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Ted Polhemus at the Royal Albert Hall

Last night I had the pleasure of spending the evening in the Royal Albert Hall, not only that, it was in the company of Ted Polhemus, along with about 50 other people, we listened to him discussing fashion, identity and social discourse. Ted Polhemus is an American anthropologist, writer and style analyst, he was born in the wonderfully named town of Neptune, New Jersey but has lived on our glorious shores (Hastings to be precise – which famously can claim that 1066 battle if GCSE history serves me well) for the past 30 years, giving him a lovely lilting British/US hybrid accent. Along with his Andy Warhol style blonde curtains and glasses, he is a charismatic force the second he steps onto the stage with his clip board and flip chart. He gave us a brief history of fashion from 1947 – the year of his birth – to the present day, constantly engaging and funny, he explained how once the rich dictated what was in fashion, designers such as Dior ran the show but this changed through the years and by the 1960’s, designers were looking to young people and what they were wearing, looking to them for ‘inspiration’ i.e. stealing their looks and making them mainstream. He gave the example of Vivienne Westwood claiming to have invented the Punk look – not true the kids on the street were doing it long before she was.

He made me think about the fashion society we live in today, which is extremely fast paced, for example, now in April 2009, we are wearing S/S 09, which was shown in September 08 and in February we saw what we should be wearing come next September, when we will be told what to wear in S/S 10……….confusing?? It seems there’s just never a second to take things in before they’re ‘out of fashion.’

Which is why Ted says the social discourse of today’s society is that we really don’t care what designers are telling us is in fashion, the majority of people cannot and do not keep up with the constant changing fashion season’s, in fact, we strive to look different from each other, “nothing is more important than authenticity.”
That and recycling, vintage and retro clothing have never been so popular; the 80’s are de-rigour at the moment, say the catwalks. This is where the paradox comes in, we strive to be original by dressing like they did 20 years ago. What the designers say we should wear and what we naturally wear from mixing and matching items are merging to be one and the same. It seems designers are still taking their ‘inspiration’ from what they see the ‘kids’ wearing. There is also the added dimension that the ‘kids’ who originally wore those looks are in fact now the designers. Ted’s written many a book about the topic, I think I’ll be perusing them in the near future.

Overall, it was a very thought provoking and interesting talk, accompanied by a wonderful photography exhibition, ‘Unordinary People: British Youth Culture 1960 – 2009’ in the ground floor corridor of the Royal Albert Hall, so you get a chance to see the images and the magnificent building. It was a wonderful evening.

Filed under: Andy Warhol, anthropology, british youth culture, Dior, fashion, identity, Royal Albert Hall, social discourse, style analysis, sub-culture, Ted Polhemus, unordinary people, Vivienne Westwood, writer