The Blog

Occupy Wall Street Style

Conservative columnist Brendan O'Neill and other critics like him have always looked to talismans of youthful protest, such as fashion, such as music, to underwrite and dismiss the whole enterprise, but this attitude, surely, is in need of revision.

The world is an unstable place right now, even more precarious than the revolving-door-situation at Dior or tottering in this season's highest platform pump (please read: sarcasm), so I find it quite moralising, for once, that my fellow countrymen, in particular, my fellow American liberals long accused of all talk and no action, have mobilised in the form of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The Leftist answer to the Tea Party, just in time for the 2012 presidential campaign season, and their message is a simple one: "We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%."

Some of you may feel it is somewhat hypocritical for a fashionista by profession ("surely, one among that Balmain-clad 1%!" I hear a voice dejecting somewhere) to throw her two cents into the demonstrating ring, fashion, of course, being at the end of the day in and of itself something of a true paradox where the bastions of the thoroughly corporate capitalise on the talents and exertions of young creatives.

But at the crossroads of youth and politics, you almost always have, at least in some form, the question (or problem, as is more often the case) of fashion. And Occupy Wall Street, with its droves of young "hipster" supporters (from the pictures it seems the whole of downtown young Manhattan mustered literally an army in American Apparel), is no exception.

Case in point: last Thursday, the New York Times decided to feature a slideshow on "Protest Fashion," which proclaimed protesters' outfits to be "as divergent as their message," a little web journalistic turn that quickly prompted Telegraph critic Brendan O'Neill to wag a (insert adjective here) finger in the face of the grassroots movement and spark a little fashion-centric outrage, which arguably, detracts from the whole point of the protest in the first place.

But then again, on the flip side, maybe it doesn't, instead, instigating the opposite, that is to say, warranting a closer at look at the people manning this movement, their motivations and their methods, gesturing towards the fact that politics in the 21st century is not what is was in the 20th. We are living in an era in which our president elect campaigned on Twitter and revolutions are begun and won on Facebook--politics is a different beast than it was, and the emergent one is one that is decisively younger and more online savvy than the founding fathers ever could have possibly envisioned.

With unemployment holding fast at 9.1% in the United States, and a large portion of that percentage being made up by my fellow degree-toting-yet-thoroughly-indebted-living-in-mom-and-dad's-basement millenials, it is not surprising that the youth of America finally feel the need to speak up. Nor is it surprising that when such large groups of youths (New York City youths, no less) congregate, there tends to be a high concentration of well dressed "hipsters" amassing behind the picket-line, thus presenting themselves as an easy target for cynics such as O'Neill to dismiss the movement as "a fashion show masquerading as a political movement" or "a gathering of super-cool yoof who want to show off how hopping mad they are about bankers and war and pollution and stuff and also how fabulously dressed and adorned they are." Obviously, Mr. O'Neill has never been to an actual fashion show.

But industry self-degradations aside, Mr. O'Neill's condemnation of the protesters, the NYT for featuring their outfits and the movement in general seems to me beyond hypocritical and unfair; the word I really want to reach for is dated. Just because it may be hip to protest, that does not make it hypocritical.

The conservative columnist and other critics like him have always looked to talismans of youthful protest, such as fashion, such as music, to underwrite and dismiss the whole enterprise, but this attitude, surely, is in need of revision. These photographs were not published on some Brooklyn hipster's blog or by an "edgy" fashion magazine seeking intellectual and "artistic" kudos, but the New York Times itself: popular culture and politics are converging on one another, with the internet acting as catalyst.

Sure, the NYT need not have filed the slideshow in the "Fashion & Style" section and under the headline "What to Wear To a Protest," which does, no doubt, skew the thing more towards superficiality ("What to Pack for a [Government-enforced, six months no probation] Holiday" could make a good follow-up) rather than the realm of serious popular reportage. But nobody balked when the same publication ran a similar story on Egyptian "Revolutionary" street style back in August, something which could suggest that our problem with "protest chic" lies not so much in the sartorial expression of dissent, but rather, the locale of said expression. If it happens far from home, the droplets of a gushing Arab Spring, it's to be applauded, the gallery of flag-wrapped Egyptian youth prompting slews of Facebook "likes" and cheering comments.

But at "home" (that is, the West, in general), in the case of the "American Fall," with our own young people, it's "teenage self-pity and hipster narcissism." Kids abroad--resourceful and brave, kids at home--vain and ignorant.

O'Neill writes acerbically: "[There are] snapshots of trendy protesters who are given a tiny bit of space in which to explain why they're protesting and a bigger bit of space in which to explain what they're wearing, in a piece that could very easily be cut-and-pasted and republished in The Onion without a single word being changed." Yet, like a selective picture editor, the "trendy protesters" whose outfits O'Neill highlights are only among the more commercial, the few and unfortunately designer and high-street-clad amidst a slideshow of peers wearing thrift store purchases or hand-me-downs.

For every "protesting helps me tone my calves" type mini-view, there were at least two level-headed decisively non-fashionista photos, folk of the sort the street style pack would gloss over more absent mindedly than an empty cardboard box. Such as the lovely Mary Refling, aged 57, an Italian professor at Bronx Community College who turned up in her baby blues from Columbia, the robes awarded to Ph.D.'s to silently represent for the ever tax-constrained academic community.

Or Brian Allen, 19, the fashion-indifferent environmental studies major, who rocked up in borrowed (and I don't mean pristine PR samples) clothing for the occasion: "It's my friend's sweater that has holes in shoes are Doc Martens that my friend gave to me. My pants I bought off the Internet, I don't know from where."

Or even the 29-year-old doctoral candidate Dan DiMaggio, whose shirt read: "Bail Out Workers Not Wall Street", not because he rushed to the nearest protest chic boutique to blend in with the trendy demonstrating masses, but rather, confessed to the fact that the shirt is "actually a few years old, but I'm wearing it because Wall Street received trillions in bailout, while people are over their heads in debt and having a tough time paying bills. But I always dress like this."

It is precisely this mix, this interplay of those who protest because they believe and those who protest because others believe and they want to come "check it out," that make the masses flooding Zuccotti Park and the clothes they're chosen to do it in worth observing: "street style" captures the politico and politi-faux alike.

And from where I sit (admittedly on the outskirts of current affairs and all the more on the "in-skirts" of SS12's latest and greatest) after five weeks of wading through an exponentially exploding number of street style photographers milling about outside fashion shows, desperate to catch a corner of Anna Dello Russo's latest vegetable-inspired headgear or the fleeting back of a thin, grungy model slipping oh-so-discreetly, her gifted 2.55 that's bigger than her swinging from her shoulder, from the backstage exit of a venue, it seems turning the lens of the so-called "street photographer" on to the garb of the people who are actually using said streets to make statements other than fashionable ones lends a kind of newfound credence to the genre.

The gleaning of inspiration more poignant than "how-to-pair-last-season's-jodhpurs-with-this-season's-flatforms" or "how-to-look-cute-riding-a-fixie-bike" seems to me to be an invaluable step in the evolution of the mania surrounding so called "street style," just don't expect to see Mr. O'Neill appearing on any "best dressed protest" galleries anytime soon.