Saturday, 23 January 2016

Do You Have To Dress Alternative To Be Alternative?

I'm not sure how to approach this topic... my thoughts are all in a jumble, and I'm not entirely convinced that I can untangle them enough to address this post in any kind of sensible way. But this is something I've been mulling over in my mind for a while - a year or so, I guess - so I'm going to give it a try.

Being 'alternative' has been a big part of my life for a very long time. As a kid I felt different - whether I was not accepted by the majority of my peers because I felt myself to be different, or whether they noticed I was a bit weird before I did... it became, in my mind, very clear that there was an Us (weirdos, boffs, freaks and geeks) and a Them (you know. The Popular Kids).

The Us and Them thing became an important factor in my life. In my teens, the 'Us' was me and my partner (in our respective guises as a burgeoning mallgoth and a long-haired metalhead) and our friends (a fluctuating assortment of nerds, baby punks, metalheads and other oddballs) and the 'Them' were the local chavs (or townies as we called them then), who hassled us in one way or another on a regular basis. Instead of being a badge of shame, being one of Us, being different from the tracksuited morons we regularly came into contact with, became a mark of pride.

Instead of being unaccepted because I was a bit odd and liked reading, I had decided for myself that I didn't need Them to accept me. Being alternative, to me, meant that I was glad not to be one of Them, and my dress sense, music taste and preferred activities were not only no longer something to feel self-conscious about or to hide (as I had felt in my pre-teen years, trying hard to fit in), but now actively making me something separate.

This mindset continued throughout my teens and into my early twenties. I adopted 'being alternative' as part of my identity, and enjoyed deliberately dressing in a way that marked me out as 'somebody different'. I wanted people to know that I wasn't being force-fed mainstream pop culture; that I had found my own interests and sense of identity outside of mass marketing and the everyday. At times I felt quite militant about it - I wasn't above making snide remarks about 'mundanes'.

When I branched out from Goth into what I now think of as the Flailing Years, careering from one potential subculture to another, and failed to find another scene that felt like it 'fit' me, for a while I became disillusioned with the alternative scenes in general. The things that irritated me in the mainstream (elitism, bullying, body shame etc) were still rife in the alt scenes, at least locally, and I wanted a break from it.

So first I tried 'being normal' for a while, blending in. It was fun at first, I guess because it was new and different, but not only was building a new, would-be-trendy identity hard on my bank balance, it wasn't great for my self-esteem either. I felt like I was being put into competition with other women. Whether this was actually the case, or whether it just seemed to me like younger, trendier, cooler girls with better eyebrows were smirking at my wannabe ass I really don't know, but it seemed that way. I felt like I had back in late primary and early secondary school, when I was always two steps behind the trends and rushing to keep up, to impress the Popular Kids (or at least dissuade them from setting my hair on fire with a Bunsen burner). It reminded me why I chose to remove myself from that whole situation by striking out into 'the alternative' in the first place.
Little Miss Normal! I don't have many pictures of me in more recent years; when I stopped blogging I stopped taking outfit photos. This is me (in Paris) circa 2013, just after I cut off my dreadlocks.
And for comparison, me in 2010.
As regular readers will know, I started again from the ground up - reminding myself what my actual interests and favourite things were, and constructing my identity around that, rather than starting with a fashion style or a 'look' and then exploring the related subculture. At first, during this process, I didn't really think of myself as alternative or otherwise. My interests being largely book- and media-related, I got quite interested in 'nerd culture'; fandoms, cons and so forth. I rekindled my interest in feminism and what it meant to me. I was also reminded of my roots in the alternative scenes and I am now starting to take another look at what had previously interested me in Goth, punk and other related subcultures. (I don't want to immerse myself again into a single subculture, but I did enjoy being a little more visually creative than just jeans and T-shirts. I want more DIY elements in my style, and funkier hair. My Pinterest board for my personal style is here, for the curious.)

However, my forays into the mainstream and back again made me re-think my Us and Them mentality. The friends I remain closest to are a mixed bunch; none of them fashion followers, predominantly self-described nerds, one or two Goths. Whilst the majority of them do not dress in a particularly alternative way, they each have an individual style (which, I might add, seems to have evolved by accident rather than obsessive use of Pinterest) and like things which are a bit different. This got me thinking that being 'alternative' is more than having a sidecut and a pair of cool boots. It's more about a different way of thinking, of looking at things, of accepting one's passions, whether trendy or otherwise. Of not just doing what is dictated to you.

