PRINT February 1995


Jon Savage on “Streetstyle”

THE VIOLENT FOPPISHNESS of Britain’s youth stylings has long excited worldwide comment, whether in the American reaction to the Beatles’ hairstyles in 1964, or in Japan’s current fascination with the precise, simultaneous excavation of every youth fashion since World War II. Britain’s originality in this regard has long been recognized by the mainstream media, most blatantly in the October 1983 Time cover story “The Tribes of Britain,” in which a populist social anthropology—in the traditional sense, implying a sense of superiority felt by the observer/namer—tied up a complex nexus of social and emotional forces into a series of tribes: mods, teddy boys, skinheads, hippies, punks, the whole mad parade. This was Britain as teenage theme park: visit Buckingham Palace, then go down the King’s Road and photograph a Mohican.

Over a decade later this theme park has finally been staged within a major institution: London’s Victoria and Albert Museum no less. Ted Polhemus’ “Streetstyle” exhibition is the most complete and coherent statement to date of the more thorough youth anthropology that originated in the Birmingham School of the mid ’70s, was popularized from 1979 on by Dick Hebdige’s groundbreaking book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, and has been chipped away at by many others over the last 15 years.

The great thing about “Streetstyle” is that it’s all there: flow charts and photos of what seems like every single youth tribe and category, explorations of nonmainstream sexuality, notes about the relation of street style to haute couture, even a projection into the future. Beginning with American Western and preppy fashions, the show takes you—using clothed mannequins, contemporary news clippings , and annotated photographs—from the ’40s (the American jazz musicians in the “Hip Cats and Hipsters” section, the blacks and Chicanos in “Zooties,” the jazz fans of Nazi-occupied France in “Zazous”) right through the subsequent confluence of American, Continental, and Caribbean stylings in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s to today’s polymorphous diversity, which it labels “The Supermarket of Style.”

Caught in the profuseness of its naming and categorizing, the show begs various questions, the most obvious of which is: why Britain? The answer, surely, at least in part, has to do with the country’s linguistic and other kinds of proximity to the United States. Bound by a similar language and the postwar balance of power, Britain acted as the gateway for American values and culture into Europe, and vice versa, from Europe back to America. Indeed it was during this same postwar moment that Britain finally lost its empire and became America’s satellite—a situation only disputed within the last ten years.

The result was an imperialism, of course, but underneath it a more profound emotional confusion. Read any account of the impact of rock ‘n’ roll in Britain, in the words of performers as diverse as Richards Keith and Cliff, and what comes over is just how strange the music seemed: in a country whose pop-musical traditions were either ballad or burlesque, and where the only blacks were Caribbean, rock ‘n’ roll had all the impact of an alien visitation. When the Brits tried to make like Elvis, all they could attempt was a facsimile: outside any indigenous tradition, rock ‘n’ roll had to be learned.

The British music industry is synthetic when it is not traditional. Indeed its first genius was a manager, Larry Parnes, who, in the late ’50s, invented British pop. Taking working-class teenagers with names like Reginald Smith, Ronald Wycherley, and Clive Powell, Parnes created electronic icons with marvelous, Technicolor names: Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Georgie Fame. Much has flowed from this act of imagination, this prefiguring of the Andy Warhol superstar. For one thing, Parnes was gay at a time when the physical expression of homosexuality was illegal: in the music he produced, for the first time the secret codes of homosexuality—later called “camp”—infiltrated the heart of pop culture. (Wilde and Fury were big UK stars in 1959–60.) This influence remains in the high level (inexplicably high to many Americans) of gender-tuck and nonmacho images in British pop culture.

A similar process occurred simultaneously in the U.S. with the synthetic breed of televised stars like Fabian. But Parnes’ Brits embodied their power within a static class system. Base metal turned into gold, Wilde, Fury, Fame, and all the others made it clear that British pop was about self-re-creation: the idea, novel in England, that you could be anything you wanted to be.

The importance of fashion in this principle can be summed up by the fact that the Sex Pistols, the group that made the deepest exploration of Britain’s subconscious so far, began in a boutique, as living pegs for Malcolm Mclaren’s and Vivienne Westwood’s clothes styles. Despite the ideas of authenticity in rock, the synthesis of look and emotion, of commerce and politics, of an authentic inauthenticity, is the primordial soup from which British pop culture has emerged. In a country where the outward expression of emotion is frowned upon, the package acts as a baffle for the soul.

“Never forget that clothes are the things in England that make your heart beat!” Mclaren once told me; “There’s a constant attempt to step out of that class structure of the two-piece suit.” Britain’s very first recorded youth tribe, the Edwardians—or teddy boys—of the early ’50s, expressed a new working-class confidence and visibility through clothing: taking (and mocking) a late-’40s upper-class British tailoring style, called the Edwardian after its revival of fashions from the 1900s (the reign of Edward VII ), bad boys from Inner London grafted details like the velvet collar and three-button single-breasted jacket onto a drape shape that could only have come from American movies and GIs—a conflation of zoot and Western. With their padded shoulders and spectacular vests, the first Edwardians carved out their own urban space. Within the conformist, anti-American culture of England at the time, the impact was enormous: the Edwardians were noticed, named, given a diminutive, and demonized. A 1953 press scandal, the Clapham Common Murder, linked Edwardians with youth, violence, and random death—the first in a sequence of what criminologist Stanley Cohen later called “moral panics.”

In Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), Cohen identifies a process whereby youth phenomena begin spontaneously, become popular, are named, and then are linked with some media scandal. This is the moment when any given youth style is at its height, before the retrocycle begins—imitation, mass-market exploitation, legislative oppression, then obsolescence. Cohen’s models were ’60s mods (demonized in a 1964 scandal about violence at holiday resorts), but his analysis could equally apply to the punks who followed, encoding Cohen’s definition into their own methodology, right down to today’s New Agers and ecowarriors.

To get to “Streetstyle” you must penetrate the V&A’s quarter-mile frontage under a tower shaped like an imperial crown. Entering this lavish embodiment of empire at its height, you pass Romanesque sculptures and medieval domestic furnishings, an airless zone; then, attracted by neon rather than faded stone, you suddenly walk into a modern environment: loud music (“Smells like Teen Spirit” as I walked in the door), TV monitors, easily read captions, flow charts, crowds of youth—a successful facsimile of the pop experience.

Such pizzazz is defeated by context. National museum time is usually dead time: a show that celebrates rapid transits by putting mannequins in a room without windows is a show that surrenders to entropy. “Streetstyle” seems to exist to broadcast an analysis of postwar history that rarely strays beyond style into its ever present shadow, politics. Yet if we’re talking youth movements, the most visible of them right now are the ecowarriors currently battling British government and police, and offering a parallel present where youth rebellion is directed, away from style, against consumption itself.

Jon Savage edited an anthology of pop writing since 1942, The Faber Book of Pop, to be published in England in May. He is also the author of England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (London: Faber and Faber, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

“Streetstyle” remans at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 19 February.