Where the streets have their fame

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Street Style: From sidewalk to catwalk, Victoria and Albert Museum until February 19. For some visitors to Street Style: From Sidewalk to Catwalk the mere fact that 50 years of anti-establishment dressing has gone on show in the very well-established galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum is sufficient proof that the vital energy of protest has gone out of teenage adornment. (Imagine World' End punks in the 1970s being invited to display themselves here).

But two thirds of the way through the exhibition when earlier styles begin to reappear with archaeological accuracy and more recent ones merge and break up into ever-proliferating micro-styles, the sense of dissolution becomes overwhelming.

One explanation for this effect is the admirable thoroughness with which the three curators have not only pursued their subjects but selected and presented their evidence. From the zootsuits of the 1940s (most familiar to older viewers from the all-black, all-singing, all-dancing movie Stormy Weather) via the fifties beatniks, sixties hippies, seventies skinheads and new-age travellers of the 1980s to the almost two dozen current modes, the organisers have identified and shown more than twice that number.

They lend the inevitably inanimate garments the semblance of life with contemporary photographs, magazine covers and, perhaps most persuasively, film stills, videos and the indispensable jazz, rock or pop music.

Another explanation made very clear in the exhibition is the assimilation of one street style after another into haute couture and designer-label fashion. At the outset, the inherent contradictions in this translation are writ large in the juxtapositioning of authentic, mass-produced country and western gear and Gianni Versace's exclusive, expensive and very dressed-up version with glossy black stud-embroidered waistcoat and chaps and silk blouse and foulard: a juxtaposition every bit as revealing as that also made between the habit of young fogeys and headbangers.

Elsewhere, the blurring of boundaries becomes more complicated. Tommy Roberts' (of Mr Freedom fame) design work contributed to the early 1970s glam style (familiar to the British from David Bowie's stage costumes), but the highly innovative Vivienne Westwood helped generate first the punk, then the New Romantic style and now shows collections with international couturiers in Paris as well as being professor of fashion in Vienna.

Students and teachers, therefore, will be pleased to know that there is a closely-related book by one of the exhibition's curators (Ted Polhemus, Street Style, Thames and Hudson Pounds 14.95 0 500 27794 X) that helps clarify confusions between styles and explains each style's cultural significance. There is also a substantial education programme too.

An in-service course for teachers is followed by a private view. Free exhibition entry and gallery talks are offered to pre-booked student groups of all ages. Fifth and sixth form students would benefit from study days embracing aspects as wide as the gendering of the tee-shirt and dressing a football fan or weekend events involving the words and music associated with street styles, street styles as a source of inspiration in the fashion industry or a recreation of their faces and hair in any one of these styles.

For further information, telephone 071-938 8683.

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