Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fashion Theory Geeks Eat Your Heart Out! My Interview with Ted Polhemus

Ted Polhemus is the original street style anthropologist. Trained at Temple and University College, London, he has gone on to write some of the most influential works on fashion, style, and subcultural (or post-subcultural) expression. He is author, co-author, or editor of some 12 books, including Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk, Style Surfing, Popstyles, The Customized Body, Hot Bodies Cool Styles, and The Body as Medium of Expression. His latest books, Boom! and a new revised edition of Fashion & Anti-fashion: An Anthropology of Clothing & Adornment, are now available through www.tedpolhemus.blogspot.com and www.lulu.com/spotlight/tedpolhemus. The following is our recent email interview. 

1. What is the difference between “fashion” and “style”? What about “fashion” and “anti-fashion?” What do we need to understand about these differences and why do they matter?

Throughout most of human history our ancestors used body decoration and 'Our Costume' to define 'Us' from 'Them', to visually encode worldview and to underline the 'timeless' nature of their own group and culture. I would call this 'tribal style'. 'Fashion' is radically different in that it projects a model of perpetual change and 'progress' - and as such it was the ultimate expression of modernism. For many of us in our post-modern age there is a yearning for stability and a rejection of that singularity - 'the direction'; 'the new look' - which saw everyone racing towards the same (presumably wonderful) future. This new approach to the presentation of self might be termed 'Personal Style' - or Anti-fashion. This is explained more fully in the new edition of my book Fashion & Anti-fashion: Exploring adornment and dress from an anthropological perspective. It's interesting how, despite the significance of this shift, the 'fashion industry' has largely failed to come to terms with the revolution which has taken place.

2. Back in 1994, in your book Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk, you argued that fashion, since roughly the 1960s, began “bubbling up” from the streets, rather than “trickling down” from the upper classes. Suddenly designers like Yves Saint Laurent were borrowing their looks from the Beats, the mods, and the punks, instead of improvising on an elite sensibility. What does the Internet do to that dynamic? Does it further democratize fashion, as the Internet cheerleaders would have us believe? Or is there something perhaps more complicated going on here?

History may decide that the most important thing which happened in the 20th century was the unprecedented shift from High Culture to popular culture. This was not limited to appearance and is at least as striking in music - giving us not only Jazz, Tango, Blues, Rock 'n' Roll, Rock, etc. but, before the century was out, a new reverence and respect for such 'bubble up' musical forms. Yes, obviously the Internet further facilitates this process of the democratizing of 'fashion' (more precisely, the shift from dictatorial 'fashion' to personal 'style') but it is important to note that this tectonic shift of worldviews was well underway before the Internet was up and running. Where I think the Internet has really changed things is in the globalisation of style. Not that long ago Paris ruled supreme - now new styles crop up anywhere and everywhere and get seen anywhere and everywhere because of the global reach of the Internet.

3. You have famously referred to the contemporary fashion sensibilities of the Western world as a “supermarket of style.” Rather than identify too closely with one particular subcultural sensibility, young fashionistas these days mix and match, cut up and reassemble, construct their own remixed, refashioned look with no clear allegiance or affiliation. Of course, you wrote that in Style Surfing in 1996, the early days of the Internet. What, if anything, has changed since then?

I was born in 1947 the same year that Dior famously launched his 'New Look' - not only decreeing what was 'in' and 'out' for millions but also defining a 'total look' which from head to toe set down rules for what should be worn with what. And, this is the key point, almost everyone did as they were told. The 'Supermarket of Style' is as perfect a representation of the post-modern age as 'fashion' was a representation of modernism. Instead of the single direction of modernism we now have an infinity of alternative 'takes' - parallel universes - on a 'now' which is also, simultaneously, past, present and future all at once. Early expressions of this approach to appearance were found in the Punks who sampled & mixed explosive semiological combinations and Blade Runner which showed us a future which was retro. Again, this was all in place well before the Internet. 

4. Do you follow any street style blogs? And if so, which ones? What is your impression of these blogs?

I have spent the last couple of years trying to come to terms with what really happened in the late 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s and to set this down in my new book BOOM! - A Baby Boomer Memoir, 1947-2022 and this has given me less time to examine the present. I certainly don't follow any style blogs religiously but what has caught my eye is the extent to which exciting, unexpected, often creative style (actually styles - we are in a very pluralistic world(s) now) comes from the least expected places. There's a great style blog from Helsinki. I've seen others from Mexico City, Columbia, Zagreb even Tehran. My hunch is that, as happens I gather in subatomic physics, the act of observation changes what is being observed. London, NY, Paris, Tokyo - these places have been in the spotlight too long and withered under the glare.

