Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Overdressed and overeducated

I wrote this during the Summer for a now defunct German magazine, but I thought it deserved an airing - no?

London’s hippest neighbourhood, Hoxton, has gone and got itself something of a bad rap. It is mocked for being the centre of all things try-hard, its inhabitants taunted for their fashion sense, and its hang-outs slandered for their extortionate prices. As such it is a magnet, for what New Yorkers would call “the bridge and tunnel crowd”. At the weekend the area is awash with drunken suburbanites looking for cultural kudos to compliment their pitchers of mysteriously colourful cocktails. The streets are full of hen and stag parties brawling in the middle of the road, puking in doorways and screaming homophobic abuse at the area’s earlier residents (artists and performers) who now make their way further afield to parties in territories as yet unspoilt. The visiting revellers are arguably some of the worst dressed people on the planet, skin tight high street party dresses, and murderously orange sunbed skin, accessorised by neon tutus and sunglasses worn as an ironic laugh at the Hoxton trend from 5 years ago, for 90s rave inspired looks (itself of course ironic to begin with). Like Kreuzberg or the Lower East Side, raucous new arrivals force the previous occupants out, and the cultural landscape changes again. Call it gentrification, call it evolution, call it capitalism’s sickest joke yet, nothing is stable.

On sunny days in Hoxton Square, a ruptured square of grass behind Old Street, a crowd of a sixty or so people gather to enjoy the afternoon’s glow. In twos and threes they are chic twentysomethings who work in the area (at one of the many bars and restaurants or design firms) or students returning from art school, stopping off on the grass on their way home. They are all dressed in that specifically London way, that unmistakable transhistorical, borderline outrageous look. It’s too vulgar to be French, too impractical and immodest to be American, too gaudy to be Belgian and too grungey to be Italian, it’s a style that can only be British.

The girls wear super short denim shorts with turn ups that graze their upper thighs, leaving long acres of flesh exposed. They walk on sky high platform heels, they wear scarves in their hair and studded leather jackets and oddball vintage sunglasses. Vermillion red lips and ghostly white skin, tattoos, and enormous handbags of expensive fabrics. Their hair is platinum blonde or cinder brown, either lustrously long or viciously short å la garconne. The boys themselves (and yes, the gender disparity is that blatant) are a lot more understated, sporting a look comprised of the French Rivera, geek chic and a very bourgeois nod to hip hop. They wear baseball caps with flat brims, oversized spectacles, deck shoes with no socks, plaid shirts or pastel polo shirts, and skinny jeans. Likewise the hair is almost always identikit, short through the back and long on the top, varied in contrast and shape depending on how bold you care to be. From a limited menu of acceptable options the British fashionista puts together a look they would like to call “individuality”, which underscores vividly how in such a developed capitalist economy, choice is always an illusion.

They lounge in the sun, glad to be free from the drudgery of the classroom, or their entry level job, flipping disinterestedly through classic American novels (say what they will, the British are deeply enamoured by American culture), discussing last weekend’s adventures, drinking cans of cider and planning next weekend’s adventures. The pose is that of slumming it, the scene reminiscent at once of an alfresco music video casting, Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe and a zoological garden. Satiated by relative economic stability, distracted by an unprecedented flow of technology, and subsidised by a constant influx of material goods produced in foreign sweatshops, this is the most apolitical generation of the past hundred and fifty years.

In the mid-70s this very same spot, the exact same square of grass in the sun now populated by mid-afternoon daydreamers, the infamous British fascist movement, the National Front, would square up with the local black youth. On Saturday mornings, the two sides came face to face at a designated time, and gathered as though on a medieval battlefield, they lined up and fought it out hand to hand. They fought for control of the East End, for the shaping of the capital and the country, to see whose ideology would rule. They fought bloodily with broken bottles and improvised instruments of violence, with absolute conviction, but before they did so, before the first punch was thrown, combatants from both sides of the lines spent time admiring the ensembles of their enemies, complimenting the cut of each other’s jackets and the leather of their boots. The same boots that would soon be biting deep and hard into their opponent’s face. One of East London’s most knowledgeable long time denizens, Beverley Whispers, told me, “It was two tribes, more about style than hate.” In a decade of massive political upheaval and soaring unemployment, Londoners literally wore their heart on their sleeves. The white skinhead National Front combatants wore boots and braces, super cropped hair. The black youth wore flares, double denim ensembles inspired by Bob Marley, and afros replete with combs jammed in the front. As a teen Beverley knew not to go near Hoxton, now she runs the Joiner’s Arms one of the pubs that has defined
the new East End scene, and the National Front have moved out to Dagenham.

It seems that the afternoon picnickers, lovers, and Kerouac readers have absolutely no idea however of what happened right here, beneath their feet, before they ever arrived. If they are cognisant of those events, they show no signs of it, no-one discusses it. It’s as though Hoxton Square were newly created specifically as a destination for weekday afternoon lounging. But such is the prerogative of each successive generation, to be bored by the recent past. Perhaps it is for the best that such violent scenes as the clashes between the NF and the BP have been condemned to the dustbin of history. Maybe we don’t need to be further traumatised by such memories. But I can’t help thinking that it’s important to know where we came from, that we should be aware of how the freedoms we take for granted came to be. Civil liberties weren’t just handed out by benevolent governments, people fought and died in the streets for them whether that was in fist fights with fascists or at the hands of the police (and often one can discern little or no difference). Interestingly the boot boy style of the skin head National Front members is once again en vogue; witness the re-emergence amongst the fashion forward, of the Doc Marten boot, stonewash drain pipe jeans and braces over white graphic t-shirts.

Thankfully the politics of the look have not been resurrected with the ensembles. It is provocative, exciting even to see such a loaded look reappropriated by wearers with a very different political bent, especially when (as can be seen in Berlin today) left-wing punk skin head activists rub shoulders in the streets with right wing militants, and all are dressed the same. The code is broken, and re-written, power is reclaimed from the iconography of fear and transferred. But without knowledge of what is being reworked, the purely fashionable, apolitical wearers run the risk of ignorantly digging up bloody visuals from the past, and unwittingly parading themselves zombie like to through the parks and gardens of Europe’s metropolises. To paraphrase performance artist Penny Arcade; “You are the most informed generation in history but you lack context.” And that is the postmodern danger, without knowing our history, without a Penny Arcade or a Beverley Whispers, we all become billboards – loaded symbols unaware of our content.

- JJ Bibby, Summer 2010

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