polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Styles Along the Boulevard Ring

by Peter Sigrist

Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham’s “On the Street” feature in The New York Times brings to mind one of the things I like most about cities: the many different styles on display. When it comes to placemaking, people’s style often contributes to the atmosphere as much as architecture, horticulture, and planning. It’s surprising and multifaceted, adding to the appeal of people-watching in cities around the world.

Although I have no discernible talent for street photography, I hope to improve with practice (on a side note, the London Street Photography Festival is currently underway). I find it difficult to get quality candid shots. Does anyone have advice? One approach is to sit in an interesting place when the lighting is good, taking pictures with a capable zoom lens. There’s usually not enough time for that, so while walking I hold a small camera in one hand at waist level, pressing the button with flash disabled when someone catches my eye. The pictures are often blurry, but it helps to be as stationary as possible and have sufficient lighting. It’s fun to upload at the end of the day because you never quite know what you’ll find. Sometimes I feel shady photographing people without them knowing. I hope they’ll take it as a compliment, and I don’t post anything they might find embarrassing, but if anyone asks me to remove their photo I’ll do it right away.

This post features people in and around Moscow’s Boulevard Ring, an allée between two streets that form a semicircle through the western, northern, and eastern quadrants of the city. In addition to trees, it is lined with shrubs, lawns, benches, playgrounds, statues, fountains, and low wrought-iron gates. Someone introduced awkwardly placed billboards along the path, which parts around a pond and is traversed in places by streets that radiate from the city center. At the intersections there are passageways to eleven metro stations, so you can walk from one to another under shelter from extreme weather and vehicle emissions. The Boulevard Ring is also a popular place to relax. There are temporary exhibits, performances, and all kinds of people talking, laughing, picnicking, reading, skating, playing, cleaning, singing, planting, kissing, sleeping, exercising, and customizing billboards.

Since I tended to photograph unique cases, it might be useful to give some context by describing common styles. There are simple outfits that evoke the Soviet era and there are colorful tiger, leopard, and zebra prints, astronomically high heels, and elaborate frills. Surprisingly formal dresses are common, but self-expression remains unhindered within this tradition. General discrepancies between male and female attention to personal appearance are especially noticeable.

Elderly women often mix diverse patterns with their head wraps, blouses, shawls, jumpers, dresses, and stockings. They can achieve bright pastel hair-colors, which stand out even among the brash crimson, platinum, and vermilion colors of younger women. Many kids and young men have mullets, which look great because they’re so bold.

In the summer, middle-aged men wear light-colored slacks, button-down shirts with short sleeves, and shoes with a basket-like weave. This ensemble quickly becomes dingy in cities with countless opportunities to be stepped on, splashed, and burned by cigarettes. Darker versions are also common, especially in work settings. Older men tend to wear light utility vests covered with more pockets than it seems possible to use.

Then there’s the unexplainable. While many drunks are nondescript, there’s a subset that outshines even the most extravagant “New Russians.” This may be something like a crackhead effect, in which excessive drug use inspires remarkable inventions. Whatever the case, the unconventional drunken style is a spectacle on city streets.

Moscow style is a mix of extreme uniformity and originality, all completely unabashed. You can find its varied splendor on display along the Boulevard Ring.