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The Bag Iím In: Underground Music and Fashion in Britain 1960-1990
British music and fashion, when they come together and when they come together well, are almost always the creation of the lower classes. So argues Sam Knee in his introduction to The Bag I’m In, a glorious photographic compendium of styles and street cultures from the last half-century. “The seeds of the scenes originate in the generic state school system; secondary moderns, comprehensives and grammar schools.”
A lifelong mod, Knee has assembled archives from 36 scenes – from leather boys through to shoegaze and baggy at the end of the 1980s – that capture successive generations’ grace under fire. They’re all here: CND-supporting beatniks looking like mid-80s indie-pop musicians, northern soul kids with pre-ecstasy, chemically enhanced expressions on their faces, pretty much every sizable guitar-based scene before grunge hit the fan in the 1990s. Elements of pastiche and nostalgia are often present: whether it’s the ted revival of the late 60s, the mod and rockabilly revivals of the late 70s, or the new romantics’ fusion of glam and Bright Young Things dandyism, British street style has often been as smitten by the dazzle of the past as the shock of the new.
Under-documented scenes – among them greasers (sticking two fingers up to the photographer or wearing Nazi items), Oi! skinheads from the late 70s, as well as the enduringly and internationally popular anarcho-punk look of the mid-80s – are given their due.
Some of the individuals here moved from being scene-followers to scene-makers: there’s a shot of an impossibly youthful John Ritchie (AKA Sid Vicious) sporting a a Ziggy Stardust T-shirt; post-punk icon Vic Godard in mid-70s soulboy mode; Tracey Emin cutting a rug to Medway’s garage-band heroes the Milkshakes. But most of the people here are neither famous nor from big cities. Whether it’s Southend, Grantham, Hounslow or Yarmouth – it’s at the greasy-spoon caffs, on the park benches and street corners of places like these – that the spirit of invention and reinvention blazes as potently as on King’s Road.
These days, stalking the latest trends in street fashion and club wear is big business. Energy-thieving stylists, consultants and advertisers are ravenous for anything remotely idiosyncratic or innovative to commodify. Scenes themselves are quickly captured and disseminated on social media. Youngsters growing up in the age of the digital camera, mobile phone and the selfie are instinctive performers.
By contrast, the teenagers in Knee’s book seem like amateurs, happy innocents. The photographs he has collected don’t look like style-magazine spreads or picture postcards; some are creased, ripped, blurry, Ribena-stained – and, rather than pose-strikers, they tend to feature smiling girlfriends, mates squeezed into photo kiosks, couples in front of bus shelters. Some of them will be in their 70s now. Some will have passed away. It’s impossible not to be moved and enchanted by them all. By their dreams, by their craft and ingenuity, by their desire to look good regardless of how much money they had.
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