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Costume, Culture, and Coterie

19 December 2010 | consumerism,marketing,philosophy

Culture fascinates me, particularly the foundations and perpetuations of niche subcultures transfixed on certain anchor points. We think of “hipster bars” and the type of people who frequent them, as if they are a distinct race, and we feel strange that we can pigeonhole individuals this way; except that these snap assumptions so often bear out that we can parody, hilariously, how to become this “sort” of person.

Why can we do that? Why do people who dress a certain way tend to hang out at the same places, talk about the same sorts of things, and use the same brand of smartphone? Of course much can be explained by upbringing, socioeconomic class, geographic location, and so on. Those factors are the traditional foundations of culture.

But these factors don’t explain the ever burgeoning emergence of subcultural tribes composed of non-related individuals who often have none of these things in common, and yet are found exhibiting remarkable similarities and frequently anchoring themselves to arbitrary foundational concepts.

Recently, my sister Mary, fashion model and model loligirl, brought my attention to this mini-documentary about Lolita, a subcultural genre founded on the revival of Victorian and Gothic fashions.

Lolita was originally a Japanese fashion but has found purchase in tiny caches all over the world, and can now be considered a truly international phenomenon. The fact that Loli-girls frequently number something like a dozen or less in any given city (outside of Japan) and yet maintain a certain consistent quality of dress, speaking, and acting — all of which stand in stark contrast to these individuals’ local cultural standards — makes this a subculture worthy of study. (Important note: not identical, but consistent.)

With regards to what it means for individuals to emerge into and form subcultures, one of the women interviewed in this video totally hit it out the park, starting at about 4 minutes 30 seconds. (Or watch the whole thing if you want to get Mary’s snarky comment about it.)

“I’m more attracted into going to a teahouse than I would be at hanging out at a club. You have a certain sense of aesthetics that you project onto the world around you, so when you are looking outwards, beyond yourself, you are sort of, like, looking for the page in the book in which you’re supposed to be illustrated.

This is It

There is a sense of “goes-with”, as Alan Watts would say. Part of it comes FROM culture, and part of it is the ongoing dance of establishment OF culture, in which individuals are drawn to certain aesthetics and find themselves either gathering in cafes wearing black berets, or amassing in dance clubs wearing high-heeled neon boots.

Alan Watts might call teahouses, fluffy dresses, twirling, and looking off into the distance “symptoms” of Lolita. Not all of these symptoms must be in evidence, but they tend to go together. And the individuals — who are not really acting individually, but are rather acting in concert with the Lolita “condition” — draw themselves together and into those goes-with places at the same time they are constantly revising both the places and themselves. The revision itself becomes a game, becomes the topic of interest that continues to draw these people and things together.

But what is that strange force I’ve been dancing around, the one doing all of that drawing?

It’s aesthetic.

What is aesthetic?

I’m not sure. But I had a revelation about it about 2 years ago, and I recorded my thoughts on a Creative Zen thingy that I bought in Tokyo, left in the DJ booth at Pirate Cat Radio a few months later, and never saw again.

Over the course of several cafe outings, in which I’ll be sorting out what kind of aesthetic I can manage now that I have a baby strapped to my chest when I go out, I’m planning to recover those thoughts for a future blog post.

In the meantime: what are YOUR thoughts? What IS aesthetic?

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