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Unordinary People

An exhibition presented by PYMCA examining British youth culture opens at the Royal Albert Hall and Dazed Digital speak to curator Ted Polhemus on the importance of youth.

Whilst some sectors of society like to stereotype youth culture as just an unfortunate phase we all go through before undertaking the important process of growing up, thankfully the Photographic Youth Music Culture Archive (PYMCA) has a rather more enlightened outlook. This London-based organisation has been carefully collecting pictures of youth culture since 1997 and its archive has now blossomed to over 75,000 images documenting everything from Teddyboys to Hoxton’s finest in 2009. This month its own curators unleash Unordinary People at the Royal Albert Hall, an exhibition that celebrates the self-expression and creativity of British youth culture from 1960 to the present day. The whole gamut of the late 20th century’s subcultures will be explored in an eclectic selection of rare and exclusive photos, archive video footage and essays. The exhibition also marks the launch of PYMCA Cultural Research, a unique online resource ten years in the making, which will house research texts from respected authors and the inclusion of streamed music and video content from the BBC Motion Gallery. Now that will be something to get lost in on a rainy day. Dazed Digital took the opportunity to talk to Ted Polhemus, (anthropologist, photographer, author of some of the world’s most influential style tribe books, not to mention contributor to both PYMCA Cultural Research and the exhibition), about what to expect and just why youth culture is so damn important.

Dazed Digital: Is there anything in the exhibition you particularly like?
Ted Polhemus: The exhibition is looking absolutely fabulous. I’m so proud to be part of it. They’ve reached right back to the 50s and there’s a fantastic sense of how… well that’s the interesting thing about the history of this streetsyle stuff, you really understand all the rest of what’s going on in our world.

DD: What do you mean?
Ted Polhemus: All the issues like gender, changing attitudes towards gays and male/woman relationships, class issues, black/white stuff, they’ve all been reflected in the history of street style, street culture and popular music. For example, if you understand why Teddyboys arose in the 1950s – on the back of a working class youth feeling that they’re not going to put up with crap from the upper orders, they’re going to assert themselves, working class kids have a right to dress up as much as anybody else and to strut their stuff etc etc – then if you understand that was the attitude behind what the Teddy boys were doing, then you also understand why a Labour government was elected and booted out Churchill. If Churchill and the Conservatives had taken notice of what was happening with the Teddyboys they would have seen it coming.

DD: Is this why you find youth culture so interesting?
Ted Polhemus: Yes! There are people who study youth culture, street style and fashion who are really, really interested in clothing. But as a professional, what really excites me is the way that clothing and style give us a window in what’s going on in the world. You could sit forever in the House of Commons listening to tedious debates and you still wouldn’t really understand what’s going on. I mean look at the phenomenal rise in piercing and tattooing that’s taken place in the last 20 years. When I was a kid growing up in America only the most extreme juvenile delinquent fringe had tattoos and, aside from the odd woman with an ear piecing, nobody had a piercing. So you want to ask a question like, why did that happen? Why did we suddenly have this explosion of interest across the board in all classes and ages and everything; an explosion of people saying “Well that’s ok, I’m going to go and get a tattoo”? I mean, The Archers this week has a storyline about one of the characters getting a tattoo! I can’t explain to you in one soundbite why it happens, but it’s well worth thinking about.

DD: So what’s new about street style and youth culture now?
Ted Polhemus: Now it’s an individualistic affair. Street style and youth culture – which of course are the two things that the PYMCA is focused on – have broken out of their previous boundaries. There’s the problem defining what street style is because it’s blended into fashion and the problem of knowing what we mean by youth culture given that some older people are still raving on. It doesn’t mean that when you turn 21 you’ve got to hang up your dancing shoes forever. So that’s what is challenging and exciting about our times.

DD: The exhibition is from 1960 to the present day. Do you think that this elongation of our ‘youth’ is the most significant cultural shift that’s happened in that time period?
Ted Polhemus: I think so. The Baby Boomers of the 50s and early 60s were like a Tsunami that just swept through the culture and you had a kind of youthification of everything, so to speak. If you wanted to sell cars, or if you wanted to sell Coca Cola, or fashion, or music or whatever it is, you’d to aim it at the youth market. I think this is interesting today because most people still feel like the youth market is relevant, but yet in actual fact when you look at it demographically, the youth market is quite tiny now.

DD: In what regards?
Ted Polhemus: There just aren’t that many of them. There’s too many old fuckers like me around! We’re all going to retire and then you’re going to have a situation where there are not that many working and they’ll be supporting a huge number of oldies in hospitals and old age homes. But referring to a marketing cliché – “sex sells” and in some respects “sex” is synonymous with “youth”. Can you change advertising to both reflect the aging population but remain sexy? Look at the way you’ve got Iggy Pop stripped off for a car insurance television commercial. Now, you can’t deny the guy isn’t a sex symbol, or Marianne Faithful, for example. What a hot woman she is? I think it’s a very exciting time to look again at what we mean by “youth culture” and what role it plays.

“Unordinary People” is at the Royal Albert Hall
from April 21st to May 24th. Free public open days May 15th/16th/17th/23rd. “Streetstyle: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” talk by Ted Polhemus on April 23rd, starts at 6pm and is £6.50. Tickets for the talk can be bought here.