outer boroughs, a host of peer style cultures that spell out differences of musical allegiance, sexual preference, and ethnic loyalty, and farther out still, in suburbia, Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences” flourishes under the sign of deadhead, thrash, speed metal, and so on.

There is no question, however, that style priorities run highest of all in the hip-hop nation, where the street theater of refashioning black cultural identity is open for performance 24 hours a day. Here the symbolic ultraviolence associated with the hard profile of gangsterism—street-warrior pimp-rolling posses in fat gold, kangols, and bomber jackets—faces off against the softer, baggy contours of the dreadlocked D.A.I.S.Y. Ager in contests over the definition of young black masculinity. Where black male youth is posed alternately as a discomforting threat or as a font of fun-loving innocence, the battle over attitude between Compton “niggaz,” neonationalist brothers, and Afrocentric kid ‘n’ play funsters is more than just East Coast/ West Coast tribal rivalry with a pan-national third wheel thrown in as the diplomacy option. This aggressive contest over the “realness” quotient of these communities speaks directly to the ever-vanishing solidity of the young black male’s existential status in society. What is the authentic style of a group whose official participation in public life is eroded with each fresh round of “genocidal” social and cultural policies? Realness, in this context, is more than just the elusive object of braggadocio, more than just a post-Modern game of identities and surface appearances. But if the hard/soft homeboy style divisions seem to fall back upon traditional racist stereotypes of African-American youth as hoodlum and/or as entertainer, the dialogue between the two types is no longer imposed from above or from outside; it is selected from within, and is fully debated by the rappers who belong to the most verbally articulate musical culture of the entire Modern period. The tenor of this debate wavers when the burning topic of the day happens to be how hard N.W.A.’s dicks really are (black women’s disgust has never run higher), but the urgency of even the smallest symbolic outcomes should escape no one. In the meantime, as if to remind everyone of the high stakes, the coming fashion among younger brothers and sisters is wearing bulletproof vests to get to and from school.

Nothing is quite so tribal as fan loyalty to local sports teams, and yet the second, third, and fourth coming of sportswear on the youth style market has proved how easy it is to convert that loyalty into other kinds of cultural value. Unlike the international white “youth class” solidarity of blue jeans, or the later (overseas) status cult of wearing American college sweatshirts, today’s passe-partout of the team-identified baseball cap presents a more flexible code of allegiances, seemingly unregulated by class, race, or gender, while offering a cheap alternative to manufacturer brand-name loyalty.

Sometimes, the choice of cap is sports-related, that is, to how certain teams are playing at any one time; sometimes, it’s the aggressive names or reputations of the teams that count most—the Pistons, Raiders, or Pirates; sometimes it’s their ethnic profile; sometimes, it’s the game itself—baseball, basketball, hockey, football; more often, it’s the color combination, or the appeal of the logo design. For baseball illiterates, especially overseas, the cap is a cheap and stylish source of fantasies of Americanicity. But even in North America, the strong iconography of this belligerently youthful wardrobe item has been radically altered in recent years. The adoption of the cap by urban homeboy and homegirl culture has forever compromised its pastoral Rockwellian associations, not to mention its purity as a symbol of working-class integrity. The lily-white legacy of Little League innocence further dissolves when the cap is worn back to front along with full gangsta regalia. This is not the old utopia of a world turned upside-down; it is a world where the back is brazenly and disruptively out in front, or else twisted to one side. The cap worn askew is no longer a cute tomboy affectation, it is now part of the iconography of social crisis, unmistakably marked by the visual language of the ghetto, where sport and competition easily segue into internecine warfare. The attitude suggested by the cap now lies in the domain of risky pleasures, at some kind of outlawed remove from the carefully controlled pleasure economy of the baseball leisure industry but still within its orbit.

It may be that the baseball cap is becoming the first truly global symbol of youth, not unlike the iconic function of the uniform flat cloth cap for the old international proletariat. Just as the flat cloth cap was redolent of labor and productivity, so the baseball cap is tied to leisure and consumerism. Both are fully expressive products of their respective economies; the older economy of scale with a base in standardized mass production, the newer economy of scope with its range of diverse consumer markets.

Demotic and relevant to the daily life of consumers, the sportswear revolution, spearheaded by the baseball cap, engages young people where they work and play, and puts style where it ought to belong—in everyone’s league, with or without a price tag. But there is no minimum level of consumer enfranchisement to guarantee people safe passage to the arena of style. Popular style, at its most socially articulate, appears at the point where commonality ends and communities begin, fractioned off by the geography of difference, even conflict. That is the point at which visual forms of creative consumerism, no matter how tidy or ingenious, are less important than the shared attitudes and social values that come to be associated with the willfully sundry uses of consumer culture. Tribalism is then in effect. Everyone cannot be anyone.

Andrew Ross teaches at Princeton University. His most recent book is Strange Weather, Versa, 1991.