Fashion suX: the story of a little-known speculative subculture
The sustainable underground, or suX-movement, has long lived in the shadow of its more widely known musical siblings, straight edge hardcore and crust punk. All three subcultures emerged in the early 1980s, in the radical backwaters of the punk movement, merging the punk lifestyle with political activism, anti-establishment rhetoric, DIY empowerment, and hardcore music.
The suX-movement underlines the lifestyle commitment seen in other music subcultures, and applying it to clothing and uncovers layers of sustainable values under the studs. With its mixture of crust punk aesthetics, enclothed straight edge ethics, and radical recycling crafts, the suX hardcore style rejects the “do-good” hippie aesthetic of the sustainable mainstream. As an alternative the suX advances a more rebellious frustration with the regimes of dress and fast fashion.
Gravitating around social craft formations, or "juntas", rather than bands, these suX-groups often infuse the names of their musical idols with craft references. Reminiscent of their musical siblings, the juntas are steeped in aggressive anti-consumerism and frustration with the political and social ills of today. Yet the aesthetics of crust-crafts, with their tender repairs, often with dental floss, denote the crusts’ concern with ethics of care and merciful preservation. It is an ethic that imbues not only clothes and lifestyle, but also embodies a wholehearted rejection of sartorial betrayal.
Fashion suX; the emergence of the sustainable underground is an ongoing research project in the genre of "Speculative Subculture Studies" (S3) exploring the little-known underground sustainable fashion and craft movement who called themselves suXers (sometimes referred to as "sustainable fashion straight edge", or sometimes jokingly "suckers"). The prime sources in the study of the suXers are urban myths, oral histories, unverified narratives and stories, fliers and subcultural techniques, primarily traced among current subversive craft groups across the US east coast. Most archival material originates from New York City.
Buttonhole Surfers, screen printed textile patch, archived in NYC 2015, (7x11cm)
The sustainable underground, or suX-movement, has long lived in the shadow of its more widely known musical twin, the Straight Edge, popularly known as sXe. Both emerged in the early 1980s, in the radical backwaters of the punk movement, merging with lifestyles and practices of political activism, anti-establishment, DIY empowerment and hard core music. Whereas many academic studies of the Straight Edge has been produced over the last decades (cf. Lahicky 1997; Irwin 1999; Haenfler 2006; Wood 2006) not many recognizes the intertwined practices of its fashionable and dressed parallel expression, the suXers. There are some relevant studies, however, they are not explicitly acknowledging the suX influences on their subjects, if it is the "sustainable underground" (cf. Hren 2011), or "punk crafts" (cf. Leblanc 1999), which means that the suXers are still little known and seemingly avoids definition and a written history. Some important studies have integrated a wider perspective on musical subcultures and lifestyles, including gender, crafts, philosophy and economics, yet profoundly fail to mention the important heritage of the suXers (cf. O'Hara 1999; McRobbie 2000; Muggleton 2002; Muggleton & Weinzierl 2003).
Detail of SUX/Political: suX outfit, 2015. Repurposed attire, cotton patches, floss, acrylic paint. Archived in New York, 2015
It is generally noted that the punk subculture emerged from the economic austerity of England in the 70's. Where working-class youth were teased by the beginning "democratization" of conspicuous consumerism of the middle-class, they were simultaneously locked out of this glitzy dream of goods by rampant unemployment and class segregation. Where a whole generation of youngsters was socialized into the image of consumerism and affluence, the economic reality kept the unemployed at a safe distance from attaining this mark of success through a working life, a reality famously documented by British punk band The Buzzcocks as "all these livid things that you never get to touch". In resonance with the strikes and protests raging throughout England, an obnoxious and vexed generation of youth assembled around a lifestyle explicitly damning the middle class values and traditions, forming a bottom-up subculture based on empowerment through action, the DIY movement of punk, transforming the hoodlum ghetto-reject into an archetype of rebellion. IN torn jeans, painted leather jackets, pierced by safety-pins and with mohawk hairstyle, they set a new iconic street style on the maps of the world. Clothing-wise, expressions like these influenced first the sidewalk, and later the catwalk, and the wider masses, disseminating "punk" as a lifestyle and philosophy of transgressional counter culture (cf. Polhemus 1994).
