Monday, December 12, 2011

WHERE WERE YOU? – DUBLIN YOUTH CULTURE & STREET STYLE 1950-2000 ( Garry O’Neill / Hi Tone Books 2011 )


The prevailing habit of documenting Dublin’s youth has always been to roll out tales of stale bread, carbolic soap, ten to a bed and death by TB before the age of 5. The stuff of hard spuds, hard warts and hard guilt in the grey old parish of Ireland reached well into the 1970s and still makes for column inches, not-so-great Irish novels and short filler TV series. There’s no doubt whatsoever that these depressing vignettes of a pitiful past are important, but the endless waves of them suggest that nobody in Dublin had anything but hemp sacks and a mantle of drudgery to wear until some time around 1979 ( when they all got clothes because the pope was coming ). For those of us who have childhood memories reaching beyond that, there’s always been a niggling that this might not actually be the case: observing weird hair do’s and strange shoes in old family photos, finding Byrds albums in your friend’s dad’s record collection or recalling that large piece of bootboy graffiti on a boundary wall of the green pebbledash portacabin national school you went to.

Covering Dublin youth culture or street style in any media sense was often limited to in the realm of novelty: the odd picture of punks on Grafton Street in a national newspaper or auld dears on the radio reminiscing about gangs of skinheads in St. Anne’s Park in the early 1970s wreaking havoc by pushing innocent roller skaters down the hill into the pond. Prior to that, who knows? – But it must have been a daunting task digging into a world of sepia to find out.

In this highly impressive 304 page photo book, life crawls out of the pondweed and into the Brylcreem some time around 1956. It’s a world of moderately content expressions, floral print dresses, pencil skirts, primitive quiffs and suggestions that the first wave of rock’n’roll migrated here in a staggered but orderly fashion. The late 50s and early 60s are punctuated by newspaper clippings about the evils of teddy boys and later, ads for BSA motorbikes, reflecting reliance on imported cultural ideas. This is also indicative of the first era of disposable income and a slightly widening gap between childhood and adulthood. Smarter dress creeps in towards the mid 60s and there’s and abundance of street photographer shots capturing young couples ( in what was probably their only finery ) on O’Connell Street. By ’65, the girls hemlines and hairstyles appear shorter and shorter and the boys, when not suited up, start to look like low rent versions of the pop stars of the day, eventually graduating towards the trappings of beat fashions. This is the point at which something of genuine individuality seems to finally come alive and includes a lot of looks that have been exhaustively reheated as “vintage” many times since.

The dawn of the 70s brings with it the first skinhead and bootboy photos. One in particular, of 3 kids in Weaver Square, Cork street ( pg 98 ) has a gloomy but fascinating Dickensian air about it, more Oliver Twist than Fred Perry. There’s also a spread of photos from a motley bunch called the Bridge Boot Boys, apparently notorious in their day and some other watered down versions of the same look as the 70s move on into long hair and denim. This seems to be the enduring pattern until the short lived habit of safety pins through cheeks signals Dublin punk in it’s infancy. For several pages this wind of change is illustrated to varying degrees of understanding, culminating in a tendency towards a toned down street style rather than early shock clichés as the decade closes. There are also small glimpses of concurrent trends: Dublin’s rock’n’roll revival, mods and powerpop/skinny tie types.

These elements of youth culture spill over well into the 80s section of the book in advancing forms. Certainly, punk fashions take on a harder edge which outlast the decade, as do successive generations of scooterboys, metallers, and skinheads and rockabillies. What comes new with the era are brief glimpses of new romantics ( ...maybe there just weren’t that many around. Good. ), some great photos of breakdancers ( both in competition capacity and as young suburban hopefuls with a square of lino ), mid 80s B-boys and goths/cureheads. The later seem grossly underrepresented given the volume of them that were kicking about at the time. The same can be said for trashers who, apart from one page, have suffered severe revisionism. Or perhaps they just never had cameras.

What’s interesting about the 90s is that very little is new at this point. Tribal demarcation mostly remains the same until much of it is swallowed up by dance culture and homogenized into a glut of ecstacy sweat, Vicks Vaporub, whistles and some sham selling you a wrap of athletes foot powder. Elements of many older subcultures still carry themselves through successive generations and waves of popularity in the 90s, albeit in smaller pockets.

There’s a hazardous tendency towards romanticism when it comes to such an impressively curated wealth of images. While the photos don’t squabble about facts, neither do still snapshots of the past explain how shit things might have been at any given time. Most of the people pictured as they are here have moved on, some haven’t, others are deceased. If there’s any common thread from beginning to end, it would be difficult to compress it into a single digestible sentence. Perhaps there isn’t one other than the evolution and devolution of tribal affiliation, but where a greater text / anecdotal content might have augmented this to great effect, it would take another book the same size or larger to explain everything. As it stands, it’s a compelling, obsessively foraged and beautifully presented archive. - BOZ

The first run of WHERE WERE YOU in hardback format is apparently sold out so steal off a friend or wait for a reprint.


( ISBN: 978-0-956949-30-1 )

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