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Zooties, Flygirls and Cyberpunks: Street fashion exhibition at the V&A

The first exhibition to deconstruct street fashion

London

“Street Style” at the Victoria and Albert Museum is the first exhibition to examine this crucial aspect of twentieth-century dress undertaken by any museum in the world. It identifies fifty-nine Style Tribes, from the Zooties of 1940s California to Cyberpunks of 1990s Ghent, and bravely sets about exploding a few myths. The exhibition runs from 16 November to 19 February.

Popular myth number one: Britain was, and remains the home of Street Style. In fact, the first Street Tribe, Zooties, and many subsequent ones, originated in the big American cities. Myth two: Street Style is a working class phenomenon. Such counter-culture dressing finds expression throughout the social classes and its members need considerable cash to compete on the street, such as a Teddy Boy’s bespoke tailoring or a Flygirl’s Gucci label. Myth three: Thanks to media coverage of youth culture, we recognise most Style Tribe characteristics. On the contrary, the media have fed us with stereotypes, many of which are inaccurate. Myth four: Street Style, like fashion, is transitory. Instead, the exhibition demonstrates that most gang looks are unchanging and conservative; a 1990s Punk looks virtually identical to the 1975/6 original.

High fashion died when the democratic age matured. Diktats from above have been replaced by dress pluralism. The fashion system is increasingly questioned as the public baulk at the absurd prices demanded for designer labels and wake up to the grave environmental and social repercussions of any industry’s adherence to the wasteful notion of built-in obsolescence. Since the 1960s, the fashion system has been systematically attacked and replaced by a broader and more tolerant notion of style. Style has defied gravity by coming up from the streets to the high fashion salons, and up from daughters to their mothers. We have now reached the state where middle-aged mutton is dressed as lamb in Lagerfeld’s Chanel “couture” versions of Bronx Rappers or British Indie Kids. So the Victoria and Albert Museum is taking us back to source, in a timely exhibition.

The aim of the curators was rigorously to inspect one of the most fundamental inspirations of post-war dress, Street Style, and its close associations with popular music. Working within the long-established museum tradition of collecting and explaining the authentic and the original, they set about chronicling the various dress influences that have bubbled up from the urban streets, the impoverished ghettoes, the classless clubs and the middle class intellectual circles to become, momentarily, high fashion and, more enduringly, modern classics. The “Perfecto” or “Bronx” black leather motorbiker’s jacket, based on a World War II design and popularised by Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”, is a typical example of a Street Style that has mutated into a widely worn contemporary classic. Incidentally, it is the fans who tend to originate a style which the pop stars copy and popularise.

If there was ever a “politically correct” exhibition that vividly reflected its times, this is it. Speaking to the organisers there is continual use of the PC buzz words “involving”, “minority movements”, “black culture”. This is an exhibition of the people, by the people, and for the people; it hopes to extend the boundaries of museum curator systems and the subject matter covered by those great institutions to reflect more clearly their communities. It breaks down stereotypes, elevates the status of dress (there has long been an academic prejudice against the importance of dress in social and decorative art history), and stretches the arm of a national museum into the minority and immigrant groups, for too long ignored by the academic establishment. Above all, it is fascinating and full of surprises.

Valerie Mendes, the respected academic who has maintained and built upon the museum’s good reputation for dress and textiles, insists that this subject “has been approached in exactly the same way as a Renaissance scholar would approach his. We realise we are taking a great risk but, in order to grow and reflect society, we need to make our collection more diverse. This is not definitive; it is a starting point”.

But before you commence inspection of these artefacts, be warned. The accompanying book,Street Style, written by the guest co-curator and social anthropologist Ted Polhemus (Thames & Hudson, £14.95) is not the official catalogue. Some of the key museum staff wish to distance themselves from it, and no wonder. It is prosaically written, analytically barren and insults its presumed market with flippant psycho-babble and well-trodden facts. It is a pity because Mr Polhemus is familiar with the methodology of anthropological analysis and has gained considerable insight into this subject, revealed when talking with him. But, maddeningly, he fails to employ academic models or vocabulary, perhaps for fear of alienating his presumed readership. But no reader deserves to be patronised; least of all, a young and curious one, who may be entering this important museum for the first time in his or her life and deserves sufficient food for thought.

In studying street dress for the exhibition, Mr Polhemus and the museum staff, notably Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye, have approached the topic as anthropologists studying self-defined tribes. They employed the “Emic” rather than “Etic” anthropological model: using each tribe’s own perception and vocabulary to describe their dress and body decoration, rather than the anthropologists’ or sociologists’ interpretations. “It is crucial in a project like this”, Mr Polemus insists, “and once you have got the names of each tribe you have done ninety per cent of the work, as these groups are constantly evolving”.

The reason that Style Tribes have evolved in the post-war period is that they create a kinship system devised by a new social grouping, the teenager. “Over the past fifty years our traditional socio-cultural divisions have receded in importance, for example, class, race, religion and region”, Mr Polemus explains. “Margaret Thatcher announced in a famous quote that there is no such thing as ‘society’, and she thought that was a wonderful state of affairs. In fact it left people in a profound vacuum and a state of anomie. This particularly affected young people who, pre-adolescence, are part of their parental family and when middle-aged have usually built up a family or social network of their own”. In addition, demographically, the “Baby Boom” in the West swelled these numbers of teenagers who, for the first time, had disposable income to buy or sew their own clothes.

To differentiate their own tribes and sub-cultures from others and so feel part of a well-defined “family”, they devised markings. To cement this sense of belonging the tribal gear hardly changes, for the teenage members are seeking a sense of stability and belonging. Street Style has absolutely nothing to do with fashion though, in time, fashion designers may plunder the creativity of these tribes.

Though these Street Styles have been misrepresented by the media, the styles could not be flourish without such communication mechanisms; for how would a Japanese punk be able to replicate the south London original? Tribalism in the age of the jet plane and mass communication need no longer be geographically localised.

Research for this exhibition was carried out in the field—back streets and night clubs—interviewing members of each tribe in situ and learning, first hand, about their clothes: where they were purchased or how they were made and what they cost, and whether that cost represented a significant slice of their income (if employed) and how and why they were worn. To bring home this first-hand research, each item in the show is labelled with a quotation from the donor, bringing the clothes and their context to life. The inevitable suspicion with which some of the museum staff were viewed by members of these counter-cultures was taken into account by sending out younger members of staff in an informal manner, often conducting interviews in nightclubs at three in the morning.

Back-up material was gained from the well-known fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood, who reinterpreted Style Tribe looks for high fashion. The curators invited the designers to identify which Street Styles influenced them. Only Ralph Lauren refused to cooperate whereas Saint Laurent was so keen to acknowledge the inspiration of the Beatniks that he personally, rather than his office, selected and wrote about the garments from Rive Gauche range. The original abuts the fashion “copy” in the exhibition.

The curatorial message of this show is that new methods need to be found to acquire objects for museums that truly represent our age. Museums must reach out more actively into previously remote segments of the community which are not necessarily approachable through traditional academic routes.

Twelve years ago I interviewed Jean Louis Scherrer, the Paris-based couturier known for dressing Arab princesses. The most revealing aspect of our meeting was not so much what was discussed but the fact that on his Biedermeier desk stood a postcard of London punks. I queried its presence in such an exclusive salon and he replied, “Those children are the source of much inspiration in haute couture. Their creativity is astonishing”. Indeed, and the Victoria and Albert itemise the street kids’ influence on the world of Vogue.