5. No doubt many bloggers borrow their aesthetics from fashion magazines, particularly i-D, Nylon, and The Face. Do you see any innovation in the aesthetics of today’s bloggers? Or are we simply covering old ground?

The 'straight up' street photos which appeared in the early issues of i-D prefigured the explosion of street style blogging today. I know I was myself in an early issue. But then i-D went and threw their innovation away and reverted to models rather than 'real people'. My feeling is that some of the new style blogs are rediscovering that old i-D spirit. Note that not all these blogs have the same spirit and approach - in particular some are more democratic and open to one and all than others. But always there is the bottom line that blogger X decides who is and who isn't interesting/visually distinctive enough to include. If the process is more democratic than the old fashion world it is because there are a heck of a lot of these style bloggers and they tend to have differing views on what is and what isn't interesting to photograph. And, crucially, that they derive from all over the globe.

6. One of the things that fascinates me about street style bloggers, and fashion bloggers more generally, is the way they blur personal expression with brand promotion. As a number of anthropologists have argued, it may in fact be characteristic of our neoliberal, late capitalist era to manage the self as if it were a business. What is your take on this debate? Have self and sales pitch merged? Is there still anything about self and style that isn’t for sale?

Appearance has always been a marketing exercise - a branding if you will. Throughout most of human history what you were pitching was your tribe and/or your place within it. For a couple of hundred years constantly changing fashions pitched the modernist worldview of change and progress. These days, increasingly, we construct our presentation of self as an advertisement for how interesting/successful/creative/self-constructed/authentic we are as individuals. We use style and brands as the vocabulary of this presentation. We will each try to emphasise different brand values but one fairly consistent message today is that we are not easily boxed into a category and instead that we are multifaceted individuals who defy categorisation. Sampling & mixing is the perfect technique for projecting this multifaceted message. 

7. As you well know, issues of “authenticity” have long been critical to the way various style tribes define themselves and set themselves apart from everyone else. However, it seems to me that in the era of self-branding and self-promotion, older ideas of “selling out,” “posing,” or even being fake or inauthentic sound increasingly old-fashioned. Does authenticity still have a place in contemporary style? Or have we moved on to something else?

Authenticity remains the most precious and sought after substance in the world today. At least for those who come from or who have achieved a reasonable standard of living. We are perceived as more authentic if we creatively sample & mix our own appearance (rather than being some pathetic fashion victim), if we have put more than just money into this process (e.g. getting a tattoo or piercing where pain as well as cost is involved), if we choose styles and brands which semiotically convey a message of authenticity. Of course, in this mad scramble for personal authenticity we more often than not end up in a themepark of fake authenticity - brand new jeans which have been distressed to look like they and we have been sleeping in boxcars with Woody Gutherie, brands with cleverly/cynically constructed and completely fictitious back stories, retro time warping into past eras which fit our yearnings rather than historical realities - but however mythologized the past is inevitably seen as more authentic than the present. The irony is that the more we seek authenticity the more we make it an endangered species. Was it Baudrillard who commented that our key problem today in the post-modern age is to know when we have in fact left the themepark? 

8. You have written about Diesel Industries as an example of anti-fashion fashion, manipulating their insider-outsider status in a self-conscious, postmodern play on old-fashioned branding. What fashion brands do you see taking up that mantle these days? And have the strategies of anti-fashion fashion branding changed at all since you wrote that? 

It was never that I saw Diesel as 'anti-fashion fashion' (even less so today than when I wrote that little book) but that when they said 'we don't make jeans, we make communication' they clearly were on to something. From the consumers point of view we don't need a new pair of jeans, we need succinct and powerful signifiers to tell the world where we as individuals are 'at'. A brand logo can pack a heck of a lot of signification into a tiny signifier. Like the main character in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, I am myself sort of allergic to brand labels but as an anthropologist I have to see this increasing love affair with upmarket brands as a response to our communication crisis - the difficulties of explaining/showing 'I am this kind of person'. It used to be that one's identity was largely determined by your birth and was fairly easy to signify - for my parents it was 'Methodist'. Now identity is largely self-constructed and inevitably complex. Brands are like icebergs with that huge bulk of meaning lurking under the water, the brand logo sticking out on top. Or, to put it another way, brands are visions of what heaven should be like. If your brand allows me to signifier what kind of heaven I'm aiming at (which is to say, what my values and dreams are) then paying a few bucks more is a bargain.

