specialsStudying the style of vintage fashion icons of today and yesteryear affiliated with the punk scene of the Seventies and Eighties, such as Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde and more recently Gwen Stefani, it is rather a melting-pot of cultures that gives this genre its unique edge. The same goes for the eclectic pick-n-mix range of recycled, imitated, replicated trends doing the rounds on Britain’s streets today. On a grassroots level, how did multiculturalism play a part, and how integral is it to the vintage wardrobes, music and lifestyles so many of us 21st century girls define ourselves with? Merry Chandler investigates.

First, lets look at cities such as London, Birmingham and Bristol in the Fifties. As a society still mending itself after the destruction of the war, Britain required a new wave of workers from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. With them of course came a new-found world of music and culture, the likes of which much of the British public were unfamiliar with. Well, it didn’t take long for inquisitive white inner-city youths to explore this paradoxical world of young people just like them – but different –and they soon mixed style and attitude creating something uniquely British and of their own.

The term ‘mod’ may be used as an umbrella term for the young, smart, arty and sophisticated names and faces emerging on the London scene in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It is no surprise that this emphasis on American Jazz and Rhythm & Blues music, as well as the integral, precision-tailored clothing of the boys (and girls) appeared simultaneously with the first arrival of Jamaican Ska, and the simultaneous image of the guy with the pork-pie hat, suspenders, zoot suit and slick brogues synonymous with the genre.

Help get a mod look with Flannels men’s designer shoes

late_50sClubs dedicated to Ska, Jazz and Soul imported from the Caribbean and the US such as the Ram Jam in Brixton drew a huge mod following, many of which were student types who found a parallel in this pioneering new scene of music and energetic dance, which would have undoubtedly set them apart from the generation of their parents, the stereotypically reserved British middle-class. Later into the Sixties, Ska and Reggae would also later appeal to working-class skinheads and in the Seventies to punk kids, where the increasingly political focus of the genre would undisputedly leave its most unapologetic mark.

donlettsYou cannot underestimate the influence that British-born, Jamaican filmmaker, DJ and Kings Road clothing store owner Don Letts was to have on the now synonymous fusion of Punk, Reggae and Ska. His shop, Acme Attractions, did indeed attract much attention from Reggae stars including the legendary Bob Marley, as much as it did attract rock bands including leading members of Blondie, The Pretenders, The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Punk-rock-poet Patti Smith, who in turn are influences on the attire of later-formed groups such as Nineties band No Doubt, in particular.

It was Lett’s innovation on the decks that brought the concept significant attention from stellar Punk icons, importantly the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and this avant-garde chemistry lead members of both bands to travel to the Caribbean to further source both the cultural conventions and complimentary political consciousness that inextricably bound these two genres, emerging simultaneously on different sides of the world.

The result was that as both subcultures became inextricably joined, and as Punk enjoyed a new-wave in the Eighties, this chemistry was given an official title – 2-tone was born. Bands like Madness played a huge part on the Eighties popular British musical identity, evidently a staple of countless wedding receptions, birthday parties and commercials going strong in Britain to this day. Of course, it is impossible to explore the concept of 2-tone without the mention of its most notorious poster-children -The Specials- whose musical and aesthetic reflection of Coventry as it was in the early Eighties, are pretty emblematic of the west-Midlands city itself.

The Specials unwavering style was (and is still) dedicated to the pioneering British Ska fans and west-Indian youths  of the Fifties and Sixties, boys who wore porkpie and trilby hats, suspenders, tailored pinstripe suits, black-and-white brogues and skinny ties, inspired by American gangster movies. Today the influence can be seen and purchased on London’s infamous tailoring haven Saville Row and around the world, thanks to Specials fan Oswald Boateng, a British-born Ghanaian designer whose designs have been a favourite of many a Hollywood A-lister. Boateng has spoken about how the bands’ multi-cultural inspired aesthetic and couture greatly characterized his take on the traditional men’s silhouette in the British tailoring market.

You only have to visit a poly-cultured style hot-spot like London’s Camden market or East London’s Brick Lane today to witness remnants of the days when Punk and Ska fashion ruled the roost and has been re-inventing itself ever since.