The Beat Generation

With films that pay homage to the Beats (On The Road, Howl and The Rum Diary) all coming out in 2011, it’s definitely going to be a revival year for the Beats, and you can bet on the fashion houses following suit.

The Beat Generation, 6 decades of style…

There once was this posse of young, intellectual poets, singers and style mavens. Together, they changed the world with their fashion, prose and enduring attitude. With films that pay homage to the Beats (On The Road, Howl and The Rum Diary) all coming out in 2011, it’s definitely going to be a revival year for the Beats, and you can bet on the fashion houses following suit. By Salli Paradisio

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, 1963

Decades ago, the people of the world were introduced to Roxanne:

“A woman of 25 prophesying the future style of America with short almost crewcut but with curls black snaky hair, snaky walk, pale pale junky anemic face and we say hunky when once Dostoevski would have said what? if not ascetic but saintly? but not in the least? but the cold pale booster face of the cold blue girl and wearing a man’s white shirt but with the cuffs undone untied at the buttons so I remember her leaning over talking to someone after having been slinked across the floor with flowing propelled shoulders, bending to talk with her hand holding a short butt and the neat little flick she was giving to knock ashes but repeatedly with long long fingernails an inch long and also orient and snake-like…”

So wrote  Jack Kerouac in his 1958 novel, The Subterraneans.

Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, cover On The Road

Indeed, Kerouac also had the boldness to opine that he and his crew of Beat Generation poets and artists had identified and embodied a new trend akin to that which the influential “Lost Generation” (Stein, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, et al., after fleeing culture-challenged America to cosmopolitan Europe) did … even if that declaration was perchance construed as a somewhat heavy on the braggadocio at the time; in retrospect, it’s clear that this incredibly intelligent young man was absolutely, beautifully, prophetically on the mark … then there was his good friend Allen Ginsberg who spoke of “angelheaded hipsters” that were sitting up “smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.”

When the Beat boys (and many sultry poet girls) were doing their thing, particularly in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the 1950s, amid the buzzing jazz and nightclub scene, they were influenced by not only the aforementioned Lost Generation, but also the jazz greats of the era like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Ginsberg, Kerouac and crew spent much of their time in clubs “diggin’ on each others’ poetry, insights, drug-fueled prose and inspirations,” while changing and influencing lifestyles and fashions.

The word ‘beat’ was largely a term used in the late 1940s by nightclub musicians, hustlers and hipsters, which meant being ‘beat down’ or poor and tired.

Kerouac later tweaked the meaning a bit, equating it with the beat of bongos and later the Beatitudes, but most agree that his generation of artists and visionaries were literally beat out of mainstream society because of their “wild” life (or so it was seen back in those more conservative days).

James Franco playing Allan Ginsberg in 'Howl'

The interesting thing is that now, nearly everyone, even “squares” have a worldview similar to that of the 1950s Beat boys. Indeed, a case can be made that if they hadn’t come along, we’d all still be wearing poly-blend three-piece suits, horn-rimmed spectacles, starched white shirts, collar pins and solid-colored ties with double windsors, while droning “yes madam” and “yes sir” all day.

Everyone’s a critic
Columnist Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle once wrote, “They’re only Beat, y’know, when it comes to work.” Award-winning novelist Truman Capote said of Kerouac’s work, “that’s not writing; that’s typing!” after reading Jack’s first bestseller, On The Road.

When the term Beat Generation began to be used as a label for hip, edgy-fashionable young people, sometimes referred to as ‘hipsters’ or ‘beatsters’ in the late 1950s, the words beat and beatnik (and its not-so-subtle connotation of communism, à la the USSR’s sputnik) eventually became a synonym for anyone living as a bohemian or acting rebelliously or appearing to advocate a revolution, politically, stylistically or othewise.

By the late 1950s, it seemed like every magazine was carrying at least one photograph or illustration of the quintessential Beat Generation hipster: baggy T-shirt, beret, goatee beard, sunglasses (usually the Ray-Ban Wayfarer), with a “haute lit” book in hand. More than just the direct fashion influences, the Beats did so much more for creative people.

