The dA–Zed guide to British subculture

Mods and Rockers rioting at the seaside, mini-skirts marking the sexual revolution and Punk’s ‘fuck you’ to Thatcher: this is how style changed Britain

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Skinhead, 1982, Dazed Digital
Skinhead, 1982

From the Grime kids spitting bars on Channel U to the Casuals showing off on the terraces and the ravers of Madchester dancing all night, subculture is in Britain’s blood. But in the high street imitations of the various tribes’ style codes, it’s easy to forget that these movements were often borne from politics – take the way Reggae travelled from Jamaica to form the beats beloved by the Ska kids, or the squatters’ rights that allowed art school collectives like !WOWOW! to transform a Peckham department store into a space that would define a generation of London creativity. While Nigel Farage rants about the dangers of immigration and David Cameron continues Thatcher’s legacy with Right to Buy, we take a look at the ways the youth, subculture and political resistance have formed Britain over the last half-century.

A IS FOR ANARCHY IN THE UK

With Vivienne Westwood along for the ride, The Sex Pistols declared themselves outright anarchists in 1976, their Punk vision placing them firmly on the offensive in their rejection of mainstream Britain. As the 70s turned into the 80s, Anarcho-Punks like Crass, Rudi Peni, Virus and Thatcher On Acid made John Lydon and co. seem tame in comparison. One protest song by Crass, which spliced together soundbites of Thatcher and Reagan apparently discussing bombing Germany, was considered by US State officials to be Soviet propaganda and the Iron Lady herself was kept updated about the suspicious tape. 

B IS FOR BATCAVES AND BANSHEES

“I’ve always felt on the outside, really,” Sioxsie Sioux told the NME in 1978, two years after her first real performance at the 100 club with the Banshees and Sid Vicious on drums. A sense of exclusion characterises all sub- and countercultural movements – these are teenagers we're talking about – but it’s the Goths that took this notion to heart. When the Batcave opened in Soho in 1982, it became a Goth haven. Johnny Melton (known then as Johnny Slut and keyboardist of in-house band Specimen) described the clientele as “freaks, weirdos [and] sexual deviants.”

C IS FOR CHANNEL U

The early 00s witnessed the emergence of Grime. For many fans, alongside pirate radio, TV station Channel U was the way into the scene and its primary broadcaster – the place that MCs, crews and tunes were broken with insane energy, and, often, insanely gully videos. With its DIY mentality and grassroots background, the style taken on by Grime followers rejected the obsession with designer labels. Now, with Skepta collecting his MOBO award in an all-black Nike tracksuit last year, and shutting-down the net with his all-white Cavempt garms, Grime style, sound and power is back on the agenda more powerfully than any time since “Pow”.

D IS FOR DON THE DON

Don Letts is one of British subculture’s patron saints. A friend of Bob Marley who’s graced the front of a Clash record, he directed a cult film (The Punk Rock Movie) and ran a shop frequented by the likes of Patti Smith and The Sex Pistols. More than any DJ, he introduced Reggae and Dub to the London Punk scene when he’d play tunes from Jamaica to a Punk crowd at The Roxy, fusing the two sounds of the London underground. You can thank him for “White Man at the Hammersmith Palais”, too, as it was written by Joe Strummer after Letts took him there for a Reggae night.

E IS FOR ECSTASY

Ecstasy has been synonymous with ravers ever the surprisingly loved-up – and energised – crowds burst onto the grey satellite spaces of late 80s Britian. From Acid House to Crusties, MDMA was (and is) taken to heighten the spirits and enliven the senses – and its communal sensibility was a poignant counterpoint to Thatcher’s bleak version of urban Britain. Of course, the authorities disapproved. In 1992, in an attempt to curtail illegal raves, the government introduced laws that allowed officers to halt events where large groups were gathered to listen to dance music and were even able to fine those in a five mile radius they believed to be en route to party. Sound familiar?

F IS FOR FOOTBALL HOOLIGANS

In the 70s and 80s, Casuals would rock up to football matches in designer clobber, ready to fight rival clubs and establish their sartorial credentials and use their trips for matches abroad to bring back the latest European fashions. The subculture of working class football fanatics – often associated with hooliganism and descended from Manchester's Perry Boys (so named for their penchant for Fred Perry) – would eschew club colours in order to infiltrate the opposition and avoid police detection. Instead, brands like Sergio Tacchini and adidas Originals were favoured, as rival gangs would compete to have the latest threads.

G IS FOR GRANNY TAKES A TRIP

Since it first opened its doors on the King’s Road in January 1966 (causing a gang of passing football fans en route to a match to wonder who these “fucking weirdos” were), Granny Takes a Trip became the ultimate fashion hangout of the psychedelic 60s, blending art, music and drugs. The shopfront went through endless reincarnations, from a New Orleans bordello with Art Nouveau script to having the front half of a 1947 Dodge glued to the front. Playing host to Hendrix and The Beatles, it was the start of Swingin’ London on the King’s Road, with similar stores in the capital – like I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet (first on Portobello road, then Carnaby Street) and The Beatles’ own Apple Boutique in Marylebone – also iconic shops of the era.

