Editor’s Interview: Ted Polhemus

Anthropologist, writer, photographer, lecturer and consultant, Ted Polhemus has been using popular culture as a window on the world for 30+ years. His work has made a huge impact on my career path, as I found his books in late high school/early college and yellowed those pages through endless re-readings.

I did not have many mentors initially to figure out how to develop scholarship on dress and culture, and took my interests over to light journalism, wardrobe styling, window display and fashion show production. StreetStyle (which corresponded to a vast exhibition I so wish I could have seen) was the book that I carried with me to band practice as fashion inspiration and professor’s office hours, showing them that counter-cultural dress has a significant history worth documenting and analyzing. Diving into those books and others like them provided an initial framework for my interest in this line of study.

Some of his other titles include: Style Surfing: What to Wear in the 3rd Millennium, Fashion & Anti-Fashion, Body Styles.Now he has recently published Boom! – A Baby Boomer Memoir, 1947-2022.

In 2009 Ted and I became friends while attending FIT’s Subculture Symposium (recap post part I). With the re-preint of StreetStyle last year and this year’s new title Boom!, it seemed like a great time for us to talk with his projects as well as his career.

Monica: You’ve recently published Boom!. Can you tell the readers about this project and how it relates to a study of style?

Ted: Chronologically BOOM! – A Baby Boomer Memoir, 1947-2022 covers the same time frame as my earlier book Streetstyle (which has recently appeared in a new, updated edition). The difference is the extraordinary extent to which the simple – yet significant, even today – demographic blip of the post-war baby boomer creates a framework for understanding all the changes – including stylistic – which have shaped the world in such unprecedented ways.

Monica: Boom! and My Generation reflect on your life as a “baby boomer.” What style legacy do you think that generation has had?

Dirtbox Rockabillies, Kings Road, London 1980s. Photo: Ted Polhemus

Ted: Sorry for the confusion: BOOM! was originally called My Generation – I changed it because I wanted other generations to read the book and to see how my particular generation shaped their world as well as mine. Interestingly, that shaping and that legacy is of the Baby Boomers as a gigantic audience/consumer market rather than as, at least in the first instance, creative pioneers. It turns out that it was the Pre-Boomer generations (from Kerouac to Dylan, Kesey to Don Draper) who really changed the world – and did so in the 50s.

Monica: StreetStyle is possibly the project you’re most known for, or at least where I first got to know your work. Let’s discuss the reprint. Why did you feel last year was the right time for a reissue? How is it working with PYMCA? What kinds of updates did you do? Why do you feel that book has a lasting legacy?

Ted: The original version of Streetstyle (then published by Thames & Hudson) came out in 1994 to coincide with the massive exhibition I and others did at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. But so much has changed since 1994: the geographic focus of streetstyle shifted from London to Tokyo and then to anywhere and everywhere. When fashion and streetstyle started getting into to bed with each other it was like matter and anti-matter coming into contact with the result that in a very real sense both were destroyed. In my view, for most of us, especially in those parts of the world where subcultural streetstyle thrived, the only game in town is style – personal, individual style.  Especially as my book had become part of ‘the standard model’ I felt it important to rethink all the old models which even in 1994 were beginning to shapeshift.

Monica: Many researchers are highly focused on interviews and surveys.  You’ve always taken many photographs and they’ve been a part of your research process and accompanied your writing in publications. Can you discuss what the images mean to you in terms of understanding a(n) individual or culture and/or capturing the essence of the style?

Ted: In a practical sense I started taking pics of people on the street and in clubs because I couldn’t afford in many instances to pay other photographers for their own images. And because I was in the right place at the right time. And taking someone’s pic is a great way to get to know them. Technically I’m not much of a photographer but, despite being quite shy, I found I had a way of getting an honest photo and my timing has always been good. The great pity is that I didn’t have a decent camera at the point when Punk kicked off in London in 1976 because in many places like Louie’s club in Soho (that is, not at the music gigs which were covered) no one else was taking pics and therefore this has disappeared from history.

Photo: Ted Polhemus

Monica: You’ve worked in fashion history and cultural research in many capacities—doing lectures, consulting, writing, curating…do you have a preferred way of getting your work out there or an arena you’re most passionate about?

Ted: I occupy a strange – I now realize, quite impossible – position where I am neither a full time academic nor an established media critic. Indeed, I’ve hardly ever had a ‘real job’ and that has led to a very unstable career. But it has also – especially now with self-publishing – given me a unique freedom.  BOOM! is my most important work and the one I’m most proud of – interestingly, I now realize that I had to be in my 60s to write this. And, while it is far from perfect and definitive, it is really needed: I am increasingly amazed at how quickly basic stuff about the 50s, 60s and 70s has been forgotten or distorted. A lot happened on my watch and I wanted to get it all down before I got too old to remember it.

Monica: What are some good books, documentaries, or websites you’d recommend for people with an interest in dress and culture?

