Fashion, Pop Culture and The Beat Generation

Jack Kerouac, American poet and novelist, pioneer and icon of the Beat generation.

New York was once the heart of the Beat Generation, where a group of intellectuals found each other at Columbia University, forming a Bohemian hedonistic counter culture celebrating non-conformity and a life outside the corporate cubical. “Beat” is slang traced back to the corners of the Times Square and downtown nightlife of postwar America, meaning down and out, but full of intense conviction. Founding member Jack Kerouac would later describe the movement as “a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way.” The aftermath of World War II and the material restrictions as a result, provided the perfect environment for the growth of the beat culture. Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ (1957), Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (1956) and William S. Burroughs ‘Naked Lunch’ (1959) were the three most influential Beat books and pretty soon everyone wanted to be a writer or a poet, rebelling against the constraints of late 50s and early 60s American society.

William S. Burroughs by Allen Ginsberg

Fashion was of no importance to them and in fact the Beats were the anti-fashion of their time. Ginsberg himself lived a modest life, practicing Buddhism and purchased his clothes from thrift stores all around the city. To outsiders however, the image of the Beat generation and its writers had something hip and appealing. Whereas they strived to be as authentic as possible through poetry, spiritual intellectualism and exploration of meaningful self-expression, their sartorial legacy became the stereotypical look of black turtlenecks, sunglasses and berets- driven by Fashionistas who put new influences in to the movement as it grew national fame. These ‘Beatniks’ of the 50s and 60s were far removed from the beats, with their strong emphasis on an aesthetic image. Nonetheless they channeled and translated its ethos into easy accessible narratives, bringing about a key classic style typical of the late Fifties and early Sixties. Kerouac would come to describe this fashion focused cartoonish phenomenon of bongo’s, beards and berets as a distortion of his vision and spiritual ideas.

Burroughs and Kerouac, by Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg in his usual thrift store attire, reading Jack Kerouac’s “Doctor Sax”.

The Beat’s legacy of liberty of expression- often sought through controversy- lead to the democratisation of American press and publishing. And although they didn’t intended it, their beatific, illuminated hipsterism inspired a generation of youngsters in to a new style movement, one that ultimately lead to a bigger bohemian counter culture in the 70s, the era of the hippie. They gave birth to the idea of anti-fashion and inspired countless artists from Bob Dylan to the Beatles. They started a long tradition of club kids and artists determined to make life into art and every weekend worth a novel. Like Bianca Jagger in the late 70s, who casually rode a white horse through the club at Studio 54 while wearing a comfy off-shoulder red evening gown- and icon of New York nightlife Susanne Bartsch and her wild outlandish parties at Copacabana in the late 80s, uniting the haute and demi-monde.