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I bought my first pair of trainers twenty years ago. Reebok Workouts were the latest craze in my part of London, the shoes that graced the soles of popular kids in school. Workouts were over-sized but low-cut, mass-produced but still exclusive, fashionable but affordable, an understatement but still a statement. I bought mine in black with a shining white halo stretching around the most distinctive feature: the H-flap. I wore the H-flap unlaced, quite literally flapping, as a disingenuous mistake, a chord of heterodoxy against the straight-laced.
I wore my Workouts to school on the Monday, risking detention. I remember the feeling of angst, the fear of potential ridicule that accompanied the risky choice of clothing. I walked into the playground, H-flaps hanging over grey school trousers, and my target audience reacted compassionately. Some of my mates praised the shoes, demonstrating their own social awareness, and others asked where I bought them, hoping to land a pair of their own. It was a strangely rewarding experience built on the shared sense of belonging.
Two months ago, I bought the same pair of trainers in white. Workouts were back in fashion, at least according to my interpretation. I wore them differently. Twenty years ago, I wore the Workouts with Nike tracksuits, baggy jeans and brand tees, projecting a simple style defined by cues from street culture. The latest pair came with an entirely new wardrobe, an abundance of choices built in disparate styles. I wore the H-flaps differently, too, laces tied tight, straight-laced, flaps no longer flapping.
I still hang out with the same school friends. I met them in the pub wearing my new pair of trainers. The social angst still lingered, albeit less pronounced. I walked into the smoking area and my friends reacted as they reacted twenty years ago. Some acknowledged the retro statement, others laughed at the sentimentality, the hark back to youth. One friend asked how much they set me back and had his own pair two weeks later. One of my closest friends asked why I’d bought Workouts. I shrugged. I shrugged because I wasn’t sure.
Our clothing choices are a form of communication, a projection of identity. Identity is a reflexive project that largely begins in our early teenage years, as we develop an understanding of ourselves in a social context. We start to realise, consciously or unconsciously, that our identities are constructed within that context. We construct identities through the narratives we tell ourselves and the narratives we tell other people. Clothing is part of that narrative.
Semiotic analysis can show how clothes communicate identity. Clothes, as Umberto Eco and others suggest, have a semiotic association with language, both offering readings based on relatively standard projections. As with language, the interpretation of clothing is based on the signifier/signified relationship, but the semiotic meaning of clothes is more unstable that that of language. The instability stems from the absence of broadly accepted codes, a disruption between the intention of the wearer and the interpretation of the audience. In simple semiotic terms: the visual image (signifier) of the item of clothing (sign) draws myriad reactions (based on the signified) depending on the viewer’s social understanding (code).
The interpretation of clothing is based on two elements of signification: denotation and connotation. Denotation is the precise reading of visual signifiers (black trainers, blue shorts, and so on), which is largely agreed upon by code consensus. Connotation depends on complex cultural meanings associated with the signifier, dependent on the viewer’s social knowledge. Take Doc Martens, for example. In terms of denotation, Docs are simply black boots. In connotative terms, however, viewers can interpret Docs as German Army boots, skinhead ‘bovva’ boots, old-school grunge attire, hipster sincere or hipster ironic, and so on. The same item can draw respect, fear, anger, love, all based on the connotative interpretation.
The meaning of clothes thus depends on the collective viewer’s social knowledge, which is largely based on an awareness (or lack of awareness) of popular fashions. But what dictates such fashions? Why was I attracted to Workouts, twenty years after the initial attraction? Why are certain items of clothing, such as Workouts, popular at certain times while other items, such as Classics, fall from grace? Fashion academics have sought to explain popular fashions using various theories, all of which have merit, none of which offer a complete explanation.
Arguably the most popular theory suggests Workouts are aspirational. The trickle-down theory stems from Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, which examines consumption models based on social stratification. Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe affluent people’s desire to consume luxury goods to parade affluence. Theorists, such as philosopher Georg Simmel and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, have built on Veblen’s model to demonstrate how fashion trickles down from the upper-class to the lower-and-middle-classes. The lower-and-middle-classes, according to the theory, emulate the rich by wearing similar items, exhibiting aspirational desires. The upper-class notice that their dress has been ‘vulgarised’ and seek to distance themselves by adopting new fashions. Their supposed lessers emulate the new fashions and the cycle continues.
