Mesh Caps, Vice Magazine and the Trouble with Irony

The Mesh Cap, by my reckoning, started appearing in the hardcore punk scene around 1998. It may have been earlier than this — I’ve never been the most attentive of fashion observers. Around the same time the concept of ‘redneck fashion’ came about, and the implications of that particular development were so uniquely hilarious that the Mesh Cap sailed through my line of sight without too much interest. Only in the last few years, as it passed into the fashion mainstream, did I start paying attention.

I don’t really have any idea of how things come to be deemed ‘in fashion’, and being part of the ‘punk rock scene’ kinda demands that I unreservedly reject such a concept. But come on, that’s far from the truth. Punk kids follow fashions the same way everyone else does. A few kids invent something new and exciting and a bunch of kids get into it. Pretty soon they start doing something similar, and a few more kids discover it. Eventually the number of kids doing this new and exciting thing reaches critical mass and it becomes fashion. At this point those first few kids tire of the phenomenon they pioneered (“that is SO five years ago) and go looking for something else. Eventually everyone else follows suit. Anyone doubting the existence of this pattern of shifting interest should look for the words ‘ska-core’, ’emo’, ‘screamo’ and even ‘stoner rock’ in their punk rock dictionaries. It’s not really possible to deny that the punk scene follows trends — the only thing up for argument is where you stand in the chain.

But the Mesh Cap followed a slightly different trajectory, and it is this slightly skewed ascent that makes it noteworthy. The Mesh Cap wasn’t a new invention — it was scavenged from another subculture; the trailer park, truck driving subculture that we — with our middle class superiority complexes in full effect — deem ‘so bad it’s good’ and plunder for ironic effect. You’ll have to wait for another column for the full Marxist analysis — what I’m interested in are the ramifications of the definition of irony being utilised here. After its unfamiliar beginnings the Mesh Cap quickly found itself on a familiar flightpath — and at this stage it has become well and truly part of mainstream fashion, picked up by publicly-listed surfwear companies and marketed to adolescent boys. I doubt, however, that modern-day equivalent of the football guy who used to beat you up at school considers his new Von Dutch Mesh Cap (purchased from The Gap for forty bucks) ‘so bad that it’s good’. So I wonder, at what point does the irony wear off and the fashion become legitimate?

Vice magazine seemed to appear at around the same time, first as something that was happening overseas, then as something that established itself here. Its popularity seems to know no bounds, especially in the various underground music scenes. Perhaps the most popular section in this magazine, aside from the unusually honest record reviews, is the section in which photos of random people are accompanied by unflattering statements, often to hilarious effect. That these statements often cross into sexist, racist and homophobic territory seems to bother absolutely no one at all. Despite the well-documented conservatism of the magazine’s founder, it is apparently taken for granted that these statements are made ironically, and are therefore okay. They are simply too outlandish, too shocking, too wrong to be addressed seriously. Hey, I’ve laughed at them. They must be alright.

But surely a point will come — and some may say that it has already arrived — that the circulation of Vice will achieve the critical mass mentioned above, and start to reach people who are simply not in on the joke. The humor in these statements relies on the breaching of a set of values shared by a particular community. When the statements reach people outside of this community — people who don’t share the same values – the ‘irony’ implicit in them is lost, and the explicitly stated discrimination is all that is left. What was intended as a funny comment becomes something far more dangerous. The Mesh Cap becomes legitimate fashion, and making fun of Asians becomes okay.

Supporters of Vice may well argue that they are not responsible for misinterpretations of their message, so long as their intentions are pure. This argument displays astounding naivety. As difficult as it is to comprehend, as a result of being in the public eye, those first few kids who started wearing Mesh Caps are responsible for its appearance as a rebranded commodity. We are not only responsible for our intentions, but also the variety of ways that our actions are interpreted. That seems like a hell of an obligation, but really isn’t all that tough. It’s simply a matter of making our public statements as unambiguous as possible, so that people are always clear on where we stand. This isn’t particularly earth-shattering stuff — see the Dead Kennedy’s ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ for an example of how previous generations have dealt with it. Nor does it mean the end of irony. It may, however, mean missing out on a cheap joke.