I spent 5th and 6th grade in a private school in a medium-sized city in northern Germany. It was one of these places that required you to either come from a relatively affluent background or be mentally gifted enough to be awarded a scholarship. Through high tuition demands the school financed scholarships that enabled gifted but poor students to obtain a more challenging education.
The clash between affluent students and scholarship students, who were neither necessarily admitted on behalf of their social skills, nor their parents money, was severe: The school was a temple of brand worship, and the students its most violent missionaries. Kids that lacked social skills or the money to buy expensive, branded products were ostracized and bullied.
I was nine years old - one to two years younger than my classmates - when I entered the school. I did not know or care about fashion or brands. Up to this point, my parents had made all purchasing decisions for me. If there is such a thing as objective aesthetic taste my father has none of it. In fact, my father’s taste is “like oh-my-gosh-so-not-cool” that when I visited him in Germany two years ago and had to wear his wardrobe because the airline had lost my suitcase, “hipsters” suddenly showered me with compliments for my novel style. My father’s dark-green sweater-vests and the woolen socks my mother personally hand-knits, clothes that hadn’t been cool for thirty years, were suddenly avant-gardely awesome. In other words, my father’s taste is so incredibly uncool that if you were to put his favorite things in the back of the closet for twenty-five years and then pull them out one sunny day you would likely start an international fashion trend. One day, not too far into the future, white, knee-high tennis socks, Birkenstocks, and turquoise fanny-packs are going to be cool. Just trust me on this one.
So imagine my nine-year-old self: I was insecure because I was younger, not as good at soccer as others, had never kissed a girl, couldn’t even get an erection yet, had an un-manly, pre-pubescent body (I had big thighs and voluptuous hips), and had never been really drunk or smoked a cigarette. I wanted to fit in, I wanted to have friends, be admired, even loved and I was socially aware enough to understand that I could achieve those things through a combination of recklessness, defiance of authority, and pro-brand consumer choices. The recklessness was easy enough to achieve: All you had to do was to explore all the forbidden spaces of the school and be the last to turn around when your friends had all fled in fear. Authority I defied with my creativity and ability to play the class-clown. The fashion choices were harder to achieve. Even though he is prone to chase health-fads and miracle cures (I mean let’s be honest: When it comes to dealing with death all humans are a bit irrational), my father is still one of the most rational human beings I know. So, buying ninety-dollar jeans because of the logo printed on them was not something my father understood. I knew I had to be honest with him, because I knew there was no way I could manipulate him into buying me such overpriced products for no functional benefit in return. My memory is blurry about the exact details. I’d like to think I approached my father directly but, I think, I might have approached my mother first: She was more easily swayed by my childish and selfish demands, while my father liked to generally adapt more a position of tough love.
Either way, eventually I convinced my parents that if they wanted me to not be bullied and made fun of they had to buy me expensive clothes. Hence, one weekend my father and I went out to buy a pair of brand jeans. The dialog between the two of us must have been quite hysterical to the friendly salesman: My father in his oddly-shaped, ergonomic sandals, Walmart-style blue-jeans and knee-high, white tennis socks, holding up different pairs of jeans and asking, “Is this a cool pair of jeans? Is this one?”. Me answering, “No, papa. That’s not a cool brand,” or, “I’m not sureeee. I THINK that’s a cool brand.” Finally, a compromise was found: A pair of brand jeans that satisfied me and that wasn’t cut in the baggy-jeans style popularized in Germany by American rappers and completely dumbfounding to people like my parents. I can hear my father saying, “I don’t understand it. Why would you want jeans that make it hard for you to walk? Especially, if you’re a gangster who has to run away from the police.” Me responding with the voice-hop characteristic of a temper tantrum: “Da-haad! You don’t understaaaannd!”
The effect of this simple purchase, my first pair of brand jeans was - in retrospective - fucking terrifying. “Hey there! Are you wearing brand jeans?!” I was, literally, asked during recess. I got at least three different compliments for my jeans. My peers’ perception of me shifted from some under-developed nerd to one of the cool kids in almost an instance. All it took was one little purchase. This is the generation I grew up in.
I am part of a generation that, growing up, was indoctrinated with the lie that to be socially accepted, admired, and loved was completely dependent on your consumer choices. And the tragic irony is that the moment we as a culture collectively bought into this lie, it became truth.
I am part of a generation that was raised to believe that your own self worth was dependent on economic status, but not even real economic status but rather the superficial markers of status.
This is why people leave the sales-stickers on their baseball caps. If you’re not rich enough to not care about superficial markers of status, or not even rich enough to demonstrate status through expensive cars or nice homes, fashion becomes important. The sticker on a baseball cap shows that you bought the hat yourself, that you had enough money to buy the hat yourself, that you didn’t get it out of a charity clothing bin, or found it on the street. No one actually cared whether or not my parents were rich or not, what mattered was that my clothes looked like they did. None of us ten-year-olds even knew why brands were important, we just knew that other people that we admired and wanted to be like - famous athletes, rappers, older boys - wore brands and so, to be like them, to be somebody, we had to emulate them, and to parents that just wanted to make their children to be happy that meant dishing out big dollars on overpriced products.
It gets even worse: The most expensive products with the highest brand value are often the most cheaply produced and created with the most amount of human suffering. The Nikes and Adidas of this world are manufactured for five dollars worth of raw resources, by fifteen-year-old girls that get paid fifty cents an hour instead of going to school, and then are sold, to kids like us for two-hundred-fifty dollars. (If you’d like to read more on the conditions of sweatshop manufacturing and the role companies like Nike play with them I recommend the book No Logo).
