The British media have a very odd relationship with youth subcultures, too many journalists are people who have never actually had the need to find a family, a set of rules, a uniform or a way of life because so many of them come from privileged backgrounds. A look at this article from The Guardian highlights quite how many people in the media attended elite universities and that sort of a background does not suggest working class rage and a need to assert ones identity through the shoes you wear.
OK, that is not entirely fair or true. What is true is that since the birth of the teenager as a consumer in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War working class kids have sought out ways to let the world know exactly who they are and what they are about through the clothes they wear and the length of their hair. It started with the Teddy Boys and hasn’t stopped since.
As well as not having any personal connection with these groups, many journalists have come to the eroneous conclusion that the absolute pinnacle of British subculture is the Mod movement of the 1960’s. Acres of rainforest has been felled in order to provide the paper upon which has been scrawled millions of words outlining how important, stylish and influential the Mods have been. The problem with that view of things is that for every image of Steve Marriott looking like the coolest kid on the block there is one of some modern day (anti)Mod(ernist) looking like he’s attending an “Austin Powers” fancy dress party.
The truth is that the original Mods (1959-64) were merely paving the way for the most important, controversial, violent, stylish and influential of all subcultures; the skinhead and their immediate successors the suedehead. The look of the skinhead is sharp, neat, clean, hard and with just a hint of the dandy. It is a world away from the popular image of the skinhead which has, largely, come to be defined by the far right in America. That version of things has as much to do with being a skinhead as Theresa May has to strength and stability.
The media has always pushed that particular version of the skinhead; far right politics, swastikas, scruffy and aggressive. Just take a look at Ryan Gosling in “The Believer”, Edward Norton in “American History X” or Daniel Radcliffe in “Imperium”…
T-shirts, tight jeans, bomber jackets and, in one instance, facial hair. It’s not surprising that this is the look that comes most readily to mind for many, America dominates the cultural and political landscape and once the far right their decided to utilise the name skinhead in order to draw in a certain type of alienated, working class, young boy it was always going to damage the brand! That is not to say that the skinhead doesn’t have a troublesome image here in the UK, it clearly does and for similar reasons, but for most people who label themselves as skinheads and who adopt the look politics and race are not part of the equation.
There is a fantastically funny wikihow page dedicated to answering the question of “How to be a skinhead“. It begins by suggesting that you “adopt the beliefs”…which is curious because most people on the scene don’t have “beliefs”; certainly not ones that are informed by their taste in music or their preferred shoes. That is an indication of how toxic the name has become and it’s a problem on both the left and the right of the scene…the fringes, because the centre ground is occupied by, and is obsessed with, dancing, hanging out with your mates, gigs, polishing shoes and getting the size of your turn-ups just right.
I’ve touched on the roots of the scene in another post that can be found here so I don’t really feel the need to go over that or get involved in a debate about whether skinheads are/were racist; the simple answer is that some people are racist and their clothes don’t determine that. Here I am interested in looking at the style of the skinhead. The items and brands that come together to create one of the most iconic looks in subculture history.
Lets start from the bottom up.
A good pair of boots (in truth the brand doesn’t matter) that are well cared for and highly polished are essential for any skinhead. They are a nod to the roots of the scene in the working class heartlands of London where life on a building site, on the docks or in some other form of manual labour dictated the need for a sturdy pair of boots. They are a symbol of the functionality of the style. How important they are to the look is beautifully addressed by Shane Meadows in his ode to his own experiences on the scene “This is England”.
The importance of the boots being polished to near military standard shouldn’t be underestimated, it is this desire to make even the most utilitarian of items look its best that sets the skinhead apart from others. A look at the condition of a pair of DM’s on the feet of a punk or an indie kid reveals the difference in attitude; scuffs, dirt and even decoration in the form of Tipp-Ex’d band logos would see you (im)politely escorted out of your nearest ska club by any self-respecting skin. A good pair of brogues or loafers are also acceptable footwear, particularly when one is wearing a suit or trousers. “Suited and booted” does not mean that you can wear a pair of work boots with a beautiful suit!
A decent pair of jeans is also crucial, many skins settle on the classic Levi jean but, for me at least, what is more important than the brand name is the cut and the quality of the denim. Selvedge is always better than the alternative, no matter the brand. To my mind the best jeans are Edwin (specifically ED55) which have a beautiful colour and a great cut. Turn-up’s should be no wider than 1/4″ and should also be stitched into place, that way you avoid the horror of simply taking a pair of jeans that are too long and folding acres of denim over and over again…leave that to the rockabilly cats.
Sta-prest trousers are another iconic part of the image, those razor sharp creases and cut high on the ankle to show off your brightest socks! In his cult novels on the skinhead Richard Allen makes specific mention of these flashes of colour in the second in the series; “Suedehead”. Despite the aggressive image it is undeniable that the skinhead is also desperate to show off a little…he wants to peacock and a pair of bright red socks, for example, is a wonderful way to do exactly that.
Like their older brother the Mod a nicely cut shirt is a staple of the skinhead wardrobe. Unlike the Mod polka dots, Paisley patterns and other abominations of style are not welcome. Instead plain shirts or checks are the order of the day. Companies like Relco and Warrior offer mid-price, button down, short-sleeve shirts that are great but the daddy of the shirts is the Mikkel Rude. Collars that are cut a little larger to replicate the original 1969 look, bold patterns and a beautiful cut they are shirting perfection. A Fred Perry is often part of the look but, truthfully, it is not as common as the shirts I’ve just mentioned.
A three button, single breasted, tonic/mohair suit is also something that will be found inside the wardrobe of a self-respecting skin. In truth, this is the item of clothing that most closely links the Mod and the skinhead. Only the addition of a second or third ticket pocket (a common practice at the beginnings of the scene) would really set apart a skinheads suit from that of the Mod. Coupled with those highly polished brogues, a cracking shirt, braces and a nice Crombie this ensures that you can still be the ambitious outsider that lies at the heart of every skinhead even when you are at a job interview, a wedding or a funeral…as well as when you are on the dancefloor!
So, a good pair of boots, some Selvedge jeans, a shirt or two (button down collar essential), braces and a decent Crombie (or similar style) coat gives you the basics for the classic skinhead look. The great thing about this look is that it can be adopted with minimal financial outlay, it always looks great and it makes a statement whenever you walk into a room. There are dozens of other things that I could have mentioned and, no doubt, guys who have been on the scene for a lot longer than me will take umbrage at some of what I’ve suggested here but that’s part of it too…the discussion, the debate and the disagreement over what is, or is not, “skinhead”.