Street Fashion

Our public clothing style is a critical component of our lives in cities. “But wait,” you say, “I’ve never cared how I look. I wear whatever is clean.” That’s a style. “I have to where a uniform in public to do my job,” you say, “That’s not how I dress for myself.” Fine, but it is still a style. It’s typical, maybe even required to have more than one. What is important about these is that they are readable. This lets others interpret the messages we send about who we want to be, and what groups we affiliate with. This makes fashion, the aggregate of these various styles, a scene that is not only interesting to watch, but also to talk about with our fellow city dwellers.

Some people talk about clothing as if it were a language, but this is not accurate. Clothing is iconic, not linguistic. It lacks the flexibility to generate new meanings on the fly, the feature of language that separates talk from barking. Clothing is more like barking. All of the meaning is built into the garment to begin with. This meaning can only change over time as the garment becomes dated. Thus, the two biggest categories of public clothing are the “new” and the “used.” Like many areas of design, the same formal relationships can mean different things to different generations and groups. We once tried to avoid the used and maximized the new. Only the new enabled our group’s aspirations. Only the used proclaimed our solidarity with our parents’ group. With the rise of Thrift Shop Chic this has become more complicated. Now, clothing with used iconic value is freely mixed with new garments from the hottest stores and the latest magazines.

The conversation about fashion takes place on two levels. There is the message of the public style itself. These a messages we send to strangers through our clothing. If you don’t already follow Bill Cunningham’s video diary of New York Street fashion, you should check it out. Cunningham makes this group affiliation part of the conversation visible.

The second part of the conversation is about how an ensemble for the street can best be put together. What makes one ensemble a more effective means of saying what we want to say than another? This requires learning about clothing sources, fabric, color, drape, ease, and shaping. Media, like magazines and television are obvious places to start. Ultimately, these ensembles are local constructions meant to be interpreted by a restricted group of people: classmates coworkers, friends, etc. The conversation must begin with those friends and family who provide the social mirror of how one looks. ( I’m reminded of a book about conversations between mothers and daughters by Deborah Tannen titled “You’re wearing THAT.”) But the conversation doesn’t end with a particular ensemble. How easy it is to recreate our common history as urbanites through fashion. All we have to do is look into our closets and gaze at the clothes we haven’t worn for years.

What other conversations, like fashion, have evolved in our shared lives as urbanites to help us identify each other as part of the same local experience? What scenes have I missed? Leave a comment if you have identified another one.

Weather Talk

A dual tropical storm/hurricane system that is currently disrupting people’s lives in Hawaii, a rare event for those islands. I am fascinated by such sublime weather events. I will stare at approaching Midwestern thunderstorms as if they were the latest zombie apocalypse movie. I grew up on the southeast Massachusetts coast. So, the huge hurricanes and Nor’easter blizzards of my youth are as real to me today as they were then. I still track these storms with enthusiasm (and apps!), even though they rarely reach Chicago. City folk love to talk about the weather at least as much as country folk. What makes weather such a compelling topic is the danger and disruption of extreme events. This is how our shared histories are composed. Even today’s ‘ordinary’ weather is fodder for elevator conversations among strangers.

Hawaii’s plight put me in mind of other islands and other weathers. I’ve recently discovered the British fascination with the channel and seas weather forecast known as the Shipping Forecast, broadcast four times daily on BBC radio. This two minute long report covers the thirty-one areas that describe the seas and channels surrounding the British Isles, the European Coast and Iceland (see map). In the forecast, each one (or group) is described in terms of the wind speed, visibility, and sometimes barometric pressure. So a typical report might read: “Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.” Growing up with these forecasts, Brits incorporate this information as part of their common knowledge as “islanders,” even though very few will ever sail these waters. Hundreds of thousands of them listen to the forecast every day. References to the shipping forecast can easily be found in British popular song lyrics, radio and television productions, and novels. In the 2012 opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games, the shipping forecast was recited over the Nimrod section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. You could actually engage fellow elevator riders in a building in the heart of London about the day’s shipping forecast and someone in the car would know where the trouble spots will be!


What’s the appeal? According to one BBC producer, “It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.” A frequent reader of the forecast describes the appeal this way,”To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked-up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.

Weather talk is always local, even when it really doesn’t have anything to do with the local weather. The shipping forecast is local even though the weather it describes is several hundred miles away. It’s just like my fascination with hurricanes and Nor’easters.

Making the Urban Scene: The Arts

We will always need an artistic avant garde. No other group in our communities has the self-confidence to challenge that accept canons of taste and revitalize the production of expressive objects and performances. The avant garde was first identified as early as 1825 by Olinde Rodrigues who called upon the artists to “serve as [the people’s] avant-garde”, insisting that “the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and fastest way” to social, political and economic reform [Matei Calinescu, 1987. The Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Duke University Press]. The last two hundred years has shown that technology is a much more effective reformer than art. Think about the differing impacts of the airplane, the birth control pill, or the computer, compared to the works of Martha Graham, Antonine Artaud, or Andy Warhol. It pains me to say so, but social, political and economic reform is an over-reach for the avant garde. So much of it’s energy must go to constantly reinventing itself that little is left over for sustained social change. Evolving standards of taste, the focus on form over context, and the development of new media for expression are the avant garde’s sweet spot.

With very few exceptions, the avant garde is located in cities, often in a bohemian district specifically designated to contain it’s more rebellious elements. Just as the scene challenges aesthetic tastes, it also unhinges other social mores around pleasure-seeking, relationship-building, and body practices. The avant garde is never isolated. It is accessible and welcoming, even though it’s environs are considered slightly dangerous by visitors. That is part of its charm. While mainstream arts outlets are located in safe business districts, city folk in search of the next new thing must hazard the avant garde’s dangers.

It is a fabulous bonus of our lives as city dwellers that we have this luscious, challenging, expressive resource at our doorsteps. It is any wonder that some of us invest our time and treasure in the offbeat galleries and theatres where the avant garde hold court? For our efforts, we are rewarded with conversational topics that set us apart from our more staid neighbours as someone who has both the courage and the stamina to walk on the wild side of urban life. And when we encounter fellow veterans of the arts scene, we can enjoy discovering that shared history of gallery shows and performances that only the brave among us could witness.

In my previous posts in this series, I’ve cited Eric Hobsbawm on the need for the members of the urban middle class to seek out histories for itself. It started me wondering what other candidates have evolved in our shared lives as urbanites to help us identify each other as part of the same local experience. What other attractions in our communities require us to invest money in them and offer a common language of class experience in return?
What scenes have I missed? Leave a comment if you have identified another one.