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Cut, Layer, Break, Fold: Fashioning Gendered Difference, 1970s to the Present
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Cut, Layer, Break, Fold:
Fashioning Gendered Difference, 1970s to the Present

Create glitches, gashes, ruptures, punctures, gaps, edges.Disrupt the smooth operation that creates linear narrative.Stop the smooth flow of history.Revel in the fracture.Tear at the seams.Stare at the seam.Fetishize the seam. Become fascinated with the seam.

Rosetta Brooks, "Rip It Up, Cut it Off, Rend It Asunder"

Countercultural dress that has used the body as the critical site of resistance since the 1960s has refashioned the personal and the political as well as the personal as the political.1 In particular it is through style as antifashion, as a rebuke to the fashion system, that evidence of the productive operations of dress in creating difference becomes pronounced (Wilson 1985; Polhemus 1994). Oppositional dress has challenged power hierarchies to expose issues of class, race, and gender, of history itself (Styles 1998; Hall and Jefferson 1976; Partington 1992). The way in which alternative or oppositional style has subverted traditional identities and politics has been heavily theorized (Hebdige 1979; Hall and Jefferson 1976), yet its meanings remain ever open to interpretation, to contradiction.

Attempts were pioneered by subcultural theory, especially the scholarship coming from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University in the 1970s, to decipher the codes of subcultural behavior and dress through sociological, textual, and semiotic analysis. [End Page 267] Despite their groundbreaking role, these soon drew heavy criticism for their antimaterialist position that tended to ignore subjectivity. The CCCS's approach had failed to empirically study the groups it sought to explain, claimed its critics.2 A new wave rejected the Marxist/class-based frameworks that ignored race and gender and seemed to create a self-referential, looping reification of the concept of subculture (Muggleton 2000; Gilroy 1993; McRobbie 1991). Critics called for an about-face. They rejected homogenous interpretations of groups. Instead, they prioritized the participant's view in subcultural quests for authenticity and paid attention to the individualistic, fragmented, and heterogeneous natures of subcultures (Muggleton 2000; Rose 1994; Grossberg 1992).

Within these reconceptualizations it was for some the overemphasis on style that troubled. For scholars like David Muggleton (2000), postmodern views of subcultures highlighted individualism as opposed to group affiliation. The worry was that overemphasizing style fetishizes material culture and its consumption as indispensible dimensions of youth culture.

My emphasis, however, is particularly on style in an analysis exploring how British women from subcultural and alternative groups since the 1970s have used style to resist mainstream ideals of femininity in subjective articulations of identity. I examine the postmodern techniques of subcultural style, such as do-it-yourself, cut-and-paste, bricolage, appropriation, parody and sign entropy, the raiding of fashion history. However I present a post-postmodern analysis that moves beyond postmodern theory's focus on image and spectacle, on surface, on hyperreality in commercial culture and mass media to locate behavior in situated bodily practice. The theory of the 1980s determined postmodernism in terms of "a whole pornography of information and communication" (Baudrillard 1985, 130), with the world becoming oversaturated with images. Reality and representation had therefore become impossible to tell apart. In fact in postmodernism's cut-and-paste techniques that layered image upon image, reality had become, according to Hebdige, "as thin as the paper it is printed on" (1988, 159). Within this situation the subject, in Jean Baudrillard's view, "becomes a pure screen, a pure absorption and re-absorption surface of the influent networks" (1988, 27). In other words an individual in a postmodern world becomes merely an entity influenced by media, technology and the hyperreal.

My analysis differs from this perspective by prioritizing embodiment. It is from the point of view of lived reality that I explore in this essay how [End Page 268] gender is manipulated and how gendered realities and women's politics of location have an impact on the way that style is embodied as gendered. Just as theorist Michel de Certeau problematized how tactics in everyday practice can become "clever tricks of the 'weak' within the order established by the 'strong,' an art of putting one over on the adversary on his own turf" (1984, 40...