Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Philadelphia Street Style: Vonnysemaj, Chestnut St

My street style photography has always been circular. I seem to loop back around to a certain core aesthetic, an aesthetic, I might add, that has remained essentially unchanged since the late 1980s: black jacket, tight black pants, band T-shirt, big boots, and a scowl. This is street style as I originally conceived of it, and I'm not ready to let it go.

Fortunately, I can find plenty of people on the streets of Philadelphia who share my aesthetic. Like, for instance, Vonnysemaj, who I waited for outside a CVS when I couldn't quite catch up to her before she went in. Vonnysemaj is rockin' an updated black "bomber jacket" (she can't remember what brand it is or where she picked it up), a Forever 21 Ramones T-shirt, a vintage fanny pack, worn front and center, and boots she got off of ShopJeen.com.  

Now, some of what I just wrote needs some unpacking. First, I put "bomber jacket" in scare quotes, because to me, bomber jacket has always meant something different: one of those soft brown-leather coats fighter pilots wore during World War I and II, and which reemerged in the 1980s as a symbol of mainstream American masculinity. The kind of jacket Vonnysemaj is wearing we called a "flight jacket," and that's still the official name given to the original military-issue MA-1 jacket that inspired the bomber jacket trend. When I was a teenager, these were the preferred jackets of racist skinheads. They were worn with an American flag sewn onto their right sleeve. Kanye probably deserves some credit for bringing them back into public consciousness, as do a number of other streetwear trendsetters who have made "bomber jackets" a staple of any street-savvy wardrobe. Bomber jackets, it seems, have shed their older racist associations, and to do so, they had to undergo another kind of erasure: a changing of their name. We could call this process "re-appropriation." I would be tempted to think of this as the kind of subcultural "semiotic guerrilla warfare" Dick Hebdige glamorized in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, except for two things: 1)There is no longer a singular subculture to whom the jacket belongs. Vonnysemaj, after all, describes her own personal style as "funky, edgy, with lots of leather." She calls it "punk rock slash..." Leaving what comes after the slash unfinished. That incomplete slash speaks volumes. 2) I strongly suspect most of the teens and twenty-somethings I see out on the streets wearing bomber jackets have absolutely no awareness of their former associations. This is semiotic guerrilla warfare without the semiosis. And that, of course, is the beauty of fashion: it strips clothing of context, empties its signifiers of content, so that all that's left is their surface aesthetic. It is a kind of pre-articulate revolution, a slow undoing of a problematic past.

Second, Vonnysemaj is wearing a Ramones T-shirt by Forever 21. Let me write that again, a Ramones T-shirt by Forever 21. When did fast fashion companies become the primary caretakers of rock merchandise? There was a time, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, when The Ramones were seen as a countercultural force. Now Forever 21 prints thousands of cheap re-issues of their old shirts. Fashion, that is, may be a revolution, but it is a revolution that ends in the bargain bin. It does real semiotic work, but it does so, ultimately, in the service of capital.

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