January 30, 2017
Style Tribes: The Fashion of Subcultures – Caroline Young (Frances Lincoln, 2016)
When you first discovered fashion, did you want to fit in or stand out? It seems that no matter how much we might want to assert our individuality, we can’t help making connections with others who like the same togs. And, while we think of clothes as being civilising, author Caroline Young is pretty certain that clothes are actually tribal. Frankly, the first human adornments are believed to have been declaration of status and availability. Has much changed?
In this attractive, picture-rich book, Young explores the links between youth, music culture and fashion. Couture barely gets (or deserves) a look-in. If you remember your own teenage years, much of the themes she covers will resonate. Mine was the era of the New Romantics… on a very strict budget. My clothes were indeed influenced by music subcultures, and the cover art of those lovely LPs we flipped through at Woolworths and the local record shop. Alas, my solitary Duran Duran t-shirt soon became naff. Since it was black, I next wore it back-to-front under a dubious fringed jacket during a moodier Goth phase.
Young’s descriptions of the sheer inventiveness of subculture fashion certainly rings true to me. As teens (and beyond) we created our own looks from what we could afford, and what we could customise. To my chagrin, I remember attending one teen party with loops of coloured paperclips over my turquoise bat-wing top. My best friend (always fabulously dressed & accessorised) complimented me on looking “so different.” Frankly I’d rather have been kitted out in shop-bought branded goods. Now, of course, the high street can provide any look, often at minimal cost. Funky, maybe, but punk it ain’t.
Reading Style Tribes is like wearing a pair of well-loved classic jeans – you know what you’re getting and you like it. The chronology takes us through a cavalcade of cutting-edge fashion, all of it ultra-modern in its day. Though mainly Western, the cultural span is broader than most fashion books, encompassing white surfer dudes and Black zoot suits; Asian harajuku and goa trance.
Looking back we can raise an eyebrow at outlandish extremes, or smile in admiration at the glorious rebelliousness of it all. Beatnik, disco, riot grrls and steampunk, all are now immortalised in history. What next? Young says look to organically growing moods and moments in society:
“There are always new tribes… We just don’t know about them yet”
Style Tribes is smart, insightful and occasionally edgy. It celebrates all those outfits that made conservative parents shudder and say, “You can get back up those stairs – you’re not going out looking like that!” Forget catwalks, think catcalls. This fashion is high street & back alleys. It is attitude, not platitude. Tribalism at its most colourful and courageous.
September 4, 2016
A fascinating insight into early 19thc life. A big help as I research clothes & crime in the Georgian era
The Infirmary, Great Yarmouth Gaol
The Gaoler catches the two young women leaning out of the infirmary window, flirting with the men in the airing yard below. They jump down hastily when he shouts their names.
It’s three weeks since Elizabeth Humphrey complained of being sick and was dispatched to the infirmary room, with Sarah Rands to keep her company. They are enjoying their ruse, with the luxury of sugar to sweeten their tea and oatmeal, and a rush candle to light at night when they sing and tell each other stories in its warm glow. They have been palls since Sarah arrived in January, joining Elizabeth, nearly six months into her sentence.
Detail from Mrs Fry Reading to the Prisoners at Newgate, 1816 Jerry Barrett (1863), Courtesy British Museum
Now Elizabeth Humphrey, aged nineteen, says she is in the family way. The matron, wife…
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July 22, 2016
Well, Lucy Adlington (who IS the History Wardrobe) does. And so do I. On Sunday afternoon I was at The Red House in Gomersal with friend Clare to be entertained again by Lucy and Meridith in the latest History Wardrobe World Premiere presentation Jolly Hockeysticks!
“Jolly Hockeysticks is a simply smashing show about school days and school stories, whether you’re a fan of Malory Towers or Angela Brazil. Our blue-stocking Headmistress celebrates the often-untold tales of pioneers in education for girls, while the irrepressible school pupil models school uniform and gym kit galore!”
