Monday, 1 April 2013

Penguin Lines: London Underground Style

Penguin Lines is a collection of twelve books published to mark 150 years of the Underground in London. That's the Underground, as in the tube, rather than the underground with a small "u", with each book in the series devoted to a different Underground line. However, both of the titles I've read in the series - Heads and Straights by Lucy Wadham and Fantastic Man's Buttoned Up - rely more on the second kind of underground: Heads and Straights represents the circle line in the collection, with Sloane Square being the entry to the bohemian atmosphere of the King's Road in the 1970s. Buttoned Up belongs to the East London line, with Shoreditch High Street being the stepping-off point into a world  where men button up their shirts, all the way, what the book describes as being "a recognizably East-London move". So, rather than the tube itself being the star of the story, it's the place. Epicentres of youth tribes, pulling in bright young things - or pushing them away in the case of Wadham.

I'd read a bit of Heads and Straights thanks to an extract in Vogue. It didn't grab me then - truthfully, I was prejudiced agains the book by the idea of a Sloane bemoaning her upbringing in such a sloaney magazine. But I was subsequently sent a copy and was glad I gave it a second chance - the whole book battles against such lazy stereotyping. It's a story of growing up, set just a stone's throw from the then "teeming Petri dish of counter-cultural innovation" of the King's Road. To Lucy and her older, more worldly sisters, the world falls into Heads (good) and Straights (bad): "Heads were people who smoked pot and Straights were people who didn't. In time these categories were broadened to include, on the one hand, people who are cool, spontaneous and open-minded, and, on the other, people who have a tendency to play safe."

At first, these distinctions seem clear and easy. The heads include her gran, clinging, almost literally, to the coat tails of Virginia Woolf, and her glamorous older sister, whose "clothes were an amalgam of Beardsley, carnival and punk rock", a teenager during the time where the punks edged out the hippies on the King's Road. But, over time, these categorizations become blurred - her mother isn't such a straight after all, and her sister barely scrapes through the depth of a punk lifestyle to come out a straight at the other side. And the book also shows the power of a place at a particular moment in time. Wadham notes: "I ... feel a stab of sympathy of my mother who tried so hard to bring her girls up in her own image, but who could not possibly contend with the terrifying force the King's Road had become at that precise moment in history."

Of course, the King's Road is now more associated with money rather than punk, the triumph of ringing tills over nose rings. And, as any youth watcher could tell you, for today's scene, you need to head East.

I love the concept behind Buttoned Up. Fantastic Man make their book into a mini-magazine, tackling with precision not just youth in East London, not just East London men but East London men who wear their shirts firmly fastened. And when it says East London, it's definitely not my southerly end of the East London line, instead specifically centred around Shoreditch, the new parading ground for stylish young things.

This title explores the idea that the buttoned shirt phenomenon is a signifier, marking out your allegiances, as well as your postcodes: "Buttoning up stakes a particular territory for its wearer, especially in East London, an area famed for its creative industry", it argues. The book combines photographs of beautiful young East London men, back alleys and alluring close-ups of buttoned collars, with essays and interviews. For all of East London's claim on the look, the origins seem to lie in more disparate places: Patrick of Veronica Falls claims he copies the look from Orange Juice. Paul Flynn also cites the C86 scene of Manchester's Devilles club. Or there's the mods. Or Neil Tennant - a very fashionable buttoned up man but one who has never lived in East London. Or Raf Simons. The book is a fascinating dissection of what's a seemingly innocent styling detail which turns out to be laden with cultural connotations and expectations. Forget the tube, I want a series of short books on topics like bushy eyebrows, bleached hair, turned-up jeans or the brogue - the details that make dressing so fascinating and can quickly fall from being a unique statement to a fashion cliche.

Having been given so much to pick over in these two titles, I really want to explore some more of the series. (An added bonus is that the different coloured spines of each title look so good on a shelf - as Buttoned Up has taught me, it's the details that are important.) For another completely different take on London style, I think I might next pick up a copy of Peter York's Piccadilly Line-inspired book, The Blue Riband. Or, for a completely original take on the subject, I can't wait to see how Leanne Shapton tackles the weirdness of the Waterloo & City line. I'm sure there will be plenty to mind in that gap.

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