However, whereas the punks distanced themselves from the "peace and love" of the hippies, and turned their slogans of harmony into straightforward manifestations of conflict, they still continued the drop-out philosophies of the 60s. In contrast to this, the Straight Edge rebellion of the 80s was partly a response to this rebellious and "free" living of the 60s, challenging the "sex, drugs and rock n' roll" with defiant puritanism (cf. Jones 2007; Kuhn 2010). In a similar vein, the suXers can be seen as a response to the high life of consumerism, and also the implicit consumerism that seeped into even the rebellious underground movements, especially in its wild form during the 80s. As Vivienne Westwood turned punk into high fashion and started mass producing the industriousness of rebel hands, the suXers turned their loose philosophy into a lifestyle dogma. Simultaneously, the thrift, repair and sartorial carefulness of the suXers was an urgent reply to the ever increasing reports of global environmental disasters, yet also an approach to revitalize a dressed form of "green peace".
TimesX, suXzine NYC 1995, Rare photocopy on office paper (5,5 x 8,5 in.), slightly damaged, archived in 2013 [PDF]
>The oral history of a sustainable underground
The suX-scene emerged as an unbaptized twin to the sXe and hardcore music scene. However, whereas sXe was mainly a music scene, the suXers put their emphasis on sustainable style and crafts. Bastards as they were, as many of the informal crews, or “juntas” as the groups were often called, had the social form of the bands they associated with, often unknown to their musical counterparts. The band Minor Threat was followed by the suX junta Minor Threads, the junta Chain of Stitches was the illegitimate love child of the band Chain of Strength. The list can go on with juntas such as Yarn of Today, Agnostic Fiber, Bad Braids, Reused, Guerrilla Stitches and The Misstitchs, just to name a few. Some juntas acted in concert with their musical counterparts while others had neither any contact nor any correspondence in ideology or ideas at all.
When writing the history of the suXers, one can notice how the scene gathered around the material component of clothes from a conservationist or sustainable practice, rather than the lifestyle or musical performances of the sXe. Focusing on the suXer's relation to matter and textiles brings forth what sociologist Nortje Marres has called "material publics" (Marres 2012), where the physical world comes and attractor for intersecting political activism, public engagement, lifestyle and discourse. In the example of the suXers the force of assembly was the material conditions of garment repair. This can also be traced from the oral history of the suXers, where one suXer witnessed how the material culture helped shape her own suXer identity:
"We would sometimes go to the local record store and go, "have you got any Minor Threat records?" And they're like, "Yeah, we sure do." And we would hang around listening and we would see these awesome embroidered patches and posters with great textile Xs on, and some fliers of some craft-gig at a local community center, and we would like, "what's that cool shit?" We would go and there's all this subversive and sustainable kids around, doing all kinds of non-capitalist lifestyle stuff - farming, bike repair, sewing and shit, and all this to the coolest bands ever. We would fist hang around looking at what they were doing, and then get more hands-on. And suddenly you were part of a great engaged movement. That textile X was just this mark of recognition, like a black flag of protest".
Face Kurator, suXzine of unknown origin, probably 1998, Photocopy on Kinko officepaper (5,5 x 8,5 in.), archived 2015 [PDF]
A key component of the movement was the core techniques of desegregation and anti-alienation. The scene would actively work to overcome the distance between band and audience, or designers and consumers. Fans would get access to the microphone at gigs, leading the audience to sing, or sharing crafting tools and share works, working collaborately. In like manner, designers and consumers would mix at the craft-gigs into one huge DIY movement, sharing ideas and making together, for example the HugeThreatQuilts that traveled with the band on tours, or the puritanist embroidered bandana of Mike Judge. For many kids this was the ultimate experience of the culture; to share the intensity of the music and ecstatic craft with the fellow makers.
Similar to Straight Edge, suXers do not "participate" in a social movement in ways scholars typically think of movements. There are no strikes, demonstrations, lobbying or signing petitions. The collective is not forms by synchronous or centrally organized activities. Rather, the movement is organic and fluid. The collective is loosely bound by their collective and critical agency and united through commitment to their ideals. As one participant noticed, "When the rebels are in it for the drugs or the excitement, we are in it for the skills. We want a reskilling of society, of our scene. It is a growth from within, a resilient resistance, rather than loud protest." (Anonymous n.d.) The suXers customize their skills and participation to meet their own skills, interests, needs and local situation. And they do this mainly by craft interventions, repair and careful attention to clothes.