The trickle-down theory has a certain logic, but it relies on outdated forms of class analysis that overestimate the cultural influence of the rich. The rich are no longer influential in the wider cultural arena. As Susan Sontag wrote in ‘Notes on Camp’: ‘Since no authentic aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste?’ The modern rich are more often mocked than mimicked. Clothes do trickle-down from fashion houses, but only in selective forms, such as colour palettes, stylistic motifs, and so on. It is rare to see a person on the street wearing the latest designs from Paris Fashion Week, for example.
Clothes do trickle-down from a small subsection of the modern elite – celebrities, namely – but their styles are often appropriated from or amalgamated with street style. Growing up, for example, I had friends who wore Prada shoes with Nike tracksuits, Gucci bags with Adidas hoodies, Versace t-shirts with Workouts – copying styles from musicians who moulded street fashion with expressions of wealth. Certain expensive fashions trickle-down from celebrities to the street, projecting an ideal of aspiration and success, but street styles more often bubble-up to celebrities who aim to demonstrate authenticity. Fashion today relies on cross-pollination, trickling-down as well as bubbling-up, shifting from pavement to catwalk, rubble to runway, terraces to places, and back again.
The zeitgeist, as expressed by Georg Hegel, depicts the trajectory of the Spirit, the historical and social currents of the time. Fashion, according to the zeitgeist theory, mirrors the social forces of history. Theorists regularly use the example of hemlines, suggesting women wear shorter skirts in times of consumer confidence. Hemlines drop during economic crises, as in the 1930s, and rise during booms, as in the 1960s. World Wars are the other oft-invoked example, with theorists suggesting employment for women led to the disrobing of oppressive garments.
The zeitgeist theory depends on too many presumptions. It presumes consensus regarding the meaning of historical events and presumes consensus around the meaning of clothes. In The Corset: A Social History, for example, Valerie Steele notes that many critics consider the corset a sartorial form of oppression, but others critics and wearers have argued that it represents liberation. No item of clothing can be reduced to a single interpretation. And the same is true of historical events: one critic’s liberation is another’s oppression. The zeitgeist theory makes symbolic connections between garments and the historical context, both of which can be contested, both of which have no inherent or predisposed meaning.
There is some merit to the broad application of the zeitgeist theory. Social liberalisation has led to more revealing clothes, for example, simply because of social acceptance. Challenges to gender norms have led to the wearing of androgynous items, as people trial clothes once deemed objectionable by binary stereotypes. Some of my friends and I went through a pink period at school, for example, which seemed unthinkable to men of the older generation. We wore pink faux-diamond earrings, pink Nike swooshes on trainers, pink Ralph polos. The pink demonstrated an open contradiction of gender norms. My dad once caught me wearing pink earrings, laughed in my general direction, and said I looked ‘pretty’. The shifts in gender norms, even within one generation, changed what wider society considers acceptable. In that broad sense, zeitgeist theory goes some distance to explaining fashion shifts on the macro level.
Are my Workouts meant to be sexy? Items of clothing, according to the seduction theory, are dependent on increasing desirability. Fashion historian James Laver emphasises the seduction principle in gendered terms, claiming that women dress to enhance sexual attraction towards men and men dress to enhance status around women. The choice of women’s garments, according to Laver, depends on the notion of ‘shifting erogenous zones’ – an idea originally attributed to psychologist J. C. Flugel. The argument suggests that men find particular areas of women’s bodies attractive at different times, which women supposedly accentuate through dress, and fashions thus follow that essential logic.
The seduction principle, as presented above, is reductive, sexist, and heterosexist. It presumes women make clothing choices only to seduce men. It presumes fashion is dictated by men’s desires. It depends on a basic and binary understanding of gender. And both genders are presumed heterosexual, with little attention given to same-gender attraction or other sexualities.
