Clothes on Camera
If you are not yet acquainted with the world of street style blogs, please, allow me to introduce you to a new and excellent way to spend time on the internet. Street style blogs are daily websites run by professional, semi-professional, and amateur photographers who prowl the streets looking for well- or perhaps only unusually-dressed people to photograph. The purpose, from the point of view of a blog reader, is to see what a bunch of strangers are wearing on any given day. Over the past five or six years such blogs have become hugely popular, and, if their godfather is Bill Cunningham from the New York Times, their king is Scott Schuman, the Sartorialist. Schuman has been blogging since 2005 and has published a book of his street style photographs, mounted several gallery shows, and shot numerous advertising campaigns and editorials. I was introduced to his blog in 2007 by a friend—a designer and seamstress, she once greeted me with an ecstatic cry, “Your blouse has cloth-covered buttons! That’s amazing!” In addition to teaching me what a cloth-covered button is, she sent me a link to the Sartorialist. “You’ll love this,” she told me. “It’s beautiful, and interesting.”
As someone who has since viewed every one of Schuman’s photographs at the Sartorialist in a methodical, some might say obsessive, sweep through his entire archives, I am in a position to affirm that photographs of other people’s outfits are, in fact, interesting. In fact, utterly fascinating. Some of the fascination is purely escapist, some aesthetic; Schuman composes beautiful photographs of (mostly) beautiful people, perched or lounging in far-away locales. To the extent that escapism and aestheticism predominate, we might group these photographs with other images through which the fashion industry usually markets itself in ad campaigns and magazine editorials. Such images accentuate what is otherworldly about fashion—its sumptuous materials, its daring shapes and brilliant colors, its costliness—and make it adorn extraordinary bodies in extraordinary places. The implicit message is that such fantasy is fashion’s natural habitat, and that the ordinary, the everyday, what we naively call “the real world,” is not.
The Sartorialist sometimes plays to this point of view, as I have said. Schuman’s lionization of a certain monied, cosmopolitan leisure can be rather distasteful. But when the Sartorialist is at his best, he captures subjects who have somehow made style genuinely relevant to the ordinary world. In such portraits, Schuman presents fashion not as an escape from life, but as a costume for life. His best photographs show people engaged in some bit of private business, in which their style seems somehow to heighten their activity. To my eye, these images posit something rather splendid about the relationship between what we wear and what we do, between bodies and the world they inhabit. Clothing here is not merely aesthetic, as if the body were but an object to be artfully arraigned and then paraded through the streets. Nor is it rightly considered an exercise in self-expression, an external broadcast of the inward, unique soul. It is, instead, a way of characterizing what we are actually doing with ourselves, with our physical, dynamic presence in the world.
Here we had better descend to the level of concrete examples. Consider, to start, one such character, a house painter. Painters of all kinds are a favorite subject with Schuman, and some of his finest photographs are of men and women in drab, bespattered clothing. But each of these compositions suggests something different about the labor in question. This painter seems like a craftsman, disciplined (see his broad, brown belt and thick key fob, his tools about his feet, the brush held so surely) and proud (the traditional head-to-toe white, topped with the still-clean cap and a watchful gaze). Another house painter suggests something more spontaneous, or sly: his light-blue shirt is a subtle riff on the all-white uniform, and his fanciful kerchief, multi-tiered fanny pack, and squinting smile seem both fanciful and self-contained. A third painter, this time “as in stage sets,” dresses in and against character. The profession is traditionally male, and her outfit blends androgynous elements—her fantastic haircut, the contrast of her rough painter’s pants and holster with bare skin. Her necklace and her gloves, at once ladylike and workmanlike, seem irreverent: the job requires her to cover her hands, but damned if she’ll take off her jewelry.
I love how each of these portraits depicts the relationship between the painter and his or her tools. The first painter arrays his tools on the ground at his feet, and keeps only one brush at hand; he seems to take an expansive and deliberate approach. The third painter carries her brushes in a holster, like a weapon; she appears compact and mobile. Meanwhile what of that fanny pack? Plenty of people wear fanny packs as a statement of style. But what makes the second picture so potent is that the painter’s fanny pack is a statement of utility, too. He works outside, with his hands; he could bring a bag or a satchel to the worksite—perhaps he does—but there are some number of things he wants to have on his person, some instinct for tidiness, closeness, self-possession, and so he wears a fanny pack. (Schuman encountered the same painter a year later, and he was wearing a dark blue sweatshirt and a neon orange fanny pack.)
Perhaps these are differences of expedience, or of personality. But the premise of the Sartorialist, and I think its primary insight, is that these are also differences of style. A key fob, a holster, and a fanny pack are all choices of style, whether conceived strictly in fashion or not. They are style in the sense that they equip the body not to paint, but to paint with a particular spirit. The style of these figures has to do not just with who they are, nor with what they do, but with some collision between the two. This, I think, is the thing to look for from street style. In what wide-ranging spirit can the business of daily life be conducted? What can painting be like? What can working be like? What can walking be like? Or waiting? Ask yourselves these questions as you look through Schuman’s archives. Waiting can be like a coiled spring: contradictions collected and vitality stilled. It can be like dreaming or like displacement, or like sure-faced concealment. Walking can be like inscrutable self-possession, solitariness, free passage. What a thing to slip both hands in your pockets, shoulders sloping and elbows loose behind you. There is no better way to stroll.