Just like the twin-subculture Straight Edge, with its emphasis on no drinking, smoking or fucking around, the suXers aimed to turn values of sustainable consumption into a lifestyle. Whereas the Straight Edge youth turned the X-mark, a signal to club workers not to serve them alcohol, into a symbol of defiance, the suXers turned repair into a symbol of sustainable defiance. For the sXe, the stigma of not having the "privilege" to drink became a symbol of pride, expressing "not only can't we drink, we don't want to drink." (Haenfler 2006: 8) In a similar vein, the suXers explicitly claimed, we repair because "we don't want to consume!"
Free Glamour, suXzine NYC 2002, Photocopy on office paper (5,5 x 8,5 in.) archived in 2013 [PDF]
Where the sXe made the rules of no drink, no drugs, no fucking around into their commandments, the suXers turned consumerism and fashion on its head. But whereas the sXe rallied around the original three commandments, and later split up between further commitments, such as veganism, anti-abortion etc, the suXers rules were already from the beginning much vaguer. The rules of some suX-cultures seems a flexible guide, as one follower witnesses:
"I don't like when fashionistas view the guidelines as a set of rules, where you have to follow the commandments of 1, 2, and 3. I don't think that's what it's all about. It's not like the 12 step scheme. It's about living your life the best way you know how.It's a perspective and a seeking of sartorial justice."
One witness of the early expressions of the scene says she never intended the guidelines as a formal set of rules;
"You have to be interpretive about these things. You can't just look at the X-sign and think, oh, now its all about absolution and negation. Now I'm not supposed to do or think this or that." (Anonymous n.d.)
Agnostic Fiber, screen printed textile patch ,archived in NYC 2015, (5x12cm)
Another perspective expressed by a follower, is that of a pure countercultural response to fashion: "I feel a lot of the suX-rules have been predominantly shaped by drop-out fashionistas. It's about opposing the cultural dominance of power through sexuality and consumerism. We are bombarded by these images and energies, to be brand aggressive and promiscuous buyers. Instead I see suX as a sign of loyalty, or attention and care, sort of a spiritual guidance for sustainability, justice and eventually some sort of contemporary street form of enlightenment." (Anonymous n.d.) Another participant argues that the repaired clothes were to become like weapons of the disadvantaged, or "the spear poking the side of the body of consumerism", with clear parallels to James Scott's studies of the "weapons of the poor" (Scott 1985), or the shared and open culture of digital resistance among the hackers (Douglas 2002).
Whereas some forms of anti-consumerism has mainly proposed tactics of boycott or subversion, such as Adbuster's "no shopping day" or "subverting" campaigns, the suXers took on proactive and hands-on sartorial protest in a highly material manner, even if their forms of opposition often remained deliberately subtle, non-confrontational and X-marked. One follower noticed:
"It feels like consumerism offers only some very limited forms of resistance, like limited boycott, false compliance of goods, feigned ignorance of brands, or even pilfering, slandering, flight or foot-dragging with your spending. But when I come together with the suXers scene, all new possibilities opened and were vividly discussed and implemented. We crafted, and networked, and started our own repair services and systems. We felt we created a new system at the fringes of capitalism, yet not some form of 60s drop-out commune. We created a moral economy of care."
BeautéX, suXzine, probably Istanbul 2013, A5 Photocopy on office paper (5.8 × 8.3 in.) archived in 2013 [PDF]
> The fragmentation of dissent
Yet over time, similar to the developments within the sXe, the guidelines kept manifesting as strict rules within some circles of the suX-culture. As designer Sam Slap says, "When I got into suX, it was simply keeping a low profile of consumption and more about repair and care, but after some time it got more rigorous and judgmental, even aggressive at times. Veganism, Freecycling, Anarchism, Primitivism; all these things kept reinforcing the sustainable commandments until we were basally bootstrapped with stone age cultural expressions" (Slap 2013)
This PC (or politically correct) aspects of the movement was one of the forces which caused the scene to split up during the 90s into several smaller scenes of varying influence. Many bands and groups turned to social issues, such as social justice, indigenous or racial rights, anti-sweatshop activism, access to freecycled textiles and disseminating free children's clothes among the disadvantaged. Some liaisoned with the spiritual elements if the Straight Edge scene, primarily the Krishnacores, some turning towards Buddhism for repair-retreats at Zen-monasteries or New Age allies. Whereas Krishnacore bands, such as 108 toured extensively, sharing vegan meals and teachings, many suXers joined forces to provide textile teachings and craft workshops (cf. Haenfler 2006: 14f).
