5 Subculture and Group Membership

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will learn how to:

  • MLO 6.1 Identify foundational concepts and theories related to subcultures, identity, appearance, and dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 6.2 Identify what factors influence different aspects of subcultural dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 6.3 Explain the role of dress and appearance in identity development for different subcultural groups. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 6.4 Examine how marginalized communities in the United States use dress and appearance to negotiate their identities. [CLO 1]

What is a Subculture?

Subcultures are social groups, or groups of individuals who share a similar lifestyle, belief system, or other commonalities. Some subcultural groups have dress codes whereas others do not. Sub, means, underneath or below; therefore, subculture refers to individuals who are a part of a group that is different from the dominant culture or dominant people in a particular part of society (Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017, pg. 292).

Why do subcultures exist?

Subcultures exist because the dominant culture does not meet the needs or interests of the particular subculture. Therefore, these groups form to engage in a lifestyle or activities that meet the needs of their interests or shared experiences related to a particular identity (Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017, pg. 292).

What are examples of subcultures?

There are numerous groups of people who could be classified as subcultures. For example: hippies; anti-gun groups; jocks in a high school; environmental activists; people in the furry community; people in the cosplay community; punks; goths; and many more (Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017, pg. 292). Even religious groups could be considered subcultures; for example, Holdeman Mennonites are a group of individuals who follow a particular religion and wear a specific style. More info could be found here: https://churchofgodinchristmennonite.net/. All of these groups have shared interests, experiences, or identities, thus classifying them as a subculture.


Social Groups

There are many types of social groups that individuals might identify with in their daily lives. Social groups are defined by the connections between their members, which can fall into two types: primary and secondary groups.

  1. Primary groups are small, informal collections of individuals who interact with each other in personal, direct, and intimate ways.
  2. Secondary groups are groups that individuals feel only limited ties to.

A subculture could be seen as a primary or secondary social group, depending on the type of culture and its members. Members of groups can be further categorized by their “closeness,” and the extent to which they identify with their social group.

In-group membership

  • Group to which people feel they belong
  • Sense of together-ness

Out-group membership

  • Group to which people feel they do not belong
  • People may make conscious decisions to avoid looking like out-group

For example, gangs are self-formed associations of peers with members that may engage in illegal activities. People may avoid being an out-group member of a particular gang to avoid violence and/or death.

Subculture membership

Some subcultural groups have clear, distinct rules and definitions of members (such as some gangs, biker groups, and the Amish). However, many groups are only loosely defined and members have liminal membership. For example, individuals or whole subcultures might:

  1. relate to some people in the subculture but not fully invest identity in one group.
  2. have moderate to limited connections with other members of the same group.
  3. borrow style ideas from several groups.

Subcultures are Dependent Upon Context

Distinct Example: The Holdeman Mennonites

The Holdeman Mennonites live in communal groups that stay fairly separate from mainstream society.

Mennonite women wearing long, colorful printed dresses with their hair covered under a small black hat.
Mennonite women in Independence, Iowa. Image Source: Rockman on Flickr, CC BY SA.

Women’s dress is highly symbolic. Rules for acceptable prints (they change over time) are carefully approved by men and women in the community.

Liminal Example: Burning Man

The Burning Man festival began in the 80s on Baker Beach in San Francisco, but has now shifted to a large-scale, expensive event. The festival is held for 2 weeks each summer in the Nevada desert.

People balanced on large metal letters spelling the word "love." Their dress differs wildly, from fishnets and voluminous skirts to cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirts.
Image Source: BLM Nevada, CC BY

The subculture community that forms each year is highly liminal and diverse.

Watch this short film Somewhere in Between on Burning Man, subcultural style, and shifting masculinities by Dr. Denise Green from Cornell University.

Subcultural Style

Subcultures often develop or have a distinct style reflecting their membership. There are many ways in which mainstream culture might respond to this outward expression of a subculture, but a common process one sees in public response to subculture fashion is outlined below:

  • Initial response: fear
  • Dominant culture can meet the unmet needs
  • Dominant culture assimilates the subcultural style (commodification)
  • Entrepreneurs commodify the style
  • After commodification, the subculture loses its initial power

Example: Goth subculture

In the 1970s, British bands set the tone for Goth subculture to emerge. Siouxsie and the Banshees are considered modern founder of the movement, and they typified the subculture’s interest in dark, somber music. Over time, the Goth subculture was commodified and sold to a mainstream audience through stores like Hot Topic, which originally focused on selling music brands before expanding into a wider range of merchandise catering to a more vague Goth “aesthetic.”