What do companies like Nike spend all these profits on then? Advertising and branding. The money we spend to buy brand products is re-invested into ways to convince us that we actually need these products to begin with
What is a brand? A brand doesn’t exist out there, but within all of us. A brand is the combined feelings, emotions, desires, and hopes humanity associates with the symbol of the brand itself.
Here lies the problem with this: Manufactured obsolescence. The term is mainly used in technological circles and explains why our computers suddenly start malfunctioning after four years even though we’ve treated them extremely carefully. A company would never profit off a product that never failed because nobody would have to buy new products. Hence, manufactured obsolescence represents the idea that certain products are like ticking time bombs, guaranteed to go off and self-destruct to further guarantee future profits. When it comes to the industry of cool the obsolescence is not even man-made but rather arises organically. What is cool can never stay cool. Brands are sold to us to create the illusion that they promote our own uniqueness and individuality. “Look at me. Look at me. I am an individual! I I own this product! I am worth admiring!” But once a brand is perceived as cool it becomes popular and suddenly everyone buys it and thus the brand no longer provides individuality and originality.
If we seek self-fulfillment out there, through the purchasing of superficial products, we will never find it. The idea that we can be socially accepted, admired, and loved thanks to our consumer choices is an illusion. It’s a carrot dangled in front of our faces that we will never be able to completely catch because it doesn’t exist to begin with. For-profit companies like Nike have no interest in providing us with true self-fulfillment because it would mean we did not need them any longer. They need us to feel slightly unfulfilled and empty inside at all times so that they can sell us something to alleviate the symptoms. Think of the people you know that openly admit they go shopping at the mall when they feel bad. Such companies have no interest in curing the disease itself. That would mean the end of profit. They perpetuate the disease by appealing to our subconscious desires to fit in, to be loved, and admired. The cure would be an advertising campaign that told people that true happiness and fulfillment cannot be found through buying things but only through going within and finding out what really matters to us. But who would pay for such an ad-campaign?
As a response to this vacuous consumerism a counter-culture has developed that is often described with the over-used, increasingly meaningless label “hipster”. The original expressions of hipsters were at first quite reasonable:
Why spend fifty dollars on a t-shirt when you can go to the thrift store (as Macklemore rhapsodizes)? Why buy expensive, new drinking glasses when you can use mason jars? One problem with humanity is that reasonable actions are often not at all or mis-understood and then imitated not for their original reasons but for their superficial expressions. For example, today you can buy over-priced, lidless, designer mason jars in the store, which is exactly the thing that people who first used mason jars as drinking glasses tried to avoid.
Any attempt free-thinking individuals make to defy the irrational herd-mentality of the mainstream through self-expression can seem futile in light of this. The moment we create something original, someone else will imitate us without understanding why, and before you know it we will see people everywhere with facial hairstyles from 19th century Prussia, and haircuts from the 1950s.
American counterculture is obsessed with defying the mainstream mostly by superficial means. “Hipsters” take the least cool things - your grandma’s clothes, things from the 19th century - and make them cool, and while that is quite amusing and certainly ironic in a way that satirizes mainstream culture it also still completely buys into the mainstream bullshit. Instead of saying no to superficiality entirely we just change the expressions of our superficiality to be ironically different from the mainstream.
No matter what you wear you are going to be sized up and judged for it by others. Some see hipsters’ tendency to defiantly fight our culture’s superficiality by wearing clothes that go against the mainstream as childish because they distract people from more important messages. If you try, for instance, to fight against inequality in the third world, are people going to take you more seriously when you wear a suit or sweat pants? What’s more important the superficiality of our culture, or the suffering in the third world? Of course, that’s a false dichotomy. We have to pick our battles, but we also have to realize that they often arise from the same source: In this case, some people’s inability to think for themselves, and others willingness to exploit that fact.
If you are aware of others’ perceptions of superficial markers, you can use this to your advantage. Instantaneous snap judgments bear evolutionary advantage and humans’ instantaneous snap-judgments of others are based on superficial markers because they are the only information available when you encounter a stranger for the first time. People who withheld all judgment and embraced even crazed-looking strangers, covered in blood, and swinging axes probably did not survive long enough to pass on those genes. Essentially, all humans are to a certain extent inherently superficial thanks to evolution. The problem then does not lie in our innate tendency to immediately judge others based on superficial markers, but rather in our culture’s tendency to promote, even worship this innate tendency, rather than promoting a more deliberate and rational mindset. Advertising uses our innate, subconscious tendencies to manipulate us to buy things. (If you’re interested in more on this subject, I’d like to again refer to the excellent documentary the Century of the Self.) And so-called “hipsters” who fight this often perpetuate the same superficiality with a different face. Why wouldn’t a hippie be able to wear a suit? Ironically, so many of us that are fed up with mainstream superficiality just perpetuate their own brand of superficiality - a culture that may not be obsessed with mainstream appearances, but appearances nevertheless.
Let us stop worrying so much about the way we look. People who only accept you for what garments you drape yourself in are not your friends.
Let us start worrying about the millions of children that lie awake at night, afraid of bullying, hatred and humiliation because their parents can’t or won’t buy them the proper brand products
Let us start worrying about the millions of people that make our shoes for chump change. The true rebels are the people who wear suits and kiss corporate ass in order to get funding for their development work in developing nations - places that don’t have the luxury to define their identity through consumer choices yet. If we want to change the system we have to either work with it, or tear it down, but complaining about the most superficial aspects of the system and in return creating nothing but our own system of superficiality…. What does that really accomplish other than make ourselves feel righteous and superior? I’d rather be a suit-wearing, hypocrite that helps others in more effective ways, than someone who is internally consistent, yet achieves nothing to alleviate the suffering of others.