Primitive eye for the Civilized

Primitive eye for the Civilized
Giulianna Maria Lamanna

It’s a well-known truism that people (usually teens or young adults) going out of their way to dress differently all end up looking the same. People commonly point that out to mock punks, or Goths, or emo kids, or whatever the new “sub-culture” fashion is, but that completely misses the point. These people generally aren’t dressing differently to differentiate themselves as individuals from the greater culture; they’re dressing differently to mark themselves as a member of a larger group that differentiates itself from the greater culture. This serves several purposes: for people who support the status quo, it’s instant, silent, unmistakable cultural shorthand for, “I don’t share your values.” For people who don’t support the status quo, it’s instant, silent, unmistakable cultural shorthand for, “We’re members of the same tribe.”

I remember when, a few days into 8th grade, a girl in my science class invited me to eat lunch with her and her friends. (She–and they–would later become good friends of mine, some well into high school.) She mentioned that as soon as she saw me walk into class wearing black lipstick (yes, I admit, I’m a recovering Goth), she knew I was a potential friend. In high school, in college, and in certain subcultures that can’t seem to get beyond high school and college, the way you dress is a flag to all those who have anything in common with you, and therefore a vital ingredient in making friends.

Dutch artists Ari Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek have spent over a decade pointing just that out in the most clever way I can think of.

They call what they do “Exactitudes”, meaning “exact” plus “attitudes”; put simply, the pair identify different social groups and photograph them…. They’re not really anthropologists of course; they don’t have any kind of social-science background, or method. They’re a photographer (Ari) and a stylist (Ellie), and if they come from anywhere it’s post-punk fashionland Rotterdam, the “street-style” movement of the late Seventies/early Eighties and the world of little magazines – the British i-D in particular – that follow youth cultures around the world. They know where to look, they’re fantastically good at pattern-recognition – these trainers, that haircut plus, vitally, that pose – and they know the fashion antecedents of everything from Hedi Slimane 2004 to Rio de Janeiro street market designer fakes. All of which means they can tell a great story with just a page of 12 pictures. These pictures show “ordinary” people making a bid for singularity and immortality through their bodies, their clothes and their stance, and just happening along the way to look astonishingly alike, whether they were being consciously tribal or not. They’re displaying their take on the world and a whole set of concerns, from the environment to gender politics to God. And a coping strategy, too. All this from a set of snaps. Working from the outside in, from the intensely particular to the general, without benefit of an ‘ology, a Grand Theory or a comprehensive taxonomy, Ari and Ellie often get it compellingly right. – Peter York

Trust me: you do not want to miss their website. Click on any of the what looks like thousands of pictures to catch glimpses of our modern fashion tribes. And, in some cases, examples of mid-90’s fashion that didn’t age well at all.

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