Siouxsie and the Banshees music video Spellbound demonstrates their dark, somber aesthetic.

Example: Punk subculture

Punk is a concept that is difficult to define due to its fluidity and complexity. The punk subculture though, roots from the 1970s in urban areas in the United States and the United Kingdom. Individuals who self-identify as punk typically reject aspects of mainstream society including consumer lifestyles, politics, art, and ideologies. They frequently embody anti-hegemonic ideologies (Sklar, 2013).

This rejection of mainstream society is often reflected in the styles and aesthetics of individuals who self-identify as punk (Sklar, 2013). Bricolage, or the creation from multiple and mixed things, is often described as central to punk aesthetics (Hebdige, 1979; Polhemus, 1994; Szatmary, 1996). Symbols often associated with punk aesthetics include studs, pins, ripped clothing, unnatural hair colors, combat boots, and many other dress and appearance practices (Bennett, 2006). Therefore, individuals mix and match the multiple and varied items to create a particular look, a look influenced by the concept of bricolage. Use of plaid or tartans, and iconography such as band logos and subversive imagery are also patterns used frequently to signify group membership (Sklar, 2013). The popularization of tartan or plaid in the punk aesthetic roots back to designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren; the designers used the patterns in their early clothing lines in 1976 to signify those fighting battles or at war (Sklar, 2013). Another theme in punk aesthetic is the concept of DIY or do-it-yourself. Individuals may re-purpose or create an original look through sewing, crafting, or other means (Sklar, 2013). Distressed apparel is also a concept that is embodied through punk aesthetics. The notion of dirt or worn-in apparel rejects mainstream notions about acceptable appearances, which aligns with some parts of punk ideologies.

It is important to note that there is no consistent look in a punk aesthetic for individuals who might self-identify as punk (Sklar, 2013). The media perpetuated stereotypical images from early punk bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Sex Pistols, and many others where band members wore garments such as leather pants, safety pins, and torn clothing. These early media representations helped defined what the dominant culture or the public at large viewed and defined as definitively punk, punk aesthetics, and punk identities (Sklar, 2013). However, these media representations do not solely represent what embodying and expressing a punk identity means for everyone.

Motivations to embrace a punk style, aesthetic or identity are varied. In her book on punk style, Sklar (2013) interviewed an individual who explained that for him, punk is not expressed through his appearance, but through his overall attitude. He said, “I’m older…so when I was a punk rocker, a lot of it was attitude. It wasn’t so much the clothing. We didn’t have Hot Topic you know. There wasn’t anybody that was catering to a punk aesthetic like there is now…you know, it was a lot more, reflected personality a lot more I think back then.” (pg. 67-98). This example highlights how sometimes identities are expressed through our appearance, but for others this might not necessarily be true.

The evolution of punk from a subcultural community to being commodified by high fashion is evident in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Punk: Chaos to Couture that was mounted in 2013. In the exhibition, you can view individuals from the early punk movement such as Paul Cook and John Lydon, members of the band the Sex Pistols and how their styles and aesthetics influenced high fashion designers such as Martin Margiela, Gianni Versace, and Commes des Garcons.

In summary, the punk subculture and style began in the late 20th century and has continued into the 21st century. Punk styles have transformed over time, yet core aspects of punk style include: bricolage, appropriation, distress, DIY, subversive imagery, and/or rejections of mainstream society. These styles reflect the overall anti-society attitude that embodies punk identity.

Watch this one-hour film on afro-punk.


Watch this short film on punk, punk identity, and dress.


Watch this short film on how subcultural style and roller derby.


Bennett A. (2006). Punk’s not dead: The continuing significance of punk rock for an older generation of fans. Sociology, 40(2): 219-35.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Routledge.

Lennon, S., Johnson, K. K. P., & Rudd, N. (2017). Social psychology of dress. London: Bloomsbury.

Polhemus, T. (1994). Street style: From sidewalk to catwalk. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Sklar, M. (2013). Punk style. London: Bloomsbury.

Szatmary D. (1996. A time to rock: A social history of rock ‘n’ roll. New York: Schirmer Books.

Representation of thinking and ideas being generated. Two black heads face eachother. One has question marks above the head. The other has yellow light bulbs above their head.

Subculture and Group Membership Case Study

Step One: Become familiar with the case study

  1. The case study attached below is a word document and can be downloaded. It includes the task, evaluation, and template for the case study:

Subculture and Group Membership Case Study [DOC]

Step Two: Submit your complete assignment on Canvas

  1. Format your document.
  2. Reminder to check the submission against the rubric.


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Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in U.S. Society by Kelly Reddy-Best is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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