In its basic form, however, the seduction principle does have merit. Individuals do dress to enhance sexual attraction to varying degrees, whether to boost self-esteem or to impress an audience. Clothes reveal and conceal mystery underneath, which forms the basis of seduction, as Steele notes in Fashion and Eroticism: ‘Because clothing is intimately associated with the physical body, at the deepest level all clothing is erotic.’ I once bought a thin jumper covered in holes, for example, which was meant to be provocative. I was newly single. The holes showed an inordinate amount of skin, way outside of my usual comfort zone. I remember the first and last time I wore that jumper. It was a trial run of sorts, meeting my brother in a safe space – the pub near his flat in West London. I turned up, walked through the pub, and saw my brother. He started to laugh. He said, lovingly, that I looked like a sieve.
The explanation of popular fashion seems to depend on a mixture of the above theories, in various forms. Fashions trickle-down and bubble-up, retaining a broad connection to the social forces of the moment or the age, and always have some allegiance to seduction. Our clothing choices project and communicate identity based on the code consensus that exists within that framework. We make choices and communicate, with reference to the fashions of the day.
Secondary school was my first experience of conscious consumption, the first years when I understood the construct of identity. It was simple back then. I just had to decide on a brand. I usually played safe. I wore brands that projected a conventional identity that conformed to my social status and I avoided brands that people would have considered unacceptable. I could get away with Workouts, Nike tracksuits, baggy jeans, and Adidas hoodies, but I would have been ridiculed or worse for audacious attempts – clothes that I wanted to wear, but could not quite pull off. The ridicule would stem from the conflict of projected identity – the person I wanted to be – and authentic identity – the person I really was, my so-called true self.
Logos were relatively stable signifiers. They provided a sense of belonging, one understood by the various crowds. The logo demarcated the social group. Kids could broadly understand another kid’s projected identity through logo choices. I was Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, as opposed to Converse and Vans, Billabong and Quicksilver, Fubu and Ecko, all of which had connotations based on popular fashions. My style was tenuously associated with street fashion. I refrained from more outlandish projections. I did not indulge certain disingenuous mistakes, for example, such as low jeans revealing designer boxers, caps covering eyes, and so on. I was too anxious to wear daring options, such as Schott and Avirex jackets, aware that my status did not conform to the demands of the style.
The anxiety of dress stems from the mediation of performed identity and interpreted identity. I learnt from teenage years to marry my choice of clothes with an acceptable performed identity, always attempting to estimate audience reaction. I owned risky clothes that I found too daunting. I once bought a New Era Cap, for example, and I spent hours looking in the mirror, grasping at a new projected identity. I never wore the cap outside the house. Every choice of clothing, every small or large sartorial decision, comes with various degrees of angst. Some individuals brush away the criticisms, face the potential ridicule head on, while others such as myself dwell until they are forced to wear easier options.
US hip-hop and UK grime defined street style when I was a teenager. Grime was influenced by hip-hop, but regularly sought to differentiate, finding its own feet. The trainers in my part of London differed from mainstream US choices – and mainstream US choices, from our perspective, depended on broad geographical sways, such as east coast, west coast, and the dirty south. The US were obsessed with Jordans, but we preferred Air Maxes and Huaraches. Both adored Air Forces. The US loved Adidas Superstars, popular since Run DMC, but everyone in London wore Stan Smiths. The US did not seem too interested in Reeboks, at least not compared to other brands, but London went for Classics and then Workouts, among others.
Grime took its cues from street style and in turn influenced street style. The most popular grime record of the noughties was Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner, which shows Dizzee on the cover, bold and boisterous, dressed in typical London garms: an all-black Nike tracksuit with black and white Air Max 90s, the swoosh laid sideways to entice the audience. Boy in Da Corner had several lyrics referencing popular fashions. One of my favourite lines on the album comes from ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’: ‘It’s an Air Force One/ Trainers by the truckload, trainers by the ton.’ I bought Air Forces around that time. I wore them on a trip with school mates to Thorpe Park. Everyone dressed to impress. I put on a black Nike tracksuit with red lines running down the sides and matched it with my new Forces, which were all white with a bright yellow swoosh. The yellow did not work with black and red. I met my friends at the Underground Station and a kid from the older year, my brother’s mates, said: ‘Are you really wearing yellow Forces with a black tracksuit?’ I did that thing where you sort of laugh with the crowd to avoid embarrassment. I had to wear the trainers for the whole day, on log flumes and rollercoasters, with mates jumping on the commentary, mocking my sartorial naivety.
