Role of Beat Generation in American Fashion Culture

Some social movements are subtle, they appear on the bottom half of the social strata and these movements are often labeled as sub-culture of the society. These movements leave a significant impact in the majority of the population in the society redefining the various socially held notions. They create a sort of seismic wave in the social dynamics and break down the barrier created by the social system. They arise from various abnormalities in the social norms, political reasons and philosophical factors. One of such popular and hugely influential American subculture in the 20th century is Beat generation. Started around 1950, after the end of the Second World War, this subculture movement changed the whole social landscape of America in terms of social, literary and political fashion.

Beat generation is often hailed as the precursor of the Hippie generation that started in late 60 and early 70s as the baby boomers formed the significantly larger youth population. So, this subculture movement would create a paradigm shift in the notion of how different facets of personal life should be aligned with the social construct of the 20th century.

To start with, the beat generation changed the whole idea of sexuality as a personal matter and advocated for the free choice of the human body. It called for the change in the society, basically by breaking down the pillars of capitalism and helping the millions of American poor. It brought forward the striking need to address poverty in the United States. It showed to the American society, the fault of the political and economic system.

It advocated for personal freedom in every aspect; partying, addiction, open sex, liberalization and many more fashion statements deeply rooted in the American society. The likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and their group led the subculture movement by writing the literature that reflected the disgust in people regarding warmongering mentality and also the dark side of the new movement.  Their literature was solely based on the principle of liberalization and personal freedom.

 For American society that had been, particularly a capitalistic since the country had adopted new system In late 19th century had led to the rise in the middle-class family where the idea of working in a factory for long hours and earning minimum wage was apparent. The corporations were sucking the toil of the middle-class family that had been blessed with the concept of the American dream whose philosophical underpinning was consumerism and market economy.

But there was a dark side of all this promise. No matter how many promises of lottery draw is given to the American people, the bitter fact that many of them were the victim of the new system was apparent. In the major cities like New York, there was a new population who were kicked out from the new system of the society just because they did not want the social conformity and left the life of a slave throughout their life. This compelling thought was the result of the Second World War which changed the perception of the general public regard the day to day life, the iron-clad dogma of the society and the corporation hegemony. This gave rise to the Beat generation or simply the “Beatnik.”

The idea of Beatnik was hence the result of collective disgust towards the social dynamic of mid-century America. It was also the consequence of the Great Depression of the 30s that led people to realize that the system was crooked. For the majority of the population, the Depression became the cause of separation of family, division of social hierarchy and the rise of the poet and novelist who expressed the dark side of the new system and disgust to the civilized attire for women and familial pressure to men.

So, there was the hint of communism in the educated youth who wanted to change the system which only helped the rich to climb the ladder of wealth and pelf leaving behind the millions of American in the backwater of capitalism. The idea of degradation of American society in terms of the colonial values it had inherited, the racist and bigotry in the many parts of the country and the surge of eastern mysticism in the country were instrumental in kick start of the subcultural movement.

The beat generation shaped the understanding of new forms of music, dress, literature, politics, and sexuality in New York in the early years. It was transferred to significant cities in the East Coast and subsequently to the west coast, especially in San Francisco, which is known as a hub for the American Renaissance. In politics, the subculture played a major role as the central idea was revolved around the anti-capitalistic notion and the chauvinist American culture.

Jack Kerouac, one of the founding fathers of the movement was familiar with his Bohemian friends at Columbia University and around New York. Inspired by them, he wrote the book “The town and the city” in the late 40s.[1] This book challenged the conventional publishing culture in the American literary scene. His book talked about the dark aspect of the New York filled with the Jazz music in the progressive clubs with the youth whose central aim in life was to live in the moment, challenge the system which was drafting the youth in the war they didn’t choose to attend.

For American establishment, the Beat Generation came as the unwanted by-product of capitalistic revolution. IT is true that capitalism and its political manifestation in the form of “America Dream” had increased the middle-class American in the urban areas. But to the degree of the development, they failed to realize that hit the rise in the middle class, the awareness about the government’s action increases among the general public. The increase in the education which was acting in many away to generate political awareness in the American Youths led them to believe that the system they were ruled by was not for them.

The government was busy fighting with the ideologies rather than focusing on the psychological aspects of many youths who had seen or heard about the Great War and the Korean War in the 1950s. So, politically, the beat generation generated a new idea of pacifism that was greater than the concept of the United States as the country they had to protect. For them, politics did not matter in real life as the country was fighting someone else’s ghost in the country which the people barely knew about.

