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Living the Subculture - Tiia Männistö

Date of photography:  21st April 2018

Much of Tiia Männistö’s waking life is spent as a mother and as a jewellery designer but for the occasional diversion from the life quotidian, Tiia enjoys nothing better than creating a stunning outfit for a Steampunk concert.   No slave to any particular style, Tiia has the creativity to juggle elements of her wardrobe, generating an image for herself that is both unique and perfect for a specific event.   Then, being noticed, being admired, being respected for the effort she has put into an outfit is something she finds enjoyable and rewarding;  for her, it is the loveliest kind of escapism.   Having moved to London, Tiia discovered that this great city has many different layers:  there is its public image as the UK capital;  there is the glitzy, glamorous face of London, which she didn’t much care about;  and there is the pub-level stuff;  but behind these various façades, there are the subcultures that you only see if you look hard enough.   It is here where boundaries are pushed and the more daring you are, the more respect you will be shown.   This is a city where the people who dare, break the rules and flout the conventions deliberately - you can be creative and original, you can experiment.   Tiia was doing this back at home, in Finland, years ago, so when she settled in London, in reality, she just carried on.   Now, she is a small part of the unique magic of London.

The full story:

For many a long year, London has been associated with the emergence and development of subcultures, a whole panoply of fashion trends and youth cultures that gradually spread out into provincial Britain, and sometimes wider still, rippling out to influence many other parts of the world.   Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Hippies, Hell’s Angels, Skinheads, New Romantics, Punks, Steampunks and Goths are amongst the most influential post-war vogues that have helped to shape the way we all live now.  While England is basically a conservative, with a small ‘c’, country - it always has been - London has ever been a kind of cauldron, always bubbling up with new ideas, radical trends and rebellious youth movements.   Indeed, the current cohort of sociologists is beginning to be rather puzzled, wondering if something is going seriously wrong with the most recent generations of young people here in the capital, simply because, for some time now, no new trends of any substance or significance would seem to have emerged on the London scene.   Since the Internet has taken hold and virtually every teenager is online, millions of selfies are uploaded every week and vast amounts of time are spent creating unique online identities which are then shared.   But what all this creates is a great cacophony, with no clear shape or direction, no rationale, and no sense of purpose.  These online images or music or fashion are the creations of ‘virtual people’ who exist somewhere in ‘virtual space’;  they are often quite isolated and might equally easily be your next door neighbour or someone in Arkansas or Japan.

Previous fashions and movements were initiated by youngsters meeting on street corners, in clubs or at parties.   These were mostly young people who were interested in fashion and music, who compared styles, competing with one another, copying from one another, trying to ‘out do’ one another.   These groups of like-minded fashionistas grew into tribes, with the creative force to push the boundaries further.   In due time, these tribal groups would sometimes splinter into sub-groups, creating new variations on the prevailing style, new trends, and yet more new subcultures - after all, this is how trends evolve.   Yet there is definitely in the air an apprehension that this process may have now stopped.   Yes, there’s lots of stuff online that is striking, provocative and undoubtedly highly creative, but if you look more closely, much of it feels oddly self-conscious and superficial.   It might almost be an ‘art-directed’ gloss, just a veneer with no substance or thought behind it.   Above all, there is no sense of ‘the tribe’, no community of the like-minded, no sense of real belonging to a fashion, trend or movement.   While in the past, we could never have shared so much, these current images are all infused with a timbre of isolation that is almost tangible.  

It is in the nature of youth for young people always to want to break the moulds that have been cast by their parents’ generation and that characterise the society they live in.   They know only too well that society only hangs together because of the structures that exist to constrain the individual.   Without such constraints, we would live in perpetual anarchy.   Young men and women generally understand that their desire for personal freedom, for fun, sex and play, will come largely to an end with marriage (or some other long-term relationship) and the arrival of children.   What then remains their lot is hard work, home-making, child-rearing and suchlike, a mostly mundane existence punctuated occasionally by the escapism of holidays, though these are themselves often ‘family-friendly’ and formulaic.   Almost without exception, most of the successful sub-cultures that have emerged have caused consternation and moral panic in society - the manner in which young people conduct themselves has been on record as a matter of concern to their elders since classical times, and has no doubt been an issue for all time - but these worries and panics are fast forgotten as the generations quickly succeed one another.   With maturity, each new generation moves on, settles down, forms relationships and procreates - quite naturally, parenthood becomes the most pressing ‘trend’ for most people.

In a BBC Panorama report about Mods and Rockers, made in 1964, one cheeky, outspoken mod said it all:  asked if and when he planned to stop fighting, chasing around, taunting the Police, and behaving as if there were no tomorrow, he replied:  “…when I get married, I suppose.  When I settle down, then I stop being a Mod and everything, and then I will live a clean life.   As they say, when you get married, you don’t have time to do nothing.”       

Teenagers have always rebelled:  they’ve ditched conventional clothing by slashing it with razors and reconnecting it with safety pins;  they’ve dyed they hair green or purple, fashioned it with sugar-water into ‘Mohicans’, or shaved it off altogether;  in the company of hundreds of others who feel and look the same and who are relishing the same thrill of the moment, they’ve danced the night away in dark nightclubs, listening to ecstatic, atavistic music, maintaining their energy levels with drink and drugs.   These are the times when life can feel at its most intense, but what is more important is that these feelings are shared in a collective experience - humdrum reality is left outside, excluded from this world of fleeting, communal magic.   Failing to understand the joy of life experienced by rockers, all in their leathers, on powerful motor bikes, riding in groups, at speed, on winding country roads, would be a failure to understand (young) life itself.  

In marked contrast, the sociologists are trying to understand what will emerge from the current generations of youth, perpetually hooked up to social media, sharing their virtual lives online.   Most of this life seems to be lived in bedrooms, behind closed doors, in solitude.   I sometimes wonder where the sense of youthful rebellion has gone.   Where is the anger and the radical thinking?   Where is the desire to make one’s mark, and to change the world?   Where is the desire to rebel, to refuse to conform, to be different, to stand out, and to demolish everything that’s old and tired?   Has everyone now been stupefied by consumerism?   Has the dogma of ‘the market’ finally eaten away our souls, leaving shopping as the only stimulus in life, the only force that drives us on?  

But enough of the general!   I was keen to explore in more detail the wonderful world of London's subcultures, so I decided to attend a ‘steampunk’ concert at The Dome, in Tuffnell Park, to hear a band called, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing.   The gig was well patronised and the hall was full of both the young and the not-so-young followers of this recherché fashion, with many of them dressed splendidly for the occasion.   ‘Steampunk’ is a punk subculture that is inspired by science fiction, alternative history, and fascination with Victorian technological innovations.   The works of H G Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley have influenced this subculture and the rich veins of their influence run through into the arts, design, fashion and music.   In fashion, Steampunk combines the modern with the Victorian and the fictional:  garments are adorned with heavily modified technological accessories.   Men can be seen wearing 1850’s  bowler hats, flying goggles, frock coats and garments inspired by military uniforms, while women often wear tight corsets, nineteenth-century bustles, petticoats and tricorn hats.   The modern Steampunk movement developed gradually amongst the followers of key fantasy fiction writers, the creators of alternative worlds.   The movement is popular:  every year over 60,000 followers gather in Lincoln for The Asylum weekend event - two days of fun, mutual admiration and seeking out the very best in this continually evolving style.

At the Tuffnell Park event, I had the great good fortune to meet Tiia Männistö who not only looked the part, but who also kindly agreed to take part in this project. A few weeks later, one Saturday afternoon, I met Tiia at her home, a little while before she was due to leave for another themed, all-night event, this time a ‘Venetian Masquerade’ to be held in a central London venue.   I found her putting the final touches to the headgear she planned to wear - constructed from a conventional hat, purchased locally, her imaginative use of other fabrics, plus a black veil, had turned it into a thing of startling, unconventional beauty.   Tiia has lived in London for over 15 years and throughout this time she has enjoyed experiencing and taking part in London’s various subcultures.   Tiia is definitely a Londoner now but she still retains something of the outsider’s perspective so, after the photography and before she had to leave for her masquerade, I took the opportunity of asking her something about herself and something about the London subcultures she has known.  

“Milan, I was born in Finland, in a small village near the Russian border.  It was a land with lots of lakes and many magnificent, dark forests, but not very much else,” she says smiling.   “You could say that ours was a middle-class family, as my father worked in a library and my mum was engaged with the School Council.   We were not wealthy but we were were comfortably off.   I have one younger brother.”   I asked her if she had had a happy childhood and she hesitated a little:  “A happy childhood?   Quite often, there were emotional tensions within our family, between our parents, and both my brother and I felt it.   So I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily very happy as a child;  I was always highly strung, wary and jumpy.”  

Tiia started school when she was seven years old;  this is quite late by western European standards but the Finns believe in a proper childhood and consider the time spent playing to be a very important and essential part of growing up.  The school was an ‘all-through’ comprehensive, the only school in the locality, and there she stayed until she was 16.   “School was quite easy for me, though I always struggled with Maths.”

I next asked her how she had coped with becoming a teenager in such a small place, where everyone knew everyone else;  she laughed:  “I didn’t cope too well!   But, tell me, exactly who does?   It was a small village and if you were not exactly like everyone else, if you stepped out of line, you got singled out and labelled as weird.”   Weird, I asked?   “Yes, at that time, I already wanted to be different.   Mind you, I did try the conformity route first, but I soon discovered that it just wasn’t me.   I used to dig out my grandma’s and grandpa’s old clothes and dress-up.   I might have worn jeans from the 70’s, with a men’s jacket from the 40s;  it was all ill-fitting, layered and overlapping.   There are pictures of me wearing six different skirts, in layers.  This tendency to dress up, to modify my image through clothing, was with me from early on.   I was fascinated to see the effect it had on others.   I loved the scruffy look, I loved things that were pre-worn, garments that showed their age or belonged to a different period.   As you can probably imagine, all this unconventional dressing-up didn’t go down too well in a small village in Finland in the 1980’s.   Of course, with puberty came the inevitable hormonal storms and these meant surviving the usual depressions, insecurities, and mood-swings, the feeling that nothing about my body seemed quite right, and everything felt out of place.   You could say that I had the courage to stand out, to be eccentric, and yes, there was a price to pay, but looking back on it all, I think I enjoyed that period more than I realised at the time.   I was searching to discover who I was, and what it was that I wanted.”

“When I was 16, I moved away from home to attend high school in a nearby town.   I felt freedom for the first time and I loved it;  I had always been quite independent and I always wanted to go my own way.   For the first time, I also had my own flat and that felt good too.”

“My high school specialised in art and music and it was during that period when I had the opportunity to explore the creative skills that had been locked inside me and that were now ready to be released.   I was also living amongst other people who were creative, who were equally determined to do their own thing, and it felt very good to be amongst such exciting people.   Instead of being the outsider, it now seemed that I fitted in, and everything just fell into place.   As you could imagine, the social life was great too, and four of us from those days still remain good friends today.   Despite the fact that we had lots of parties and, in consequence, I nodded off during classes more than once, I did quite well and graduated at the age of 18.”

Tiia then went to Kansanopisto (a Finnish folk high school for adults, offering further general and vocational education) where she studied ‘Media, Photography and Radio’;  this was interesting and fulfilling but didn’t obviously lead to any particular job.  “It was 1996, I was just 20 and I was faced with the prospect of having to accept work on a gas station in the village - it was the only job going.   Instead, I moved away to stay with my friends in a different town, where I commenced a year of inertia and self-indulgence.   There were frequent parties with people who lived in squats;  we would drink home brew until four in the morning, then sleep until four in the afternoon.   People were addicted to all sorts of things.  They might have seen themselves as Bohemians but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to end up like them.   At that time, I had short spiky hair, with chains everywhere;  I might have looked ‘amazing’ but, deep down, I was miserable.   I knew I had to get out.”

Tiia gave up the Bohemian life and for the next five years studied jewellery design at Lahti University of Applied Sciences, also spending a few months in Poland as a exchange student, which she enjoyed immensely.  “I finished at the University when I was 25 and got a job in Helsinki, in a well-known jewellery company called, Kalevala Koru;  they designed and manufactured silver and bronze jewellery on a very large scale.   Most of my friends were in Helsinki by then and once more, the social life was great.   I lived in a very small place on my own, in a building with lots of weird and wonderful people.   Helsinki is a very safe place, you just need to learn how to dodge the drunks - they are everywhere.”   I asked Tiia if she continued to cultivate her unusual appearance.   “Yes, I did, Milan.   I was often mistaken for a man;  I had very short hair;  I wore only black, sometimes long dresses and long coats, with massive hats.   People used to say that I looked like some creature that had come over from the East, from across the Ural mountains.  Yes, I did stand out, rather - but only on the days when I felt like it!”

“Then one year, I decided to go to Dublin for Christmas and New Year, all by myself, and it was there that I met a guy from New Zealand.   Four months later, in 2003, we got married in Finland and then we both moved to London;  we stayed together for eight years.   In London, I succeeded in getting a job as a designer in an engagement ring company:  I operated their CAD-based system and worked with them for two years until, unfortunately, they mismanaged the business and went bust.   Since then, I have been working as an independent designer, running my own business - http://www.tiiakaroliina.com.   I am now also the mother of a lively little boy, aged 6.”

I asked Tiia how she had adapted to London;  did she feel she’d arrived to a city that sets the trends and where new subcultures thrive so readily?   “Well, yes, both my husband and I did enjoy London though, initially, we tended to explore the scene that he was drawn to:  this was mostly related to rugby and the 1970’s rock music scene and, to be perfectly frank with you, it wasn’t really my sort of world at all.   However, when I looked more closely, I began to discover the quirkier side of London.   There are so many layers to London:  there is the public image as the UK capital;  then there is the glitzy, glamorous face of London, which I don’t much care about;  then there is the pub-level stuff;  but behind the various façades, there are the subcultures you only see if you look hard enough.   When we arrived, the punks and goths were still big on the scene and I went into that in a major way.   At school, many years back, I had adopted a punk-ish look, so that felt a bit like returning to familiar territory.   It was exciting to descend into the underworld once again, into dark, sweaty, dingy rooms, where everyone was in black, the music was too loud, the beer was warm, and the floors were sticky, but you certainly felt that there was life there and it was exciting.”  

Tiia continued:  “London has places where nobody cares who you are, you can be whoever you choose to be by temporarily adopting a particular style.  You can create an image and be accepted and admired and respected for it.   Pleased don’t misunderstand:  I said that ‘nobody cares’ but what I mean, perhaps, is that they do care, but in a good way.   It is possible to push the boundaries here and the more you do, the more attention and respect will be shown to you.   People who dare, people who deliberately break the rules and flout the conventions, people who are creative, they are respected.   You could say that I managed to maintain originality;  I also dared to experiment, but in reality I just carried on doing what I’d started doing many years before, in Finland.   Then, I was already experimenting with layers, with different materials, and with combining styles to create a new look.”

“I used to like going everywhere by myself but when I shared a workshop in Hatton Garden, I discovered that the other people there had been part of the underground scene since the ’90s.   They opened doors for me into the most amazing labyrinth of different worlds that exist in this city.   They knew everybody and so, through them, I found many of those parties which I had never previously heard of.   People know each other;  they share their worlds and they conceive new events.   These were the sort of people I had been looking for all this time, all my life really.   These were the circles I got invited into;  they are my friends, they are my world now and, yes, we are part of the unique magic of London.”

While every scene has its followers, acolytes who dress in a certain way, listen to similar music, enjoy similar environments, and have similar expectations, Tiia is not herself the slave to any one particular style.   She is creative enough to be able to rearrange the elements of her wardrobe to create an image that is just right for a certain event and she can still add to it elements which will delight and stimulate interest.   “Milan, it is fascinating to experience how a certain element, like a simple walking stick, has an effect on posture and on how you are perceived.   Putting on a tight corset, changing a skirt, applying a veil, or repositioning a hat can make all the difference.   I see the way I dress as an extension of my personality into a place where it is naturally going.  These things are not random:  as soon as I put something on, or combine one garment with another, I know, almost instantly and instinctively, if it works or if it doesn’t - these things are hard to define.   Often only a minor change, a relatively small addition, can change a garment from ordinary to extraordinary.”  

“Furthermore, we all know how good it feels to put on a garment that feels right for us.   The art of dressing lies in the ability to combine elements in a new way, creating a look that not only feels right but also alters our mood for the better, taking us on to a new plane, one we could have only imagined before.  Theatricality is a part of it, of course, and having such an outlet is liberating and thrilling.   I think people are fascinating and it is good to have fun and to enjoy life.   Being noticed, being admired, being respected for the effort one has put into an outfit is deeply rewarding.   One of the most important things is switching between moods, personas and costumes.   Someone who saw me on one night out would not recognise me at another event.   And the best part of taking off a costume is the thought that you will get the thrill of putting it on again soon.   For me, dressing up helps to deal with anxiety and depression - it’s an invaluable outlet, a kind of escapism.”

It was certainly great fun, as well as a great privilege, to meet Tiia and to have her as part of this project.   And who knows, perhaps it is precisely because there are more and more young people like her, who are able to ‘mix and match’ to create their own uniquely personal look, that there are fewer large-scale fashion trends now than in the past.   What is good to know is that imagination still abounds and inventiveness still gives people the freedom to express themselves through their appearance in whatever way suits them best.   But where is the rebellion …?  


Text edited:  17th May 2018

Page modified: 17th March 2019