Saturday, June 30, 2012

Culture watch: who am I?

Image of biker jacket from pinterest

From ancient times, people have worn badges that identify them with their ethnicity, religion, or social status. These identifiers may be garments, hairstyles (including styles of beard or moustache), or jewellery. Think Muslim scarves, monks' tonsures, Sikh bangles.

We who live in liberal societies may delude ourselves that we have no such badges, but that would be a mistake. We may not be consciously aware of displaying badges of identity, but we display them all the same. Think Nike shoes (status), multiple ear and face rings (rebellion?), or open shirt buttons (freedom?) In some societies, this would be seen as an unacceptable state of undress).

In today's cosmopolitan world, the badges of identity are becoming mixed and mingled in fascinating ways. Burquas may be worn with Nikes, and baseball caps with...well, you get the idea.

The other day on the train, I sat behind a middle-aged man whose identity badges seemed to me to clash. First there were the silver filigree earrings he wore in both ears and on his eyebrows. Then, flowing from the hole in the back of his baseball cap was a mane of wavy auburn hair that any woman would envy. In the distant days when I came of age, long hair on a man was a badge of rebellion against the consumer society, a signal of belongingness with the youth who espoused making love not war. Long hair supported peace and flower power.

Times change though, and the teens and twenty-somethings who used to say "never trust anyone over thirty" aged and hauled in their horns. As thirty-somethings, they no longer identified with the same badges. Eventually, the longhairs who clung onto their ragged jeans and tie-dyed t-shirts into middle age were dismissed as refugees from the sixties. They were discounted by others of their generation as people who had been unable to move on. 

To get back to the outfit of my fellow commuter, it seemed to me that his clothing clashed with his face and hair, for he was dressed in standard black motor cycle leathers, marked with the Harley Davidson brand. He wore heavy boots on his feet.

As an outfit, this get-up displayed a high level of creativity; I was further surprised when he turned to look out the window and I caught a glimpse of a well-trimmed moustache that covered only the central portion of his upper lip, and a neat goatee below clean-shaven cheeks.

As a visual cue to signal his status and sub-culture affiliation, this outfit and hairdo left me guessing. A biker with soft hair and a soft heart? Or just someone who doesn't want to be categorized, and so chooses to mix his badges to keep people guessing.

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