The New York atmosphere, a Mecca for capitalism was also the vanguard of the Beat Movement. In the mid-40s, as the country was in the War, fighting for the Allied force and against the German-led Axis power, in the Columbia University, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, William Borough were forming a little literary group[2]. Thor group was not aligned with any particular political party, but all they wanted was to enjoy heroin and other drugs while listening to the poems ta closely related to the personal freedom, against the political establishment, poor of America and about human existence.

For the beatniks, it was imperative to find the meaning of their existence. And to the surprise of the contemporary Americans whose life was shaped by the market and the consumer goods, they had a very different idea about the society and philosophy of life. So, these luminaries were very dominant in the literary sphere o of the New York area. During this time, the idea of Beat was limited only with those group. The books and the poems written by them were different than the ones famous with the mainstream publishing house and the general American public.

The main tenet of the Beat literature rested on the idea that the writing should be fluid and should not be constrained by a barrier. So, when the Kerouac wrote the novel, “On the road,” it became the bible of the beat generation. Kerouac used the real-life subject as a protagonist of the novel who represented the typical bohemian American in the 50s. With the abundance of drugs, alcohol, books, men, and women who wanted to break free from the convention of the world and social settings, the book is a testament to man’s journey across the American states. The context of the book was timely, given the imperative to explore the semi-dead, semi-modern, and gloomy American cities and also to explore within the characters’ life about various aspects of humanity and what it takes to live in the world.

The book did not come as another literary gift among the conventional critics but as a blow to the conventional society, who was not ready to read about profanity, open sexuality, bohemian nature, and drug-filled story. While the majority of critics labeled the book as the cheap way of calling something a piece of literature, for Kerouac, it meant the spiritual journey of a person although it was very much different and radical from the contemporary standard.

While the Kerouac’s book appeared, another pioneer of the Beat generation, Ginsberg headed to San Francisco, West Coast to join the San Francisco rebel poets. San Francisco was a hub for American Renaissance but the elites, it was the wasteland of the homosexuals, addicts, and the misfits. Little did they knew that it was from the bars and clubs of the San Francisco and the New York, which were the hub for Beatniks, America would late see the movement in free sex, feminism, civil rights, LGBT rights, and various progressive movements.

With Ginsberg arrival and the recital of the anarchist and rebel poems, the people in the bar, high in drugs and alcohol would line up to listen to what someone was saying. In particular, they weren’t communists but were anti-capitalist. , In a way, they were the victims of capitalism in the 20th century America where everything was censored and labeled. Ginsberg, the pioneer of Beat in the New York, found San Francisco a suitable hub to carry on with his experimental poetry which didn’t only deliver hatred to corporate America but also championed for the various progressive ideas which were impossible to talk in the United States during the time.

The rise of anti-conventional poetry was very fundamental to shape the cultural fashion in New America. With so many novel ideas regarding love, sex and relationships were emerging, the poetry of likes of Ginsberg would shape the new literary and musical movement that would dominate the United States for next 30 years or more. Also, the influence in the various cultural facets is seen even after more than 70 years.

The prominence of the new literary fashion in San Francisco and New York was because of the well-regarded opinion of the American government’s desire to send its military to fight in many places on Earth. For Beatniks, the war was the degenerative human form that did not help any individual American to grow, intellectually, emotionally and holistically.

According to them, the government and some greedy corporations had found a perfect combination to coax the population into war and keep them happy. It was done by mass spreading the idea that consumerism is a blessing in disguise and the more people consumed, the level of happiness increases likewise. This idea was sufficient to hook mainstream American into a belief that the American dream was the ultimate destiny.

So, their poetry and fictions called for a revolution to break away the idea of corporate culture and the government’s hegemony. So, in a way, the poetry and fictions of Beatniks like Kerouac, Snyder, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and others offended more Americans than it found them, the ones over thirty, who agreed with their attack on capitalism, consumerism, army, racism and ecological destruction which were well cherished by majority of over 30 American population. So, in a way, Beatnik had started a new counter-cultural movement that was not readily accepted by the majority of Americans who had been brainwashed by the very concept.

While the literary and anti-political movement of the Beatniks were underway, it drastically changed the fashion in music. The musical scenario that was once cherished as an integral part of American society was rapidly being crushed by new music. So, just like the context of the society where the tension between the old ways and new bohemian ways was apparent, the rise of the fast and frantic jazz music appeared to threaten the label houses and musical establishment.

Furthermore, with the abundance of LSD in every campus and the omnipotent use of drugs led to the understanding among many creative souls that they could find the creative and interesting ideas in the absence of establishment which was perverse and gloomy. The over the addiction of drugs continued for decades to come in the American pop culture. 

