The Kids Are Alright: A Brief and Incomplete History of Fashion and Subcultural Identity

A "No-No Boy" at the Tule Lake Internment Camp, courtesy of Life.

Several weeks ago I was wandering the aisles of the Brown University Bookstore  looking for more books about ill-fated Arctic expeditions from the late 1800s, and I came across a book about Japanese-American identity in the 20th Century. A large portion of the book was dedicated to the discussion of the United States’ use of Internment Camps against citizens from Japanese ancestry during WWII, something that’s little, if ever, discussed and often downplayed in typical history  classes.

One chapter about a group of young men dubbed the “No-No Boys” stood out in particular. In 1943, the U.S. Government decided that Japanese Americans being held in what were essentially incarceration camps could volunteer for a special, racially segregated unit in the United States Army. Super considerate!

Shortly thereafter, the government also decided it wanted to test the “loyalty” of the Japanese citizens being held in camps across the country by issuing what was called the “Loyalty Questionnaire.” Two of the questions on the questionnaire were particularly concerning and confusing:

Question #27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? 

Question #28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

If you answered “yes,” you were a loyal citizen, and if you answered “no,” you were considered to be disloyal. For some reason women, children, and the elderly also had to answer both questions despite not being allowed to serve in the military (#27), and #28 was particularly troubling, because Japanese immigrants weren’t allowed to become naturalized citizens of the United States. This meant that answering “yes” to #28 could leave them without Japanese citizenship OR American citizenship. They would be stateless. The result was that many people answered “no” and “no.” Including the “No-No Boys,” who answered so in protest. The No-Nos were sent to the Tule Lake Internment Camp.


No-No Boys at Tule Lake, courtesy of Life.


It was the above picture that initially got me interested in the No-No Boys. There’s something about their stances, demeanor, and frankly their style (especially Mr. Leather Jacket, who is easily 10-20 years ahead of his time, aesthetically speaking) that drew me in and got me thinking [again] about fashion and its subcultural, anti-establishment communication of “No.”

At the same time that the No-No Boys were standing up against the government, African American and Latino youth were communicating their own rebellion against a mainstream social order that sought to silence and assimilate difference.


Teens in Zoot Suits, 1943.


So teens and young adults did what teens and young adults do best: wore the most outlandish, socially offensive outfits they could, which in this case were variations of the Zoot Suit. Their oversized shoulders,  broad-brimmed and feathered hats, and severely tapered trousers flew in the face of social subservience and gave visibility to Harlem’s jazz subculture. The rhyming slang of the jazz culture described the Zoot Suit as “a killer-diller coat with a drapeshape.” WHAT.


Zoot Suit Couple, 1944.


Zoot Suits were also adopted by Mexican-American youth (of both the male and female varieties) that were stripped of their language and customs when they immigrated to the United States. They used the Zoot Suit to communicate a hearty “fuck you” to mainstream society. The suits also established a new identity and set of customs for pachuco subculture.


Mexican-American Female Gang, 1942.


What if your grandma was in that photo? A girl can dream. I also like that these ladies were communicating a hearty fuck you by the water cooler.


Zoot Ladies under arrest.

Normals were so insulted by the showy Zoot and its association with youthful rebellion, the Government actually outlawed the manufacturing of Zoot Suits as part of WWII’s wartime rationing under the hilarious reasoning that the suits used too much valuable fabric. Weirdest logic ever. But then, it was wartime.

Flash forward and across the pond to just after the War, and to the Ton-Up Girls (and Boys), who were also awesome at communicating a resounding “fuck you” to mainstream British society. Ton-Up subculture whole-heartedly embraced the outsider, motorcycle look.

Ton-Up Girl.


In both the United States and Great Britain, soldiers were returning from war and being expected to integrate back into a society that wanted to move on as quickly as possible. As you might imagine, going from flying bombers for the Air Force to working a steady job, buying a home, having kids, and investing in kitchen appliances wasn’t really the easiest transition.  Not a problem, there’s a subculture for that. Ton-Up Boys and Girls found that donning leather jackets that were connotative of wartime bomber jackets and riding around on motorcycles made for an easier and more fun segway into daily life.


Like their American Zoot Suit cousins, Ton-Up Girls and Boys were not beloved by the mainstream. They had a pretty chill view about gender equality, opted out of the upper class competition that helped support Britain’s class structure, and refused the societal standardization that was being so emphasized for political and economic reasons.


Ton-Up Girl.

I also have a strong hunch that the rest of society hated them because they were just jealous. I can’t find historical proof, but who wants to compete with the upper class when you can wear a leather jacket and an aviator’s cap instead?

As I was looking at all of these amazing subcultural fashions, I came across the Bosozoku (“violent running gang”) of Japan and WOW. It used to be thought that the Bosozoku were would-be Yakuza members. As it turns out, most Bosozoku retire from the biker gang life at 20 and join “normal” society, while a tiny portion join the Yakuza. Generally, the Bosozoku are rambunctious teens who throw on military-style overcoats, bandaged torsos, baggy pants tucked into boots, and sashes inspired by WWII fighter pilots.

Bosozoku Girls, photo by Masayuki Yoshinaga.


The Bosozoku like to customize their bikes so that they go against Japanese regulation, gather in public places and listen to loud music, and generally call attention to how boring being regimented is.


Bosozoku retirement ceremony, photo by Masayuki Yoshinaga.

Wow. Yes. Obviously.

Perhaps the most visually terrifying, I mean arresting, of all subcultural fashion representations alive today is the bizarre and oddly hilarious Norwegian Black Metal. BLACK METAL IS NOT GOTH.

Black Metal in a Verdant Landscape.

Norwegian Black Metal, apart from shredding, has one clear, concise aim: to destroy Christianity. THAT is a subculture with some ambition. As far as I can tell, that’s it, but they’re serious about it. During the early 1990s, Black Metal enthusiasts were responsible for more than 50 instances of church burnings throughout Norway. Additionally, multiple old women have claimed that Black Metal “satanists” stole their dogs. The canine thefts were never proven, and for the most part, the claims against Black Metal enthusiasts read like claims against witches during the Dark Ages.



Given that their early adult aim is to wage a war on Christianity, Black Metal dudes wear what you might expect: make-up that resembles the dead (because Christians hate the dead?), combat boots, bullet belts, spikes, pentagrams and upside down crucifixes, etc. For reasons I don’t fully understand, they also favor sounds and images that are evocative of dramatic landscapes.


King of Gorgoroth by a Pond.


I’m not sure how effective Black Metal fashion is at calling attention to problematic aspects of Christianity, but in general the way fashion organizes around subcultural ideology and vice-versa is really powerful. It’s one of the simplest ways to make a political statement and to stand up to the status quo. It’s also the easiest way to look like you’re having a lot more fun than your neighbors.

Well, if you want to know, I said “no” and I’m going to stick to “no.” If they want to segregate me they can do it. If they want to take my citizenship away, they can do it. If this country doesn’t want me they can throw me out. What do they know about loyalty? I’m as loyal as anyone in this country. Maybe I’m as loyal as President Roosevelt.

About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.


  1. carrieleilamlove

    WHOA! I lurve it. I want to have a zoot suit party.

  2. Teresa

    Could you please let me know where you found the “Zoot ladies under arrest” photograph?

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