Greasers, Punk, Grunge: Your A–Z Guide of subcultures that have defined denim

More than just ‘clothes’, blue jeans have been central to virtually every youth subculture over the last 80 years. From greasers of the 1950s, hippies of the 1970s, punks of the 1980s, there are countless subculture styles that have worn jeans whilst resisting authority and defining cool. As culture changes and subcultures spring up, jeans have a way of changing with us, morphing into whatever we need at that moment.

They’re simply one of the most versatile pieces of clothing ever created.

But what is it about the style of these subcultures that has had such a defining impact on the contemporary culture of today? That’s what Greg Foley and co-author Andrew Luecke asked themselves a couple years ago when they started working on their book Cool: Style, Sound and Subversion. The 272-page illustrated guide is equal parts historical chronicle and handbook of the myriad subcultures, visually explaining the stylistic codes of each.  Zeitgeist films, zines, art collectives, and over one hundred music playlists tied to specific subcultures through the years are featured.

With denim being such a common thread, especially Levi’s® 501, it was only natural that Foley and Luecke reached out to the American jean giant to collaborate on the story. The result is a collection of illustrated postcards featuring 501s and all the coolest subcultures that wore them.

To find out more about the project and denims defining style, WGSN spoke to the guys behind the book in an exclusive interview.

How did the collaboration with Levi’s come about? 

In writing and producing the book, my coauthor, Greg Foley, and I realized Levi’s® 501s were consistent favorites among really influential subcultures of the past, and were important to edgier, newer subcultures, like punks in the 1970s and even grunge and Riot Grrrl in the 1990s. With that information in mind, we reached out to Levi’s® and asked if they’d be interesting in collaborating with us on a series of postcards featuring 501s and all the coolest subcultures that wore them. We agreed on a series of ten postcards with art from the book on the front and little factual blurbs on the back. It’s amazing to explore how so many different groups wore Levi’s® 501®s differently. The printed postcards turned out great, too. They’re great quality, with really vivid colors on thick card stock.



If you look at big cultural moments like youthquake, summer of love and moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Levi’s® have always been present, worn by the youth. What is it about the appeal of denim that has kept it a cornerstone for subcultural uniforms throughout the eras?

If you go back far enough, Levi’s® was there for what was essentially the American founding of California. That’s not a “youth” moment per se, but with the symbolism of California, the idea of ‘Fun in the Sun’ – surfing, skating, and hippies, it’s clear that even that is part of the story. I think they made their first 501s® in the 1890s. As workwear, Levi’s® were always a symbol that one wasn’t participating in upper class, white collar culture, which later became known as ‘The Establishment’. Sure, for farmers or carpenters, that might not have been a choice, but once the Beat writers started wearing Levi’s® in the 1940s it was partially to show that they were opting out of the established culture and power structures in the West. Secondly, the jeans wear tough and look great – they were anti-establishment and they were functional. Same for the hippies, who spent time sleeping rough or travelling. In that way, they just look and feel like freedom.



Over the years, each subculture has re-appropriated denim in terms of silhouettes, customization, and attitude. What are some of your favourite ways these style movements have adopted denim and changed the conversation on jeanswear style?

First, you see the Mods in the 1960s. There’s that famous Mod thing of wearing your shrink-to-fit Levi’s® in the bathtub and then out in the sun so they’ll dry perfectly fitted to your body. So that ultra slim look is theirs, and it’s so sharp and influential. No one wore denim quite as sharply as the Mods, and that really opened doors for the way people wear denim now. Then, you’ve got to look to hip hop in the early ’90s and how that culture pioneered wearing baggy jeans. No one had done that before, and it’s just another example of how hip-hop remixed style to make it its own, just like it did with music. With that push, you see hip hop companies like Karl Kani emerge to make baggy jeans, which also hadn’t been done before. Of course, skaters and ravers took inspiration here and ran with it, eventually wearing truly huge jeans. We definitely feature late ’80s and early ’90s hip-hop style on one of our COOL 501®s postcards.


Sounds and music is a big part of the conversation in the book. How has music and the personalities in each scene influenced denim style? 

Well, as I said, with the greasers and Mods, they really influenced rock and roll style. But then you have other really interesting stuff too, like grunge. The way Kurt Cobain wore jeans was amazing. It was totally his own ripped up, broken down style, but it resonates today. People love it.



It’s interesting to see how denim style has been borrowed and evolved throughout these subcultural groups. Andrew, we’ve had conversations on the Ramones style and how they created their look of cropped tees and slimmer jeans from New York City male hustlers. Can you elaborate on this?

Yes, that’s true. The Ramones’ signature white T-shirts, tight Levi’s® 505s, Schott Perfecto leather jackets, and Kids sneakers were the uniform of New York City male hustlers in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s very similar to the classic ’50s greaser and biker looks, similar to what Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One. That look, and that movie in particular, really influenced the gay leatherman scene and gay fashion in general. Also, sometimes The Ramones would even wear cropped T-shirts, which I thought looked goofy when I was a kid, but now I think it’s part of that hustler style, looking sexually appealing. Gay leathermen and punks are both part of our set of COOL 505s postcards.


On the topic of those more lesser-known subcultural groups like gay leathermen and Congolese Bills. Can you give us a rundown on the denim style of these style groups?

Certainly. With the gay leatherman thing, that style came right out of biker and greaser culture, and so if they weren’t wearing leather pants, they were wearing Levi’s® 501®s. There’s even a ‘rules’ sign from a ’70’s New York leather bar we came across doing research for COOL. Some of those rules are a dress code and it says, like, “No trousers, no suit pants, Levi’s® only,” which is amazing. With the Bills, they were there in the Belgian Congo in the late ’50s dressing like cowboys. It wasn’t easy to get cowboy gear in the Congo then, so they made their own stuff or had relatives send it in from Paris, where Levi’s® 501®s were first available around 1959. That kind of globalism mixed with DIY style is really prescient.



In the book, you detail some of the sartorial codes that denim spoke to amongst subcultural groups – like gay community with handkerchief code. Was there anything else interesting like this that you discovered in your research? How have people used denim as a way to communicate?

Sure, with Biker colors, those go on denim vests. There are certain rules in biker culture about what the top rocker (or top text) says, what the patch in the middle says, and what state or territory the bottom rocker (or bottom text claims). Those rules are really important in that subculture, and even though we don’t advocate it, people have spilled blood to enforce them.


With denim’s deep and wide history amongst these subcultural groups its unsurprising that todays designers find endless design inspiration and reference. Are there any particular subcultural groups that ring true on todays catwalks or amongst youth of today?

I mean, the recent one is skaters, who like I said, took hip-hop bagginess and really ran with it. Beyond that though, it was also skaters who brought back the high-waisted, cropped denim thing that’s been so popular for the past few years. In a couple years, I’m sure Hedi Slimane’s early 2000’s punk, ultra-tight skinny jeans thing will come back. It never really left for women, but for men, it did, but I’m sure it’s on its way back in the next five or so years.


Who are some of your favorite denim icons and why?

Well, Kurt Cobain is amazing. And there’s certainly a drawing on our grunge postcard for Levi’s® that’s inspired by Kurt Cobain. Sid Vicious too, who took that Ramones skinny Levi’s® 505s style and made it even more filthy and rude in a really irresistible way. Those two for sure.


Pick-up your copy of COOL: Style, Sound, and Subversion here, and look out for the collaborative Levi’s postcards in global stores this summer.

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