The belief of counterculture was highly pervaded for a whole decade, and so, every song was written, every line sang, during this period had their roots on the very notion of the counterculture. And yet, when beat had burnt itself out, and the ideas underpinning it disseminated out into more general anti-capitalism ideas around the hippie movement of the 1960s, what remained were the beatniks.  So, the rise of the music was way out of the general convention of society.

The Beatniks favored modern jazz soundtrack as Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg had a habit of spending the majority of their time sin popular NY club. Some of the popular ones were Royal Roost, Birdland and Minton’s Playhouse. They even found their heroes on Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Even today, in the popular underground venues like Gaslight café and Greenwich village where many Beatniks visited, one can observe the vintage photographs of musicians playing Bongos.

Just like the music, a beat generation had redefined the fashion in clothing too. As the basic foundation of the beat generation was based on the aestheticism and anti-materialism, such concert was clearly expressed in dressing too. For them, the beauty was defined intellectually rather than the superficial extension of the material consumption.

Maybe their stance against the established brand was the result of their attitude which to some extent correlated to the left-wing politics. For them to dress with the famous brand and expensive ones was similar to committing the crime against their own volition. With the inclination towards the eastern mysticism, the likes of Kerouac, Snyder, and  Alan Watts, searched the various existential meaning and asceticism in Buddhism or Taoism. This minimalist attitude was seen in the way, the proponents of counter culture adopted and which became famous in the decades that followed and even today.

In case of me, during the fifties, they disdained the socially accepted and cherished dress but chose to wear corduroys or jeans with the khaki and button-down shirts. They added the sport coats to give a sort of balance in their wear and made it look a revolutionary dress attire as well as semi-casual dress. Many of them did not hesitate to put on the glasses, grow a beard and put on the sweatshirt. For them, the idea of fashion in eh dress was the need to be comfortable with and non-confirmatory.

Similarly, the idea of revolution in the fashion of the beat generation will be incomplete without the role of women. More than for men, the dress of women was instrumental in cementing the notion of counterculture in the society. It is particularly important, also because, for women, there were so many fashion brands like hourglass skirts designed by Dior to provide the chic appearance, the beatniks followed a more rebellious dress code. They wore black jeans, denim or pencil skirts which often accompanied with an oversized sweater or the sweatshirt that defied the popular notion of women to dress sense. 

As the dress code was mostly about getting comfortable, they chose the one, which according to the social establishment would be labeled as rebellious. They often cut their hair or grew it long and avoided the jewelry that would make them a part of bourgeois upbringing. In a way, Beatnik women looked for the dress that was more unconventional and rebellious and often fitted with the music they listened to, books they read and poetry they enjoyed.

For beatniks, the color of back became their color identity. It was reflected in the dresses they wore. They also opted for streamlined silhouettes which deferred attention away from themselves. The fashion of turtleneck sweaters, often a stripped one with black and white color became the uniform of a sort with straight leg cigarette pants. The women also took the liberty of wearing slacks and leotards, the tight dresses. In doing so, they were trying to convey the idea of women freedom in terms of their sexuality which one of the basic underpinning of the beat generation.

Sexuality was not an open concept in mid-20th century America. With the rise of so many branches of Christianity, the notion of family and marriage was the iron rule. But after the war, when Beat generation carried on, the wave of getting was about one’s sexuality became commonplace. It was more prominent in the underground clubs of the New York and on the road of San Francisco[8]. It led various artists to explore their sexuality in terms of arts or literary fiction. The sex before marriage was no longer an original sin and women in the hub of the beat generation became the master of their own body. Homosexuals did not fear to open up in the streets like San Francisco and clubs of New York. In a way, beat generation opened the door to explore the multitude of the human aspect in 20th century America.

The Ohio Gang and Portrayal of the dark side of Pop Culture

The Ohio Gang is a famous painting by R.B Kitaj in 1964.  Kitaj was born in Ohio, the United States In 1932 and had witnessed the rise of pop culture in the 50s and 60s in the United Kingdom, where he spent the majority of his life. In his particular painting of the Ohio gang, he has used the bright colors that are uniformly stroked. Doing so, he has induced the modern pop-culture persona that was prevalent in the late 50s and 60s. The event in the painting takes place in a closed room, where it seems some sort of bargaining is taking place. A naked petite girl is seen seated on a chair with an indifferent face.

