Long before Scott and Garance won a CFDA media award and street style became a phenomenon and source of emotional distress, there was Vice Dos and Don'ts. It began as a column in the print magazine (an ASME National Magazine Awards finalist for General Excellence) and evolved into a daily section of their site that I first heard about when I moved to NYC about six years ago and checked often for a frequent dose of hilariously captioned photos of hipsters (and, if I'm being honest, maybe to do my best to make sure I stayed within the "do" category).
Vice just launched the second book installment of Dos & Don'ts, described on the back cover as representing "the most incisive and honest commentary on street fashion in the last million years of humans wearing clothes." Which it might very well be. One of the people responsible for that commentary is Dos and Don'ts editor Thomas Morton, who over the phone yesterday told us all we ever wanted to know about the feature and then some.
As he more or less speaks in witty, irreverent Dos and Don'ts captions, his answers were entertaining to say the least. From the seamy places those photos come from, to how hangovers factor into caption-writing (heavily), to where he believes style really comes from, read on for our interview with the man who made it all come together.
Fashionista: What was the process like putting the book together? Thomas Morton: We just started building this ever growing dogpile of do’s and don’ts. The first [book] took about 10 years or so to accumulate 200-250 pages and we had enough for a second book within a year. You can picture this mound of elephant crap just growing and growing and not knowing what to do with it, so we made a couple attempts at squeezing everything in, but it would look like a phone book or some kind of enormous Catholic bible, so we just kind of decided to do a best of.
How did you decide which ones were good enough to include? I’d like to say there was some sort of system or that we ran market-style surveys or focus groups, but all the ones that we orchestrated in shopping malls in New Jersey kind of left us with a weird crappy selection. So, we just went with our gut--the ones that we liked, the ones that we thought were funniest, that had the best pictures.
Wait, did you actually set up focus groups in New Jersey malls? We set up at Woodbrige [Center mall in New Jersey]. Right outside the Chick Fil-A we had some tables but we couldn’t do it officially--we kind of got chased off by security, but the thing is they’ve only got two security guards there so those guys would run us off and we'd just wait about 30 minutes and there’s like an Orange Julius that’s not part of the food court; it’s like on the other side, so we’d hang out there for a little bit, wait for them to get all the way down to the JCPenney and then set back up and we'd have another 45 minutes, which is more than enough time. [Ed. note: still not clear on if this actually happened]
Where do the photos come from? Very often, the best Dos and Dont's-takers are people who do nightlife photography. Or DJs. One of the best ones we have is this guy Vito Fun, who DJs all these gay circuit parties and goes out to Fire Island every weekend to these older gays' houses. It's these people who, by the nature of their job, are forced to go into some of the seamiest, not necessarily dangerous, but kind of grossest little corners of New York nightlife. Especially the places that aren’t fun to hang out in often yield some of the best people kind of taxing the limits of style and of taste.
Do you also get submissions? [Yes,] actually cell phone cameras have gotten to the point where they don’t look completely blown out in print so that’s been a complete revolution in terms of what we’re able to use and run. That opened the doors..that’s our Gutenberg press moment. And we have editions in like 35 countries right now or something ridiculous, so all of them send us stuff too which is great because people in Romania dress like shit. Actually, they dress like clowns. That’s actually a little more accurate, like they’re actually wearing a clown costume in their day to day affairs especially if they’re over 60.
What is the caption-writing process like? It is a writing team that I’m a part of and we kind of just build them out and do little clusters of 20-30 at a time depending on how much free time we’ve got and how hungover we are...and what style of hangover. Like [if you were] solid beer drunk, it really supports the process. [If you were on a] coke and whiskey bender, you can get a little bit depressed the next day. You can always tell what somebody’s been out doing by how sad and despairing [the captions are.] The author is always present.
So do you try not to overthink them? There are some you can tell it was someone’s gut response. There’s other ones where you just mull over this one thing, this one decision somebody made to put this ridiculous beret on top of an otherwise complete pvc Hellraiser get-up and you create in your mind this new subculture that someone’s the pioneer of or at least some kind of ambassador for. It either comes to you in a minute or you have to spend an entire night devising basically a whole Marvel comics multiverse new world whose rule, you have to assume, somebody’s following. You can’t hit the middle ground--that’s when it gets lazy.
Is there a formula to determine who's a do and who's a don't?
Is there a formula to determine who's a do and who's a don't? It varies from writer to writer based on taste and mood at the time. This is where the differing hangovers come in. There are no set rules--it’s often more about how they’re wearing it, the confidence with which they’re wearing it, which can go either way.
Relating to that--would you say it's more about judging the person or the outfit? You can usually pick up a lot of information about the person from what they’re wearing. The classic example would be a Bob Marley t-shirt. One could infer immediately that they have not listened to much Reggae; they’re more likely than not in college and, like, a state college kind of situation; they may have dabbled in pot and maybe a little bit of mushrooms, but otherwise don’t have too much drug experience. The clothing becomes a window into the other decisions in their life and the whole package is basically in the judgement.
From a fashion perspective--street style is this huge thing now and Dos & Don'ts really existed before street style became so popular. Do you see it as street style or something else? Somebody, I think it was Glamour [Ed. note: It was.], tried to do [a feature] straight up labeled Dos and Dont's [Ed. note: It was "Dudes and Don'ts"] a while back, and kind of faltered because they were too focused on the actul dictates of style and what was in season at that time. They didn't go to the source of it, which is hitting at the life decisions behind the stupid things people wear.
At the same time, we ripped of Fruit, the Japanese street culture magazine. Everything’s stolen.
So true. Do you think the people in Dos & Don'ts are a more genuine representation of style? I think where style really comes from is boredom and the benchmark of a good outfit is how little else appeared to have been going on that lead up to its creation. If you can tell that someone just sat at home watching TV, sitting around with their friends getting high and slowly accumulated these different elements and different parts until they’re this crazy koosh ball of weird ideas, that’s usually a greate indicator. That is style right there. It all comes from people being bored, just like music.
Do people ever get upset and ask to have their photos taken down? Yep, and that happens as much when it’s a Do as when they’re a Don’t. More often, it doesnt have anything to do with what we’ve said or even how they looked. People just have this weird expectation that because of the general idea of privacy, that means you dont have to worry about ever being criticized or having your picture taken anywhere at any time and they dont realize that there is a legal principle called reasonable expectation of being photographed that happens whenever you step outside.
That ties into the declining standards in style, which is something I hope that the book helps put in the forefronts of people’s minds too. People treat the sidewalk like it’s their basement hallway to their laundry room. They walk around in pajamas and those gross shower shoes all the time. It’s repulsive and they need to be called out--preferably to their face, but I’m too much of a pussy to do that, so I stick to the old internet and magazines approach.
Dos and Don'ts Book 2 is on shelves now.
Pictured below: Morton's favorite photo from the book. He explains: "It's actually our photographer Vito Fun who does the gay circuit parties. It's him and his girlfriend in outfits that...he does a lot of ketamine. I don't know if you’ve ever taken it; its very, very tactile the way MDMA is, but is slightly different. It’s less like a warm radiating touch sensation than it is kind of a rubbery bounce. You move like a cat strutting and all the clothing he wears at parties is tailored--literally--to suit this bouncy touch."