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Heavy Metal: Culture v. Couture

This op-ed piece by ORANGE writer and metal enthusiast Bryan Rolli explores the appropriation of metal culture as a fashion trend.

By Bryan Rolli

The Liberty Bell. Independence Hall. Pat’s Steaks. All timeless hallmarks of Philadelphia. But take it from a Pennsylvania native; these tourist traps are not worth the hype. A cracked bell, an old building and a dry sandwich covered in goopy Cheez Whiz (I much prefer Jim’s Steaks) are not my cup of tea. In fact, the only reason I ever ventured into the City of Brotherly Love (for all but Cowboys fans) was to visit Crash Bang Boom, one of the finest punk rock shops in all the land.

Since abandoning Philly for Austin, I can’t help but look back fondly on those 40-minute drives that always turned into an hour-and-a-half trek through congested city streets; a sick game of dodging pissed-off pedestrians and maneuvering around cars parked in already-narrow lanes (you think driving in West Campus sucks? Get real.). The journey was worth it because only Crash Bang Boom sold the studs my band mates and I needed to adorn the ratty denim vests we sported onstage – the true sign of any sincere metal head.

Unfortunately, acquiring the studs was only a fraction of the battle. Putting them in? Well, let’s just say my future as a tailor is bleak.

Seriously, have you ever tried piercing tough-as-nails denim with two flimsy spikes? It takes less time to get served at Franklin Barbecue on a Saturday than it does to properly metal-out a vest. Five hours and two bruised thumbs (how is that even possible?) later, mission accomplished. Sort of. Now we had the unenviable task of sewing on (sometimes using dental floss) our makeshift patches cut from bootleg concert shirts. Time to check seamstress off my list of future careers, too. But, as aspiring rock stars, these were the crosses my band mates and I had to bear, making sure our one-of-a-kind outerwear was the perfect visual counterpart to the heavy metal music we play and adore.

So, you can imagine my disgust when I visited the mall and discovered carbon copies of our studded vests for sale at Forever 21.

Forget about politics, religion or sports. This was a REAL crisis. Why were stores like Forever 21, Urban Outfitters and H&M – which had for years appealed to a decidedly un-metal demographic who instead favored what is commonly known as “hipster” couture – suddenly stocking their shelves with such counter-culture items? At what point did tattered vests, leather jackets and other similar articles of clothing become indoctrinated into mainstream fashion, when just a few years ago they were objects of such scorn and derision from my peers? Why were fans of these stores – these outright posers – trying to steal the trends that we metal heads had been setting for decades?

Maybe a more important question is: Why do I care?

These vests – along with other staples in a metal head’s wardrobe, including the beat-to-hell leather jacket and the obligatory pre-1991 Metallica shirt – serve a highly expressive purpose. Obviously we think they look cool, but they also allow us to proudly display the bands we love and emulate their image. And while we don’t want to immediately discredit anybody who dresses similarly, we can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the mallrat who just bought a mass-produced, prefab vest while blasting Two Door Cinema Club. Talk about irony: these guys were making fun of us for wearing the same thing three years ago.

Don’t think of me as some self-appointed dress code dictator. Wear whatever you want; by all means, exercise your freedom of expression; be “cool.” But in the pursuit of coolness, it seems that the original intent of this clothing is getting lost along the way.

Heavy metal is not just a fashion statement. It’s a musical preference and lifestyle that we love, and wearing our beloved “battle vests” used to be a way to identify other people who share this lifestyle. It’s an unspoken rule amongst our community that if two guys at a show are wearing the same Megadeth patch, they’re already friends. Skip the awkward pleasantries; they’re both united by their mutual love for this incredible music and culture.

Admittedly, this scene can be confusing, intimidating and downright appalling to those who are not yet acquainted with it. But contrary to any prior misconceptions, yes, we can understand the lead singer’s Cookie Monster vocals, and yes, we do enjoy head banging until our necks are sore. In fact, we don’t just enjoy it, we live for it. Metal is primal, raw, therapeutic. It’s an outlet for expression, a release for pent-up aggression and a way to connect with other people who share an affinity for the same music, lifestyle and yes, even clothing.

My fellow head bangers and I acknowledge the absurdity that this all stems from a simple vest with some studs and spikes on it. And we certainly don’t expect it to make sense to everyone.

But hey, if that’s the case, maybe you should leave the sleeves on that jacket and pick up a few Slayer albums before making any irrational decisions.

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