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WE SPEAK VISUALLY: Punks, i-D, and Circus of Fashion


When I first started researching the phenomenon of contemporary street fashion for my Ph.D work, I was quite fascinated with that topic. To my mind, it was all about the idea that the city and our personal style were connected. Even though my interest in the subject had originally been sparked at least in part by the prospect of uncovering the psychology of street fashion, I had to admit that the modern motives that make us ‘speak’ visually were rooted in the history of the city–fashion relationship.

The street has long been an essential space for fashion – our desire to be viewed or to view others, the need to fit in or to look different, the urge to hide away from others in the city crowd – all representing fashion’s contradictory nature exposed on the street. But recently, it has become more than just a place for display – now, the street signifies a site for a creative approach to fashion, which, rather than remaining solely in the hands of the fashion elite, is now available for everyone.


Photography and media made local styles from the streets of big cities highly recognizable on a global scale. However, when the ‘street’ theme became more popular, the industry discovered a great potential in selling the idea of ‘democratic’ fashion, making it as commercialized and contrived as any other fashion advertisement.

Does street fashion belong to the city? I seek to find the answer without falling into cliches.

Words by Lily McFly

Visuals by Andreea Bogdan


The original idea of it was ‘simply to share photos of people of New York that looked great

   Back in 2006, when Scott Schuman began his street fashion blog and ever-expanding photo project — ‘The Sartorialist’ — the original idea of it was ‘simply to share photos of people that [he] saw on the streets of New York that looked great’. Five years later, his experience was documented in the short movie made by Intel for their Visual Life campaign. Street fashion here appeared to be a beautiful journey of a man with a camera searching and discovering stylish urbanites in the streets of New York.

     ‘The Sartorialist’, ‘The Locals’, ‘Hel-Looks’, ‘Face Hunter’ and other successful street style blogs changed the game of fashion. All of a sudden, the trendiest looks were not created by famous designers and celebrated photographers; they were made up and snapped by amateurs from different corners of the Earth. The refreshingly transformative effects of ‘real’ people, in contrast to relentlessly similar beauty icons, suggested the alternative form of fashion. For many people, this was an escape to the new realm, where the measure of ‘looking good’ was creativity and individuality, not a luxury and trends. In other words, it was more about ‘the street’ and less about ‘the fashion’.

     However, the term ‘street fashion’ is so literal and suggestive that the meaning of it often gets lost in translation. Since the early 2000s, when street fashion became popular on the Internet, it has been a subject to media discussions because of the contradictory viewpoints and different opinions regarding its meaning.


For some researchers, today’s street fashion is a part of ‘street style’. We got used to see the term ‘street style’ (or ‘streetstyle’) everywhere we spot the photo of a fashionista on the backdrop of the city. And it seems to us that ‘street style’ is something new and is related to the situation with the burst of interest in individual style, which we’ve been witnessing recently in the world’s most globalized cities.

But in fact, ‘street style’ has existed for a long time. It has been recognized as a significant phenomenon since the middle of the last century, describing distinctive looks of youth-based subcultures from the 1940s through the 1980s. British anthropologist Ted Polhemus points out that the recognition of street style as a source of future trends in fashion was the effect of the twentieth century shift from high culture to popular culture. This means that the novelty in matters of art and fashion can derive from all social layers rather than, as before, only from the upper classes.

Street style is connected to the life of the city on many levels. For example, Punks of the 1970s wanted to appear as anti-fashionable. But they were also the first to create their clothing from the cast-offs and waste materials of the city: the plastic garbage bags, the remains of old tires, from rubber and tin. The ingeniously ambivalent effect of their torn, 

worn, dirty, and aggressively poor clothes incarnates the unpleasant side of life in the big cities. And just like the urban life has always been a fertile ground for artistic inspiration, punk was a fertile ground for the new wave of fashion. In the 1990s, it was recognized by conceptual designers, like Comme des Gar?ons and Alexander McQueen, as a revolutionary intervention in the idea of fashion.

Today’s postfashion is very much reliant on street style attributes and their motives – biker jackets, faded jeans, sneakers, unbuttoned shirts, plus second-hand clothes and vintage garments. The technique of bricolage becomes the way of creating a new look from diverse and absurd combinations of different styles and epochs, without hiding their origin and erasing the traces of time.

Street fashion is a quintessence of postfashion, which became, as Polhemus defines it, a ‘supermarket of style’, where every culture and every era is ‘on offer like tins of soup on a supermarket shelf ’. Continuing this idea, Polhemus writes: “Originally attractive because of its perceived “authenticity,” its offer of “alternative” choice and its capacity to “say” something significant about those who wear it, street style has moved into a key position within the clothing industry in a postmodern age characterized by a crises of identity, truth, and meaning.”


It’s not a secret that photography plays the key role in defining global fashion culture. But in case of street fashion, photography becomes a medium, which provides visual, and therefore, the most clear definition of street fashion – “A snapshot image of an innovating and early fashion adapting residents of a city captured on the street”. So, for many people street fashion is associated with a certain style of street photography, which is combined with the idea to show the stylish ‘look’. That specific visual style is called ‘straight up’.

