With today being the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who this year, here’s one of my conceptions of what a lady Doctor might wear.
we’re a mess of eyeliner and spraypaint
DIY destruction and Chanel chic
in your culture of consumption
this is a culture of destruction
Once it gets dark, the alley outside the theatre fills up quickly. Girls in tight white jeans and huge faux-fur leopard jackets swish their backcombed hair at boys in spray-painted tshirts, tossing feather boas to other girls in second-hand army shirts and combat boots. Most wear heavy makeup: panda eyes and glittering cheekbones. Everybody feels very young. They are beautiful boys and girls tough as nails, and they are here to see the Manic Street Preachers.
As a band, the Manic Street Preachers are just over twenty years old, and for much of those two decades, their eccentric, glamourous, unmistakable style has been adored and emulated by thousands of fans all over the world. From their beginning in the late 1980s, in the village of Blackwood in South Wales, to their triumphant gig at the London O2 in December 2011, the Manics have inspired a level of devotion bordering on fanaticism in their massive fanbase. Manics fans are often notably creative and ingenious in their displays of fandom, designing painstaking replicas of the bands’ outfits, or taking inspiration from the band’s style to formulate a fashion all their own.
Music has always played a large part in the development of modes of street fashion through the years. It is an identifier, a uniting factor to which people – mostly teenagers and young people – can relate. Wearing the fashion of a musical movement signifies one’s membership in the ‘tribe’ and provides a signal to like-minded others that one shares their interests and, more than likely, their societal views and standing.
Musical fashion has also often been related to rebellion and the rejection of conventional, mainstream, culture. So it went with the young Manic Street Preachers, who cultivated an alternative look for themselvs from an early age and used fashion as a means to distinguish themselves from their parochial surroundings. “If you’re hopelessly depressed like I was, then dressing up is just the ultimate escape,” said lyricist Richey Edwards. “When I was young I just wanted to be noticed. Nothing could excite me except attention so I’d dress up as much as I could. Outrage and boredom just go hand in hand.”
The Manics’ fans would, by and large, agree. They follow in the path forged by their subcultural forebears in the punk and goth movements, adopting a style simultaneously designed to outrage the more conservative onlookers, and to mark themselves happily as ‘outsiders’. Elements of glam rock and sophistication (notable in the use of feather boas, leopard-print faux fur, and the iconic face of Marilyn Monroe) combine with torn shirts, battered leather, and DIY stencilled t-shirts: a look that goes from delicately androgynous to outright confrontational, but an unmistakable tribal calling card.
The Manics fandom is a close-knit affair, to which its members hold a familial loyalty – with all that that entails. They are the first to point out the excesses and hilarity that comes with their beloved band – a theatre full of glammed-up audience members cheering on a bouncing six-foot Welshman in a flowery skirt is certainly one of the more amusing sights I’ve seen – but will defend their band to the end in an argument with a stranger. More than anything else, then, in my view the outlandish style of Manics fans is a shibboleth to other fans – if you can appreciate this and sport it proudly, while retaining the ability to laugh at yourself all the while, you get to be in the gang.
And, of course, they look just fabulous.
A great deal has already been written and argued about and yelled about the use fan as an identity; how fans connect with texts and express that connection. I want to use this as a jumping off point, largely due to the fact that I already have a shelf of acafan books, to talk about the use of witty t-shirts in fandom.
While flicking through Fan Cultures by Matt Hills, it seemed like a good idea at the time, I found the sheer number of “words” used in “inverted commas” left me with something of a headache. I do understand the desire to qualify what we say, to ensure that it can be understood in it’s appropriate context, “but” “it” “can” “go” “too” “far”. In academic fandom this can be particularly problematic as we are often writing in several dialects, so to speak, and in an effort to avoid that particular style of prose here I will have to be general and subjective (and therefore in some cases, wrong).
Witty t-shirts, buttons, slogans and icons have been prevalent throughout my time in fandom (starting in 2000ish, the internet rather than classic BSFF zines-and-conventions) and frequently act as an online and real world flag of membership. They are frequently ironic or self referential, my favourite example is from Threadless “I supplement my personality with witty shirts” which says it all really. At the same time as marking the wearer as belonging to a subculture, these sorts of statements use irony to claim a kind of detachment from the risk entailed by caring enough to belong. They are multilayered messages of affiliation to texts and ideas and frequently show how the wearer wishes to be thought of by others. If you understand this then we have something in common.
It seems as though we are coming back round to the idea of identity as something constructed rather than innate and we know, or at least strongly suspect, that we will be judged on what we leave public. In media fandom as in politics (remember the fixation over Nick Clegg’s many ties after the 2010 election) people don’t wear clothes as much as they wear costumes, each one understood to be sending a message. Given the amount of time that we spend analyzing texts for clues it’s not terribly difficult to start turning that perception inwards. Witty t-shirts can be a way of claiming the right to judge yourself first on your passions.
Then, of course, there’s class to take in to account; this is Britain after all. Some fandoms are considered more respectable than others. While science fiction and fantasy are still questing for credibility, although we’re closer than we used to be, you can have what is for all intents and purposes Sherlock Holmes fanfiction taken very seriously as part of the British literary tradition even if it’s not exactly high culture. In “Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies, and Sherlockians” Roberta Pearson comments on the tension between the paraphernalia she owns which link to her interest in high culture as well as popular fandom
“a tiny cut-out Bard’s head floating above a blank and white picture of Anne Hathaway’s cottage. Just the thing for a postmodern academic Bardie who wants to declare an allegiance without committing a class faux pas.” (Pearson:2007)
It’s an interesting and self-deprecating example of the tension exhibited by the knowledge that what you do, even what you love, will be judged and therefore becomes a performance in and of itself. The irony is there as a nod to a judgment which has not yet been made by an imaginary audience; a way to protect yourself from any of the all-too-easy accusations that you risk whenever you wear your heart on your sleeve.
But back to those t-shirts, in two authors known to be affiliated with fandom, HP in particular, these crop up as markers for how we are to read the characters. In Valiant (Black:2005) Ruth wears a badge with a slogan from a well known piece of fandom parody and in Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon trilogy(2009,2010,2011) each slogan is as lovingly recorded as the one liners lobbed by the relevant characters. They are aimed at a culture where it is understood that what we wear is linked to who we are.
Not Quite Standard Bibliography :
http://www.threadless.com/product/1671/I_supplement_my_personality_with_witty_shirts [online] [Accessed 21st September 2013]
Black, Holly (2005) Valiant : A Modern Tale of Faerie, New York: Simon & Schuster
Brennan, Sarah Rees (2009, 2010, 2011) The Demons Lexicon, Covenant and Surrender, New York: Simon & Schuster
Hills, Matt (2002) Fan Cultures. Wiltshire: Routlage (best read in small doses.)
Pearson, Roberta (2007) “Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies, and Sherlockians”. In Gray, Sandvoss and Harrington eds. Fandom : Identities and Communities in a Mediated World New York: New York University Press, 103-104