Now that I write this out, it seems fairly obvious. Fashion isn't the be-all and end-all of any subculture. But it took looking 'normal' to show me that sometimes the people that are most 'alternative' and unconventional are not the ones who look it. Simply put, I feel like a shit for occasionally assuming that people who weren't as spooky as me were automatically 'less alternative'. So, I suppose, what I'm asking is:

  • what is being 'alternative' to you?
  • why do some of us want to mark ourselves out as being other than the norm? Because it's fun to be weird? Because the mainstream is oppressive? Because we have special snowflake syndrome? All of the above?
  • can you look 'normal' and still be alternative? (Are some of 'Them', 'Us' in disguise?)
  • is blindly following trends in the alternative scenes really any different than following mainstream trends? (DO people blindly follow alternative trends? I have such mixed feelings on this - I don't know if there's a definite answer. I mean, if that was the case for somebody, you're choosing to look different, which I think is always great, but you might still be getting dressed in the mornings according to what somebody else higher up the fashion food chain thinks is cool, rather than expressing something that's uniquely you. Or shaming people who aren't as kewl and different as you. Are some of 'Us', 'Them' in disguise?)
Would love to get some other people's thoughts on this! I'm hoping we can get a discussion going. I don't suppose there is a solid and definite answer to what does or doesn't make a person alternative, but I'm interested to know what you guys think about it. 

22 comments:

  1. I think being alternative is definitely a state of mind. The fashion part just naturally follows. Most alternative people will have a period when they try to go mainstream at some point. Sometimes it's for a job or because you want the other parents to like you. I did when my son was little. But the main thing is... You will never fit in with the Muggles. They like different movies, books, fashion... Etc. The list goes on and on. But who cares what they like? Just be yourself. Watch, read, and listen to what you want to. You will find a group of friends that like the same things eventually. And fashion isn't meant to be so hard. Alternative is just that. Alternative. Different from the norm. Just start wearing what truly resonates with you. Who cares if it's in style. Eventually you will find a look that you love and not have to think about it so much. Follow your heart.

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    1. Thanks Mary :) I agree. Mind you, it took me this long to connect my appreciation of alternative fashion with my feelings of not fitting in - throughout my teens it never occurred to me that the two might be sides of the same coin. (And I have to say that 'don't let the Muggles get you down' has often been my mantra >.< )

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  2. I think being able to be recognised by other weirdos kind of feels good. But I don't think you should let others dictate what you wear. Wear what is comfortable and feels like you. For instance I am obsessed with the Victorian era and I am a dark faery, so I love faery and Victorian style. Also, I know it sounds like a cliche, but I really do only like dark colours. I think it might be mild synaesthesia kind of thing but with colours? Prints make me feel a little dizzy and I get strong vibes off different colours. Black and red are also said to be soul colours. But I am happy for people to wear what colours they want! My friends are a mix of Goth and non Goth, I think they all have their own awesome unique styles!

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    1. I do and don't like to be easily pin-pointable as 'different'. I like to think it makes me a beacon for like-minded people, but what actually seems to happen is that when I look obviously ALT, I get latched onto by creepers, neo-Nazis (yup, that happened :-S ), over-friendly crackheads and other miscellaneous fuckboys. Perhaps it's the area I live in. I have found that alternative doesn't necessarily mean like-minded. But having said that, I have also had some lovely conversations with extremely pleasant individuals who have noticed a band shirt or whatever.
      Interesting that you have such a strong reaction to colour! I've never heard of that before. Have you had that since childhood?

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    2. I have to write a whole article about my style, ha ha. I do like being recognised by other odd people sometimes but being a massive introvert I do sometimes wish I could just sink into the background and be noticed by no one and just go about my business. Which is hilarious for someone with as eccentric a style as I often dress in. I have actually noticed this before.

      I don't know much about the colour thing, I never really noticed it until a character in a book mentioned having it, along with synesthesia, and that brightly patterned clothes made her feel weird. I was like, I guess that's a thing, then? I have always been drawn to certain colours like purple but more than just liking them but feeling kind of vibes off them. I know that sounds really weird. I guess there are whole articles about the meaning of colour, so I am not the only one who feels that? I think I have noticed more as time goes by how certain colours make me calmer and happier, especially as the world seems more chaotic.

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    3. Haha, I know those feels so well! You feel fantastic when you're posing in front of the mirror and then within thirty seconds of being outside you're like 'welp... maybe the top hat WAS too much.'
      Wow, that's really interesting! Thinking about it there are some patterns that make me feel irritated (allergic to Pucci?). I guess most people are sensitive to colour to some extent - perhaps you are just more extreme in your sensitivity? Handy that you have figured out ways to make colour work for you. :)

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  3. Amy, welcome to adulthood (I'm kidding), the time in your life that you dont give a shit if you look in a certain way to express your interests or not. Its when you start talking with people, that you will learn who they really are and what interests they have. I have a coworker, a teacher in english and history, that dress and talks like and old man, with ties and slipovers, and then he tells me he has his own record company with death metal bands. I wear elements that points me out in a certain way of course, but I also wear clothes like any body else would wear, because it's easy and it's comfortable. I think your thoughts are great. There need to be other voices that says that it is ok to look the way you want, without being judged for not being alternative enough.

