By David Wolfe

From “Point of View” Fashion Textbook, 2012

Published by Progressive Publishing Alternatives,

Yves Saint Laurent Sees Style in the Streets

In 1960, one influential designer elevated the street look of the Beat Generation to the very heights of high fashion and in doing so, he reversed the order of the fashion system. Yves Saint Laurent had succeeded Christian Dior following his untimely death and the young genius was viewed as a powerful force. When he created a “street” inspired collection, the traditional chasm between street and style was bridged. He said, “Motorcycle jackets in alligator, mink coats with sweater sleeves, turtleneck collars under finely cut flannel suits . . . those street inspirations all seemed very inelegant to a lot of people sitting on the gilt chairs of a couture salon. But this was the first collection in which I tried hard for poetic expression in my clothes. Social structures were breaking up. The street had a new pride, its own chic, and I found the street inspiring as I would often again.” That statement, a veritable manifesto, has been echoed over and over again by designers ever since.

Demographics and Electronics Explain the Rise of Street Style

Demographics must be studied in order to understand why underground style surfaced and became a major force in fashion. Military men returning from the long duration of World War II simultaneously fathered a generation of babies whose vast numbers added up to a population well known as the “Baby Boom.” That generation is responsible for many economic, social, and cultural changes simply because there were so many of them. But their influence cannot be accounted for by mathematics alone. As young people often had done in the past, they questioned the values of their parents and created a new society of self-indulgence that looked attractive to the older generation who felt that wartime deprivations had cheated them of their own youthful good times. So the young generation, which became known quite aptly as “the Youthquake,” assumed leadership of mass culture, redefining art, music, and of course, fashion.

Another revolution was occurring that made it possible for street style to emerge. Television spread popular culture to the most remote corners of the world and suddenly everyone, everywhere was exposed to the same fashion forces. The fact that advertisers were often hawking products to the emerging youth market meant that visualization had to be broad enough to penetrate a vast audience. There was no room for elitism. There were more middle- and lower-class kids watching TV than aristocrats, so the fashion images sent forth were targeted far, far below high-fashion taste levels. American Bandstand was a phenomenally successful fashion vehicle, although its chief purpose was the promotion of the rock ‘n’ roll music emerging from the African-American subculture during the 1950s. Young men and women all over America wanted to dress exactly like the Philadelphia kids they saw dancing every afternoon on TV. It is not surprising that singers and musicians soon came to be seen as fashion role models. They were usually not from the upper strata of society and their style came from nontraditional sources. And it was embraced and emulated around the world.

Antiestablishment Rebellion Hits the Streets

The next important chapter in American street style was written by the hippies who were the cultural descendants of the beatniks. The rigid social structure that was in place in the 1950s crumbled under the pressure of a youthful population disenchanted by the older generation’s death grip on financial stability and security that the hippies came to view as stifling. They believed in “free love,” in mind-altering drugs and total self-expression in terms of a style based upon secondhand and antique clothing, thereby making a big anticonsumerism statement. The American postwar economy was fueled by the consumption of goods with a very short life span, whether automobiles, hit records, or fashion. The hippies refuted that economic system and in doing so, they led street style into a fondness for nostalgia that lasted for decades and decades. Until that time, no one except those in dire straits would wear something old and no one would have dreamed of making something new to look as if it were old. But thrift-shop style became chic, and wave upon wave of nostalgia washed over fashion. In the ’60s, Victoriana was in style again. In the ’70s, there came revivals of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s. By the middle of the ’90s, it was the ’60s being revived. Along the way, which seemed to be going backward much of the time, there were some new developments too. In an effort to make blue denim look old and worn-out, French designers Marithe & Francois Girbaud pioneered “stone-washing,” a process that broke down fabric fibers and led to years of fashions that were “distressed” and “laundered,” all in an effort to make them look used.

Street style is an important fashion force today and likely to remain so. Yet for centuries the term would have been considered oxymoronic and the concept unthinkable. In reality, there was a style in the streets, in that the general population always adhered to some sort of a social dress code. Tinkers, tailors, and candlestick makers all wore clothing of a set mode depending upon the century and the geographical location in which they happened to find themselves. Primitive tribes the world over all conformed to their own style codes. Fashion, such as it was, was formulated by necessity, availability of materials, level of craftsmanship accessible, and of course, affluence. The style of those fashions was not ever created by the masses who wore them. They were most often interpretations of those in a higher social strata; royalty, religious leaders, tribal chiefs, or other such process whereby those less fortunate emulated their betters.

Setting the Scene for the Emergence of Street Style

That theory, a fashion filtration system from high to low, remained a secure system until the last half of the 20th century. Until then, those with money and leisure, the guardians and patrons of culture, were responsible for creating changes in style. When Marie Antoinette, on a whim, stuck feathers in her already towering coiffure, courtiers followed suit and set a style that remained until the English Court was disbanded at the advent of World War II. That same fashionable monarch also provided fashion history with one of the first examples of street style when she fantasized about being a milkmaid and had luxurious versions of peasant garb made. That small glitch aside, the trickle-down system remained intact until the 1950s. Even then, most of the Western world’s style was still a watered-down version of the deluxe custom-made haute couture that was shown to great fanfare twice a year in Paris, a city that had long held a monopoly on fashion. However, the seeds of a fashion revolution were being planted, and they thrived in the fertile soil of social discontent that came on the heels of two world wars in quick succession.