Ted: I am increasingly drawn to fiction rather than fact – maybe it’s just that I OD’ed on all those books which sit on my ‘streetstyle’ bookshelf and all those copies of The Face and i-D which now sit in boxes (any institution want to buy these? I’m sick of lugging them around whenever I move). But it is also the case that you get these wonderful details in a novel, a film, TV series or even a song lyric – and it’s always the details which are crucial for me.  I can still remember what the wallpaper looked like in my home in Neptune, New Jersey when I was 10, or 15. A great novel like, say, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater will often, also, have these crucial details. And the two brothers in that book grow up within spitting distance of where my father and his brother grew up at the same time. In a sense I can picture how Sabbath and his brother lived better than I can for my father and his brother – who lived in a place known as ‘The Shack’ of which no photographs were ever taken.

Skinhead girl wearing Fred Perry Polo Shirt, London 1980's. Photo: Ted Polhemus

Monica: Can you briefly discuss how you got started in studying dress and what it was like to be an early scholar in the field?….Particularly as an early chronicler of subcultural style.

Ted: At Temple University a wonderful new teacher, Ken Kensinger turned me on to anthropology – like me, Ken came from a strict Protestant background. He started out in Peru as a missionary and then got ‘converted’ so to speak. At University College in London I studied under Prof Mary Douglas and she had already understood that the human body is a cultural as well as a biological object (indeed, we only know it as a cultural entity). But even Prof Douglas scoffed when I turned my attentions on the dress, decoration and adornment of the body. In general, anything to do with ‘fashion’ or ‘body decoration’ was seen as ‘not serious’.  Throughout my life the anthropologist’s cultural relativism is my default position and throughout my life I have been fascinated by the complexity and power of human visual interaction.  We are the one and only Decorated Ape. And, far from simply frivolous and insignificant, these modifications of our appearance – both in their presentation of self and in their interpretation of the other – represent an extraordinary semiotic accomplishment. Just think how much data and interpretation of that data happens every time you pass someone on the street.

Monica: One topic that I’ve been discussing a lot lately with other scholars is the idea of the pros and cons of the Insider vs. Outsider perspective when doing research on a cultural group. What are your thoughts on that topic?

Ted: Hard for me to say as even on the inside I’ve always felt the outsider.

Monica: As an American living in England, can you discuss the differences between US and UK perspectives toward subcultural style?

Teenagers breakdance on corner with boombox, New York, New York, 1981. Photo: Ted Polhemus

Ted: In subcultural style no – but then I would think that increasingly both the US and the UK are post-subcultural. How many people do you know who will actually put their hands up and say ‘I’m an Emo’ (etc) in either the US or the UK? I live in Hastings on the south English coast. In 1964, like a lot of other seaside resort towns, Hastings was taken over for one weekend by Mods and Rockers – every last one of which would have overtly identified themselves as a Mod or a Rocker.  In Buenos Aires or Mexico City, yes, there really are Emos.  For me, at least as I see it, the US and the UK share a long pioneering history in forging subcultural streetstyle – and now in moving onto a more personal, individualistic, don’t-want-to-be-put-in-a-categorical-box post-subcultural style.  In other things there are profound differences between the US and the UK which continue to fascinate me. Consider: if an American gets a pay rise his friend says ‘that’s awesome’. If this happens in Britain the response is ‘better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick’. My worry is if, say, the skies over America are completely covered by extraterrestrial spaceships, what word is left to describe this?

Monica: Often the dress of those involved with anything outside the mainstream is overlooked in fashion history courses and not included in museum collections. Do you think the dress of countercultures belongs in museums and should be taught in the classroom?

Ted: When my Streetstyle exhibition opened at the V&A one critic commented ‘You know something is finished when they put it in a museum’.  And there’s a lot of truth in that.  The problem now is how do you draw a line between the mainstream and the counterculture? What if the counterculture is dressed in upmarket brands? But should we be studying and celebrating the body as a medium of expression? Absolutely and more now than ever as one’s visual presentation has become more important as a signifier than mere words can ever be. Or once were: my parents could sum up their identities with words: Methodist, American, White. Now for most of us finding ‘People Like Us’ is more semiologically complex – and more likely to be expressed in terms of a complex, creative, self-constructed presentation of self.

Monica: You’ve written quite a few fashion texts that people cherish. What do you think makes for a strong book on dress and what tips would you give authors?

Ted: I used to think it was just the ideas that mattered – now I care also about the words. Does the sentence sound right? Read it out loud. I’ve read BOOM! out loud at least a dozen times.

Monica: What are some of your future plans for research and/or things you’d love to do in your career and haven’t yet?

Ted: I want to be a stand up comic when I grow up. Really – when I was younger my goal was to be serious and to be taken seriously. Someone told me recently that a particular story in BOOM! (about buying a suit with my father in 1960) was ‘laugh out loud funny’. Can’t think of anything more important to me than making someone laugh.

Enjoy this two part video by Emilia Telese, where Ted reflects in his own style history.

Image credits:
flickr.com
tedpolhemus.com
pymca.com

Thank you to our Intern Ashley for helping me put this post together.

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