Skinhead legacy in fashion

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Image courtesy of Derek Ridgers

Celebrating 10 years of This is England we take a look at a style that shocked a nation and resurrected as one of Britain’s most iconic subcultural styles

This month marks the 10th Anniversary of Shane Meadows’ film, This is England.
On 27th April 2007, a picture that encapsulated one of Britain’s most controversial subcultures hit the UK cinemas and has since visited British living rooms as a television series.

Staffordshire-born film director, Shane Meadows, often depicts the North of England and its working class reality in his films, such as; A Room for Romeo Brass, A Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England.
Growing up a Skinhead himself, Meadows’ used the medium of film to break the preconceived perceptions of British Skinheads. Modelling main character, Shaun Fields on himself, much of This is England’s plot mirrors events in Meadows’ teenage years during the 1980s.

As with many British subcultures, the Skinhead style, commonly referred to as Skin, was born out of an anarchist attitude and sense of brotherhood within youth culture.
First-wave Skins of the 1960s mixed with their afro-caribbean neighbours – an appreciation of a different culture soon resulted in the adoption of their American styles and Raggae music.

The second-wave of Skins re-birthed as rebel against a system they felt disregarded their working- class way of life. Teenagers of the late 1970s came together to tackle the social issues of the Thatcher-era, with an insurgent sense of style, attitude and rebellious self-expression.
Similarly to their Punk predecessors, who used politics as their driving force, the Skinhead look soon became recognised and associated with a historical political movement within the UK.

However, unlike other subcultures of past decades, such as Punk, Goth and New Romanticism, both waves of Skinheads weren’t ever interested in individuality. The customisation and DIY techniques of Punk and New Romantic were swapped for uniformity – a recognisable look was their key to being noticed. With broad shoulders, chunky boots and shaved heads, the Skinhead silhouette felt hyper-masculine and soon became associated with a hardness and aggression that shocked and scared the general public. The attention that Skinheads were striving for was realised and their political and social opinions were becoming noticed.

As sons and daughters of factory workers and labourers, the dress code of late-Skins borrowed styles associated with the working-class roots inherent in their sensibilities. Worn with sense of

pride, classic Levi 501 blue jeans – sometimes splashed with bleached, were held up by braces. Underneath were shirts, often a smart Ben Sherman or Fred Perry, striped, checked or gingham – topped with a padded MA-1, Harrington or Crombie jacket and finished off with a pair chunky Doc Marten boots, laced with contrasting red, white or yellow.
As the most popular footwear choice of skinheads, Dr. Martens provided the worker-style boots that completed their industrial look.

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Image courtesy of Brian Harris

Established in 1901, Dr. Marten boots were valued for their durability and strength, attracting a surge of interest, as manual labourers and soldiers wore them as work wear. The visual connection and ideology that the Dr. Marten lace up boot had with industrial workers, made it the perfect social and political symbol for Skinheads to project their anti-thatcher, anti-establishment and nationalist ethos. Adapting the workwear boot into their everyday wardrobe, Skins redirected the brands course from an industrial staple to a subcultural essential. Today, Dr. Martens honour Skin culture with stores decorated in archive imagery and vintage memorabilia.
Like Punks, a previous style tribe also rooted in working class sensibilities, Skinheads translated army iconography as a form of allegiance and nationalism. As Mods smothered the roundel motif on jackets, motorbike helmets and t-shirts – Skinheads embraced the american MA1 bomber jacket as their style staple.
Garments such as the MA1 have been reworked and presented on the catwalks of many fashion brands since their debut as part of the Skinhead uniform. The evolution from the streets of England to the catwalks of Paris has made the contemporary bomber jacket a modern wardrobe essential.

Designers today continue to reference Skinhead style with the revitalisation of the classic MA1. Born of Jamaican decent, London based designer Martine Rose, established her brand in 2007 with a ten piece collection of re-worked classic shirts for men. Since, Rose has continued to create a new vision of menswear staples including the iconic MA1.

“I think my sense from looking at someone like Martine Rose, [her work], in a way is a reflection or a look back around her own cultural upbringings and it is a way in which Jamaican culture has come through, and that kind of line between the Jamaican rudeboy, which was a term that was adopted by a certain two-tone element of skinhead.” Dr. Cole explains.

With the introduction of Jamaican music and styles into post-second world war Britain, multiculturalism in cities showcased never before seen cultural rituals. Young men and women immersed themselves in the new waves of culture they were coming into contact with on their own council estates. The clean, American inspired styles of the Jamaican men inspired a generation of young British boys to smarten up. An appreciation of Ska, Reggae and Rudeboy, soon resulted in the birth of the style we now talk about today as Skinhead.

“Those things were possibly initially adopted because they were accessible and available. Skinhead wasn’t stylistically an aspirational style like something like Mod or Teddy Boy”, Subcultural academic, Dr. Shaun Cole discusses. “If you break down the stereotypical of the classic skinhead style into elements of clothing, a lot of them are things that have been touted as the classics of menswear, or even design classics. So, the work boots, the Dr. Marten boots, Levi 501, a button down shirt, the MA1 bomber jacket, Harrington Jacket, Crombie coat – If you look at those, they have been coming out for years and they keep coming out”.

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Image courtesy of Ditto London

Adopting classics, the legacy and association of such items commonly regards them as Skinhead garments. However, as “design classics” in their own right, the evolution and recurrence of items, such as the MA1 and Dr. Marten boot, allows the styles to become associated and morphed with alternative references. As Dr. Cole believes, “The whole look has become so associated with right wing politics that it is less attractive to a designer to recreate a whole look”. Therefore, the alternative references and history behind each of the “classic menswear” pieces that were adopted by Skins, allows them to become timeless items alone and recur throughout fashion as trends evolve.

From the bomber jacket to the lace-up worker boot, Skinhead style has spread far and wide across the fashion industry since its debut in the late 1970s. Still present throughout the style and culture of today, those knowledgeable of the Skin subculture will recognise its legacy and influence. Whilst, as Dr. Cole discussed, abandoning political references, Skinhead garments have the potential to become translated in alternative ways by the designers of today. Controversial references have been broken down and the legacy of the Skin look has become appreciated and transformed into luxurious trends and styles.

As Rick Owens puts his gothic twist on the bomber jacket and Demna Balenciaga at Balenciaga and Vetements modernises the chunky boot and masculine shoulder, modern designers are today interpreting and reinventing the styles we recognise as Skinhead.
In collaboration with Toby Mott and Ditto Press, Martine Rose recently designed a limited edition bomber jacket alongside the release of the book Skinhead: An Archive.
Surrounded by Skinheads as a teen, publisher Ben Freeman believes Skin to be the most important British subculture. “Nobody talks about Skinhead, people talk too much about Punk”, explained Freeman when discussing his involvement in the project.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of This is England and begin to countdown the days until Brighton’s annual Skinhead reunion, it is clear to see that the Skinhead subculture has not been forgotten.
Rising from its controversial connotations, Skinhead has firmly positioned itself a place in British subcultural history as one of the greats and is now regarded one of Britain’s most memorable and recognisable looks.

Words by Emily Gallagher

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