Miss Bullocks addresses the class
Enter Miss Bullocks headmistress, complete with cane, in gown and mortar board, sensible shoes and starchy blouse and the show (and the fun) began. With examples of girls school uniforms since the 19th century and throwing in other school memories which most of us could relate to, unlike…
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June 16, 2016
Where do your cast-off clothes go? Do you spare them a second thought when they go off to the second-hand market?
My travels in the American mid-West recently included several trawls in antique malls, where I found some delightful vintage frocks. But what of the fate of more contemporary clothes? What happens to the garments culled from our wardrobes? Let me invite you into the basement of St John’s Lutheran church, in the surprisingly lovely town of Dubuque, Iowa. Here, in The Open Closet, you’ll find a freshly-painted, neatly-ordered set of rooms laid out like a nice clothes store. The stock is entirely made up of donations – roughly 150 bin bags of them a week (double this after a clothing drive). A team of volunteers, under the expert aegis of Ruth Pugh, sort the clothes into female, male, girl & boy categories. There’s even a rather moving section of tiny garments for premature babies. Clothes are also sorted seasonally. So far, all pretty similar to any charity clothing shop.
Here’s the difference. The clothes are all free.
Yes, for 27 years The Open Closet has been serving the needs of the community with not a price-tag in sight. And the clients? While I watched Ruth at work putting winter gear to one side, a young woman arrived. She seemed quite quiet. She had just been released from prison and urgently needed a set of clothes. ‘How many items can I take?’ she asked shyly. ‘Take whatever you need,’ Ruth said, leaving the woman to browse in peace. Take whatever you need. A simple sentence, deep with generosity and significance for this young woman starting fresh. Worth thinking about if you (like me) suspect that you have far, far more than you need.
The Open Closet is also there for people who’ve lost everything in a house fire or floods; for homeless people; for those who’ve sought refuge from violence in shelters, leaving troubled homes with literally only the clothes on their backs. Indeed, Ruth says The Open Closet is for anyone in the community who needs to be clothed. Premature babies to prom dresses, in fact.
After lightening struck dorms of nearby Loras College, the young people burnt out of their rooms came to The Open Closet for new outfits. By coincidence, one of the courageous citizens who spotted the fire, raised the alarm, then helped them escape safely (saving 45 lives) was honoured for his efforts at the same ceremony where Ruth herself was honoured for her tremendous contributions as a community volunteer.
We are not naked creatures in society. Clothes give us dignity, identity and confidence.
Ruth says she keeps a special section of work gear – overalls & ‘scrubs’ and such like – for people on low-wage jobs who need clothes that are fit for purpose. Also, she sets aside smart clothes for work-eager people going to job interviews. Ruth recalled the story of a boot-less man due for a job interview. Without work-boots = no interview; no work. He was referred to The Open Closet and kitted out. He got the job.
And this isn’t some shabby free-for-all, with any old stuff piled on tables to be picked over. The clothes are only put out if they are clean and flawless. Clients can browse in a nice environment. They respond by respecting the place and the stock… and perhaps themselves a bit more too.
The Open Closet works quite closely with the associated men’s shelter Almost Home. As well as receiving much-needed clothes, the men have been known to donate clothes back to the Closet when they can, and some come to volunteer too.
Not all the clothes find new wearers, and here’s where the next level of re-use happens. A company called St Vincent de Paul, which works to help those in poverty, collects items to sell on for shredding. Another company, Remains collects unwanted items too. Before the recession Remains were able to pay about $1 a sack for ‘rejects.’ Now they can’t pay, but the clothes are at least shredded, and the rags can be re-used… a tradition which has a long, long history.
As ever, The Open Closet is seeking more volunteers. Ruth isn’t above bribing helpers with candy. “If you really want to make a difference and see that difference, volunteer here,” she says. “You will make people happy.”
Dubuque, Iowa, may be too far for many of us to travel to. Why not seek out local organisations and charities to find a second home for your clothes? They deserve the longest life possible.
The young woman choosing her out-of-prison outfit while I was in the Closet said as she left (holding her new clothes), “I hope to donate things back again when I can…”
February 17, 2016
February 14, 2016
It’s been some time since I last attended a History Wardrobe presentation. However, that has now been corrected as yesterday I spent the afternoon enjoying yet again Lucy Adlington and Meredith Towne’s humour, expert knowledge and style at the Bagshaw Museum in nearby Batley.
