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Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 08:16 am
The homeless are ahead of us

"My style is a homeless look. Homeless people inspire me," Kaffella (35) tells the photographer from Hel-Looks. "Homeless people with their ragged and oversize clothes inspire my style," agrees Joona (17). "I'm into dark clothes and homeless looks," Giuliano (17) tells the Helsinki style website.



The homeless are "the other in our midst". In terms of how they're living they might as well be on the other side of the world, yet they're living right beside us. They fascinate us. To admire them too vociferously is to court accusations of glorifying poverty and suffering, of course: for every style rebel who sees glamour in the homeless, there are three self-righteous conformists touting the right and duty of the homeless to drag themselves up by their bootstraps and become exactly like the rest of us. The difference that some celebrate, others seek to stamp out.

There's something appealing in the artlessness with which photographer Hideaki Takamatsu -- who's been photographing homeless people in Japan for fifteen years -- frames the question. Of his new photo book Street People -- coffee-table portraits of the homeless posing like fashion models -- he says: "I wanted to make a photo book that can attract young women". According to the Mainichi News, the book "opens the door on the beauty and style of the homeless" and "portrays the homeless just as they are -- in their regular outfits and settlements. Readers of the volume will not see the homeless as pathetic, but as rather fashionable."



The current recession and the environmental crisis are international, and so is the accompanying fascination with the homeless; suddenly they're "ahead of us" rather than "behind us"; suddenly their difference from us is a "good difference" rather than a "bad difference", one inspiring fascination rather than horror. American style magazine Details recently ran an article in their Men Style section about Daniel Suelo, who's been living without money, in a cave in the hills outside Moab, Utah, since the turn of the century. Suelo -- an anthropology graduate who dropped out to become a monk in Thailand and India -- keeps a blog, which he updates from the Moab public library. It's called Zero Currency.



"I clamber along a set of red-rock cliffs to the mouth of his cave," reports Details style journalist Christopher Ketcham, "where I find a note signed with a smiley face: CHRIS, FEEL FREE TO USE ANYTHING, EAT ANYTHING (NOTHING HERE IS MINE). From the outside, the place looks like a hollowed teardrop, about the size of an Amtrak bathroom, with enough space for a few pots that hang from the ceiling, a stove under a stone eave, big buckets full of beans and rice, a bed of blankets in the dirt, and not much else. Suelo's been here for three years, and it smells like it."

But soon the article hits a lyrical sweet spot that evokes envy more than disgust: "The morning ritual is simple and slow: a cup of sharp tea brewed from the needles of piñon and juniper trees, a swim in the cold emerald water where the creek pools in the red rock. Then, two naked cavemen lounging under the Utah sun. Around noon, we forage along the banks and under the cliffs, looking for the stuff of a stir-fry dinner. We find mustard plants among the rocks, the raw leaves as satisfying as cauliflower, and down in the cool of the creek—where Suelo gets his water and takes his baths (no soap for him) —we cull watercress in heads as big as supermarket lettuce, and on the bank we spot a lode of wild onions, with bulbs that pop clean from the soil."



If anchorites become style icons and asceticism becomes aspirational, what can we expect? Well, perhaps a wave of cave gentrification of the kind seen recently in the New York Daily News, which threw a spotlight on the desirable three-story home of Curt and Deborah Sleeper in Festus Missouri -- built inside a cave. But hobo pioneers would have to scoff at the Sleepers, who've brought a slew of mod cons to their cave life. Living in a cave inside a modern, fully-equipped house... well, it's the slippery slope to homelesslessness, isn't it?

125CommentReply

margokennedy
margokennedy
emotional communist
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 06:37 am (UTC)

i think you are going to get a lot of criticism for this


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 06:41 am (UTC)

BRING IT ON -- I have nothing to lose but my house!


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krskrft
krskrft
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 06:59 am (UTC)

Momus:

I think that often the problem with the types of statements, such as those at the beginning of your post, is more due to their wording than their sentiment ... "a homeless look," "their ragged and oversize clothes inspire my style." One has to question whether such commenters realize that the term "style choice" has only so much meaning for the homeless, especially the "choice" part. It's not about glorifying homelessness. I don't believe any of these people are doing that, and if they are, where are their cardboard boxes? But it's demeaning to flaunt the fact that you're making a distinct choice to "look homeless," when there are people out there who have to look like that because they really have no other option.

