Whether we like or not, we’re all pigeonholed from birth: categorised, defined, seen to conform to cultural and socio-economic stereotypes. Lots of people – and I’m one of them – have spent our lives trying to avoid this, but I now realise that’s been futile. From the jacket I wear and newspapers I read to whether I buy blue, green or red-topped milk it seems that absolutely everything ticks a box somewhere. There is just one classification of us that doesn’t exist – the none-of-the-aboves.
I could argue that my desire to avoid labels at least shows I’m independently minded and not a follower of herds, but as I get older I fear I might have spent way too much time being a square peg fitting into a square hole.
This somewhat Damascene thought occurred to me recently while walking through Leeds city centre. I encountered a meet-up of goths and was impressed by the effort they’d put into their appearance. Although I don’t especially want to dye my hair raven-black, wear matching eye make-up and funereal clothes, I found myself admiring their obvious bond. Far too late to do anything about it, I realised I’ve missed out on the myriad interesting sub-cultures of the last half century.
As a baby boomer – a categorisation I’m lumbered with – I look back on the hippie era as being especially engaging because of the music, although I was too young to be an actual hippie and wander around in patched denim flares, Jesus sandals, tie-dyed cheesecloth shirt with beads and bells round my neck. I did eventually inherit my older brother’s Afghan waistcoat but never wore it, the world having moved on to the velvet and glitter of glam rock, which never appealed to me.
I was unlikely to be a skinhead in Crombie coat and bovver boots, going round looking for a ruck with other skins. To begin with I thought punks weren’t much different but found out that behind their jumble-sale clothes they were more middle class and had a political message. Being now on the road to suit-wearing conformity, there was no prospect of me having a chain and padlock round my neck like Sid Vicious, although I did attend a Sex Pistols gig at the old Leeds Poly.
Which I suppose brings me back to those goths in Leeds, since goth sub-culture emerged from punk, and it segues into my memories of the New Romantics of the early 1980s, who as a reaction to sombre goths wore dandyish, fancy dress clothes like glam rockers on steroids.
Since then we’ve had ravers, emos and numerous other varieties of sub and sub-subcultures. Most, like Glasgow’s Outsiders, remained pretty niche, while Cool Britannia of the 1990s went mainstream. However, unlike punk, which was pretty much invented by kids on the street and then exploited by big business, Cool Britannia’s shaggy hair, parkas, and sneering look were largely the creation of record companies to sell more product.
For people wishing to defy categorisation as I did, I suppose today’s lack of mass appeal subcultures is a good thing. But I now realise that it takes a lot of fun out of life. I can understand the attraction of vintage subcultures for today’s goths and hippies.