Van Dyk Lewis

Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design

Cornell University

Ithaca, N.Y.


Denise Green

Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design

Cornell University

Ithaca, N.Y.


Allison Conti

Department of Rural Sociology

Cornell University

Ithaca, N.Y.


Key Words: Fashion, Geography, Sub-cultures, Intersectionality

Self-Fashioned Tribes: Intersections and Objects



This ethnography looks at the way people, who due to their geographic location are considered to be literally off the fashion map, contribute meaning and substance to the fashion system. The research focus is of a semi-rural town in New York State and is an exploration of the existence of five self-fashioned sub-cultures.  Three sub-cultures, Hipsters, American Princesses and Hip-Hop Homeboys, emerge as having particular importance, and will be the focus of this discussion.  The methodology of the study is ethnographic, but the application of the findings becomes philosophy for design.  It questions the singularity of the development of fashion and suggests alternative developments of fashion that are separate from mainstream fashion design and fashion media.  The duration of the fieldwork was over a three-year period, and data collection included observation, interviews, photographs, film and collection of material culture.  The most critical examinations of fashion theory are incomplete without a mixed methodological approach.  Existing fashion perspectives rely upon behavior/cognition, object/design, and historical, and therefore lack us looking at ourselves.  


In this paper fashion is uncovered as a collaborative work; deeply seated in the tensions of time and space, commercialized manufacture and self-design, construction and deconstruction.  The persistent tug of war between fashion objects and people is axiomatic in the vituperative relationship of the commercial fashion industry and the fashions created by young people in their groups of allegiance. These ethnographies will elucidate the idea that fashioned youth sub-cultures are not arbitrary or random compositions, but are controlled by ideology and are vexingly sensitive to their local environment.  The cross-referencing of material culture across sub-groups reveals a power to manipulate the design and meaning of fashion objects.


Conceptual Framework

In postmodern theory, localized communities are textured by protective shells of resistance (Pétonnet 1987: 258). However, shells become more permeable as communities decrease in population size. Members of small communities lack the anonymity found in large cities. Through identifiable social networks members achieve a relative visibility that contributes to the dismantling of resistance. In the formation of identity, networks provide an interlocking structure where material objects are collected and used. This feature is exacerbated in small communities where residents are much less likely to play out plurality, especially through extreme or divergent dress.  


Philosophers, geographers and anthropologists have acknowledged the body in the environment as providing conditions for the extrusion of identity through consumption.[1] Attempts to rationalize the motivations and intricacies of sub-cultural youth fashion does what any transfer of a(n) (original) creative form does; it separates poetics from the idea (Valéry, 1940). The result is an imitation that does not connect or share the value set used in creating fashion.


The everyday lives of youth sub-cultures are bound by ideologies describing the self, individual status and position within the immediate and wider community. As membership to fashioned youth culture is achieved individuals proclaim, "I am ideological" (Althusser, 2001). The social positions of groups and individuals depend upon the usage of physical space within the town; ideologies are collected from disparate sources articulated in the local setting. Space consists of any concoction of infrastructure and ideology. The street, district, and landmark provide the location and situation for posing, socializing, exchanging, experimenting, and honing respective fashion expressions. The space becomes a laboratory, a place where manifestations of fashion are tweaked to prominence. The rendering of fashion in objects and human behavior is perhaps the most erudite reaction to the way groups view themselves in the metaphoric mirror of society.

In order to make sense of their situation, groups interpret the rest of culture by synthesizing certain beliefs, values, and attitudes. This is in accordance with Sprolian theory (1981), which summarizes how expansive referencing might influence consciousness and eventually fashion choice. Shared and therefore collective choices about fashion expression have a good deal of influence upon the fashion expressions asserted by groups.



Researchers began studying the various youth sub-cultures through removed observation. Group territories were identified and visited. These territories, or hotspots, were discovered to be social and physical in nature, fostering areas of isolated group exchange. Information was gathered, providing the basis for understanding the groups’ structure, dynamic, composition and fashion. Observation of the group’s social setting provided knowledge that enabled researchers to identify individuals as belonging to particular groups. The process of understanding youth sub-cultures involved a traditional ethnography. Researchers questioned individuals within their group territories, and spoke with subjects both in individual and group settings.   Researchers concluded that to fully understand youth sub-cultures, they must experience what it is to be a part of the group. Using notes and observations from the previous two field endeavors that utilized traditional ethnographic method, researchers created personas that allowed them to embed within the sub-culture. This emic approach enabled study to take place from within the subculture.[2] In frequenting group territories, attending social functions and embracing the lives of the youth subculture, a deep understanding was attained.     



This final section sketches the most pertinent overlaps and intersections occurring in the Hipster sub cultures. We found self-imposed no-go areas in fashion and in the natural and manmade topography of the rural college town setting. Hipsters were exclusive or even reclusive in their interactions. Hipsters exist mostly on the university hill, although there are downtown Hipsters, hill and downtown Hipsters were not seen interacting.  On the university campus no more than four black Hipsters were sighted. 


Locally formed fashion expressions are uncontested, except in comparison with national or international fashion images and ideologies. Local groups frame their fashions in Bourdieu’s (1984) notion of ‘cultural capital’, transforming ideology via the accusation of superior knowledge. We have seen that the five sub-cultures assume superior knowledge through their stereoscopic vision, one eye is on the media and one gazes at each other. The myopia of American Princesses toward groups, such as Hip-Hop followers or the Neo-Hippies, are episodic. It is impossible for influence and cross contagion of ideas and concepts not to occur. Just as social-spatial relations are constructed, so they are breached. Just as groups develop inviolate territories, charismatic figureheads redefine them.