Anyway, the idea that anything these people wear could be considered a "homeless look" always boggles the mind. Because what they're talking about, at the end of the day, is a very cleaned up, bulky, functional style. I would say that the hallmark of homeless fashion is not so much the clothing, but the extent to which one has been able to shower in the past month. Why aren't these people exalting the fashion fowardness of dirt buildup on the skin, unwashed hair, or dirty fingernails?


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endoftheseason
endoftheseason
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 07:07 am (UTC)

"Why aren't these people exalting the fashion fowardness of dirt buildup on the skin, unwashed hair, or dirty fingernails?"

Not to mention malodorous "special area[s]," as Ralph Wiggum once so aptly put it.

http://animatedtv.about.com/library/graphics/ralphnose.jpg


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krskrft
krskrft
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 07:20 am (UTC)

And also, isn't it strange how, in the homeless/hermit's life drawn up by people who survive in the world of capital always, all of the basic needs seem to exist properly, or in relative abundance? That excerpt from Zero Currency is kind of nauseating (even beyond the point where Mr. Momus comments that it begins to "evoke envy more than disgust").

Wouldn't it be great if the urban homeless could find mustard plants among the dumpsters, and raw leaves as satisfying as discarded newspaper?


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eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 08:18 am (UTC)

Nothin' new here - the privileged have been dressing like the poor since god knows how long. (Trust me, I grew up in the pacific NW during the 90s.) And it's still just as shameful and stupid as it always was!


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 08:31 am (UTC)

There's homelessness and the "homelessness" that Momus is talking about. In much the same way that there's Japan and "Japan". I've worked with homeless people and I can tell you that 99 percent of them don't want to be homeless. They're there because horrible things happened to them and their lives went disastrously wrong. Most of them end up alcoholics, most end up with mental problems. Most die young. Most suffer terribly. Virtually none of them are living a Walden-type idyll. Daniel Suelo is about as exemplary of the homeless as, say, Mishima's life is exemplaray as that of your ordiinary salaryman.


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krskrft
krskrft
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 09:33 am (UTC)

That's exactly it. There's a difference between saying "I should live more like a homeless person" and actually living a homeless person's life. The former is a "lifestyle" and the latter is ... well, the only way to live.

In the end, I find it hard to believe that this "inspiration" is actually coming from the homeless. There are plenty of people who wear roomy, functional clothing who aren't homeless. It's just a way to sex up the argument during a worldwide recession.


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usagi665
usagi665
Rachel
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 08:56 am (UTC)

You really ought to be ashamed glamorizing such a pitiful "lifestyle" like this. You've clearly never been asked for change by an emaciated elderly man who looks like he hasn't bathed in any recent decades. They'll even follow you inside buildings just incessantly asking for money even when you say no. It's very disturbing to be approached like that, and it makes you feel awful for turning them away. Homeless people are not something to be praised, these people need help.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)

then why didn't you help them, instead of saying no and turning them away?? oh, wait, you want someone ELSE to help them, so you don't have to...


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 09:03 am (UTC)

a close friend of mine went through a brief period of homelessness.
she didn't start dressing quaintly and charmingly (or endearingly, or admirably). she just became unutterably distraught and insecure.
thank goodness, she worked her way out of it, and i did my best to support her.


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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 09:08 am (UTC)

the main objection here is that if the focus were on the circumstances which lead to this involuntary lifestyle, it would be deemed a great evil.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 09:28 am (UTC)
posted before momus angied it up in replies

I really like all the commenters today. It's amazing when the internet RESTORES my faith in humanity.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 09:55 am (UTC)

Okay, I'm bowing to pressure and rewriting this piece as...

The rich are ahead of us

"My style is a rich look. Wealthy people inspire me," Kaffella (35) tells the photographer from Hel-Looks. "Very rich people with their well-cut, perfectly-fitting clothes inspire my style," agrees Joona (17). "I'm into white clothes and super-rich looks," Giuliano (17) tells the Helsinki style website.

Extremely wealthy people are "the other in our midst". In terms of how they're living they might as well be on the other side of the world, yet they're living right beside us. They fascinate us. To admire them too vociferously is to court accusations of glorifying privilege and unfairness, of course: for every style rebel who sees glamour in wealth, there are three self-righteous puritans touting the kind of draconian progressive taxation that would drag the super-rich down to the same level as the rest of us."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 10:06 am (UTC)

Wait, that's just going from one extreme to the other! No, what we need is normal, in-between people getting their due for a change.

The normal are ahead of us

"My style is a normal look. Ordinary people inspire me," Kaffella (35) tells the photographer from Hel-Looks. "Really normal people with their inconspicuous clothes from Gap and Banana Republic inspire my style," agrees Joona (17). "I'm into beige clothes and incredibly mundane looks," Giuliano (17) tells the Helsinki style website.