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    1. I really love this comment <3 I used to strongly feel that it was necessary for people to know what I was like and what I was into just by looking at me... it's only lately I've just stopped caring so much. The best way I can put it is that I'm deep in my own hermit-y world and no longer interested in broadcasting messages to other people. I guess if someone was into the same things as me, they'd either see the little signs (my mods, nerdy t-shirts, jewellery and so forth) or as you say, we'd soon figure it out when we started talking!
      I also used to feel that if I was into a particular alternative style or subculture, I NEEDED people around me who were into the same thing. I don't feel that way so strongly any more - I still like to have a 'tribe', but I'm finding I choose who I spend time with based more on shared values than identikit interests.

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  4. I don't know if anyone would be able to tell that I'm 'alternative' just by looking at me. Small things, maybe - gunmetal grey nails, Doc Martens, t-shirts with skulls generally covered up with a black hoodie. They have to wait until I open my mouth to discover just how odd I really am! LOL

    I saw a funny meme on Pinterest the other day that really struck home - every day is a battle between wanting to be recognized for the qualities that make us unique, and not wanting to be too noticed because of them. Honestly, I'd love to be able to carry off some of the outfits I concoct in my head, but I'm too self-conscious to ever do it. :)

    On a side note, I was searching for Dark Mori on Google the other day getting ideas for some clothing I'd like to sew, and there were a couple of really old ones of you at your Gothy Finest. I'd sort of forgotten how you used to look - it was awesome! :D

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    1. Haha, I like that meme - it's so true!

      I have noticed I'm getting more self-conscious in some ways as I get older, but less in others. I don't dress to stand out as much now, largely because I find it preferable to be left alone rather than attract unwanted attention. Yet I don't mind being 'the odd one out' in a group of friends and I don't give a crap if I'm the most underdressed at a party. >.<

      Oh really? Haha oh god my face is plastered all over Google (unfortunately for those Goths who were NOT fans of the old blog :-p ). Thank you very much! ^^

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  5. Hm, I've never given that much thought to my style, about the why or the how of the what of which that is who when where. *brain fart*
    But really I've only ever done, read of worn what felt good to me, and it somehow just happened to be classified as "alternative" by general standarts. While not consciously jumping in the altern. box, I did realise early on that there was an Us and a Them. Them have always felt alien to me. Centers of interests, attitude towards different people, and so on. Us have mostly been welcoming all my life and warm to one another and open-minded (and let's be honest, a Hell lot more fun to geek around with!).
    If my way of doing things or dressing sets me appart from the "norm", I guess it's a bonus. :) But it was never an active goal of mine.

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    1. I wish I'd never started thinking/obsessing about my style because I've found it very hard to stop! >.< I really like your outlook, if I had approached things in a similar way it probably would have been much healthier for me.
      Glad I'm not the only one who strongly felt there was an Us and Them, and yes, the interests and attitudes were a huge part of what caused the separation (although in my early years I tended to read it as those who were 'fashionable' or cool or whatever, and those who weren't). But in a nutshell, perhaps it would come down to something as simple as people who are tolerant and people who aren't.

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    2. Bah, it's not rocket science, it's all about being positively selfish and to do what pleases YOU without thinking further than that. Believe me it can be worked on. ;)

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    3. Fingers crossed, I hope I AM working on it. And having fun doing so :)

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  6. Hey, Laurel here (from the old Piczo days!).

    It's been a while since we talked, hasn't it? I headed off into Lolita for a a bit and now I've settled on something classic inclined. I don't consider myself alternative, although I still enjoy (appropriate?) certain parts of the culture. I love a well made little black dress, but unless I'm in the lab it's heels not boots. These days my style icons are Fanny Rosie and The Clothes Horse.

    I think that even that marks me out from the norm, but in a nice way. I like to think that the way that I dress now says something about who I am and what I value ... but I guess I see it a bit like a tropical bird attracting other birds. What I wear does create an ingroup and an outgroup, but the people that I'm attracting I tend to think of as connections and it seems that they think of me the same way. Do I get comments? Yes. But they're outweighed by the wonderful compliments I get.

    No matter what you do and how you present yourself it will still alienate someone. You won't be dressed up enough, you'll be too slutty (or too conservative), too relaxed- there will always be someone that isn't up for your look even when you dress normal. I like what you said above "people who are tolerant and people who aren't" and I think that sums up my views on it.