Life of the Mend, suXzine of unknown origin 2008, A5 Photocopy on office paper (5.8 × 8.3 in.) archived in 2013 [PDF]
If analyzed as a culture, the suX scene exhibits traits of what Albert Cohen called "mutual conversion": scenes of intersectional transitions between beliefs and practices (Cohen 1955). These practical traits can also be interpreted as "conversation of gestures" (Cloward & Ohlin 1960), that is, engagement with highly localized and almost site-specific scenes and practices of transition, or even explicit rites of passage, in order to develop and maintain identity. This perspective especially resonates with the suXers focus on hands-on practice and craft interventions, as the focus of the scene was on action, or transformation of doings, rather than expression or judgment of style.
The focus on making, craft and the traces of the hand was also an integrated form of authenticity within the scene. Many artifacts of suXers have an aura of authenticity, programmed by the garment's role in an event or workshop. This in turn produces values of authenticity similar to those of the sXe scene, from the highest position where the garment is made at an event, to objects traded or bartered, and down to gifts. Within the culture any act of sale or monetary exchange would spoil the function of the garment and also break the taboo on anonymous consumerism (cf. Haenfler 2006: 177).
X-wear, suXzine from Baltimore 2007, Photocopy on office paper (5,5 x 8,5 in.) archived in 2015 [PDF]
Over the years, especially from the late 90s and onwards, the suX scene lost much of its defining character and merged into hybrid forms with the emerging "craftivist" (craft+activism) scene. The distinct history and practical lifestyle of the suXers seemed to disappear behind labels of "indy-craft" and branded experiences of craft, such as the successful online marketplace Etsy. As a generation of youth turned older, also their craft approach turned towards the domestic crafts of nesting and new adult alliances.
Yet the heritage of the suXers is just now becoming apparent, and not least the re-emergence of a call for a sustainable lifestyle and rebel causes again calls for anti-consumerism. Not least a series of workshops and events at Parsons the New School for Design in New York in the fall of 2012 rallied old and new fans and crafters to again take on the heritage of the suX scene.
Urn X. Sechler, the legendary founder of the neo-heideggarian X-istentialist branch of the suX scene in the late 90s, has over the last decade been one of the most influential sources of suX theory through his zines and taped spoken word performances. In his framing of the suXers he traces several lines of ideas from Barthes and Bathory to D.R.I. and Derrida throughout the suX discourse. With his recent participation in the Brooklyn-based and radical "Bed-StuX" scene, Urn X.'s deep commitment to praxis interventions and the contemporary question of being has come to spread ripples of philosophical "Dasein"-activism among a new generation of youth. From Sechler's perspective, the suX scene may lack much of a documented or written history, but as he mentioned in one of his zines, "history suX, and the future is still unwritten" (Sechler 2012).
(Because of the sparse documentation, oral tradition and the mystical elements of the suX-scene, much of the information from the interviews and Internet cannot easily be verified. Through the hardcore methodolgy in Speculative Subcultural Studies we are currently triangulating interviews, statements and other sources to make a more comprehensible whole of the history of suX)
The Art of X, suXzine from London 2012, A5 Photocopy on office paper (5.8 × 8.3 in.) archived in 2015 [PDF]
Urn Blüchers, 2015. Leather shoes, metal studs (34x12cm) Private archive, Brooklyn
Anonymous (n.d) suX voices at several Straight Edge internet fora, for example: http://sxe.com/forum/ , http://www.straight-edge.net , http://toefur-straightedge.com/forums/
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SUX/Political: suX outfit, 2015. Repurposed attire, cotton patches, floss, acrylic paint. Archived in New York, 2015
SUX/Political: suX outfit, 2015. Repurposed attire, cotton patches, floss, acrylic paint. Exhibition view from Utopian Bodies, Liljevalchs Stockholm September 2015
Painted Derby Vans, 2015. Leather shoes, acrylic paint and metal studs, (32x12cm)