The Myth of Street Style

by Michelle Marques

Sophie Woodward studied for a BA in anthropology at the Univeristy of Cambridge, and an MA in Research Methods at the University of York, She did her PhD in Social Anthropology (Material Culture) at University College London. She has worked in art and design schools, including Nottingham Trent University where she worked as a Research Fellow and Lecturer. She is also the author of Why Women Wear What They Wear. She is currently a Lecturer in Sociology at Manchester University. Her article “The Myth of Street Style” was published in Fashion Theory in 2009. It is based of a study called "Fashionmap" that she conducted in 2001 at Nottingham Trent University. Woodward take a sociological and research approach to her article.

Woodward based her article on a mass fashion observation (MFO) of young people in Nottingham. Through photographs and interviews she aimed to document various style groupings and their changes over time. She is also concerned with how looks are assembled by consumers in several different locations. In her research project she photographed how young people aged 18-26 dressed in Nottingham and also conducted a brief interview asking where the items the subject were wearing came from.

In her article Woodward aims to explain what the myth of street style is. Woodward defines street style as an "idea, phrase, practice, and image that can be located in numerous sites." It can be found in the street style sections of magazines, in outifits that are assembled and in exhibitions and academic accounts. Woodward is concerned with the interconnection of these elements which produces the meaning of street style.

Woodward begins her discussion with the origins of street style. She cites Polhemus' defined style groupings of the 1940's such as the "Zooties" in Harlem. She also references punks and their way of dressing as a "reaction against established mainstream fashion design." According to Woodward authenticity is important to street style. Most of the subjects of her research project (78%) were "keen" to mention that they shopped at alternative stores, charity, or second hand shops.

Within these interview the subjects also made clear that they thought the high street was "homogenized and inauthentic, leaving no space for authenticity." Street style begins as an innovative until it "bubbles-up into mainstream, becomes sanitized, and loses its subversive edge." Woodward mentions examples of this phenomenon appearing in publications such as i-D, and The Face magazine. An extreme example of this phenomenon appeared in Elle and Vogue when models were portrayed "wearing a fantasized image of The Real Thing."

Woodward also mentions the importance that the high street plays in street style. Woodward defines high street "by the possession of at least one fashion multiple, whether this a department store, or a standard chain retailer." While many of the people interviewed by Woodward expressed an opposition to the high street 51% of people were only wearing high street clothing and only 5% were wearing nothing.

According to Woodward the high street has made an effort to incorporate what is considered "alternative" into its stores by having a "Vintage" section which includes both genuinely second hand clothing and reproduced vintage style clothing. The companies of the high street know that consumption is "a key factor in the constitution of identities" and therefore this is their attempt to offer diverse ways for consumers to create an identity.

Woodward also spent time researching street style in bars. Her research showed that there was nothing "strikingly unusual" about the style found in the bars she visited. She found that even in the "alternative indie scene." There was still uniformity of items worn such as converse trainers, ballet pumps, skinny jeans and high-waisted belts.

At this point of her research Woodward found that the "difference" that is so desperately seeked by the individuals in the study comes "not from wearing an outrageous or novel style, but through how the items are combined, and most importantly where they are sourced from." Woodward argues that street style comes from the way in which ordinary people are able to differentiate themselves only slightly from others. The mixing of second hand items with high street ones becomes the way to judge fashionability due to a strong emphasis on where items come from and not just the look.

Woodward concludes by explaining that the myth of street style is not contained to one domain such as fashion magazines, which can be an "opposition to "real" clothing choices."
Modern day myths lack that idea that myths are "something to be aspire to or to be imitated."
Instead mythologized street style figures have become "something to be passively admired."
Street style cannot be simplified into being just the mix and match of an individual's clothing. The speed of fashion (fast fashion) ultimately does not determine the rate of which people change their clothing.