Figure 1, American Princess wearing the latest Chanel sunglasses and her sorority T-Shirt.

Figure 2, Foreground Hipster wears oversized women’s sunglasses to parody the Channel sunglasses worn by the American Princesses.  Both Figures 1 and 2 were taken on the same day, at the same event.

 Photograph taken on May 13th, 2005 in New York State.


Transgressing the physicality of geography is to discover new dispositions and contradict the very meaning of the culture. When an American Princesses’ icon transgresses by appearing in a Rap music video and adopting a Hip-Hop pose, the future behavior of the American Princess is altered. Hipsters’ interactions with the Hip Hop followers are made solely through fashion; these groups do not mix socially or have face-to-face encounters. However, oversized and retro styled basketball sneakers, ostentatious accessories, customized belt buckles and big sunglasses, worn by both groups, have become popular (see Figures 1 and 2).  It is important to note that alterations in fashion expressions have altered notions of what is possible within the classification of the group. Yet Hipsters wear these articles differently. Like most Hipster modes, for example, big sneakers and rhinestone belt buckles are worn with a sense of irony, to some extent the Hip-Hop look is also an ironic comment about the gravity of black and Hispanic inequality in our culture. Their method comes from being isolated. Hipsters will probably never encounter Hip Hop followers who ‘really’ wear big basketball sneakers or team jerseys. Hipsters and Hip Hop both glean fashions in media images, on ‘real’ Hip Hoppers. Hipsters know they will probably never meet local Homeboys and wearing jerseys does not have any real significance to them. Some Hipsters listen to mainstream rap music, though when Hipsters wear these pieces or talk about this music they adopt a simper. Even to a fellow Hipster these styles or habits are expected to surprise the onlooker. For example, one subject wore jeans, a button-down Oxford shirt, and blazer to a party. As the night developed, the Hipster stripped off his blazer and button-down shirt to reveal a cheap, sleeveless female jersey, with ‘BABY GIRL’ printed across the back. The jersey shirt was designed for a pre-teenager. Was he mocking or promoting the pre-teenage fashion, the Hip Hop look, or was this a statement about his sexuality? Does he have a right to wear clothes made for low-income people? “You’re a car-toooon!” exclaims a girl at the party, upon seeing the Baby Girl jersey.  Her dress is peripherally hipster; nothing outstanding. The Hipster male makes a casual effort to look offended. He is aware she just does not ‘get’ his look.



The foremost contention in this paper is that the nature of fashion in a small, isolated town is complex. A further contention is that fashion is created when groups adopt and share material objects and invest meaning into those objects, although meanings are not shared. A further contention is that fashion is created not by the assent of the dominant fashion industry; rather, youth sub-cultures have increasingly conceptualized existing youth sub-cultural themes.

During the mid 2000s, youth sub-cultural fashion expressions shifted toward a less visible and more contrite guise. The relative maturity of youth sub-cultures has generated a progeny of followers that have translated emotion and functionality of the outsider into rational and considered fashion acts. In this small north eastern American university town, it is not uncommon to see mostly black Hip-hop men wearing their right trouser leg rolled up just below the knee as a comment on their heritage as an enslaved people. It is worth considering the articulation of youth sub-cultural fashion and its relationship to dominant fashion. Sub-cultural groups have supplied dominant fashion with their reification of designed material objects, which is then subsumed by mainstream fashion.  Once subsumed, fashions are mass-produced and remarketed back to the very subcultures that created them.  We have seen that some groups are more susceptible to consume their own image, such as the American Princesses and Hip-Hop followers. 


Consider the idea that there are “referential loops” where the loops almost mirror. This conceptual tool describes the proximity of the dominant fashion industry and subcultures in creation of their fashions. Perhaps the difficulties of describing fashion are not caught in fashion’s flux, but in the ambivalence of the dealing with people and objects.




Althusser, L., 2001. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Translated by Brewster B., Monthly Review Press.


Bourdieu.P., 1984. Distinction. A Social Critique of Judgment of Taste, London: Routledge & Keagan Paul Ltd.


Lefebvre, H., c1967. Everyday Life in the Modern World, New York, Harper and Row.


Nayak. N., 2003. Race, Place and Globalization: Youth Cultures in a Changing World, Oxford, Berg.


Pétonnet, C., 1987, Variations sur le bruit sourd d’un mouvement continu, 247-258, Gutwirth, J & Pétonnet, C., eds., Chemins de la Ville, enquêtes ethnologiques, Paris, Editions du Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques (Le regard de l’ethnologue).


Spencer, H. 1896, The Principles of Sociology. New York and London: Appleton.


Simmel, G.1904. “Fashion” in, International Quarterly Volume 10. 130-155.


Sproles, George B. (1981),  Analyzing Fashion Life Cycle - Principles and Perspectives 116-124, Journal of Marketing, Vol 45.


Valéry,P., 1940. The Course in Poetics: First Lesson, Translated by Jackson Mathews Southern Review, Volume  5, Number 3. Winter 1940.

[1] For examples see Lefebvre (1967), Mamsvelt (2005), Nayak, (2003).

[2] The emic inquirer is positioned within the system of behavior despite its obvious outsider or etic definition. See eds, Headland., T.N, Pike., Harris, M. 1990. Emics and Ethics, The Insider/Outsider Debate, Sage Publications.