fashions, youth

fashions, youth
   The history of postwar British fashion and music formations reveals the collective ways in which nonelite groups and communities of young people have shaped distinctive cultures as ‘particular ways of life’. Music and fashion have been used as common symbolic resources for the production of such sharply differentiated cultural identities as those of the rockers, mods, skinheads and punks (see punk rock). In this regard, Dick Hebdige persuasively argues that the succession of postwar youth styles can be structurally represented as a ‘series of transformations of an initial set of items (clothes, dance, music, argot) unfolding through an internal set of polarities (mod v. rocker, skinhead v. greaser, skinhead v. hippie, punk v. hippie, ted v. punk, skinhead v. punk (see hippies; teds)) and defined against a parallel series of ‘straight’ transformations (‘high’/mainstream fashion)’. The rockers of the early to mid-1960s were heirs to the ‘ton-up’ motorbike subculture of the 1950s. The menacing biker image cultivated by the tonup boys owed much to circulation of publicity shots and movie stills of Marlon Brando as the rebel outsider Johnny in The Wild One (1954), even though the film itself was banned in Britain. Tonup boys dressed in austere black leather or PVC jackets, jeans and motorcycle boots, and their collective image and mobile subculture were demonized in the media as a delinquent and alien rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. Rockers were also energized by the cults of speed and the motorcycle, but embellished the sartorial image they inherited. Rocker leather jackets were elaborately decorated with metal studs, badges, chains and painted emblems, while narrow and pointed ‘winklepicker’ shoes were optionally substituted for motorbike boots. Rockers, as their name implies, were culturally committed to the fast and uncompromising rock ’n’ roll idiom of Billy Fury, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, in opposition to both the mainstream sound of British pop and the rival fashion culture and preferred musical idiom of the mods. In 1964, tensions between mods and rockers broke out in a series of spectacular bank holiday battles in southern coastal towns. The first generation of male working-class mods emerged in London during the mid- to late 1950s and constructed their cultural identity through the double appropriation of continental design and tailoring and the music of what Paul Gilroy has called the ‘Black Atlantic’. Initially mods embraced be-bop and the cool currents in African-American jazz, while they were adorned in modernist, Italianstyled suits and rode chic Italian scooters. By the early 1960s, mods were dancing the steps of ‘the ska’ or ‘the block’ to the ska music of Prince Buster, the soul of James Brown, the rhythm and blues of John Lee Hooker and the Tamla Motown sound of Mary Wells. African-American R&B was an especially influential idiom and was imitated by mod groups, including Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Meanwhile, a new and younger generation of mods championed the edgy ‘Londonesque’ sound of groups like The Who, whose song ‘My Generation’ (1965) gave articulation to their sense of distinctiveness and difference.
   The skinheads rejected the fastidious style and narcissistic attitude of the mods and crafted an insistently chauvinist and proletarian ‘hard mod’ image consisting in tightly cropped hair, jeans, boots and braces. The early skins were overwhelmingly young, urban and white working-class males, although many ‘crews’ had black British members. Skins evolved out of the culture of the football terraces, but first gained media notoriety at the Rolling Stones free concert in Hyde Park in July 1969. Skinhead cults of violence and aggressive urban masculinity were the negation of the peace and love ideology and the naturalist ethic of hippie culture, and in practice this ideological dissonance did take the form of ‘hippie bashing’. Moreover, skinhead violence assumed racist and homophobic forms in the rhetoric and practice of ‘Paki bashing’ and ‘queer bashing’. Like the mods, skins appropriated Jamaican music, especially ska, rocksteady and reggae as well as the cool attitude of the rude boy. For example, Symarip’s ‘skinhead Moon-stomp’ became an anthem for skins while rude boy-styled mohair or ‘tonic’ suits, Ben Sherman shirts and loafer shoes became evening substitutes for collarless shirts and rolled-up jeans worn over ‘bovver boots’. By the early 1970s, skinhead culture began to mutate into the variant ‘white ethnic’ styles of the suedeheads and smooths. The skinhead style and attitude was later to resurface as one as of a series of cultural responses to punk’s cut-up bricolage, fetishistic iconography and provocative attitude.
   Punk anti-fashion was an unstable constellation of various signifying elements and insignia derived from the repertoire of postwar British street styles. It was also decisively influenced by art school experimentation in fashion and design. Punk stylists like Johnny Rotten selected specific motifs and garments from the wardrobes of teds, rockers, mods, skinheads and glam rockers and combined them into iconoclastic and anarchic sartorial assemblages. Punk also drew attention to the body and alternative sexual lifestyles by means of sado-masochistic rubber wear, studded leather collars and practices of selflaceration and body piercing. The ‘DIY’ aesthetic of punk articulated a collective disaffection with and conspicuous rejection of mainstream fashion styles and generic Top 40 pop music. The punk rock of The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks or The Slits, for example, was characterized by a chaotic, furious and minimalist rock idiom, a defiantly coarse vocal style and lyric syntax, as well as an anarchic political message. Significantly, punk provided an alternative musical and cultural identity for women performers such as Siouxsie Sue or Polystyrene, and their example was important for the repositioning of women from the margins to the centre of British youth music and fashion cultures.
   Further reading
    Chambers, I. (1985) Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture, London: Macmillan (a nuanced and well-researched account of postwar youth/ music fashions).
    Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Methuen (the classic semiotic analysis of subcultural style in the Birmingham CCCS tradition).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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