Tuesday, November 1, 2011

5 Minutes With Ted Polhemus

Ted Polhemus (born 1947 in Neptune, New Jersey, USA) is an American anthropologist, writer, and photographer who lives and works on England's south coast. His work focuses on fashion and anti-fashion, identity, and the sociology of style and of the body – his objective, to explore the social and communicative importance of personal expression in style. He has written or edited more than a dozen books, and has taken many of the photographs that appear in them. He was the creator and curator of an exhibition, called "StreetStyle", at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. One of his most popular books is "Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk" (Thames & Hudson 1994), which he originally wrote as the book for the exhibition. Recently, Ted Polhemus wrote an updated version of Streetstyle, which PYMCA published in 2010. Currently he is working on a book that illustrates the on-going social and cultural impact of the baby boom generation as well as researching a long-planned work on the cultural basis and complexity of human sexual attraction.

Q1. What was the first record that you owned that really made an impact on you?

TP: The first 45 single (unbelievably, a small, round piece of black plastic with a large hole in the middle) was ‘The In-Crowd’ by Ramsey Lewis. The first 331/3 LP (a larger, round piece of black plastic with a small hole in the middle – strange but true) was Take Five by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. In the middle of the ‘Take 5’ title track there is a long drum solo. Indeed, it was such a long drum solo that it went on for hours until my father suggested it was faulty. ‘No Dad’ I insisted, ‘this is modern jazz, it’s supposed to be like that’. But father knew best.

Q2. Is fashion being replaced by style?

TP: If fashion is a time machine in which a single ‘New Look’ or ‘direction’ is perpetually replaced with a yet newer ‘New Look’ and single ‘direction’ (as, for example, happened with Dior’s New Look in 1947 or the mini in the mid 60s) then, yes, fashion has gone the way of the dodo. But don’t panic: today’s style offers the greatest possibility of personal expression our species has ever known. For most of our history the tribe prescribed what you should look like and then for some 500 years fashion dictated what was ‘In’ and what was ‘Out’. My book Fashion & Anti-fashion is all about the difference between fashion and style – a new, updated, 21st century edition is out now from lulu.com and amazon.com.


Q3. Why have brands become so important?

TP: Phew – this really bowls me over, this brand thing. In my Hippy or Punk days the last thing we wanted was to go around with some big logo on our persons. But walk down the street today and this is what you see. I was particularly amazed by the Hollister thing. Hollister California was invaded by a bunch of crazed Bikers in 1947 and this became the inspiration for the film The Wild One. So when I started to see all these kids in ‘Hollister’ t-shirts I figured they were hip to the film. Sadly not. What is clear, however, is that brands can carry a hefty semiological punch – information, stuff which, by wearing the brand I can incorporate into my own personal statement. Brands are like icebergs – there is just the small bit (the logo) above the water line but then there is this huge conceptual structure beneath. The success of brands today shows just how much people are hungry for visual signifiers which say ‘I’m this kind of person’.

Q4. Is the concept of branding actually stifling the creativity of brand development?

TP: Hard to see how a successful brand can avoid tripping itself up in time. How can you be cutting edge and mainstream successful at the same time? And of course no brand can keep off-message people from wearing its products. Wasn’t that Jersey Shore/Abercrombie & Fitch thing amusing? A brand can develop just fine if it is honest and not pretending to be something it’s not. Fire the brand consultants (well, Ok, not me) and just get on with it.

Q5. Due to the explosion of online information do you feel it is still possible for a street style trend to actually develop before it is over exposed?

TP: When my Streetstyle exhibition opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 1994 one review wrote ‘You know when something is finished when they put it into an exhibition’. Too true. And this was before the real impact of the Internet (hard to believe kids but true). We just became too keyed up on looking at what was going on. Like in those physics experiments when the mere act of looking changes the quantum particles. And when the ‘cool hunters’ showed up you just knew that the truly cool was an endangered species. But we’re talking London, Tokyo and NY – places which were cool hunted to death long ago. Streetstyle is alive and well in places like Buenos Aires, Mexico, Columbia – indeed anywhere unexpected.

The Body as a Medium of Expression (co-editor), Penguin
Social Aspects of the Human Body (editor), Penguin
Fashion & Anti-fashion: an anthropology of clothing & adornment (co-author), Thames & Hudson. New revised and updated version with a new introduction and postscript published by the author in 2011.
Popstyles (co-author), Vermilion
Bodystyles, for C4 TV series
Rituals of Love: sexual experiments, erotic possibilities, (author of text), Picador Streetstyle, Thames & Hudson. New revised and updated 2010 edition of Streetstyle published by PYMCA, London.
Style Surfing: what to wear in the 3rd millennium, Thames & Hudson
The Customized Body (author of text), Serpent’s Tail
Body Art [children’s book, author of text], Element Books
Diesel: World Wide Wear, Thames & Hudson.
Hot Bodies Cool Styles, London, Thames & Hudson, 2004.


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