Few subcultures have been so stereotyped as the Beatniks of the late Fifties and early Sixties. Described as bongo drumming, black-clad pseudo-intellectuals, Lucy Housman explores the real Beatnik style.

The aftermath of World War II and the material restrictions that naturally ensued provided the perfect environment for the growth of beat culture, a movement founded in America, which later moved to Europe. This movement, rooted in a philosophy of anti-materialism, characterized by poetry and powered by the importance of bettering ones inner-self, was the foundation of what was soon to become known as the ‘beatnik style’. sedgwick3

Beatnik, somewhat removed form its beat origins by embodying a visual trend, nevertheless channeled and translated the ethos into accessible forms, bringing about a key classic style typical of the late Fifties and early Sixties.

The almost anti-fashion attitude to the understated dressing style of beatniks captures the casual view they took of trends. Picking up on the stereotypical beatnik style, they have been described by journalists as being “completed by mixing in Dali-esque paintings, a beret, a van Dyke beard, a turtle-neck sweater, a pair of sandals, and set of bongo drums”.

There was a certain uniformity to the clothing and accessories of beatniks, such as berets, black and white striped tops, turtleneck sweaters, skinny jeans and of course leotards. Edie Sedgwick in particular was famous for her leotards, stripy jumpers, leggings, again following an understated style that said ‘less is more’.

funny_face_audrey_hepburn_fAudrey Hepburn’s outfit in Funny Face (1957), wearing a black leotard and black leggings, highlights her indifference to fashion and serves only to illuminate the elegance and simplicity of this example of beatnik style. Funny Face, with its typical beatnik outfits, philosophy, cafes, berets and bongos, is not the only film portraying beatniks. beatniks1960

Beat Girl (1959) features The Off Beat, a cool little hang-out as well as a selection of beatnik traits such as art, fashion style, slang, coffee bars and jazz clubs. Beatniks appear in other films including Bell, Book and Candle, Hairspray, and more recently in Me Without You, and of course The Beat Generation.

The Beatniks’ subtle, unconcerned style and their casual but poignant fashion is still relevant today, and so it comes perhaps not much as a surprise that in our overtly materialistic, we see a trend again towards the simple and understated. The black leggings, Breton tops and simple sandals of the Beat Generation make the perfect recession wear.

One Response

  1. Ric Smith

    OMIGOD! I cannot believe you have reduced an entire sub-culture to the status of “perfect recession gear.”

    I’m sure you don’t care, but it would seem that yours are exactly the kind of superficial values the Beat Generation was trying to leave behind.

    God Bless Capitalism … our insurance that integrity hasn’t the chance of a snow-ball in Hell.