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British youth culture. Thirty years of `teds,' `mods,' `rockers,' and `punks' are examined in a London exhibit

THIS month's edition of i-D -- a British youth-oriented ``fanzine'' with punk overtones that survives from as long ago as the end of 1980 -- carries an item on the ``Paninari.'' The Paninari, as i-D describes them, are ``Italy's biggest teen sensation since the War.'' They are ``young `casual' teen-agers who take their name from the `panino' (the sandwich), because they hang around their '80s version of the sandwich bar or diner -- the burger bar.''

``And the burger,'' the story continues, ``is the true Paninari icon, being used in their clothes, magazines, slang, etc. . . .''

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The new Italian Paninari are an interesting phenomenon because their existence apparently contradicts the contention of a current London exhibition called ``14:24 British Youth Culture.'' It claims that this sort of thing happens only in Great Britain. The show, which runs through August, is at The Boilerhouse (in the Victoria and Albert Museum) and is also featured in the August issue of i-D. One of its chief theses is that ``youth subcultures characterized by obsession with style are unique to Britain.''

Whether or not this claim remains true now that a new and ``disturbing youth cult from Italy'' is in the news, it is nevertheless a fact that Britain has, since the '50s at least, gone in for a succession of youth subcultures for which style has been the means of communicating an acute sense of difference from the rest of the world. From ``teds'' (``teddy boys'') to ``punks,'' via ``mods,'' ``rockers,'' ``skinheads,'' and now ``casuals'' (gangs of soccer fans with an obsession for designer sportswear), the way the groups dress -- the way they have raided and adapted the available or peculiar aspects of the general wardrobe -- has been used, aggressively, shockingly, sexily, humorously, perversely, as a language of distinctiveness.

The exhibition (the last staged by The Boilerhouse in this space prior to a revamp and an expected re-opening in another part of London in two years' time) addresses itself specifically to the often complex relationship of such youth subcultures in Britain over the last 30 years -- as well as of some less extreme young people between the ages of 14 and 24 -- to consumerism, its exploitations, attitudes, and goods. The exhibit examines ``the power of goods to establish youthfulness and in-group membership,'' which, in the '50s, was ``seized as an ideal available to all.''

Intriguingly, the American ``inventor'' of the teen-ager as a category of market research, Eugene Gilbert, opened a London office (after enormous success in Chicago) in 1956. But -- by a miscalculation that hindsight suggests was extraordinary -- he closed it the same year, convinced that ``teen-agers in England haven't enough freedom or money to be commercially interesting.''

It's true that they don't always have enough money, particularly today, but the exhibition demonstrates in some detail what we already know: that not only has the eager affluence of the British teen-age market developed into a giant if volatile business, but it has also profoundly influenced the habits of adult consumers as well. The goods in British stores have been radically altered by the desires of the teen-age shopper.

The exhibit traces how the styles (or anti-styles) of the youth subcultures consistently have been assimilated, and modified of course, by the ``normal'' -- and older -- world.

Also, although these fringe youth groups have overtly thrown down a challenge to ``the myth of consumer consensus,'' they themselves generally become no less subject than everyone else to the tactics of those who see the chance to make money out of young fads and fancies. Who doesn't want to remain young? It was fashion-designer Mary Quant in the '60s who claimed that the new fashions had abolished middle age. ``We have perpetuated youth,'' she said.

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Not all the extreme subculture groups have been opposed to consumerism. The skinheads certainly were and they treated attempts to ``sell their style back to them'' with ``derision.'' But the earlier mods, for instance, were basically pro-consumerism. Looking at pictures of them now, they appear surprisingly ``normal.'' One of the last laughs on this kind of reversal of intent is that the ferociously antisocial punks with their gaudy and spiked hair, their chains and safety-pins, leather and rubber gear, and makeup, have, 10 years later, become popular subjects for tourist postcards along with Big Ben, Charles and Di, and the Beefeaters at the Tower of London.

Great Britain has -- perhaps because of its age-old love of eccentricity in any walk of society -- a kind of all-swallowing capacity to normalize almost any oddity. The very existence of this historical exhibition is an aspect of this tendency. ``Youth'' is becoming increasingly self-conscious of its own history. Those at The Boilerhouse during this reporter's visit, however, were average, middle class, contemplative, even middle-aged. No apparent sign of the Paniari here.

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