Fairy tale fashion display
“Once upon a time… Step into your favourite stories as we explore the world of magical clothes – the red riding hood, cloaks of invisibility, seven league boots and, of course, the legendary glass slippers.
In Fairytale Fashion we explore the enchanting history of the Princess dress, from Cinderella’s ball gown to Princess Diana and Disney. A dazzling fairy godmother dresses Cinderella for all the glory of an 18th Century ball.”
I recognised the Ladybird Books from my own childhood
To begin … Once upon a time … Lucy sets out the ‘rules’ of fairy tales – Be careful who you meet; Be…
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September 1, 2015
Pack Up Your Troubles: Gretna
On Saturday I escaped the chaos of the last weekend of Edinburgh Fringe for an entirely different kind of festival, the Pack Up Your Troubles First World War festival in Gretna. I made this trip in order to see a presentation from The History Wardrobe, and unfortunately did not manage to see anything else at the festival (I wish I could have attended the Make Do & Mend session at the Devil’s Porridge Museum, but I have lined up a visit to that museum for another time! ). I did however learn a little about the history of the area beyond my minimal knowledge (via Jane Austen) of Gretna Green as a destination for quick marriages.
Gretna was known during the First World War for HM Factory which spread over 9 miles and employed 30,000 workers – who were largely female. By 1917 the…
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July 29, 2015
“One day I was doing a signing in a London bookshop and next in the queue was a lady in what, back in the eighties, was called a ‘power suit’ despite its laughable lack of titanium armour and proton guns…”
– Terry Pratchett in Meditations on Middle Earth, 2001
Clothes convey power
Armour has its place as powerful outwear, and there are also the obvious signifiers of power, such as crowns, capes and military insignia. But everyday ‘civilian’ clothes have powerful messages of their own.
Sometimes this is through a literally enhanced presence: strong boots, built up shoulders, excess of fabric. Sometimes, instead of standing out, power is conferred by homogeneity – belonging to a group all wearing the same uniform. Perhaps a suit.
Historically, certain colours and fabrics have been jealously categorised as elite-only, and therefore power-enhancing: consider the colour purple, for example, or the Sumptuary Laws limiting silks to certain ranks.
Conceal or Reveal
How much of your body clothes cover is also significant. For example, are cultural requirements to hide the body, hair or face a form of gendered manipulation or a means of keeping power through modesty? Or, when clothes such as corsets, cages and contoured pads are used to mould the natural form into a fashionable shape, who has the power – the fashion industry, the consumer, or the spectator? As for etiquette, for much of human history, hats have played a crucial role in asserting power, or, when doffing a hat, offering homage to someone of higher status… or as an act of so-called chivalry.
Who’s Wearing the Trousers?
Trousers have very strong associations with power. The Romans disdained them as fit for barbarians (outsiders) only. 18th-century gentlemen at first scorned them in favour of breeches, then followed George ‘Beau’ Brummell’s example in wearing them. By the 19th century they were firmly established as a fundamental garment for men. To wear trousers meant having freedom-of-movement, as well as the symbolic power of patriarchy. No wonder women had to fight so hard to wear them, enduring ridicule in the 1860s with Turkish trousers, then wary admiration for cycling breeches in the 1890s, and finally a long, slow integration of trousers into everyday wear. We might ask – is there ‘power’ still in skirts and dresses? For Transgender people, how might the power dynamic change when adopting clothes weighted with such assumptions about gender?
Leaving the Past Behind?
Many of our clothing choices are still based on cultural constructs from history. In an era of fast fashion, ‘designer’ labels and creeping informality how, if at all, do we show power now?
Lucy Adlington @historywardrobe is author of Great War Fashion; also Fashion:Women in World War One, and the forthcoming book from Penguin Random House, Stitches In Time, the Story of the Clothes we Wear
She runs History Wardrobe – delightful costume-in-context presentations – and lectures extensively in the UK
Join the #csfashionhour discussion 2pm September 4th 2015