Book: Eijkelboom, H. People of the Twenty-First Century

This fascinating book demonstrates the ability of typologies to reveal things the individual images could never show. The seemingly endless stream of photographs of people going about their business in cities around the world, arranged in groupings of 12, 15 or 18 to a page on the basis of similarities in the subjects’ clothing, makes powerful statements on a range of subjects.

The images span a period of 21 years and provide a timeline of fashion styles which bears little resemblance to the fashions we see in magazines. These are the fashions worn by real people in the real world. Some trends, such as belts worn below the bust and ultra-shiny jackets, pop up momentarily and disappear, while others – t-shirts printed with slogans or logos, for example – persist throughout the survey.

The adoption of similar or identical garments by people of such diverse shapes and sizes emphasises both our homogeneity as humans and our desire to conform. It also flags up the contradiction that asserting our individuality by making a bold statement with clothing can actually have the opposite effect, as illustrated for example by the 12 people sporting large-scale images of Sylvester Stallone on their t-shirts that Eijkelboom captured over a 2.5-hour period in New York City on 20 April 2006.

Similarly, on a wider scale the survey gives the lie to the idea of consumer choice. Rather than the discerning purchasers we like to consider ourselves, we are shown to be willing to embrace whatever the fashion industry churns out.

The huge number of garments captured in the survey, meanwhile, and the unavoidable realisation that most of them are now very likely to be landfill, creates a sobering illustration of the issue of fast fashion. These are not the high-quality garments that our grandparents would wear for decades, nor are they made of the biodegradable textiles of those times. These garments were made to last a single season of wear, but their manmade fabrics will remain intact in the ground for many years to come.

The fact that the problems associated with fast fashion have only come to general attention fairly recently and are unlikely to have been in the mind of Eijkelboom when he made the images highlights another interesting aspect of typologies – the way they provide a dataset that can be interpreted in ways their creator never considered.

References and resources

Eijkelboom, H. (2014) People of the Twenty-First Century. London: Phaidon Press Limited.