My favourite grime artist at the time remains one of my favourite artists. It is a rarity to witness an artist grow as you grow, albums becoming more complex and nuanced, meeting new and demanding expectations. Kano has allusions to trainers throughout his oeuvre, but his standard has always been Stan Smiths, which are my second favourite trainer, largely because of Kano. Stans feature in four songs on Kano’s Made in the Manor, but in his latest album, Hoodies All Summer, Kano reflects on the past in ‘Teardrops’: ‘Shoebox memories/ Reebok Workouts and dungarees/ We used to dream of the most frivolous of things/ Until we bought the most ridiculous of rings.’ Kano regularly uses fashion to project identity, always dependent on an awareness of street style, nostalgically commenting on a simpler time when Workouts were all the rage. Workouts seemed unique to teenage London, unique to that experience, unique to that time and place, a projection of identity built into our environment, our culture, and our sound.
Music has always informed style and in turn style informed music. The proliferation of radio, according to Caroline Young in Style Tribes, led to a sense of shared identity and shared experience. Subcultures used dress to parade heterodoxy, a purposeful form of disassociation from the ruling class, as Dick Hebdige writes in Subculture: The Meaning of Style: ‘The challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them. Rather it is expressed obliquely in style.’
Subcultures did not indulge in trickle-down. They occasionally appropriated the clothes of the rich, ascribing new meaning to the garments, which was a reaction against hegemonic culture. Teddy Boys adopted Edwardian suits as a statement against the class system. Skinheads wore Harringtons, braces, ‘bovva’ boots, and other items soon deemed vulgar by the rich. Punks demonstrated a more complete rejection. They repurposed household items as clothing – garbage bag dresses, safety pin earrings, razor blade necklaces – which reinvented meaning, standing against the profligacy and uniformity of the ruling class.
The media often reacted with anger towards subcultures, often aimed at their style, which served to reinforce the subculture’s statement against hegemony. The Daily Mail called Teds deplorable, Melody Maker described skinheads as the ‘cause for sinking feelings in the stomach’, and every mainstream paper condemned the supposed hooliganism and riotousness of the punks. Subcultures were depicted as violent, as dangerous, as scum.
Are Workouts an expression of subcultural entitativity? I don’t think so. Not anymore, at least. Lorrie Moore recently wrote an article in the New York Times that was supposed to be about the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, but instead constituted a tirade against millennials. It was a purposefully offensive article, intentionally lacking nuance, but it was so brilliantly written the offense seemed enjoyable. There was some truth in Moore’s generalisations, as with most generalisations. One statement caused particular sensation. On millennials, Moore writes: ‘They have no authentic counterculture – Is not their use of social media a version of the old-fashioned Christmas card letter? – and thus secret self-harm such as cutting (unheard of among boomer youth) has rushed to fill the vacuum.’
That line particularly stood out because, devoid of the careless self-harm reference, Moore has a point. There are few authentic subcultures left in the UK and no semblance of a counterculture. The UK does have groups challenging the ruling class, but there is no common cause in style and no uniformity in stylistic distinction. The media are not outraged by subcultural groups because no groups pose a significant threat – they are too small, too unknown, or simply too nice. The media’s outrage these days is primarily concerned with other supposedly threatening groups – immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and other marginalised communities – though they still occasionally take aim at style. Consider the hysteria against hoodies in the mid-noughties, largely led by the media, which led to the opposition leader and later Prime Minister David Cameron offering hugs to the so-called troubled youth. (After the ‘hug a hoodie’ campaign, teenagers stopped wearing so many hoodies, not due to fear of arrest but because we were afraid a random Tory might cuddle us.)
It was social groups, not subcultures, when I was younger. But even the social groups (rudeboy, emo, skater, grunge, etc) were ill-defined, with individuals traversing categories. People were associated with groups, but the groups themselves had no common cause or heterodoxy. And dress only became more individualised after secondary school, with people adopting various styles, borrowing from disparate influences. I had friends who wore street clothing, who sometimes wore skater clothing, who later became full-blown moustachioed hipsters, which meant they ironically (and unconsciously) appropriated previous styles.
