First published on The Cut, 5 December 2014
Look back at old photos from disposable cameras now, and you'll find they're endearingly unpolished. When someone took a group shot at a party, you didn’t know how you looked until the prints came back — and, more often than not, you'd be captured in the middle of an unflattering blink or sneeze. Pre-iPhones and Instagram our poses were less posed, more natural.
This is the era captured in the new photo book, What We Wore: A People’s History of British Style. Compiled by the London photographer Nina Manandhar via a website sharing the book's name, it consists of amateur snapshots that show how young Brits dressed from the 1950s onward — complete with anecdotes from those who submitted the photos.
“I think this one is a classic, thanks, in no small part, to my stepdad’s socks-and-sandals combo,” one caption reads. And another: “This was taken at the beginning of my hard-core raving days.” Some contributors talk thoughtfully about the wider music or social scenes of their youth, from mod to U.K. garage. Others cringe at what they once thought looked cool.
Manandhar only started work on the book last year, but she’s been running the project online since around 2009. To her, it’s the amateur-ish, personal quality of the photographs that makes them so special. “I was looking at images that people shared of themselves on Flickr, and I noticed they were different from the kinds of pictures you see by professional photographers who shoot youth culture. There was a bit more intimacy and energy to them.” She set up a Flickr group and invited people to submit, later transferring it to her website ISYS, and finally to the stand-alone site.
The book is divided into themes, and starts with "At Home" — a section packed with photos of teenagers posing in their childhood bedrooms. Many of them, from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, have turned a bedroom wall into a collage of images ripped out of magazines. It’s a weird contradiction: On the one hand, we all express our individuality. On the other, we all do it in the same way.
What interests Manandhar throughout the book is how “your creativity is part of your every day. Some of those walls are as creative as doing a painting,” she says. In the same way, the styles captured in the book — from punk to reggae to Britpop — paint a colorful and complex portrait of who the British really are.
As well as inviting submissions online, Manandhar contacted influential artists and musicians and asked them to contribute, too. Not everyone was forthcoming. “Some people love it and come back to you saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got so many pictures!’ They like the memories and they like telling their stories,” she says. “But lots of people don’t have anything. They say, ‘I wasn’t taking photos — I was too busy enjoying myself. I didn’t need to document it.’”
The online archive at What We Wore is ongoing — and it’s receiving more submissions now than ever before. But Manandhar is happy to have made a tangible, printed record, just like we used to when we sent our snapshots off to be processed. “A print document is sort of like a time capsule, isn’t it?” she says. “Because you don’t really know what’s going to happen with the internet. One day it might just disappear into a puff of smoke.”