The Secret Password is Elvis Codpiece

Nicole Wornette reviews Rebel Youths, a book about '60s German hooligans and what they wore

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Assuming style is a representation of what you know and think and like on your body, these young, genuine, and would-be hooligans take it to the next level. These boys like Elvis, so they literally wear a picture of his face as a codpiece. Sure, show a gal a subculture and she’ll point out its shared references: items of clothing so coded they amount to the secret password of a clubhouse. But rarely is it ever so literal, overt, or playful as it is with Karl Heinz Weinberger’s boys, who end up being virtually indistinguishable from one another. Their look is one assembled from nods to rebellious Americana: the West, James Dean, and of course Elvis Presley. They love him most of all.

This collection of Weinberger’s photographs of young German toughs in the ’60s is a mood board for referential aggressive style. Through a mixture of studio portraits with more candid images of the gang rough-housing and loitering, as hooligans are wont to do, a few specific details catch and keep the eye.

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First, in flipping through the pages of Rebel Youth, you might think you’ve seen the face of Elvis more than the face of any one of Weinberger’s subjects. And you would be right. Large plates featuring The King’s face decorate pelvises and chests, these two areas reigning supreme as targets for decoration. Should an image seem free of Elvis’s influence, simply looking to the hairstyle of any given hood provides an echo.

But these boys are no copycats. They have managed to create something wholly new and exciting by infusing iconic references with the kind of ingenious DIY spirit and playfulness most associated with the Punk movement. Denim and leather jackets couldn’t possibly come featuring the name of their particular gang or feeling about Elvis or the West or James Dean. So they paint it on. The pelvis of their jeans couldn’t possibly be purchased with the exact kind of aggressiveness they crave. So they leave the fly open, choosing instead to thread chain or string through to hold it closed.

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Another thing is amply clear: this is a boys’ club. Though there is certainly a handful of striking photos of or featuring women, these images are softer, the women in simpler dress. They seem to follow the boys, existing to complement them, as the gentler parts to a photo of some very masculine occasion. One gets the impression that to these boys, dressing up is a kind of battle: something they do for and against one another.

Though it thoroughly documents the style of a subculture long passed into memory, Rebel Youth has timeless appeal. In viewing Weinberger’s boys, with their style and their relationship to style, one is encouraged into a kind of playfulness, to do as these boys do. Ask yourself what you love; what legends stand the tallest in your own mythology? And then wear them swollen with irony and prominently located, so no one could confuse your referential loyalties. Or don’t. But be happy that these boys did it with such toughness, enthusiasm, and humour.

photography // Serah-Marie McMahon

2 thoughts on “The Secret Password is Elvis Codpiece

  1. Russia has always seemed like some sort of post apocalyptic alternate universe, but I didn’t realize how far into the past that extended.
    These guys remind me of the Kings from Fallout: New Vegas. They were a gang of youths who find an old Elvis impersonation school hundreds of years after a nuclear apocalypse and form a street gang/cult of personality based on their warped ideas of who Elvis was and what he was about.
    How many of these guys even spoke english enough to understand the lyrics of Elvis’s songs? Real life is crazy.

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