It’s all meme to me: What’s behind our rush to adopt the latest subcultures

Surrounded by idiots? Get in line. Is negativity your specialty? Heard it before. Just so damn grumpy? Well, who isn’t?

Grumpcore, or whatever you want to call the slightly evolved second coming of “I’m with Stupid” tees, barely hit shelves before anything subversive about the movement was tempered by its own sudden trendiness. You can’t self-identify as a grump of epic proportions when everyone else thinks everything is awful, too.

This isn’t the first subculture to find itself on the wrong side of trendy. As much as fashion is about conformity, it’s also a tool for dissent. Fashion’s subcultures have become the defining visuals of many a decade.

Long before Mary-Kate Olsen brought “homeless chic” to the masses, for instance, oversized clothing belonged to the 18th-century Bohemians as they rejected the bourgeoisie’s cold rules. Those impoverished creatives wore what they could salvage, often second-hand garments that didn’t fit or match. Bohemian style soon became a statement, one that rejected materialism, embraced communal living and empowered the individual.

Elements of Bohemian fashion resurfaced with the 19th-century’s Aesthetic Movement in protest of the Industrial Revolution, and again in the 1960s as hippies preached peace and the sexual revolution. Since then, Boho has gone mainstream — but it took more than 200 years to lose its edge and be buried with “music festival fashion” etched on its tombstone.

Punk managed to make it a good 30 years, spawning the skinhead, goth and grunge movements, before falling victim to the Simple Plans of the world. More recently, the hipster movement lasted just a few seasons before hitting the mainstream. Even those who wanted nothing to do with fashion, sticking to wholly unremarkable clothing in the name of sameness, were consumed by last year’s normcore craze, now available at every big-box store. When even being anti-fashion is fashionable, what’s a dissenter to do?

The constant turnover and mixing of trends brought on by the fast fashion frenzy makes it unfeasible for a subculture to remain “sub” for very long. The constant need for something new drives brands — and hungry consumers — to appropriate movements at such a rate that it’s all but impossible for misfits to opt out of the machine.

It’s little surprise, then, that grumpcore lost its essence in record time. From the beginning, the trend had to embrace loud memes in the hopes of keeping its message intact. It was a calling card for those wanting to rebel against social media-driven pressure to always seem happy, but its shock value and subversive edge are well past their best-before date. Now, those jumping on the bandwagon are caught in the ironic position of wearing garments that proclaim to subvert societal norms while altogether buying into them by embracing a popular trend.

In our rush to save money and collect more clothes than we know what to do with, we’ve lost something much more valuable than dollars to the fast-fashion conglomerates of the world: the power to create significant expressions of social dissent through fashion that stand the test of time.

This column was originally published in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux