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Few British subcultures have been as misinterpreted as Skins. A youth movement that emerged out of the Mod scene and was inspired by West Indian hair styles, it is now overshadowed by the extremist political views of some of its members. Christopher Raymond Brocklebank explores the origins of Skins.

Skinheads have long been misunderstood. This subculture’s perceived links to far-right politics have somewhat soured their contribution to vintage style. To make claims for it is to hit a cultural nerve and be laid open to accusations of filtering out noxious ideologies in order to concentrate on aesthetics.

However, things are rarely as black and white as they seem, if you’ll pardon the expression, and while there were undoubtedly factions of racist and violent Skins – those who were afraid of everything and worked overtime pretending they were afraid of nothing – there were legions of other Skins whose way of life was a celebration not of whiteness, but of roots; they were working-class with class.

The original Sixties Skins morphed out of the Mod scene. For Mods whose means were as slender as their silhouettes, petrol-blue Italian mohair suits were out, but Sta-prest, button-down Brutus shirts and steel-capped leather boots (shiny enough for a modette to stare into and make up her Ace Face) were in. The template for this approximated look was the dockyard worker’s uniform and with a few tweaks and some painstaking attention to detail, it was sharp, clean and tough enough to be seen in during an amphetamine-fuelled evening of skanking to blue beat, ska and soul in the racially mixed and harmonious dancehalls of south-west London.

untitled2By and by, like ice floes in the spring, these Mods (‘Hard Mods’) split from their peacock-like brethren (‘Smooth Mods’). By now, the latter wore their aspiration tonsorially by adopting hairstyles that spoke of leisured grooming while the former went to the other extreme with a clipped head that spoke of practicality, manual work, and self-assurance.

This style, the original Skinhead crop, was inspired by the young West Indian men they danced beside. These Rude Boys kept their wiry, unruly and coarse locks under strict control by keeping one step ahead of the razor. From this cut Skinheads would receive their new name come the fag-end of that most mythologized decade.

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13 Responses

  1. Merry Chandler

    i thought this was a great contribution, and a nice alternative to some of the other articles on this site. and as someone who grew up in east ldn, its a really insightful comparisson to the skins of today who you wouldnt necesarily relate to a ‘vintage’ fashion site and who frankly could do with the good publicity!

    Reply
  2. Darren

    Excellent article, as someone who was around during this period I can vouch for most of it. I remember some of the top skins going for the city gent look, crombie with silk hanky, bowler hat and cane-I think Suggs from Madness tried to emulate it in the early ’80s but I must hail the great line in this piece ‘Snug Fred Perry T shirts…….were often a real boon for those skinbirds blessed in the mammary department’ ……Genius

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  3. kevie

    Excellent history, esp. for those of us in the US where the Skinhead culture has been totally misrepresented. Plus, a great look at real working-class style. Thanx!

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  4. Bix Belanger

    Not to my liking at all. Unless you represent the Two-Tone Skinheads…this is nothing but fascist propaganda. The girl in the first picture is wearing white laces on her Doc’s…in many circles a symbol of white pride. The two boys on the next page are represented in the ‘unifrom of the NF. A rascist and neo-nazi group. This is terrible that you would even consider this as an article worth publication. If this is the direction you are taking please take me off your email list. I lived in London during the rise of these neo-fascists and will not tolerate their presence in something I hold so sacrosanct.

    Reply
  5. bigbyrd

    Good to see an accurate and well-detailed article that focuses not on sensational aspects of the movement but on the stylistic elements of traditional skinheads.

    In relation to the comments above (Bix Belanger) – the images in this article are very typical of traditional skinheads (ie those who are influenced by the early movement, roots reggae, northern soul and rude boy culture). As a traditional, non-racist (SHARP) skinhead I myself wear white laces and braces – the colour associations you refer to are outdated and largely a myth. If you look at further photography by Gavin Wilson you will see a number of similar images of trads, both black and white dressed like the two young males pictured.
    Contemporary skinheads distance themselves from the aforementioned ‘neo-fascists’ which soured the scene in the 90s. I only hope people are gradually able to make a distinction between these two very different social groups and appreciate the subculture’s unique style and culture.

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    • John

      Are you still a traditional, non-racist (SHARP) skinhead who wears white laces and braces? Are you based in the South East or London by any chance?

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  6. Tommo

    @Bix Belanger – Nonsense! I was a 1960s skinhead in SE London. I was an anarchist and anti-fascist, and had run-ins with the NF. Some of my skinhead mates were black, and most of my white skinhead mates couldn’t have given a James Clark Ross about politics! (Yeah, but don’t let the facts spoil a good prejudice, right?)

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  7. welliedanger

    no mention of scooters/scooterist scene. also, a former article mentioned the rockers, but there was no mention here of the famous riffs with the mods/skins? otherwise, a very solid article! it’s too bad there aren’t more articles on the forefront akin to this one.

    Reply

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