They kicked down the old traditional walls and showed the way for creative people to express themselves, often defiantly, and that is what we even see on many of the fashion runways now. The drainpipe pants, turtlenecks and aforementioned eyewear are probably the most ubiquitous.

Those have come in and out of fashion several times over the past six decades. Then there was young Bob Dylan, who was sort of the “junior” to the established, and older, Beat poets like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Burroughs.

Dylan, however, became more popular than any of them, globally, in his iconic look of beatnik blue jeans, denim shirt and corduroy driving hat. And the Ray-Ban Wayfarers he wore could just be in style forever.

The look worked for Dylan, it worked for Tom Cruise in his early flicks, and it’s working currently for every musician in the world and every modern urbane, fashion-minded gent. GQ magazine’s fashion editor wrote this about a recent collection by designer Dirk Schönberger: “Lately, [he] has been trying to get to the bottom of his irrational attachment to America, and he’s come to the realization that it’s the romantic ideal of ‘frontier-less’ freedom he loves. He dedicated his latest collection to a modern-day Beat generation, the kind of 21st-century Kerouacs who might still be willing to crash through those frontiers,” while adding that, “In doing so, Schönberger looked back unavoidably to the 1950s, the time of the original Beats, for inspiration.”

Other fashion influences from the Beats have been the black turtleneck and, of course, that cool, laid-back, intelligent attitude. For men’s fashion, neckties were replaced by mutton-chop sideburns or teashades. Eventually, hair over the collars had become so fashionable that it even transcended beyond the Beat style, becoming fully mainstream by the 1970s.

Since the late 1950s and early 1960s, the hippie/boho-chic/beatnik look has permanently made a home in the world of fashion, popping up now and again each season. The Beat boys were the prelude to the hippies—and, of course, hippie styles—which also makes regular haute couture appearances in Paris, Milan, NYC and Tokyo. In the 1980s, modifications of the Bohemian theme were combined with leather or denim.

Later, the term “hippie chic” was coined when referring to creations by Tom Ford (himself a huge aficionado of all that the guys from the Beat Generation stood for) while he was reviving Gucci. By the early 2000s “boho-chic” had become firmly associated with supermodels, actors and other celebs. Some of these styles have recently been referred to simply as “bobo” or “luxe grunge.”

While many people, particularly designers and writers, claim to be directly influenced by them, the Beat Generation phenomenon itself has had an almost revolutionary influence on pop culture around the world. In essence, the Beats changed the course of history, particularly in terms of style and an intellectual worldview—in short, cosmopolitanism.

Appreciation of all cultures
During the first 15 or so years after World War II, which were ultra-conformist and conservative, the Beat Generation guys were the chief change agents. They are the ones that made us all start posing hard questions about so-called “traditional values.” This would eventually lead to a break with the mainstream culture of that time, and greatly influence all generations thereafter.

The Beats generated an outpouring of curiosity with regard to “lifestyle experimentation” (especially in terms of the old-fashioned order of things); and they spawned a great intellectual revolution, one that regularly posed questions like:
– Why not have sex?
– Why not experiment with some hash brownies?
– And simply, why not?

Those intellectual questions eventually spawned the antiwar movement among youth, globally, in the late 1960s. Most importantly, their outlook and inclusive concepts about other peoples and nations changed the way would-be intellectuals think—and that is the same today.

Finally, the Beat Generation was not about just “the West,” it was truly a cosmopolitan movement, a movement that loved, appreciated and respected all sorts of groups and styles and ideas and cultures and ethnic groups. In the words of black poet/activist Amiri Baraka (aka, Leroi Jones): “The … Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities.”

So the next time you put your designer jeans on as you head out the door to hang out with friends at a coffeehouse, say a little ‘thank you’ to Kerouac, Dylan, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Bruce, Huncke, Orlovsky, Corso, Snyder, Hunter S. Thompson, Ferlinghetti, Kesey, Carroll, Wolfe and Bukowski.

Jack Kerouac, courtesy of Tom Palumbo

This article originally appeared in DA MAN in 2009, but has been updated for the Web version. For back issues, go to the subscribe page.