‘Cool’ as a word in its present form and meaning appeared in Western mainstream culture back in the 1950s. But the real roots go way beyond these 60 years in the past. In Cool Rules Pountain and Robins claim that although cool is often linked to the US lifestyles and popular culture, we should not ignore it originates from Black Americans. Art historians found proof that the concept of ‘itutu’ was one of the three main pillars in religions of ancient West African Yoruba and Ibo civilizations of the 15th century. It meant gentleness of character, the ability to avoid fights and disputes, even generosity and grace.
Cool was also associated with physical beauty in this sacred culture but only in combination with character. It is no coincidence that on the African continent where the constant heat and drought hampers survival, coolness is one of the major virtues. This cool religious attitude was exported to the United States together with African slaves. When forced to give up their physical integrity as plantation slaves, they securely hid their anger from their white owners beyond a cool mask. ‘Jive talk’ was originally a way to have conversations that could not be comprehended by the overseers. The black way of walking was quite slow with the upper trunk and pelvis rocking fore and aft while keeping the head stable with eyes looking straight ahead. Coolness evolved from an original African virtue to passive resistance through shared attitude and style.
In the first part of the 20th century, black jazz and blues musicians adopted this passive coolness as a defence against the prejudice and racism they encountered. Most of the musicians led an extravagant life with drug-taking as a statement to deny the norms of society. Drugs like heroin also induced the sense of detachment central to the deeper meaning of ‘cool’. This underground atmosphere was then transposed to the edgy, gangster chic associations of the word ‘cool’.
Miles Davis, influenced by the drug-induced death of Charlie Parker, introduced a new jazz style by decreasing the tempo of bebop and playing on minor-key blues melodies. His style became known as the ‘cool school’ and resulted in his 1949 classic album named ‘Birth of Cool’. When rock ‘n’ roll, a fusion of black blues and white country music, became the new popular music style, Elvis Presley was the first white American to copy the cool attitudes and style of black musicians as an essential part of his image. Hollywood also saw potential in the concept of cool. Movie stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean were typecast as street-wise cool kids in cliché movies where a stereotypical priest, social worker or cop tries to teach them social responsibility without success.
In Europe and the United States cool increasingly became the province of white bohemians imitating the style of the dissident ‘Negro’ subcultures. For hipsters in the 1950s cool signified a shared knowledge of secrets (read: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll) denied to squares. The Beat generation of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs disassociated themselves from a dull and conformist career and family life. They pursued immediate pleasures and flirted with oriental Zen Buddhist or Taoist philosophies by again experimenting with mind-expanding drugs. ‘Cool’ was now an attitude of choice among youth instead of a defensive mechanism.
The Beat philosophy eventually evolved into hippie culture in the 1960s. Society and the economy became increasingly consumer-oriented. Drugs became part of the mainstream experience and were heavily and openly promoted by the hippie counterculture. Compared to the Hipsters’ passive introvert way of dealing with bourgeois hypocrisies in the 1950s, hippies preferred to parade publicly. ‘Cool’ switched from a passive to an active attitude.
At this time the advertising industry, the Madison Avenue engine behind consumer capitalism in the 1960s, understood that the cool ideology had a big sales potential. Hedonism and self-development entered the dominant ideology in the Golden Sixties. In The Conquest of Cool Thomas Frank describes this ‘birth of hip consumerism’. The concept of cool, which until the 1960s was a counter-action against a materialist adult society, is taken mainstream as a strategy to increase hedonistic consumption. A cool lifestyle can now be achieved through selective consumption. This catapults cracking the codes of coolness and creating ‘cool’ brands high on the wish list of marketers.
Although, once gone mainstream, ‘cool’ seemed to have vanished from the 1970s, it was present in the cultural capital of every new subculture: punk, heavy metal, hip hop, new wave, techno, house etc. Punks obviously didn’t want to use the word ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ just like they rejected the ‘peace and love’ ideologies of the hippies. Still, their different haircuts, vocabulary, clothes and attitudes were just another way of expressing good old ‘coolness’. Faster than ever, their lifestyle was an inspiration for fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.
Again this is proof that since the 1960s ‘cool’ has belonged to consumption and marketing. Punks played an important role in the history of ‘cool’. They have created a template for most subsequent subcultures and youth fashions. If you find a distinct haircut, a revamped clothing style, use a new kind of drug and flirt with a hip style (new or retro) of music, you have a new youth tribe. This formula has been tried and tested from the 1980s up to now. From glam rock and grunge through hip-hop, acid house to techno and trance.
Ted Polhemus, a US anthropologist and famous tribe and street style watcher, concluded at the start of the 1990s that youth was now combining different subculture styles and music with the ‘supermarket of styles’. Because the differences became so subtle, a new industry of cool hunters soared, trying to catch the vibes for their customers by talking to leading-edge consumers or cultural intermediaries of ‘cool’. One of the main aspects of cool remains its mutability. What is seen as ‘cool’ changes over time, and varies over geographical locations and generations.