'People of the Twenty-First Century' Reveals Just How Invisible Our Clothes Make Us

Hans Eijkelboom’s approach to street style photography is effective because it parodies the unique-individual-who-stands-out-in-a-crowd trope.

People of the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: Phaidon
Length: 512 pages
Author: Hans Eijkelboom, David Carrier
Price: $25.82
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2014-10

A group of 15 women wearing jean skirts. A group of 12 men wearing t-shirts emblazoned with animals. Middle-aged women in fur coats. Middle-aged men in tan trenchcoats. Multiple people with Louis Vuitton accessories. Dozens of people wearing white jackets. Yellow jackets. Red jackets. Fur-trimmed hoods. Burqas. Printed pants. Fanny packs. Cropped pants. Keffiyehs. Sun visors. Saris. Rain ponchos. And, of course, Canadian tuxedos.

These are just some of the clothing items that show up in People of the Twenty-First Century, a new book of street photography by Dutch photographer and conceptual artist Hans Eijkelboom. These photos are taken from Eijkelboom’s long-standing “Photo Notes” project, wherein he would station himself near shopping centres, museums, or busy city intersections and look for a clothing trend or sometimes common behaviour. After noticing the trend, such as women wearing striped tank tops or shirtless men on rollerblades, Eijkelboom would photograph these passersby. The results of the project are presented in People of the Twenty-First Century, signaling Eijkelboom as a photographer of street style.

Since the early '00s, street photographers have been documenting “street style”. Street style photographers capture “unique” and “interesting” outfits worn mostly by non-celebrities. The outfits that capture the attention of the street style photographer are usually admired because they strike a balance between “sophistication” and “elegance” on the one hand and “edginess”, “individuality”, and “quirkiness” on the other hand. The people featured on street style blogs create outfits that are well-coordinated, different, and have the potential to stand out in a crowd.

This kind of photography has evolved and changed over the past several years. For a time, street style photographers sought out their subjects, happening upon them in the streets or museums of the elite cities of the world. Many of us swooned over blogs like The Sartorialist and later Hel Looks. Maybe, if we lived in one of these cities, wondered why no one ever stopped us for a photo. Eventually, people began to make subjects of themselves, creating and maintaining a social media presence to show off their style and #ootd to a larger audience. Facilitated by the #selfie, we encourage others to notice and appreciate our great bargains, designer items, smart choices, and evolving styles.

There is much to read, even if primarily online, about how the rise of street style photography and fashion blogging have democratized fashionableness and made it accessible to the citizenry. One no longer needs to be a model, editor, designer, or actor to become a “presence” in the fashion world.

In fact, the writers of prominent style blogs have become present in the industry, covering openings, fashion weeks, and other important industry events. At present, street style photography captures the mega-outfits worn by the non-celebrity people who lurk outside of runway shows at the various fashion weeks. On street style blogs or in magazines that now have pages devoted to street style, the outfits are well thought out, and often comprised of a careful and complex combination of pieces from high- and low-fashion.

Yet, many of the items and outfits featured by street style photographers and increasingly bloggers can produce an alienating rather than a democratizing effect. Street-style-caliber outfits are not especially practical for people with young children, or for people without the time or inclination to stay apprised of lightning-fast trend cycles. They are also often out of the reach of people who are not thin, as well as those without the disposable income (or copious credit) to regularly update their wardrobes.

One of the things that makes People of the Twenty-First Century so compelling and so significant, then, is that it both broadens and upends the predominant understanding of street style as supercool, unique outfits worn by supercool, unique people. The book inverts the now-sedimented notion of street style, and re-articulates it as a broad category of sartorial expression that parallels and subverts the orderliness and systematicity of human culture.

Hans Eijkelboom (b. 1949) is a Dutch photographer and conceptual artist based in Amsterdam. Active since the '70s, he was part of the Dutch movement of conceptual artists whose engagements with "machine-like image reproduction and a radically deskilled anti-photography" informed Eijkelboom’s approach. Eijkelboom uses photography as the medium through which to execute his conceptual art works. In 1975, he completed “De Drie Communisten (The Three Communists)”, which depicted him next to portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Mao while wearing outfits that matched each communist.

Eijkelboom’s projects have also been united by a commitment to self-portraiture, underlined by what Tony Godfrey calls a “concern with identity, how we present ourselves and how others perceive us". In 1973, he completed a photo series in which he photographed other people wearing his clothes (“People Wearing my Clothes”). Because Eijkelboom has long been committed to a methodical and meticulous approach to the image, his photographs are typically presented as serial images in a grid-like format.

The “Photo Notes” project, from which People of the Twenty-First Century emerges, started in November 1992 when Eijkelboom started a photo diary comprised of up to 80 photographs every day. Eijkelboom created a set of rules for photographing, and he followed them exactly. He would go into town, station himself outside of a city landmark or busy intersection, and wait until he noticed the repetition of a certain item of clothing or perhaps a behavior. Once he noticed something of interest (people wearing leather jackets) or selected a behavior (two women walking arm-in-arm), he would photograph as many people as he could find wearing the clothing or engaged in the behavior.

People of the Twenty-First Century displays Eijkelboom’s surreptitious street photographs in grids, with anywhere from nine to 15 images per page. Each page is “stamped” with a date, time, and location; the photos are presented in chronological order. The photographs were taken primarily in Amsterdam and Arnhem, NL (where Eijkelboom was previously based), but the book is decidedly international in scope. Taken together, the photographs are both indicative of and distinct from the assumptions that might be held about what clothing choices dominate in which locations. People wear fur coats in New York City and Paris, argyle sweaters in Nairobi and São Paolo, Che Guevara t-shirts in Amsterdam, Jesus t-shirts in Mexico City, “migrant worker bags” in Shanghai, over-the-knee socks in Tokyo, niqabs in Marrakech, hoodies in Cairo.

