Article first published in Nieuwe Vide's Journal of Humanity no. 8 'Counter Culture Now'.
‘Wearing Badges Is Not Enough, in Times Like These'
The majority of my pin badge collection is of 20th Century post-war origin. The previous owners include:
· Young British radicals who studded their practical protest attire of naval sweaters and duffel coats with CND and anti-apartheid pins;
· Dressed to distress punks of the 1970s with large tin Ramones, X-Ray-Spex, and Sex Pistols badges dubbed ‘bin lids’ hanging from the threads of ripped shirts;
· Long-haired metalheads with gnarly pewter Motörhead pins sat alongside heavy metal music patches on sleeveless, beer-soaked battle jackets;
· Thatcher-era art students with striking anti-Nazi league or sexual liberation badges attached to mohair jumpers.
Badges infiltrated all subcultures, forming allegiances through aesthetics. In the post-war era, political, sexual, and cultural identities were worn on the sleeve…or lapel.
Paradoxically, badges were also popular in mainstream society as a source of free advertising and mass consumerism, creating an uncomfortable overlap between counterculture and social order.
The lyrics from the Billy Bragg song that title this article were written at the height of the British Thatcher government pinpoint this contradiction. They express the singer’s frustration at liberals with a small ‘L’ who shouted at the television and wore pin badges without making an effort to implement a change of the social or political status quo. It begs the question – can pin badges promote change, or are they simply a hip extension of consumerism?
Looking back further than the 20th-century explosion of badge culture can help shed light on this question. Badges have in fact have been mass-produced since the 12th century when they were worn as souvenirs by pilgrims.
Pilgrim badges were worn in the later medieval period by Roman Catholic travellers. Usually made of lead alloy, they were sold at sites of Christian Pilgrimage and bear imagery relating to the saint venerated there. Tens of thousands have been found since the mid-19th century and form the largest body of medieval art objects remaining today. The ubiquitous nature of the badge makes it clear that to express a belief on your person and be seen as part of a larger social group has had an enduring mass appeal.
The badges we are familiar with today are usually button-shaped with a metal pin-back and 25mm in diameter, a style dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The patent was taken out in 1894 in New Jersey. A protective celluloid covering made the simple badge design durable, ideal for mass production and circulation. In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee and badges hit the mass market as a fun and cheap souvenir.
Whilst it is easy to see the commercial appeal of badges, it would be short-sighted to ignore their wider significance. Badges allow people to subvert and reclaim negative marks that have been forced upon them. Historically, a badge of shame or a stigma is a distinctive symbol required to be worn by a specific group or an individual for the purpose of public humiliation or persecution. A prominent example is the pink upside-down triangle that many gay men were made to wear in Nazi Germany. They have now been adopted as a sign of gay liberation, featuring on slogans that celebrate the LGBT community. The graphic has been powerfully subverted and transformed, often using badges to communicate this visual message.
Badges have also helped to heighten the profile of other political causes, including trade unions, the environment, and AIDS campaigns. By making taboo subjects visual, they raise awareness and encourage dialogue. The instantly recognisable AIDS ribbon, symbolising both blood and love with the striking red design owes much to badges for its universal commonality.
Additionally, the popular anti-Nazi League badges helped to establish a recognisable brand for the Left in the 1980s. The colourful Soviet Constructivist-inspired graphics designed by David King were a useful political tool. They helped to create solidarity and a strong, consistent style for a party infamous for ideological differences and fractures.
The relationship between wearing a pin badge and consumption becomes more complex when looking at subculture. Jolly MacFie was the creator of Better Badges in London, the first company to make and sell cheap badges promoting bands and politics. Between 1977-1984 it became the leading publisher and merchandiser of punk badges. His first stall was at the Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies show at The Roundhouse, London. Better Badges evolved to export millions worldwide from their offices on Portobello Road.
MacFie notes how anyone could afford to wear a badge, fans, rather than labels or the music industry could dictate trends. They are cheap, small, and easy to make, they tell the story of what is on the street. In this sense, the badges seem to be giving an autonomous expression to people in the form of grassroots fashion and style. They harbour a coded subculture and act as a means of communication. Badges include those within the subculture and operate as a smaller microcosm of larger society, offering security and solidarity between those marginalised in the wider world.
However, MacFie also sees the uncomfortable contradiction of this culture and asks: ‘are we a crassly commercial cash-in or a living breathing extension of culture? It was easier to sell an IT [International Times] badge than a copy of the magazine itself. There is an argument that people are not interested in the information itself, only being seen to apparently have that knowledge. I can remember going to school with an obscure blues record under my arm to pose around with.’
This piercing social comment highlights that the cheap, popular, and viral pin badge is both a blessing and a curse for political causes and subcultures. Circulating a message on a badge is quick and visual; this can rally up immense support and awareness or render a slogan meaningless. Ultimately, this power lies in the hands of the wearer and with the appeal enduring since the 12th Century, the tightrope walk between activist and exhibitionist is set to continue.