Modern Street Style, Born of the Beatniks and Living in Blue Jeans

“Beatniks,” as they came to be called, were the first of the rebellious style setters that came from a strata of society other than the privileged echelons. They were writers, poets, and artists known as “the Beat Generation” whose work expressed the disillusionment and sense of disenfranchisement that intellectuals were feeling in the midst of the economic boom that followed the end of World War II. In blue denim jeans and black turtleneck sweaters, the Beatniks lived a lifestyle outside the rigid rules of their time, and they spawned groups with similar attitudes who soon developed similar styles. “Hell’s Angels” are direct style descendants of Beatniks. Such style rebels have existed before in fashion history, but usually without affecting the mainstream and certainly seldom changing the entire system. (The Aesthetic movement of the 19th century sought to bring about clothing reform, but without much success.) One item of apparel moved up from the bottom of the fashion food chain to a position of eminence unparalleled in history. The blue denim jean pants originally made for California miners had become a “uniform” for the agricultural and lower class. When stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando flaunted their humble roots by wearing jeans, a major movement was set in place. Blue denim jeans moved up and up until they became high-profile status items in the 1970s, when designers cashed in on their low-brow (and therefore sexual) image. Calvin Klein, Guess?, Jordache, and surprisingly, socialite Gloria Vanderbilt all became famous as names on the labels of blue jeans.

Assumes Leadership with a Little Help from the Beatles and the Punks

Music led street style across the Atlantic to England, to London and Liverpool, when the British pop music scene exploded early in the 1960s. The Beatles and other groups worked as hard on their fashion images as on their music. Having suffered far greater deprivations during the war years, it took Britain longer than the United States to recover economically, and when that recovery occurred, pop culture boomed in an atmosphere of affluence and freedom. Designers such as Mary Quant (credited as the inventor of the miniskirt) and Barbara Hulanicki of Biba produced colorful, youthful, and sometimes shocking designs that found immediate favor with the girl on the street. At the same time, young men paraded up and down Carnaby Street in the most outrageous outfits seen since the time of the dandy more than a century earlier.

How is it that a society usually seen as stodgy could become a breeding ground for outrageous fashions? Perhaps it is simply politeness that keeps Brits from laughing at the eccentrics who have always been accepted and cherished in the United Kingdom, everyone from Dame Edith Sitwell to Quentin Crisp and Zandra Rhodes. Only in such a tolerant environment could the punk style of the early 1980s have been allowed to flower. It was the most rebellious, most intentionally obnoxious fashion statement that had ever been (intentionally) made. Young Britains, feeling deprived of opportunity in the workforce while being supported by a socialist government, became furious and bored at the same time. They drew attention to their emotional angst with an incredibly offensive self-presentation. Heads were partially shaved and the remaining patches of hair were dyed bright colors and made to stick straight up. Safety pins were used to embellish both raggedy clothes and the flesh. T-shirts were partly burned away and pants often featured “bondage” straps to bind the legs together. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Maclaren visualized the style that was sold from a shop at World’s End, the area at the end of London’s Kings Road in Chelsea. A musical expression plaintively shrieked by Sid Vicious went hand-in-hand with the fashions, of course. Amazingly enough, the punk street style showed staying power and held sway over some young people for several decades.

MTV Broadcasts Street Style to the World

The cross-pollination of music and style became stronger still with the advent of “music videos” in the 1980s. To promote their recordings, artists began to make very complex and visually sophisticated visualizations of their music. A new television network, MTV, began in a small way but soon became a world-wide cultural institution. And the clothes the musicians wore while performing in the music videos, which were repetitiously broadcast, were seen by millions around the world, in time almost usurping the influence of fashion magazines in communicating style information. Again, the presentations were aimed at a low taste level because of widespread music distribution and sales. Madonna, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, and Michael Jackson styled themselves in distinctive and exciting images that were imitated everywhere. As music goes, so goes street style. When rap and hip-hop swept the music charts, suddenly a new street style emerged, that of the black inner-city young man in hugely oversize jeans (there is no escaping the union of denim and street style).

Is Street Style at the End of the Road?

Street style has become a victim of its own success. Now it is so influential that it is almost instantly swept up-market to more sophisticated and expensive areas. When Karl Lagerfeld picked up the hip-hop influence for a Chanel collection, it became a sign of the times that street style had become a mainstream fashion influence. No longer does it belong solely to the young man or woman on the street. It has become difficult to define, to fence into an identifiable arena. It is, and always has been, the most accurate reflection of society at large, and as the 20th century draws to an end, street style has become fragmented, almost tribal. Instant electronic communication has made every style rebellion into a mainstream, marketable commodity immediately, thus defusing its appeal to the young person in the street who is forced to discard it quickly and move on. Therefore, it is possible that the end of street style as a universal fashion influence is drawing to a close. Whereas once it represented an attractive, youthful, sexually charged rebellious mode of self-expression, now it can be seen as an insular and segmented reflection of a small and often unattractive sector of modern society. Then again, perhaps that very perception will allow street style to remain on the street, the sole property of the young rebels who use self-presentation as self-expression, the ultimate aim of fashion, whether haute or low.