9. You have written quite a bit about body modification and customization, particularly in the form of tattoos and piercings. It doesn’t take the insight of an anthropologist to notice that tattoos have reached a new height of popularity, becoming so commonplace as to have become, perhaps, the new normal. Piercings too, after losing some ground among counter-cultural types in the early ‘00s, seem to be back with a vengeance. Is there a connection, do you think, between the increasingly digital and virtual nature of our everyday lives and the growing popularity of tattoos and piercings? Are we compensating in some way for living our lives so detached from physicality?

Certainly one of the most astounding changes since I was young in the 50s and early 60s is the extent to which tattooing and piercing have gone from obscure, eyebrow raising minority status to mainstream, even de rigour. As I mentioned above I think our search for authenticity has something to do with it - this isn't just something you buy, you have to suffer a bit and risk being cut out of your grandmother's will. But I also suspect it has something to do with creating a rite of passage where none existed previously. Or marking any significant change in our life history. There's also the post-modern search for stability and the 'timeless'. I've long championed tats and piercings and argued that they can aspire to art. But I also have to wonder at the wisdom of getting something when you are young and then regretting it later. When I was a Hippy studying anthropology at Temple in Philly I might have got a peace sign or something as a tattoo. Which I might have been unhappy with as a Punk in London in the 70s. Maybe we should only permit tattoos for the over 65s. (BTW, there is quite a bit of stuff about Temple and Philly in the late 60s in the 'Sex', 'Drugs' and 'Rock 'N' Roll' chps of my new book BOOM! And while on the subject of Temple in the 60s I should like to pay homage to the inspiring teachers I had there - Ken Kensinger, John Szwed, Elmer Miller, Jay Ruby - who first got me addicted to anthropology.)

10. You have spent your career as something of an outsider anthropologist, working apart from academic institutions and now even publishing books on your own, without the mediation or input of established publishers. How has your independent status shaped your practice as an anthropologist? What doors has it opened or closed for you?

In fact it was absurd folly to try to forge a career as a writer and lecturer which was neither within the bounds or academia nor as an insider within a media organisation. Yet, despite the huge overdraft (buy my book or my cat gets it) and sleepless nights I really wouldn't have had it any other way. My mind delights in crossing disciplines and resisting established models. And I can never tell in advance (for example, in a project proposal) where I'm going to end up. But it gets increasingly more difficult - not only for me: publishers are focused on mega celeb blockbusters while even the dear BBC now thinks more about the celeb potential of its presenters than the content of its documentaries. Self-publishing offers fantastic opportunities yes but also underlines the extent to which you then have to dedicate yourself night and day to doing something on the Internet or Twitter which will (fingers crossed) go viral and make you a phenomenon and rich. If Shakespeare had lived today he would have written one play and then spent the rest of his life promoting it. And what happens when every human being has at least one blog and is so busy with blogging and twittering that no one has time for anyone else's blogs or tweets and so there ends the communication age?

11. What does anthropology have to bring to the study of fashion and style that other disciplines are perhaps less equipped to do?

Anthropology is a way of seeing - a constant awareness (as if coming from another planet) that in another age or another culture almost everything could and might be different (even, The Social Construction of Reality). I have a feeling that this 'could be different' perspective is more needed than ever. Is it just me or is it the case that, without anyone really nailing the truth of this, we have seen a worldview shift towards the presumption that all human difference beyond certain prescribed boundaries is the product of faulty genes? It seems like while I was out to lunch or something it was decided that everything from being Gay to not suffering fools gladly is down to one's genes. Is Cultural Anthropology making its voice heard in the midst of this paradigm shift? What so thrilled me at Temple and then at University College London was the extraordinary diversity of human behaviour and the extent to which culture, history and circumstance can and do shape human behaviour. And for me the other great thrill that my particular area of anthropology has always generated is appreciating just how complex and semiological dextrous is our human visual interaction. Two strangers pass in the street: just think how much data and interpretation of data occurs in this presentation of self and this 'checking out' of the other.

Specifically, as regards appearance, I don't think that I would have grasped the difference between 'style' and 'fashion' (and the respective social facts which generate them) without a background in anthropology. I'd heard an anthropology professor refer to tribal body decoration as 'fashion' and then, later in the 70s, someone asked me to write a magazine piece about 'Punk fashion' and from then on I couldn't get it out of my mind that these words were not simply synonyms. But while I may have the outsider's occasional flash of insight what would be splendid would be if some within anthropology could carry analysis further and deeper to see what holds water and what doesn't. For example, for many in my Boomer generation, age - being 'youth' even if, in time we were not - was the primary divide between 'us' and 'them'. 'Never trust anyone over 35' we said. Most models of 'youth culture' seem to presume that this is also true today but is it? My suspicion is that lifestyle choice and ability trumps age. If you're 18 and into skateboarding and this 30 year old comes along and he is a very good skateboarder does it matter that s/he isn't 'youth'? Also, as I explore to a point (but still only hunches) in the final chapters of the new edition of my book Streetstyle, do subcultures still exist? Clearly they do in places like South America but how about in the US and Britain which were historically such fertile ground in the development of subcultural streetstyle? Yes, there are lots of people in marketing and journalism who love spotting and describing some new 'tribe' but I find it hard going finding people who say 'I'm an Emo' (Hipster, Chav, etc.) My suspicion is that we are both post-fashion and post-subcultural - with our striving for individualism limiting our willingness to accept the conformity which either of these systems imposes. Would be interesting to put this to the test. For example, it's something you could do on this blog: when you photograph people ask them if they would say that they belonged to some 'tribe'.

