Written by Aaron Jolly
23 Monday 23rd August 2010

Streetstyle is a fashion bible. Currently being updated and re-published by the lovely folks at PYMCA. The book did exactly what it said on the tin and defined how we think about street style. Don’t Panic interviewed writer and photographer Ted Polhemus about his work on fashion, identity and sociology.

Your background is in anthropology right? 
I’m interested in how people around the world throughout history use changing their appearance to send out signals and communicate. Throughout most of the history of street style it was about showing that you were a part of a particular group, be it a mod or a rocket etc. We have a few groups left today but I think that most people now see street style as a way of showing their unique individual characteristics.
Are you surprised by the following and popularity that Streetstyle gained?
Originally it was part of a big exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum in 1994. What surprises me is how well the book has done all around the world. It has a lot of fans. There are a lot of people that love and cherish the book. With its main subject being London, it is particularly interesting how the rest of the world has such a fondness for London, looking to London as the centre of culture. Whether this still rings true in the future will be interesting to see. Due to the internet street style bubbles up from all sorts of unlikely places that in the past weren’t really seen as very hip. The thing with London is that it has had so many decades of marketing people, advertising people, fashion designers and talent scouts cool hunting the streets of London that the soil has sort of lost its fertility.
Have you noticed any new street styles emerging?
I think London is characterised by extreme individuality. The days when London was bifurcated into mods and rockers is long gone. The press became so obsessed in finding the latest subculture, the latest tribe, that people just got very fed up and suspicious of that and a whole new generation emerged that went out of its way to avoid being categorised. The interesting thing is that in Mexico City you have a sizeable amount of people who are proud to call themselves ‘emos’. Although people are always telling me there are lots of ‘emos’ in London or whatever, when you kind of get close to the phenomena people wouldn’t actually label themselves. I still think that there are a lot of interesting people watching to be done in London and exciting styles. But now I think it’s all about being an individual. Not so much the extremist form, it’s more of a sampling and mixing of different things from different places. 
I’ve noticed that everyone striving for this individuality somehow ends up looking the same.
Well that is an inevitability I guess, as in tattoos for example. When I was growing up in America in the 60s to have a tattoo was really unusual. You might have something from the war but it’s not something you’d be pleased with. I lived on the beach and to see people showing off their tats was just unthinkable. Now it’s really common and you’d have to have a pretty amazing tattoo for anyone to take any notice at all. 
You could be standing naked waiting for a bus in London and it wouldn’t be a very cool thing to point out that they weren’t wearing any clothes. Londoners see everything out of the corner of their eye but they never stare. It’s just not a London thing to do, to gawk at somebody and act impressed. Just about everywhere in the world people would cross the street just to gawk at you, but there is a certain visual tolerance about London.
With a Spanish friend of mine, in Barcelona everyone stared at her but when she moved to London she had to shave her head and cover herself in tattoos in order to have the same effect. Another example is Leigh Bowery, who ran a club called Taboo which was in Leicester square in the 80s and 90s, came from Australia. He was a performance artist and designed costumes. He was an absolutely astounding character and not a native Londoner. London has always had these style immigrants who on the one hand come here to enjoy the freedom and on the other hand a form of panic sets in when nobody takes any notice of them. I think you’ll find some of the most exotic looking people in London are not in fact native Londoners.
Are there say five up and coming trends you’ve identified?
I don’t really look at it like that anymore. 20 years ago you could say, “Ok here are five things that are happening in the world”. But now there is such a huge amount of micro things happening. I think it misses the point to push them into a box. There are so many things going on and they are so fleeting, individualistic and idiosyncratic that I would like to say we live in a world of extraordinary diversity and personal originality – and leave it at that.


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