imomus (imomus) wrote,

My city is my tailor

I'm interested, at the moment, in the idea that things we think of as acts of individual expression are actually produced by collectivities and contexts. It's not that creativity doesn't exist, but that it's much more collective than we give it credit for (largely because of our lingeringly Romantic conceptions of the unique self, the artistic genius, the outsider "in the margins", and so on). As I'm making this argument, look at these street fashion pictures and try to guess which cities they were taken in. (Answers later on.)

I trace this line of thought back to my stay in Malmo last month, when I mused on whether "you couldn't be both collectivist and self-expressive; after all, Japanese street fashion is both the most flamboyantly expressive in the world and the most collectivist-conformist. We tend to assume that only notionally-separate, unique individuals can be "expressive", but why not entire groups (the 3T 3K types milling around Möllevången), classes ([Richard Florida's] "creative class"), nations (Sweden, Japan) and areas (Scandinavia)? After all, expression is communication, and that takes two. Or do I mean three?"

I planned to trick you today. I planned to show some Asian people snapped in other countries and tell you they were new Japanese street fashion. But it just wouldn't have worked. You wouldn't have bought it for a moment. For instance, let me now reveal that the first double picture in this entry was shot in Moscow. They're people of Asian origin, and they both seem to be at the same art school, and sure, they're very different from other Muscovites. But they couldn't be mistaken for anyone in today's Japan -- not if you have an eye for these things. The colours, shapes, textures and combinations of the clothes just aren't Japanese.

The second picture strip shows people in Jakarta, Java, and again, they couldn't really be in Japan (although it's less of a stretch -- it could be some small town in Japan somewhere, or Japan in the 90s). Here are some people actually shot in today's Japan:

Now, that's just two men, chosen (because I liked what they were wearing) from hundreds and thousands of Japanese street fashion pictures out there on the web. But somehow I feel that Japan is like rock candy -- you could cut it anywhere and get the same flavour, the same legend written through the core, the same cultural DNA. Sure, there's enormous variation between different sectors of Japanese society, different magazine readers, different cities, different parts of town, different street snap websites, and (last but not least!) different individuals. But it's rarely such a big difference that you could split off a sector of Japanese society and ship them off to Moscow or Jakarta and see them fit in more happily there. What's more, if you did do that (and Japan does; lots of people travel, and begin to blend into the places they settle in, and the longer they stay, the more they blend in) you'd see the looks of those "exported" people begin to change, to merge with their destination cities' looks.

One thing that amazes me is how differences persist even when people are moving around the world more, and even when the pictures are taken at art schools with transitory, international populations, and even when the subjects are dressed in international brands like Converse, Top Shop, American Apparel and H&M. Despite all this, there is a look that London produces. (The two kids above are Camberwell College of Art students.) It's not deterministic; you could never specify in advance what two randomly-selected Camberwell students looked like. Nevertheless, you can look at them and see something in their style which reflects London -- which has been "produced" by London.

I notice this happening very quickly in myself when I travel. Within days of arriving in a new city I'm borrowing clothes from my hosts, noticing what people are wearing, thrifting and buying new items, blending in, yet "expressing myself" within (and slightly outside) the available dress codes. I looked a certain way when I lived in Paris, different in New York, and different again in Tokyo. The local codes changed, and so did the times, and so did the available clothes. I was "expressed" by the city while expressing myself in it; the semantics of the city's style articulated and produced changes in my own. And surprisingly quickly at that.

There are some surprising anomalies in the picture I'm painting here -- a picture of people exercising their individual creativity only within the available semantics of a given place and a given social group. One is the example of the city of Helsinki, which -- according to the Hel-Looks website, anyway -- has a significant micro-population currently copying 90s Tokyo style. Look at all the Decora and Gothic Lolita girls on the first page! Or the FRUiTS girl! They're Tokyo looks which have pretty much vanished from today's Tokyo. Has one city ever copied another quite so slavishly, and with quite such an odd time delay? Has one city ever become, in this way, another's museum?

Then there are the anomalies who are just so individual that they stand out wherever they are. Here's Hanayo, the Japanese pomo-geisha-superstar singer-slash-photographer. She's been living in Berlin for almost a decade, and although she does overlap with Japanese style (the poncho she's wearing in the StreetPeeper snap could fit quite nicely into Web-Across' poncho Zoom Up feature, although the colour would have to be muted down a bit), she's really her own person; not so much an amalgam of styles articulated by different cities as a group of one. Check out her video interview on

Street fashion sites used in this report: Look at Me (Moscow), StreetPeeper (international), Dropsnap (Japan), Facehunter (London), Hel-Looks (Helsinki). Cities shown in photos: Moscow, Jakarta, Tokyo, London, Warsaw, Helsinki, Berlin.

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.