Books: Pinned and wriggling

Oliver Swanton skateboards through the supermarket of style; Style Surfing by Ted Polhemus, Thames & Hudson, pounds 14.95, The Customized Body by Ted Polhemus and Housk Randall, Serpent's Tail, pounds 15.99
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Ted Polhemus is an anthropologist and true to the profession he has spent years living amongst the peoples he has dedicated his life to observing, submerging himself in their culture and desperately trying to decipher their strange tribal ways. But not, you understand, on the wide-open African savannah or in the deepest, darkest Peruvian jungle. Since the mid-Seventies Polhemus has spent his energies clubbing in London, now officially (again) the fashion capital of the universe. The style- conscious British youth has long been a source of amazement to the world and Polhemus is equally bewitched. Cataloguing their every move he makes a good stab at unravelling the ultimate question: why do they wear what they wear?

Like his Street Style book and exhibition at the V&A, The Customized Body and Style Surfing are both glossy, visually stunning books; easy, quasi-intellectual reading that will sit as well on the coffee table as on the social studies shelf of the university library. Polhemus is obsessed with human packaging and the presentation of self ("a person's chosen image is a more effective resume of their inner self than anything they may put into words") but thankfully he does not make dry pronouncement from on high - he is down there with the kids, hanging out with the movers and shakers.

By breaking up the text of each book with "case studies" from Tokyo to New York to Manchester, Polhemus provides a much wider, more acceptable summary of where it's at. There's Sally with sixteen rings piercing her labia; Xed with a bolt through his penis; Lazer who wears nothing but florescent paint and jewellery; fetish-obsessive Kaisu who nurses the erotically wounded; Tina whose gender is non-specific; Chris and his BMX bike; Marrisa and her Mexican wrestling masks.

Polhemus' triumph is his exploration of the Modern Primitive. Re-evaluating and reviving tattoo, scarification, piercing, masks and body-paint, the Modern Primitive reacts violently against bland mass-consumerism. Seeking an individual and wholly unique look, they desperately search for association with, and membership of, a style tribe.

Fashion used to celebrate progress, revelling in its expression of modernism: Dior's 1947 launch of the New Look drew a bold, thick line between the austerity of the war years and the luxurious, sexy Fifties. But what's left for today's generation as they speed towards the end of the millennium? Burdened by the economic and environmental and political havoc wreaked by the baby boomers they know that the next century holds nothing but insurmountable problems. Unable and unwilling to stare the future down, they recycle youth cults and ancient tribal customs, trying to make sense of their heritage.

Although Polhemus is not the first to spot the trend (Douglas Coupland's Generation X'er Claire also picked 'n' mixed - Sixties hippie chick yesterday, Fifties housewife today, Seventies glam rock tomorrow) his is the more comprehensive. Teenagers now have no choice but to surf (as in "channel surfing" or "surf the net") popular culture because the linear transition of fashion ended with the advent of punk. Everything that followed was merely a rehashed version of the past. A shopping trip through what Polhemus calls "The Supermarket of Style".

Although his observations are enlightening Polhemus places too much emphasis on the punk movement. He may well think that punk said it all, leaving nothing left for Eighties youth: the age of the teen did die as the demographic blip of baby boomers entered middle-age. But Polhemus is blinded by the brilliance of the so-called inventors of punk, Westwood and McLaren. He has taken punk's battle cry of "No Future" too literally and completely brushed over hip hop - the biggest and most important street culture to take the world by storm; currently being recycled within the vibrant British jungle and skateboard scenes.

Youth culture has not run out of steam yet. There may never be a Next Big Thing, but that is because today's youth have learnt not to be duped and, manipulated by fashion gurus who announce "beige is the new black". As Polhemus acknowledges, street style now bubbles up to the catwalk rather than the other way round. So whatever we'll be wearing in the third millennium you can rest assured you won't see it at the London Fashion Show first.