Curating cool

Shooting street style in Indonesia: Part I

The street-style bloggers I have interviewed for my larger project often imagine themselves as documenting trends on city streets the way curators of some turn-of-the-century museum of mankind salvaged the traditions of disappearing tribes. But there is a  significant difference: archivists attempt to get representative samples. Street-style photographers document exceptions. They are interested in ‘style’, that ‘superadded, rare, desired quality’ (Johnson-Woods and Karaminas 2013: 13), that applies to probably no more than one in a hundred people. And how do street-style photographers recognize style? The answer I have invariably received from every street-style photographer I have interviewed is this: they just do. Photographers sense a quality in a person – a particular stance, a mode of presentation, a way of moving through the world – that is distinctly bold and stylized, and they react to it, the more instantaneously the better. When you think about it too much, the theory goes, you tend to get it wrong.

So what problems, then, does shooting in a foreign context pose to a street-style photographer? How does one recognize style in a place where the bodily hexis (Bourdieu 1980) of cultural elaboration is so utterly different? Does ‘cool’ cross borders? Does it even make sense to talk about ‘cool’ in a place so far from urban America, that racially charged milieu in which the stylized
indifference of ‘cool’ became a fixture of the modern personality (Leland 2004). I do not know. I can tell you, however, that in Bandung and Jakarta, my style radar – cultivated over months of shooting in Philadelphia – was malfunctioning. I hesitated. I questioned myself. I felt ill-equipped to pick out the stylish among the many.

Importing subculture

Where men’s fashion has been most conspicuously articulated in Indonesia is in a decidedly more secular realm, that of ‘alternative’ urban styles labelled locally as ‘indie’ or ‘underground’. As Wallach (2008b), Sen and Hill (2000) and Baulch (2007), among others, have documented, these areimported subcultural styles that came to Indonesia first through a variety of unofficial circuits: from cassette tapes dubbed off of passing European tourists, from mail order catalogues sent for from abroad, through to well-worn magazines passed hand to hand among friends. Punk and metal were already present in Indonesia by the early 1980s, but they became further elaborated on in the 1990s as both an alternative to the commercial schlock pumped out by a state-controlled media industry (Baulch 2007; Luvaas 2013), and as a cry of protest against the authoritarian Suharto regime (Wallach 2008a; Lee 2011). Underground scenesters were deeply involved with the protests that eventually brought down the regime in 1998, and once it had fallen, such styles only proliferated more rapidly. In a newly open media environment, with an Internet infrastructure firmly in place by the end of the 1990s, nearly every variety of imported  subcultural expression was able to move freely and easily throughout the urban centres of the archipelago. Today, Indonesia is a hotbed of punk, post-punk, new wave, no wave, noise and every variety of metal imaginable. There is hardly a music or fashion scene anywhere not represented somewhere in the archipelago. And yet, underground looks remain a male-dominated mode of expression, with somewhat conservative, even ascetic tendencies (Wallach 2008b).

By Brent Luvaas

This text originally appeared in Clothing Cultures 1.1 (Intellect, 2013). To read the full article click here

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