Really normal people are "the other in our midst". In terms of how they're living they might as well be on the other side of the world, yet they're living right beside us. They fascinate us. To admire them too vociferously is to court accusations of glorifying unoriginality and mediocrity, of course: for every style rebel who sees glamour in normalcy, there are three self-styled "bohemians" touting extremity, outrage and sheer eccentricity just for its own sake, in a pathetic attempt to shock the rest of us out of what they see as our "suburban complacency".


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 10:26 am (UTC)
Themroc



Themroc is an interesting film about an urban caveman. The dialog is entirely grunts, incest and cannibalism occur.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)

It's about the difference of treating homelessness as a misery or a form of culture, I suppose.

I'm reminded of the "Bumfights" videos - their creators claim they wanted to portray homeless people the way they are, with their quirks and idiosyncratic habits. As the title suggests, they did so by paying them a few much-needed dollars to beat each other up, jump down small buildings and the like.
On the other hand, they also set up a record label and distribute the rap songs of one homeless guy called Bling Bling. And some of their video stunts are actually interesting, art-performance-like: "Dans Bumfight, les producteurs tentent de faire décrocher Bling Bling du crac en l‘enchaînant à quelques centimètres de sa dose. La pire des tortures pour un junkie." (http://www.arte.tv/fr/2090717/2757232,CmC=2754282.html)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 11:06 am (UTC)

Yes, you raise a good point: to what extent are stigmatised people helped by becoming more visible? What happens when their supposed "bad difference" from the rest of us becomes a "good difference"? When they're seen not as "behind us" but "ahead of us"?

I'm not going to comb through their blogs, but I suspect a lot of the people objecting to this framing of the homeless are people who never mention the homeless at all in their own writing.

It's about the difference of treating homelessness as a misery or a form of culture, I suppose.

I don't think that distinction can really be maintained, though. Even as a form of culture, homelessness has to be seen as "a misery" too. The reason the swing we're observing in today's entry -- a swing towards more positive coverage of homelessness -- is happening is that a global recession and ecological catastrophe have combined to give normal, relatively prosperous people a taste of the pain of homelessness. People have no money. People are losing their houses. There is therefore an incentive to look that squarely in the face, to say "Look, there are people who've lost even more than we have, how are they coping?" And -- being human -- we want to see some silver lining in the cloud. We want to agree with the repressed truth in Daniel Suelo's contention that animals live perfectly happily without money, and therefore we can too.

It's not to say that there's no misery in living with less, it's to say that there might be misery in the way we live now too, and there might be compensations in living with less. During a downturn, it's certainly worth considering that people who are suffering more than we are might have something to teach us about dealing with suffering.


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krskrft
krskrft
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 11:00 am (UTC)

Also:

Who's eradicating the "other" here? It seems like "homeless fashion" is just a bourgeois way of recontextualizing the other in "normal" terms. That way, we don't really have to think of the lives characterized primarily by pain and hardship that the vast majority of homeless people live. Instead, we can admire their grungy overcoats and whatnot as neat "fashion statements." Homelessness is just another subculture, right?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 11:14 am (UTC)

No. See above: what's happened is that the recession has built a bridge between normal middle class experience and homelessness. We all now see how easy it could be to roll down that slippery slope. Therefore we pay attention to those who've gone the whole way down.

If there's a difference between this and the recession during which Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London, it's that we want to frame it as "fashion" -- because we're still, mentally, a frivolous consumer society and "fashion" is how that society thinks. It's how you get that society interested in things.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 12:25 pm (UTC)

Come on then, when did you last hug a homeless person and say "what an incredible fashion sense you have" ?

It's another of your point at the natives but don't get out the car entries. Let them eat cake darlinks.

Still less comments call for desperate measures, will we have invalids as gymnasts tomorrow.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 12:39 pm (UTC)

Ah yes, hugs. They're very, very useful, aren't they? I know that if I were homeless, hugs would be my primary concern. To hell with shelter from the elements, food, or money! Give me hugs, you bourgeois bastards! No, even better, use the currency of not-giving-me-hugs for pointscoring in holier-than-thou blog squabbles!

God bless you, guv'nr, and good luck!


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 26th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)

Interesting. The cursory reaction to the quotes so provocatively placed at the top results in a Zoolander flashback, but... there's a lot of potential in converting fiscal wariness and style consciousness to a framing whereby the homeless and other involuntary ascetics can be trended to the attention of minds so cynical they're set in binary loops towards the essentialized disenfranchised.


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