Of communism, jazz and cardigans

By Roy Cotton-O’Brien

A plain t-shirt and pants — the perfect attire. Seemingly not caring but at the same time enough to be considered fashionable. On the way to the concert I really did believe it was important to dress to impress.

It’s just after eight on a crisp August night. As I enter the bar I am greeted by the musky scent of the previous evening’s alcohol. The dim atmosphere is brightened by a ragtag set of colour-changing stage lights worthy of the feeble concert I am about to witness. It seems every aspiring garage band between the ages of 14 and 20 has assembled to establish their foothold in Calgary’s music community.

The night commences with a young band hailing from Red Deer who kick off with a Phil Collins-esque drum solo. Several bands later it is established that, with a few more guitar instructors, Calgary would have a very potent music scene. Dancing to a hearty rendition of “All The Small Things,” I become suddenly aware that I am the only plain t-shirt wearing member of the audience. Somehow I have become immersed in a sea of cardigans and v-necks, skinny jeans, glasses frames and the occasional sweatband. Reeling in confusion I check my ticket for some indication of a dress code. Nothing. Bewilderment consumes me. I become lost among the lambent colors. Between the ka-chunk of offbeat power chords, the lyrics of popular Canadian rock band the Constantines thunder through my ears. Hours later, walking home under the crepuscular sky those words still resonate inside my head, “you are not your generation.”

In a culture obsessed with individuality it is peculiar that so many cardigans can be sported simultaneously at an open-ended public event. Upon further investigation it became clear that I had stumbled upon a convergence of scenesters. To correctly understand a scenester a person must first examine the argot of the counter-culture. Many people would trace scenesters’ lineage to hippies in the 1960s, but in fact they emerged during the Second World War.

At the height of the Jazz Age a breed of rambunctious musicians diverged from the social norm. Fast-paced improvisation accompanying a distinct style of dress and a radical new vocabulary exploded across America as the youth embraced nonconformity. This “bebop” movement quickly evolved with the changing world, from folk to psychedelia, glam metal to grunge, eventually creating the modern day scenesters.

Many are unclear on what exactly a scenester is. As a sect of non-conformists, scenesters oppose popular culture. By embracing underground music, fashion and film, they have created a similar trend to Hunter S. Thompson’s “freak power movement.” Although the modern day scenester is constantly changing they are successful at maintaining their roots, creating a smorgasbord of fashions stretching from grunge to ultra-pop. The idea of scenester is hard to isolate because it transcends a specific label, more clearly defined as lacking one. Opposition to the social norm has been around as long as society, however a speed bump to this concept has abruptly appeared. The idea of non-conformity has become the idea of conforming to non-conformity.

It is peculiar that a group of non-conforming individuals could be so easily identified in a dark concert hall and yet their matching sweaters and fluorescent headbands are difficult to miss. Approaching this oddity from a logical perspective it is apparent that this phenomenon must have a rational explanation. These conformers must have some sort of guide to scenester behaviour and dress — a common ground in which they can stay familiar with the most popular ways of being an individual. This trick of keeping with the current trend is facilitated by a redundancy: American Apparel.

Some self-proclaimed scenesters will hastily declare that a true scenester avoids American Apparel at all costs. They will claim that it used to be cool until a flock of “posers” discovered it and the store was branded as a very un-scenester place to shop. Seen everywhere, this American Apparel-clothed horde is in fact a subgroup of the counter culture known as hipsters. Some claim that true scenesters navigated the masses to American Apparel, which in turn became frequented by the prevalent customer branded as a hipster. I find this opinion of no consequence; Vladimir Lenin and an anonymous Soviet farm worker both have incredibly different roles but ultimately both are communists.

The grey area of the scenesters’ relation to hipsters remains disputed, but a subtle difference is clear. Although both may look alike, act alike and be found in each other’s company, the scenester has a distinct edge on a hipster. They are cool. To the untrained eye the action of wearing non-prescription glasses is simple but only a true scenester is able to do so while maintaining the essence of cool.

With the ambiguity of the scenester established, the concept of American Apparel must be addressed. Founded in 1989, American Apparel is built upon a cynical view of American pop-culture. Created to oppose a society driven by brand-name labels and superficiality, it is a store created for the everyday person. Through sexually-charged ad campaigns and innovative designs American Apparel locations rapidly multiplied.

During its beginnings the fashion culture was dominated by branding. Human beings were most clearly defined through their clothes. Clothing with specific company insignia quickly opened rifts in society. People were given insight into total strangers. By examining the relative price of clothing the economic status of the individual could be inferred. Branding also allows for the ideals of a subgroup to be expressed. A person’s outfit may offer some elaboration of their general outlook. Immensely overpriced clothing was purchased in order to fit into a specific cultural niche, rendering aesthetic value an outdated concept.

To combat this trivialization of society a line of non-branded clothes emerged. The idea of judging people on who they are as a person rather than who they are as a mannequin caught fire. The non-conformist idealism of the ever-existent counter-culture quickly fused with the trendy style of American Apparel. As in any market, increased demand shot prices through the roof. This condition creates the irony that is American Apparel. The company that created its own distinct subculture, aimed at escaping the labels of the other subcultures, manufactured a catch-22. To throw off the chains of overpriced branding, people must buy overpriced plain clothing that labels them as conformers of individuality. Somehow, American Apparel has allowed the path of eccentricity to merge with the path of conformity. Perhaps the Constantines were mistaken — you really are your generation.

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