The History of Leather Part 20 – Beatniks

Posted on 29/07/14

Lousy beatniks (1940s-60s)

In the immortal words of Amiri Baraka, “the so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked”.

…OK great, join us tomorrow for another entry in our-oh you probably wanted more than that, huh?

Right from the offset, let’s clear up the ‘beat’ and ‘beatnik’ disparity. The ‘beats’ or members of the ‘beat generation’ were a group of writers, who were most prolific in the 1940s-60s. Rather than being linked by their writing styles, or their chosen target genres, the beat generation were simply a social group, comprising Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs.

It was Jack Kerouac who coined the term “beat generation” in 1948 – though Kerouac meant ‘beat’ as a reference to ‘beatific’ (that is, feeling or expressing blissful happiness), rather than the other meaning of ‘beat’ at the time, which was of being beat down, poor and tired. Naturally, critics of the Beat Generation chose to purposefully use ‘beat’ in its latter context – leading to columnists like Herb Caen writing: “They’re only Beat, y’know, when it comes to work”.

The ‘beatnik’ was a stereotype of the beat generation. The beatnik was a derogatory image combining some of the traits wrongly associated with the Beat Generation – shallowness, overreliance on impenetrable slang, the list goes on. Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik” 10 years after Kerouac’s “beat generation”. The “-nik” suffix channels Russia’s Sputnik satellite in a not-so-subtle suggestion that the beatniks were communists – a cardinal sin in 1950s America.

If the Deans, Brandos and McQueens of the world were cool, then the Beats were hip, fashionable –despite never really intending to be. Any hackneyed image you have of the goateed, beret-wearing artiste wearing, to quote Jay Z, “all black everything”, well, that’s pretty much the beat look in a nutshell. We’re talking turtlenecks, leather, snug denim –the works.

The beats were perhaps better known for their lifestyle and philosophy rather than their fashion, though. There’s really no way to say this without making them sound pretentious, but here goes. The beats were searching for meaning and authenticity in their lives, and deeply personal self-expression in their work. It was the beats that were credited with making society ask questions about their long-held and traditional values.

You could argue that leather and the wider beat image played second fiddle to the wider aims of the beat generation, but it can’t have hurt their case that they happened to look striking and stylish while societal barriers were crumbling at their feet, let’s put it that way.

(Header image: Martin Pulaski under CC Attribution 2.0 license)

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