The concept of cool has been part of popular culture since the 1940s, but its origins - if not its name - go back much further than that. Essentially, an aesthetic of attitude, appearance and style that is considered desirable to others, cool is a perpetually sought after state amongst young people; one that is nigh on impossible to quantify and whose characteristics have changed considerably over time. From the admired recklessness and rebellion of the 1970s, to today’s championing of self-expression, cool has evolved to mean different things to different generations, and somewhere along the line, intelligence and mental ability have crept into this complex calculation. So when did academic achievement become something to shout about rather than suppress? And is clever really the new cool?
The term ‘cool’ in its now widely recognised form - that is, something other than an adjective to describe a glass of wine or the wind - was coined by jazz saxophonist Lester Young in the 1940s. At that time, it was used largely to express a state of mind, ‘I’m cool’ as in ‘I'm calm’... ‘I'm comfortable’, but the word soon caught on. People saw Young as something of a pioneer, a trendsetter, with his porkpie hat, hipster language and unique style of play, and in no time at all, ‘cool’ was being used in the jazz clubs, in the cafes, and on the streets of American cities to describe something - particularly somebody - who oozed a sense of style that was uniquely their own.
In the 1950s, cool - as a state of being - evolved into cool as a characteristic of behaviour and an aesthetic appeal. The period - from the early-fifties to the mid-seventies - is perhaps the one most synonymous with the cool concept. Hollywood icons, musicians and politicians such as president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, were revered for their individual style and perceived self confidence. James Dean, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Jimi Hendrix... the list goes on. These icons of their time epitomised the very essence of cool, with their abundant sex appeal, sense of style and charisma. Who can deny the ‘coolness’ of Dean’s quiff and his youthful rebellion, Brando’s brooding charm and languid eccentricity, McQueen’s perfect balance of the masculine and the sensitive, Hendrix’ flamboyant style? Men wanted to be them and women... well, I'll leave their wants to your imagination, but the point is this: male cool in the middle of the twentieth century was pinned to appearance, attitude and behaviour, to the clothes they wore and the way they styled their hair, the manner in which they walked and talked, and the way they exuded a sense of calmness and composure. And the same could also be said for women. Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn were all icons of cool - flawlessly beautiful, universally admired and seemingly at one with themselves.
When I was in high school during the 1980s and 1990s, the cool and the clever were distinctly different sub-groups. Rebels were cool and the clever conformed. Cool were the boys who wore their hair high and their trousers low, the ones with tattoos and guitars, who hung cigarettes out of their mouths à la James Dean and answered a teacher's polite request with some casual quip or mildly humorous remark. Cool were the ones who played sports at a high level not the ones who scored top marks in a maths test. Cool were the girls who blew smoke rings, who wore their hair long and their skirts short, whose interest in the boys was far greater than their interest in their school work. Cool was the anti-hero, the rebellious teenager who defiantly stuck their middle finger up to authority, the trailblazer who refused to follow the conventional path.
The connotations of cool have changed over time but its perception as a positive, desirable trait has remained unaltered. What has become clear however, is that there is no single definition nor unique set of attributes that constitute coolness. Some time after the turn of the twenty-first century, there was a significant shift in what people considered to be on trend; clever and cool were no longer mutually exclusive and coolness aligned itself more closely with authenticity rather than attitude or appearance; to be oneself was in itself, now considered cool.
Today, emotional composure, style, self-expression and rebellion are still the cornerstones of the concept, but within each, there now exists a broader range of possibilities, and perhaps too a more tolerant, accepting population. Our idols are no longer simply the stars of the stage and screen; computer scientists, engineers and designers have all appeared on so called ‘cool lists’ and the growth of the internet has made much more accessible a diverse range of role models. And so, whilst the young people of the fifties and sixties looked to adopt the cool of Clint Eastwood or Elvis Presley or Sophia Loren, today's youth have the benefit of a much deeper pool.
For the modern teenager, being smart is now something to stand up and shout about. Largely gone are the days when there was a stigma attached to being studious and self-disciplined, when somehow it was deemed cool to drop out or fail, when intelligence was a quality that incurred some derogatory insult or a post-it note stuck to the back of your blazer with the words NERD or GEEK scribbled in black ink. Cleverness - be that creativity, academic ability or problem solving - is seen not only as desirable, but also integral to success in the modern world, and if that’s not cool, I don't know what is..!
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