Why did subcultures largely disappear? The theme of fragmented identity features prominently in post-modern theory, explained by the pervasion of the image, the commodification of everything, and the saturation of mass media. Fashion writers, such as Joanna Entwistle, have suggested that people living in post-modernity exaggerate stylistic individuality to compensate for fragmented identities. Dress has become increasingly important. People parade projected identity to stand out from the crowd, which undermines group entitativity. Hyper-individuality undercuts the attraction of subcultural distinction.
If post-modernity has led to a fragmentation of identity, more reliant on performance than authenticity, then contemporary fashions seem to reflect that trend. Fashions in the modern age emphasise repurposing styles to give new meaning to old clothes. Jennifer Craik writes in The Face of Fashion: ‘Stylistic motifs are…reconstituted in a process of bricolage, the creation of new patterns and modes from the kaleidoscope bits and pieces of cultural debris.’
Clothing as bricolage is an expression of fragmented identity, trickling and bubbling, influenced by all styles from the subcultural to the pop-cultural, dependent on the currents of our time and the hyper-individuality of our age. My Workouts, then, need to be understood in relation to the ensemble. They must be understood as a fragment of the whole. Claude Lévi-Strauss developed the notion of the bricoleur: the person who creates improvised structures by appropriating pre-existing materials. The individual aims to communicate new meaning with old styles by adapting the ensemble, repurposing, layering meaning on top of other meaning.
Here, again, we can turn to semiotics. In The Fashion System, Roland Barthes outlines two forms of semiotic analysis that demonstrate the meaning of dress. The first is the paradigmatic: the individual choices worn on different parts of the body. The second is the syntagmatic: the ensemble of the paradigmatic items, the entirety of an individual’s style. Each paradigmatic item – the choice of t-shirt, for example – communicates something about the individual’s identity and the syntagmatic – the ensemble – projects meaning based on the interplay of choices.
Earlier fashions often worked with syntagmatic consistency. The ensemble communicated clearer forms of identity, each paradigmatic choice demonstrating an overall stable signifier. In the post-modern world, the varying forms of paradigmatic choices based on various styles – in other words, bricolage – affords greater expressions of individuality, which complicates syntagmatic interpretation. The bricoleur mixes items that do not offer consistency, drawing on various paradigmatic styles to present a new syntagmatic ensemble. The individual creates meaning through bricolage, each choice still dependent on the plurality of popular fashions.
My fashion development followed that trend. In younger years, I demonstrated consistency in clothing – each paradigmatic choice worked consistently with the syntagmatic ensemble – which always had some vague allegiance to street style. My wardrobe was simple: Workouts matching jeans and brand tees and hoodies, all relatively stable signifiers. But today I wear the Workouts differently, with Harrington and denim jackets, black chinos and baby blue shirts, Fred Perry double-tips, bright t-shirts and woolly jumpers, wayfarers and watches. Bricolage means an added emphasis on each item of clothing, which creates a complex whole. My Workouts are part of the ensemble, one projected aspect of my total identity.
People are not always conscious of the reasons they buy clothes. But one can look back over fashion choices and recognise trends. I try to dress more attractively when I’m lacking self-esteem, for example, and I often fail. I try more adventurous options in confident moments. I tend to buy bland items when I’m generally pessimistic. But what about my Reebok Workouts? I am speaking through my choice of clothes, but what am I trying to say?
Workouts are fashionable, at least to my circle, at least in my part of London. And I think it all comes down to my circle and the image I hope to project to them. To people outside my circle, Workouts might seem like a random pair of trainers, casual, barely noticeable to the untrained eye. But to my friends, Workouts project a common form of understanding, group solidarity based on the nostalgic projection of cool. And the nostalgia explains the purchase.
My new Workouts represent a hark back to youth, something that has become more pressing as I pass thirty, something that I have realised particularly over the course of writing the present essay, particularly after such a difficult year. They are an expressive form of longing for a simpler time. Workouts are just one part of the ensemble, but they a clear expression of identity, an attack on the currents of the present age and the currents of age.