There are two male persons, mustached sand one of them wearing the hat. He seems to be bargaining with the naked girl while another guy stares the one-way conversation with great concern. There’s a middle woman beside the naked girl; Her breasts are bare from her blouse. Her erotic bodysuit provides a sort of erotic vibe to the setting. On the lower right, a child with the head of male and breasts of the woman is on the carriage, and the wraithlike cartoon figure has pushed it. On the upper right is a monkey.

Every artist seems to leave their inspiration through the characters the paint on the pictures. Their emotion, however, stems from their interaction with the environment, society, culture and their understanding of the myriad of these aspects. Kitaj who is credited with the artist of using minimum lines but overlapping them has employed a similar idea in the painting. He has used extensive color like black, red, white, blue, yellow, and faint green along with the hybrid colors.

The use of these many colors has created the numerous focal point in the painting signifying that there are so many underlying nuances of human life and our interactions with the people and surrounding. Even though, at first glance, the man with hat seems like a middle-aged man, the slight use of color has given him the ghastly appearance. Similarly, the use of faint green color in another male body isn’t clear and depicts him as a grotesque creature. 

Kitaj painted the Ohio gang by il and graphite on canvas. The painting has the dimension of 183.1×183.5 cm making it almost a square. He has heavily relied on the black color as the context of the event must be taking place at night. It can also mean that the painter has tried to decipher the darkness in the characters. The individuals cherish the darkness as they slowly disappear themselves in their own making.  The portrayal of the cartoon-like appearance of the creature pushing the carriage also makes a lot of sense as Kitaj has a history of painting the abstraction. The choice of so many colors signify the various dimensions of the substance-laden life of the 60s and 70s. So, in a way, the abstraction is heavily related to his understanding of the pop-culture of the west.

So, the portrayal of the characters in the dull color with black color around them signifies the bitter reality of the western pop-culture. In a way, it means that the surrounding is colorful and more cheerful; the people lived a hollow placid life with their darker side getting over them. Just like the work of Franz Kafka, in whose novels and stories, the characters find themselves in the timeless confusion in their carnal and the universal aspect Kitaj has shown the palpable sexual confusion among the characters.

The apparent confusion in the sexuality starkly seen in the naked girl who is dazed and confused regarding her presence. She is made and male characters are trying to coax into sexual pleasure. But her denial or confusion is still at large.  The painting also offers a kind of a meditation on male desire, profane and sacred love, the nascent uncertainty of parenthood, and animal lust. All of these are closely connected with the human desire for sex which transcends from the common understanding of sexuality and reaches to the carnal desire of animals.

Just like in every other painting of Kitaj, he hasn’t made the much variation in the strokes. He has juxtaposed the various colleges of the character and like always, has depicted seemingly disorienting landscapes and the  3D constructions that almost appear impossible to paint. And doing so, he has used the exaggerated, giant and pliable human forms. These characters are the voice of the twentieth century which often talks about sex, drugs and sexual tensions.

 In a way, the painting is a reality of mad world in the cluttered collages with varying color. All these characters live their timeless lives in the space which is without any perspective just like his youth generation. After the second world war, the United Kingdom and the United States along with the many European nations saw the massive rise in the movement for sexual freedom and individual identity. The rise of this movement was instrumental in the creation of various gay and lesbian identity, sexually. But as the massive child with a male face and woman body suggests that his identity unknown as the many faced ghastly creator pushes him. It as well seems to move towards the greater unknown. Hence, remaining true to his style, he has been successful in giving the world, his version one of the most significant generation in the history of humankind.

In Conclusion

In a way, beat generation lived shortly as the mid-60s saw the civil rights movement and an anti-Vietnam war started. But this almost two decade of subculture and counterculture of the beat generation shaped almost every social setting of the second half  of 20th century It is fair to say that this cultural movement  was essential for the Americans who were in the backwater of capitalism to come out and dare to alter the social dynamics  of the United States.

The rise of the beat generation in the United States was inevitable as the concept of capitalism had failed to acknowledge the voice of all Americans. There were so many remnants of the structured American society from the 19th century that was holding it back from the progressive viewpoints. So, the books of Kerouac, poems of Ginsberg and another pioneer of a beat generation led to the destruction of mainstream American culture of publishing, dress fashion, politics, sexuality, and existential questions.


“Beatnik Style Will Always Influence Our Wardrobe.” October 11, 2016.

Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Beat Reader. Erscheinungsort Nicht Ermittelbar: Penguin Books, 2006.

Sameni, Leora. “Fashion, Pop Culture and The Beat Generation.” LEORA SAMENI. March 30, 2017.

Skidmore, Maisie. “How Beatnik Style Made the Underground Mainstream.” AnOther.

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