12. Your latest book, Boom!, is a personal memoir exploring the cultural contributions and legacy of the Baby Boomer generation and contrasting them with the youth of today. What inspired you to write this book now, and what do you think the story of your generation has to tell us about “kids these days?”

Not having had any children of my own and after a lifetime of going to clubs and gigs and so forth and then discovering the delights of sitting, glass of wine in hand, in front of the telly and watching a good documentary about subatomic particles or lemurs (anything but streetstyle, please) I can't claim to actually know much about 'kids these days'. I wrote BOOM! because it amazed and horrified me that even just a handful of decades on the past seems so misunderstood and misrepresented. And it's important not just as a point of history: so many of our basic models (youth culture, generational identity, subcultures) are rooted in the post-war decades and, one suspects, have yet to be re-evaluated for their accuracy and usefulness in the 21st century. Did the Baby Boomers change the world and did 'everything' happen in the 60s? Turns out it was really the seemingly boring 50s which changed the world - the 60s just broadcasting to a wider demographic what the 50s had pioneered. Which is to say, the real changes were brought about by Pre-Boomers born during or before the war. Even 'youth culture' predated the teen years of the Boomers. We were just the audience and the consumers of the Pre-Boomer pioneers. At least until Boomers like Bowie and Springsteen took over in the 70s. So, anyway, I have a pretty good memory of what happened within the lifecycle of the Boomers but need more youthful minds to see how that compares with 'kids these days'.   

13. And, finally, what are you working on now, Ted?

I'm thinking that I'd like to be a stand up comic when I grow up. Meanwhile I'm cleaning the kitchen. 


  1. I am seriously so happy that this blog exists.

    I got "into" fashion a few years ago and put a lot of emphasis on how I dress and what I am presenting to others. I started to get into this super materialistic loop and feeling quite guilty about it. My natural response to bad feelings is self-analysis. I started to analyze what exactly fashion/style was to me and why I thought that it was so important. It's entirely amazing to me how different style is culturally in terms of location and subculture. I actually think it's an incredibly interesting field, especially in regards to the branding that is currently so prevalent throughout our culture today and the synonymous idea of style as sending off our own personal brand in terms of what we would like to present to others as to who we are. There has been a serious lack of material evaluating fashion as anything but materialistic so I am really excited about this resource! There's a lot of material evaluating traditional art but not a lot of resources that go in depth in regards to sociology/anthropology of personal style.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Although I guess I'm more of a general (social/cultural/media?) theory geek and not really one of the fashion variety, I was definitely eating my heart out throughout this entire entry. I've been lurking around your blog for a bit now, both inspired and entertained. Good stuff.

  3. Thanks, Candice. All varieties of theory geeks welcome.

  4. "And what happens when every human being has at least one blog and is so busy with blogging and twittering that no one has time for anyone else's blogs or tweets and so there ends the communication age?"

    This observation really struck me. I am very guilty of it. Since starting my site it is so rare that I make time for others. It is amazing how many people have blogs. I hadn't considered what sort of impact there could be on communication if the number of bloggers caught up in promoting their own world continues.

    Great interview!!

  5. Thanks, Dana. I was quite happy with it too.

  6. I've read and re-read Polhemus's Street Style since it came out in '94! Looking at the photos in the book seems like the last of the "authentic" street style photos. Now people not only document everything from what they eat to what they wear, but its also staged and shared with the world.
    I found it very interesting in the interview when he says, "I have to see this increasing love affair with upmarket brands as a response to our communication crisis" I think it does come down to communication, social media and blogs although wonderful in connecting like-minded people, has also brought on kind of a mass isolation too. In-person face to face communication where you can interpret subtleties such as body language or how clothes are worn in "real life" is not possible online - subtle is not an effective way to communicate in social media - but labels, branding, and well-lit shots are. Great interview, I am jealous! :)

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