Fashion, often relegated to the corners of superficiality and excess, is, in truth, a veritable mirror of societal and cultural values and beliefs. The fact that it has exhibited a prolific nature as evidenced by the changes throughout history is enough to place it on the pedestal reserved for indicators of social and cultural research. While it is indeed more than just a simple answer to nakedness, fashion also exceeds the physical results born out of the dictates of an era or popular choice; it is a presentation all on its own, heralded by a variety of factors that determine its essence.
The term is usually defined as a subscription to the currency of a time period, specifically connected to evolution and change. However, in the discussion of appropriating a particular fashion or clothing as one’s own, it is necessary to view it as its own language, visibly possessing its own grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. From the medieval period to this day, fashion has been relatively classified into its assigned gender roles and representations—the tags of men’s and women’s fashion has yet to become obsolete—and therefore is a prime identifier of gender expectations. Also, because of the practice of choice necessary in determining the clothing one will wear, fashion may be seen as a means of communication, where a message is sent by the individual to one or more recipients or observers, with the conscious intent to affect the latter’s behavior. Identity, gender and communication are some of the main purposes of fashion, and have been evident in the development of clothing and design over the centuries. Of course, it is also affected by grander issues that mark society, producing era-related terms such as the Gibson Girl and the Flapper, but the three concepts identified will figure in higher relevance in this discussion.
To forgo the direction alluded to by modernity is to make a paradigm shift so great that it infuses individuality in fashion with a generous dose of rebellion and non-conformity, until such time when the acknowledged authorities of fashion validate its purpose. Perhaps the locale of Williamsburg in Brooklyn is an example of a society’s effort to negate the commodity-driven culture of Manhattan, as it has now become the stomping ground of artists and students, who are often the first to proceed toward paths that run counter to convention. That it is a thriving community of racially diverse members complete the picture that place Williamsburg as the perfect location for intellectual change. Thus, it is not surprising how fashion has also followed the identity chosen by the people—as seen in quirky stores aptly named Abracadabra, Splendiferous, and the like, that all aim to showcase a culture that promotes artistry and anti-establishment sensibilities. Vintage clothing shops, such as the pioneering Fluke Vintage, are true treasure troves of fashions past; clothing representing every decade of the last century may be found here. Because of the nature of the counter-culture present in Williamsburg, the resulting preferences for fashion are exactly what Soho is not, though both share similar industrial conditions. What makes them different is the acceptance of Soho as the current destination of the typical high-powered New Yorker, defined by its upscale shops distributing luxury fashion brands, and Williamsburg’s stubborn intent to keep the place as eclectic as can be, garnering economic success in fashion via individuality and not through plain consumerism.
The secondary sources available for this study on the fashion phenomenon and street style of Williamsburg are culled through the major points of theory in identity and gender in Fred Davis’ Fashion, Culture, and Identity, as well as communication scholarship through Theories of Human Communication by Stephen Littlejohn and Karen Foss. The theories and concepts of fashion as language and message will give a better view on the increasing preference for vintage fashion, which is, in this case, not merely a penchant for old clothes but a symbol of a community’s spirit of individuality.
Electronic sources such as blogs and community websites form the primary sources for the research, owing to the current role of technology and the internet in providing a more personal view of the specific fashion realities and reasons in Williamsburg, since they are written by community members themselves. The articles by Grant Moser and Sarah France Kuhn, both through the Free Williamsburg website, give important insights on the society in focus, specifically on its history, background, values, and fashion philosophy.
Other sources, like credible journals and periodicals, will serve as validation of the information gleaned from the previously-mentioned references, because these are from the viewpoint of journalists who have conducted their own research as well. The foray into the reasons and relevance of Williamsburg’s street fashion will be triangulated best through the use of these three forms of reference, which compose the methodology to be used for this study.
According to Moser, Williamsburg is still more of a community as compared to Soho, because the people have a more significant relationship with their neighborhood—which ultimately creates a network and social scene. This at once identifies the foundations upon which the collective and individual psyches of Williamsburg residents are based, and are obviously integral to each person’s identity. The fashion choices they make are greatly influenced by these observations, which translate to vintage styles being closely connected to the atmosphere of the Williamsburg environment. Based on the social nature of the community, people are apparently more inclined to uphold enduring values that may resonate with the past—hence the adherence to down-home art and culture, including the qualities corresponding vintage fashions as opposed to current trends. Kuhn made particular mention of a popular Williamsburg fashion store, Beacon’s Closet, whose owner established operations due to her growing fatigue of the Manhattan corporate look. Because the items are vintage, none appear mass-produced and all pass through a strict selection process. Aside from that, a buyer can even get cash or store credit ranging from thirty to fifty percent—definitely a perk uncommon in Soho stores. Once more, the presence of community and personal relationships as named by Moser figure prominently in the Beacon Closet’s particular procedures, and these are all pointed against the perceived rituals made uptown.
Williamsburg fashion, like its residents, is more of a conscious effort to differentiate itself from its Soho version—and this is made obvious in all areas involving the industry, from concept to selection to pricing. While most vintage fashion is associated with women, Williamsburg stores also cater to men as well. Jennifer Barger recalls the sight of a young man in an impressive outfit of a Russian Army trench, spray-painted denims, and a yellow ruffled tux shirt—showing the eccentricities quite at home in the locale. Gender, while expressed sufficiently, does not conform to standards set by the corporate world.
Indeed, the principles stated by communication theorists are in action in Williamsburg; freedom of expression is clear in Hecht’s Communication Theory of Identity, which defines identity as a “code” that equates one’s membership in various communities. One who indulges in this vintage street fashion communicates his or her individuality, yet still in reference to the community to which he or she belongs. A good example is Brooklyn Industries, a shop that sells Brooklyn-marked fashions and is wildly popular among residents—because of the main goal to rebuff Manhattanites who look at Brooklyn as a lowly “province”.
Vintage fashion and Williamsburg’s focus on keeping clear of trendy and corporate styles are shown here to have a greater connection with community pride and goal, rather than a preference born out of a design-based purpose. It is the outcome of the area’s social makeup, and its exposure to various beliefs and values, that creates its fashion. Though identity, gender, and communication are found in fashions specific to other cultures, Williamsburg contains its own in its quest to keep the locale and community the way they have envisioned it—enduring, unconventional, and far from the brand-conscious philosophies of Soho fashion.
Barger, Jennifer. “No, Not That Williamsburg”. The Washington Post Company
(November 30, 2005). Database online. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2005/11/29/AR2005112901464.html
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Kuhn, Sarah Frances. “The New York Fashion Lineage: Brooklyn fosters a new crop of
talent”. Free Williamsburg (May 2003). Database online. Available at http://www.freewilliamsburg.com/may_2003/fashion.html
Littlejohn, Stephen and Karen Foss. Theories of Human Communication. Belmont:
Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
Livewire Admin. “Brooklyn’s Hipster Heaven”. NYU Livewire (2008). Database
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Moser, Grant. “A Scene Grows in Brooklyn”. Free Williamsburg, Vol 18, (September
2001). Database online. Available at http://www.freewilliamsburg.com/september_2001/mightymusic.html