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Fashion March, 28 2013

The Questionable Use of Obscenity in Streetwear

To the chagrin of many, obscenity and irreverence have long been key characteristics of street culture and its surrounding fashion scene. Because of the culture’s nature, namely that it is at one time both reactionary and self-aware, it is able to push its aesthetics and ideologies in a way that more sluggish, conservative scenes can’t. Reactionary because it often seeks to undermine and criticize the mainstream and self-aware because those involved must constantly be in touch in order for the culture to continuously evolve.

This combination has led to a distinct fashion scene that in recent years has produced articles of clothing that would drive Holden Caulfield damn near crazy. Jackets with the word “FUCK” printed all over come to mind as do patriotic-looking tank tops with the words “FUCK IT” written in abundance. While it’s easy to dismiss the use of profane language or obscene images existing simply for shock value, the popularity of vulgarity in streetwear, regardless of whether or not you support it, deserves a more thorough examination. Take a look below for our thoughts on the matter.

In the late 80s and early 90s before the term streetwear was commonplace, start-ups like Rick Klotz’s Freshjive used their own life experiences and interests as the foundation of their brand. Influenced by the local skate scene and hip-hop music, these interests more often than not included rebelliousness in various forms like clothing designs featuring political statements and social commentary and advertising campaigns featuring women in acid wash jeans smoking crack with no mention of the current clothing collection. To most, the campaign was inappropriate and outlandish but to those involved in the scene it made perfect sense – the advertisement successfully warded off mainstream culture while appealing directly to the audience it was intended for. Fans of Freshjive could proudly wear the brand’s clothing knowing it was made for their own culture and everything their culture represents like irreverence, originality, and boundary pushing.

Streetwear brands have since followed suit (to varying degrees of success), while keeping up with current trends which for the past few seasons have included things like all-over prints. With the ongoing popularity of this trend, a peculiar merger of profanity and design has led to all-over prints like the “FUCK” and “FUCK IT” prints mentioned earlier. The first comes to us courtesy of New York’s Supreme while the latter makes its way to us by way of California’s HUF. In the past, bold statements and obscenities have served as the focal point for a brash piece of clothing but with the continuing popularity of all-over prints, the two designs have become one and the same.

The final product is nevertheless still loud and irreverent, but the repetition of the obscene word in this case practically strips it of its vulgarity allowing the clothing in question to use a word like “FUCK” as design instead of as shock or one-upmanship. In essence, it’s an extension of  how legendary comic / social critic Lenny Bruce attributed the power of obscene words and racial epithets to their suppression. Simply put, words themselves have no inherent meaning and only take on meaning through the culture surrounding them. Thus, within the irreverent world of street fashion, the pattern is entirely appropriate and not a far cry from an all-over floral print or any other print popular in recent years.

At the same time, the word “FUCK” is unanimously regarded as the most obscene word of all. To quote the infallible comedian George Carlin, “Out of all of the English words which begin with the letter F, FUCK is the only word referred to as the “F” word.” Because of this general agreement, the use of the word “FUCK” in this context successfully completes street culture’s love of undermining protocol while creating an original take on the use of vulgarity in streetwear.

Perhaps no other brand exemplifies this unique combination more than Japan’s Undercover. Season after season they’ve released “FUCK” and middle finger patterns to a market with a less than 1% English-speaking population. The designers are of course completely aware of what their selections represent, but the Eastern country’s distance both physically and culturally from the West allows them to fully explore the concept of obscenity purely as aesthetic. The result is a design that can only be fully understood by those involved in street culture and its accompanying fashion scene.

In the past few years profanity has even started to permeate the awfully serious world of menswear. Take Mark McNairy’s beautifully handmade 2011 footwear collection for instance. A perfectly office-friendly collection of shoes with one minor detail. Laying unassumingly on the underside of each full leather sole and written in gold cursive are the words “Fuck Off.” In the same vein, French ready-to-wear brand A.P.C. got together with Supreme to write the words “Fuck Em!” along a crisp pair of dark denim jeans. Finally, the gentleman who listens to the hardest of hip-hop and punk music to and from his high-rise office has been given a voice. For all we know this gentleman could very well be the same person who skated the streets of Downtown LA and wore Rick Klotz’s original designs way back when.

In any case, from Freshjive to Mark McNairy, the use of obscenity has against all odds reached a point of appropriateness in streetwear. The words or symbols, when reappropriated into the context of street culture, take on a role that pokes fun at current conventions while complementing its culture’s aesthetics. So at the end of the day, if you find yourself in a high-profile business meeting and an important professional pulls out a brand new iPad protected by a bright red case that reads “Fuck You Pay Me,” you shouldn’t be offended. It’s not personal, it’s just fashion.

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