Online subcultural archive platform What We Wore has existed – in some form or other – since 2012. Initially, What We Wore was a project on ISYS Archive, in which photographer, self-confessed “pop-ethnographer” and former Nicer Tuesdays speaker Nina Manandhar asked the public to share old photos, and stories, of family, friends and themselves. What We Wore became an internet window into 50-odd years of UK subculture. The project became so popular that in 2014 the images published on the online archive were condensed into a book. What We Wore is a tribute to the 16-year-old me and my friends,” Nina tells It’s Nice That. “It came about in part because I miss the simpler sense of belonging that comes with teen style and identification. Clothes were a big deal to me as a means of self-expression and that’s stayed with me to this day.”
This summer, The Photographers’ Gallery commissioned Nina to undertake a new project for its media wall named What Soho Wore. The exhibition’s focus is on the same streets that surround the gallery: London’s once-seedy Soho. What Soho Wore will provide a journey through time into the constantly shifting community and nightlife which have defined the area. “I’ve gathered about 400 images so far,” Nina says. “It’s definitely more about gathering than receiving submissions in this process, along with the support of a small research team, I really have to go out there and get the pictures, although they occasionally come to me! Going out into the community physically is still a really important thing to do, even if its is hard work, but it makes you feel more connected to a place and its history.”
On 18 September, the project’s participants will be invited to The Photographers’ Gallery to share their experiences in an event including panels focusing on style, Soho and more widely, the ever-shifting city. We caught up with Nina Manandhar as she prepares for the event, and asked her to share her favourite images from the exhibition.
Why do you think archiving is important?
For me archiving, and particularly archiving ‘peoples’ material is important because it can present a different version of history to the mainstream version of events that would otherwise be preserved or recorded. It’s the community side of the archiving process, meeting people and hearing their stories which I enjoy the most, as opposed to just cataloguing material. What Soho Wore is not fist-in-the-air activism, but for me, projects like this are a kind of activism, using social history to bring communities together at important times.
Most areas in London — from Holloway to Peckham — have multi-layered social histories. Why did you choose Soho?
Soho has historically been super rich in terms of the thriving communities that have co-existed side by side. That’s what city life should be about. As someone who grew up in London, it played a part in my youth, from teen gigs at The Astoria to open mic nights at Deal Real and Trash at The End. It’s not so obvious now, but it has had a significant place in clubland and music cultures, with independent music shops on Berwick Street, boutiques and clubs in and around Carnaby Street, and of course it’s been a cultural centre for the gay community. The seedy side of Soho has its romance too. But the main drive was because Soho changing so rapidly and soon this may all disappear. I thought now was an important time to get in there and celebrate and document its history. The Photographers’ Gallery is pretty much in the midst of all this.
What have you learnt about the area whilst working on the project?
There have been countless different movements and scenes that have passed through Soho over the years. I have learnt a little about a lot of them. I don’t proclaim to know them inside out in such a short space of time, but one thing which unites them all is the sense of independence that was allowed to flourish in the centre of the city. I think Soho was always perceived as a place where individuality and difference could thrive. People could start and run their own things such as independent record shops, Italian cafes, bars, even sex shops! It’s this spirit of independence which everyone fears is becoming lost, and with that, the loss of a sense of style which has defined Soho.
Tell us about one of your favourite images from the exhibition.
There have been so many, but we got a fantastic selection from Cuts Hairdressers, an iconic Soho salon which was started by James Lebon. I like this one of the shopfront of Cuts taken back in 1991. Apart from the fact that the staff look incredibly cool and stylish, it also reflects the social side-street life in Soho, the chairs outside and the painted shopfront. Cuts has an amazing history, and is one of the rare places that is still there after all these years.
We hear you had a futuristic-sounding “mobile archive unit” built for this commission…
I wanted to have a literal vehicle for the project that would get it noticed in the street, start conversations, and reinforce this idea of ‘the archive going out to the people’, scan as you go vibes, so The Photographers’ Gallery supported the design and build of a special mobile archive case. Shout out to Joseph Bond on the custom build which has enabled me to mooch around Soho with ease. It’s the closest thing to a time machine you can get!
Finally, what does style mean to you?
Style is a way to communicate with strangers without words. It’s a place to express your individuality but also find a place to belong.
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