Several reviews have pointed out that People of the Twenty-First Century is a book about difference within sameness. Reviewers note that Eijkelboom’s photographs show us that even though people wear the same clothing items, they wear them in unique ways.

In his essay at the end of the book, David Carrier writes that Eijkelboom “uses repetition to communicate awareness of difference: the closer you look at any page of this book, the more diverse you will find the people who are dressed in similar ways.” Eijkelboom’s photos reveal, Carrier implies, the diversity among people and their fashion choices. In 2007, for instance, it was considered on-trend to wear a short jean skirt paired with leggings. (Eventually, we did away with the skirts.) On 24 April 2007, Eijkelboom photographed 15 women dressed this way. However, when one looks more closely at these photos, they discover that each woman has her own expression of this look. The shoes and tops worn with the jean skirts are different, as are the jean skirts themselves; some are pleated, some are frayed, and one is actually jean-skirt overalls. The women are racially diverse, and they have a range of hair styles.

At the same time, it's important to consider whether the differences in the styling of cookie-cutter clothing are significant enough to applaud. Are minuscule variations on the same clothing item actually tantamount to difference in expression? Do we actually see difference and distinction when someone pairs Lululemon leggings with a blue racer-back tank top instead of a green ribbed tank top?

Importantly, Eijkelboom’s photographs illustrate not that clothing items themselves are monotonous but that the idea of a particular clothing item is itself uninspired. The book presents leopard print tops, flower-print tops, striped tops, blazers, hoodies, and scarves; however, all of these items are made distinct in terms of cut, shape, length, material. Insofar as the items are rendered distinguishable by details of tailoring and pattern, it is the idea or the concept of a leopard print top that is revealed to be redundant.

By focusing on the banality of and distinctions within unremarkable or "basic" clothing choices, Eijekboom’s photographs reveal, as Dieter Roelstraete argues, the “illusory logic of individuation” that upholds both the garment industry and fashion journalism. The book’s focus on the repetition of clothing items and, in turn, the paradoxical uniformity of personal style undermines the idea that we in the West understand our style as something that establishes us as distinct individuals. People of the Twenty-First Century shows us this in photographs of people wearing different iterations of the same clothing item, and it also shows us this across the photographs.

Nowhere is the uniformity of style more evident, however, than in the book’s representation of men in business suits alongside women in animal-print tops alongside men in NYPD police uniforms. The juxtaposition of these sets of photographs undermines our belief in the idea that fashion and clothing enable us to express our individuality.

Ultimately, in the way that People of the Twenty-First Century asks us to look at red jacket after red jacket after red jacket, it summons us to inadvertently elide the people wearing those jackets. In the way that the photos invisibilize the wearers of the clothes, it breaks down the belief that what we wear is somehow indicative of who we are.

Eijkelboom’s photographs also reveal the astonishing repetition of fashion trends and the patent eagerness of the public to continuously consume the same things as new trends. Photos from Amsterdam show a recurring trend of bare, female midriffs in 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2006. In 2014, after Photo Notes ended, there was another resurgence of the bare midriff via the repopularization of the crop top. Because our sartorial attention has been shortened by an industry that cycles through trends at warp speed (Cline, Overdressed), we get excited about “new” items, even if they have already been trendy before.

Along these lines, the photos also reveal our never-ending consumptive practices: there are dozens of photos of people carrying shopping bags, whether from department stores like Macy’s or fast-fashion go-tos like Topshop. In the context of the book, such photos suggest that endless consumption in mainstream stores, which profit from conformity, will never facilitate anyone having a unique personal style.

We also see the depiction of uniform style across age categories. When the jean-skirt-and-leggings trend was big in 2007, it was primarily worn by younger women. Yet, older people are also shown sharing different items in common: one page shows photographs of primarily older people wearing fleece zip-up sweaters; most of the women depicted in furs are also older. Especially revealing is the way that children are depicted throughout People of the Twenty-First Century. As much as we in the West encourage our children to believe that they are special and unique, Eijkelboom shows us that we often err on the side conformity, as is made clear by the photos of female children wearing Spice Girls t-shirts or pigtails.

People of the Twenty-First Century also shows us how the monotony and repetition of clothing circulates in a globalized context. Eijkelboom includes photos taken in Mumbai in 2010. One series of photos captures women in saris; another shows men in button-up shirts paired with recently re-popularized Gandhi caps; another series shows men and women in graphic t-shirts worn with jeans. Photos from Nairobi bear a similar pattern. Photos like these not only affirm the transplantation of Western clothing into the countries that largely produce it; they also demonstrate how people in non-Western countries are engaged in a complex blending of Western clothing with traditional items and styles.

This is a complex, thought-provoking, interactive and entertaining collection of photography. Eijkelboom’s approach to street style photography is effective because it parodies the unique-individual-who-stands-out-in-a-crowd trope. The photos isolate the individual in a crowd only to show that they are not distinct from those in the crowd from which they came. In this way, People of the Twenty-First Century shows us the absurdity of the concept of unique style but also helps us understand how people make their own looks out of repetitive cycles of the same things. Although the book is promoted as an assemblage of “anti-sartorial photographs of street life”, its take on fashion is, in the end, neither dismissive nor uncritically accepting of the notion of personal style.


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