The year is 2007. A new teen drama called Skins just premiered on E4, you have tickets to the NME Indie Rave tour sponsored by ShockWaves and you are trying to figure out which footless tights pair best with your ballet flats. Your friend has sent you a BBM saying there’s going to be a day festival called Underage in London’s Victoria Park catering strictly to 14–17-year-olds. Crystal Castles are playing! Lethal B will be there! Patrick Wolf is playing the Converse Stage in association with Artrocker Magazine! It is a good time to be a teenager.
The brainchild of Sam Kilcoyne, then 14-years-old and sick of missing out on gigs with 18+ entry requirements, Underage was a large-scale version of the events he’d been putting on in Elephant and Castle. Running until 2011, the festival was as rare then as it is now: good, cheap fun for young people by young people. With “hardly any adults allowed out of the backstage area,” Kilcoyne gave photographer Rebecca Thomas free range to Underage in all its trashy, bright-eyed glory. "It felt magical to be a part of,” Thomas says, looking back now. “I was completely impressed with the way [Sam] had created this moment that caught the zeitgeist and made so many people happy.”
A follower of dreams herself, Thomas had recently relocated to London from Auckland, stepping off a plane one evening in 2005 and heading straight to 333 club in Shoreditch – the be-all and end-all of East End nightlife at the time. “I’d grown up in New Zealand reading about UK youth culture. I spent all my pocket money on copies of The Face, i-D and music magazines, reading about scenes that didn’t exist where I lived,” she remembers. “I found East London in the mid-2000s really really fun – you never knew who you were going to meet on a night out."
Living in Shoreditch between 2005 and 2015, Thomas’s arrival in the UK coincided with the heyday of ‘indie sleaze.’ Armed with an old Nikon camera and an eye for capturing the nuances of the culture, she amassed a huge catalogue of photos shot largely in East London during the 2000s. She’s now revisiting them for an archive photo series – the first part of which will be a zine, due for release in October, compiling portraits shot at Underage Festival in 2007 and 2008.
All cardigans, neckerchiefs and flattened side-fringes, the images predominantly capture female artists and fans at a time when media outlets were centering snarky male voices and identikit ‘the somethings’ bands composed of five lads in winklepickers. “There were incredibly cool women doing things both on stage and behind the scenes,” says Thomas. “I’ve always had really strong female friendships and have often photographed my friends. I was also shooting bands and DJs in the early 2000s, and I wanted to shoot women in the same way that men were being portrayed – not in a sexualised fashion.”
Inspired by Helmut Newton and Ellen Von Unwerth, Thomas has always had an interest in the “stockings and suspenders, pin-up aesthetic” – something that came through in 00s trends (albeit in a more anarchic fashion) and was particularly championed by Amy Winehouse, whose exaggerated beehive and penchant for A-line dresses and cat-wing eyeliner became her visual calling card. When it came to Thomas’ own work, she was interested in “shooting female creatives as strong, interesting and beautiful but not in a conventional way.”
“Glamour and camp are aesthetics that I’ve always been really interested in. I love Old Hollywood, but I think it’s about using those aesthetics in a way that says something about women in society,” she explains. “Women of my generation and younger can easily forget that feminism really hasn’t been around that long. Even a couple of decades back women’s life choices were often defined by their relationships with men or their children. I wanted to portray women in a manner where these things aren’t the focus.”
Compared to the designer streetwear and scarcity ‘drops’ that define the zeitgeist today, fashion in the 00s was low budget and mass market. It was polyblend plaid shirts from Topshop, sweater vests from H&M and neon plastic bangles. A mish-mash of 80s day-glo, 60s rockabilly and 70s ‘grandma core,’ tack was so omnipresent that even the expensive stuff looked cheap. “At one stage it did seem like every cute, skinny boy in East London was going off to Paris to model for Dior Homme – but not that many people were actually wearing Dior,” Thomas remembers. “It was a cheap and accessible style of fashion that relied a lot on vintage and second-hand pieces.
With the indie youthquake evolving in tandem with the 2007/8 financial crash, accessibility is the one of the reasons, Thomas suggests, why the period is having a renaissance – “when budgets are tight again.” There was an air of naivité to the way young people partied and communicated pre-social media that came through in the fashion, too. “It’s a bit of a cliché but I think it also has a lot to do with social media, camera phones and the gentrification of certain parts of cities – i.e. East London and Brooklyn as the obvious places,” Thomas says, elaborating on the appeal of indie sleaze now. “The partying was more free because there was almost no chance of anyone whipping out their phone, sharing an image on social media and then having your boss or mum see you looking off your head.”
Shooting at an age when she would have been “caught up in my career and romantic dramas,” Thomas has gotten a kick out of looking back at the images with fresh eyes. “It does look like an innocent time,” she says. “I love the little details – the flip phones, the shoes and accessories – and the backgrounds in the spaces that I was shooting in. Some of the photos were taken in my favourite London pubs. There’s The Griffin on Leonard Street and The Nelson's Head on Horatio Street – both of which still exist but look different now; less messy and crumbly, and in my mind less charming.”
Shooting at parties and backstage at Fashion Week alongside her subcultural work (as the romance between Kate Moss and Pete Doherty illustrated, those two worlds ran in parallel for a time), Thomas was able to capture a certain part of East London life from an insider’s vantage point. Eventually leaving Shoreditch in 2015, her photos document the rise and fall of an era.
“I noticed massive changes in that time,” says Thomas, who stopped frequenting straight bars around 2008 in favour of predominantly queer spaces like The George and Dragon, The Joiners Arms and The Nelson’s Head, where she also worked. “By the end of 2015 all three of those bars had closed and a lot of creatives had been priced out of East London. Versace had opened on Redchurch Street! More money had come into the area,” she explains. “I have a tendency to want old things to stay the same – I’m a Cancer and we’re nostalgic for everything! But I also think it’s important to evolve and not just think that everything was better back in the day, because that’s not usually the case.”
As far as the good parts go, Thomas’s photos preserve a generation in sentimental amber. Florence Welch is caught on the cusp of fame posing Serena van der Woodsen-style against a tree; short-lived “gothic Spice Girls” band Ipso Facto are immortalised along with their iconic look mixing references to silent film stars and 80s punk; groups of girls decorated in faux pearl necklaces and high-waisted hot pants express the enthusiasm and awkwardness of adolescence. Though they don’t focus exclusively on women, the images celebrate the female artists and feminine aesthetics that went a long way to defining the decade, despite the focus on male personalities and hipster fashion at the time.
“Indie sleaze has its issues – the clue is in the name! So some aspects I don't think should be revived, but I can see why cheap fun is appealing at the moment,” Thomas says. “But being able to photograph London teenagers who are passionate about music and fashion is a dream come true. I love seeing the creativity of a carefully thought-through look that connects with a defined subculture. I still love this now.
“I was admittedly a bit of a party animal in those days. I don’t have regrets because I enjoyed myself and met so many interesting people and had incredible experiences,” she adds of her own experience of the decade. “It’s lucky that I have the photos because otherwise I might not remember that much!”
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