A fifteen-year old photograph is a catalyst for discussion about the notion of evolution in culture. Story by Todd Robinson
The other day I happened to look through a box I had. It was brown cardboard, with partially collapsed sides, small tears and creases all over. It contained the sort of stuff you decide to keep at one phase of your life, or what appears like a phase now when I look through the box – stuff that was at that time important for different reasons, for the most part unclear to me now. Something more indistinct than reason – more affect or atmosphere. When I look over the contents of the box as a whole, it’s an odd mix from a pre-digital world: torn-out pages from magazines, small square photographs cut out of contact sheets, pieces of fabric, creased, photocopied images.
There is one image from a magazine that really stands out to me. It is cut neatly, although one corner is ripped and patches remain brown where adhesive tape has lifted parts of the image. It was from around 1996, maybe, and like all fashion images it is really about a moment, but looking back it seems to sit outside of time. Not quite 1996, more a slippery, ambiguous masculinity ushered in by Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme some five or so years later. There is a faintly aristocratic feel while at the same time it is reminiscent of seventies Bowie, androgynous and sensual. The clothes, as far as I recall, are by now defunct menswear label SO, designed by Dutchman Alexander van Slobbe. I remember cutting this image from i-D magazine and sticking it on my wall. It floated around for years, on walls, in journals – an isolated emblem.
When I return to this image after all this time it appears to challenge the notion we have of generations. That is, the way one generation cedes to another that follows. It is not the disparity between now and what was then, but more the continuities or what remains. The image remains to me timely, prescient. In practice there are no clear dividing lines. I think it’s more productive to think of cultural practices, with fashion being one of them, as discontinuous, irregular, patchy. Some things are passed on, but the change is not global, it’s more localised, in an abstract sense.
At this local or individual level we pick up bits and pieces of culture, play with them, re-arrange them for ourselves. These might be images, reference points, actual things or ideas. However, these things have histories, we don’t simply pull them out of the air. Culture is given to us but not in any straightforward way. This is the sense in which the so called legacy of one generation is not something simply taken on by one that follows, but rather deciphered to work out what bits are worth keeping, what bits less so. In this respect (I hope), the individual impulse to bricolage works against the tendency for global shifts that erase some things that might be worth keeping.