    On a different note, it's lovely to see you blogging again and I think you look amazing now!

    -Laurel

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    1. Hello Laurel! Wow, it's so good to hear from you!

      I remember last time we spoke you were heading in a Lolita-esque quaintrelle direction so it's interesting to hear how your style has changed and developed since we first 'met'. Are you still blogging anywhere? I love the style of both the ladies you mentioned; they always look amazing! Very different than my own look but I love to see other people in such beautiful clothes. <3

      You're quite right in saying that there's no style that won't alienate somebody. Although, I did notice that when I stopped dressing up as much, the people that had been very vocal about my 'silly' Goth style were the most disappointed that I didn't look as 'interesting' any more. Talk about can't win! There's just no pleasing people sometimes >.<

      Thank you very much! What has it been now, eight years-ish since the Piczo era?!

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  7. Hello Amy, it's been awhile.

    To me, being alternative is just that; being alternative. It involves seeing the world and culture through a different lens. By that, I don't necessarily mean adopting any group's style, although that's okay. I see alternative as having a certain understanding and naturally seeking out people who are the same. Even as a child in school, I was alternative; yet, the word had no meaning for me as it does now. I just knew I was different.

    Why do I mark myself as being outside the norm? That's a good question. I suppose I do so partly because it helps me feel a sense of community with others who are different. It marks me as one of them. Also, I must admit that I still have a bit of a rebellious nature. Third, I really don't find the normal styles of dress very attractive. It reflects very little creativity. Finally, I like my style. If I didn't I'd dress differently.

    I believe that you can look normal and yet be alternative. From time to time, a normal-looking person comes along who really surprises me. That said, most alternative people I know do tend to look and dress differently. A lot of that fades with age, but it's not uncommon where I live to see people in their 60s or even 70s who still have long hair, wear band shirts and/or various accessories. What I have discovered is that there's a recognition that take place between alternative people, and that takes place between goths and hippies, scene and hipsters, etc. All have their styles and personal interests, but all recognize the alternative in each other.

    Is blindly following trends in any alternative scene any different than following normal trends? Can I say yes and no? Some people follow trends in alternative groups because they want to be different. It is sometimes said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. That said, I enjoy seeing people who have their own style. Yes, I identify as goth and generally wear clothing and accessories that identify me as such. Still, I very much have my own style, which includes aspects of myself that were present before I knew that there was a goth subculture. I like creativity, and I see that as a very important part of alternative culture.

    The thing is, we are all complex people and our personalities reflect many different aspects of ourselves. We all many things rolled into one--and that's okay.

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    1. Hello Nightwind :) hope you are well! I really enjoyed reading your reply; as far as I can tell, your thoughts on this are quite similar to my own. I think that having a creative nature is the biggest part of what keeps me on the fringes of the alternative scenes despite confidence crises, disillusionment, pangs of wanting to 'fit in' more and other assorted stages I went through growing up.

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  8. People are not separated just into alternative and non alternative norms. Within a modern society, there are various groups and cultures, and often people belong in many of them. And it's normal to want to socialize with other people who have similar beliefs and interests, and accept you for who you are. It's also cool making your own movement or team. What's important, is having an identity. Knowing who you are, where you come from, having certain beliefs, political, religious and other, knowing what you like. Being content with being yourself and even better improving into a better self. There's no point to compare with others, or be hostile towards people with different beliefs and interests. What I think is wrong is when people feel they need to change their appearance, personality, hobbies and even have certain habits and experiences to be accepted or fit into one group.

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    1. I have to admit that in my mid-teens I did see alternative and non-alternative as two separate groups. It's only as I've gotten older I've started to accept that it's not exactly a black and white issue. (Not least because some of the most, er, unusual people I know don't think of themselves as alternative at all.)

      I absolutely agree with your thoughts about personal identity; that was where I came unstuck. Trying so hard to be one thing or another that I stopped taking notice of what was just 'me'. You can re-learn that sense of who you are but - for me anyway - it took time and patience and plenty of frustration. Far better not to lose it in the first place by getting too wrapped up in the image you want to present instead of focusing on what works for you.

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    2. I was the same as you.. I spent a while hating on the non alternative people, and focusing too much on what was considered cool by alternative standards, until I learned that self assured people don't need to criticize others to feel good. And to be honest, the color of my hair and my make up style maybe matter a lot to me, but they don't make a difference in the word. And maybe I'll look special if I get a tattoo, but I'll still look the same to thousands others who got one. I think that the people who are unique are those who manage to influence the society they live in, or those who devote their life to help others, or even those who go beyond what is thought possible.

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    3. Brilliant comment! I couldn't agree more. :)

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