“Straight up” is not new. Terry Jones’s i-D magazine published ‘straight-up’ from its very first issue in 1980. It was a section which took the form of a street-based fashion shoot, including amateur-type images of ‘found’  people and an outline of their ensembles, providing the information about where they had purchased their clothes, or noting if they were self-designed. Those images took as their point of reference and basis of style the notion of the “ordinary person” and reinforced the belief that fashion was a “lifestyle”. Later in the 1990s “straight up” became characterized by the anonymous Tokyo street fashion featured in Shoichi Aoki’s Fruits series. Millennium brought the numerous street-fashion web- sites such as HEL LOOKS from Helsinki (www.hel-looks.com) and The Sartorialist from New York (www.thesartorialist.com), which featured only ‘straight up’ snaps – a full-length photograph taken on the street and accompanied by text providing information about the one’s clothing and the place where the photo was taken.

Street style photography also sought to promote the identity of particular city – youthful, creative, street- smart looks should characterize the city they represented, leaving viewers with the belief that featured metropolitan areas of London, Stockholm or Tokyo are highly fashionable, when in reality only two or three stylish people could be caught on the camera during the whole day. However, the urban centers of global culture –Berlin, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Milan – not only provide the physical and contextual location for the photographs but also seemingly inspire the represented style. “The city itself is depicted as an author of fashion” – says researcher Agnes Rocomora. In the book “Fashioning The City: Paris, Fashion and the Media” Rocomora writes:


“Fashion is depicted as inherently linked to urban life, fashionable styles as the city made visible. The many magazine pages devoted to straight- up images of fashionable individuals ‘found’ on the streets of various cities epitomize this take on fashion. With city names often the only word in the caption, the identity of the person represented is reduced to her sartorial style and conflated with the city she lives in and is shown to stand for and to embody. In such contemporary physiologies of urban fashionability the stylish city-dweller becomes ‘Paris’, ‘London’, or ‘New York’, her appearance a natural continuity and outcome of the city that has fashioned her.”

The idea that the city is active in the making of fashion resonates with the concept of street fashion. Visual geography and fashionable presentation of the city becomes an important part of both urban and online cultures. Because for contemporary urban youth, it has become vital to perform on the global and local scale, satiating the desire to be connected to the international community by defining themselves through the style of their city.


     Fashion critic Suzy Menkes calls street fashion a ‘circus of fashion’ in her article for T Magazine, referring to fuss around the fashion shows, when ‘fashion folk’ (journalists, editors, designers and buyers) arrive. Her opinion is based on a fact that for many photographers street fashion has become a synonym of fashionable people who can be seen during fashion weeks in Paris, London, New York, and Milan. If in 1990s, fashion professionals looked like ‘black crows’, now they appear as ‘peacocks’ dressed in multi-patterned trendy clothes and pose for dozens of photographers. But ‘wannabe style icons’, which are ‘famous for being famous’, and fashion bloggers who dress for attention, are surely not the ‘originals’ of street fashion. Usually they look more ridiculous than inspiring. The irony of this so-called street fashion looks of the ‘fashion crowd’ is that they don’t belong to the streets at all. They are made to be photographed at the fashion event for glossy magazines like Vogue and Elle. They are ‘faking’ street fashion, replacing its cultural meaning with a superficial fleeting show in front of the cameras, which leads to negative interpretation of the term ‘street fashion’.

To understand more about how street fashion incited such broad interpretation, we should probably differ the stylish from the showoffs. But street fashion is not only about individual style – it is really a much more complicated phenomenon. Giving it a closer look, we see that it combines three essential elements within itself: the creator of the original look [an innovating and early fashion adapting residents of a city]; the selector, who chooses styles, documents it and posts it online [blogger/streetstyle photographer]; and the observer, who defines the final visual product as street style. Also, as it is mainly represented on the Internet by blogs and webpages, street fashion connects the styles of the physical location (particular city) to digital fashionable spaces. In this way, each city generates its own style identity for the world of viewers, which additionally creates another type of fashion communication – between local and global.

But what’s more noteworthy is that in the early 2000s fashion has started to function from the side of the consumer, who purchased, wore, and valued it, in the way, which is more entrenched in the history of street style than in the history of high fashion. Styles from the street became a major source for inspiration, and not just for fashionable people, but also for every segment of the clothing industry including Haute Couture. The process of trend’s “trickling down” the socioeconomic ladder from upper classes to ordinary people has been turned upside down, creating an effect called “bubbling up”. On the one hand, the fashion-buying public has increased; on the other hand, this public no longer controls trends, but reacts to trends that emerge from “the street”. And so fashion industry has come to look to street fashion for novelty, even thought a while ago “the street” used to be the endpoint for a short life of a trend.

Street fashion has become what art always wanted to be: the Zeitgeist expressing itself in visible form. While high fashion utteres only “Copy me if you want to be fashionable”, street fashion has always been deeply connected to more difficult personal meanings—a choice of color, model or fabric intend to express a defined summary of lifestyle.

Street fashion speaks visually – but not only because a stylish person tries to ‘say’ something using his clothes. It is also because street fashion seeks to create a visual basis for communication between like-minded individuals – those, who gravitate toward the same aesthetics of taste. But in the edge of too much information and too little meaning the essence of street fashion risks to disappear in misinterpretation and endless reiterations.


This article is published in the City Issue of Aesthetist Magazine.  

It is a part of Global Street Fashion Research Project by Lily McFly (Lilith Zakaryan).

All Rights Reserved.

Lily McFly (Lilith Zakaryan) @ 2016


Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion — Valerie Steele, Editor in Chief (2005) Breward C., Gilbert D. Fashion’s World Cities (2006)
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Rocamora, A. Fashioning the City: Paris, Fashion and the Media (2009)
Shinkle, E. Fashion as photograph: viewing and reviewing images of fashion (2008) Wilson, E. Adorned in dreams: fashion and modernity (2010)