H IS FOR HAÇIENDA

The iconic, red-brick Victorian building may now play host to luxury flats, but it remains a talisman of the halcyon and hedonistic days of late 80s and 90s Manchester – the birth of Madchester. Owned by New Order and Factory Records (the label responsible for graphic designer Peter Saville’s rise to fame) it started as somewhere you could see Psychic TV supported by William Burroughs, before becoming the place that brought acid house to the masses. It was DJs that drew admiration and applause, not bands. In the words of Steve Coogan’s infamous turn as Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People – “We all came together. Everyone came to the Haçienda. It was our cathedral.”

I IS FOR INSIDE THE TRIBES

Whether he was a fly-on-the-wall in London’s fetish clubs, or on the street with Skinheads forming relationships that allowed him to capture the raw and honest portraits he is known for, British photographer Derek Ridgers has been infiltrating the inner circles of UK tribes since he ditched his advertising job in the early 70s. His latest book, 78-87 London Youth was a raw look at the kids he’s encountered in London’s streets, bars and clubs, containing some of Ridgers’ most iconic shots from over the years.

J IS FOR JAMAICA

West Indian migration to the UK soared after the Second World War, and with it came a wealth of cultural influence. With people settling largely in London, the newcomers made an incredibly valuable contribution to the rebuilding of Britain’s post-war economy through their addition to the workforce, before a series of racist laws from the 60s to the 80s slowed immigration. The introduction of Reggae, Patois and the style and swagger of the Rude Boys formed a major repository of inspiration (and appropriation) for subcultures to come, including Skinheads and Ska fans. 

K IS FOR KINGS OF COOL BRITANNIA

Whether it was Brett Anderson from Suede posing in front of Blighty’s flag on the cover of Select magazine or Noel Gallagher wielding his patriotic guitar before a crowd of thousands, the UK flag was the unofficial badge of Britpop. It was this sense of national pride that helped popularise the genre, where lads singing about binmen and supermarkets brightened up the mundanity of everyday life. While the acerbic rivalry between Blur and Oasis may be the most abiding memory of the 90s subculture, its style legacy – shaggy hair, parkas and a sneery attitude – shouldn’t be forgotten. Think Mods, but the kind who’d ruck at a football match.

L IS FOR LEIGH BOWERY

“Dress as though your life depends on it or don’t bother.” So said Leigh Bowery, and clearly, it was a maxim he lived by. Bowery’s legacy extends far beyond his (impressive) contribution to gender-bending performance art. The subject of a Lucien Freud portrait and manager of Taboo, the London night dominating 80s clubland that became a mecca for rebellious talent, Bowery was the multi-talented icon whose casual wear included face-distorting makeup and cleavage-enhancing dresses. John Galliano regularly frequented Taboo to hand out invitations for his fashion shows.

M IS FOR MINISKIRTS

“But Mary, isn’t the miniskirt rather obvious, simply blaringly enticing?” asked an ITV interviewer to Mary Quant in 1966. “After all, it seems that few girls really have the legs, hips and, above all, the panache to carry it off majestically.” While Quant suggested practicality was a motivator in the designing of the thigh-grazing garment, it is clear in this (white, male) response that its importance really lies in women’s lib. Even now, the miniskirt and its association with swinging London remains a powerful signifier of sexual freedom for women and their bodies, alongside the introduction of the pill in 1961.

N IS FOR NEW ROMANTICS

When Steve Strange and Rusty Egan set up the Blitz club night in Covent Garden in 1979, they lit the match for what would become New Romanticism. On the heels of the night’s popularity, more of the same emerged – including Kinky Gerlinky, the extravagant dress-up night created by Michael Costiff and his wife Gerlinde. Attracting the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Boy George, Kinky Gerlinky became the place-to-be on the burgeoning drag scene where the New Romantics could rock up in their frill and lace finery, extravagant hair and make-up establishing little discernible difference between male or female.

O IS FOR OUTSIDERS

Last year as part of Music Nation, Jim Demuth went to Scotland to find out more about the group of Glaswegians who embraced androgyny and followed the country’s own alternative bands in the 80s. The tribe’s style has been described by Sean Dickson – the lead singer of 80s Scottish band The Soup Dragons – as “retro clothing and cool rainwear, kind of a cross between biker cool and geek chic.” The scene soon came into its own when, for a brief year, Splash One Happening became a cult club night that played 60s avant-garde pop, psychedelica and hosted bands like Sonic Youth.

P IS FOR PRETTY BOYS

Behind the glitter, platforms and extravagant makeup of Glam Rock lay the biggest confrontation to traditional sexual and gender identity hitherto witnessed on British soil. Its emergence in the 70s shattered binary gender identities and rejected the heteronormative world of the mainstream. Roxy Music, T-Rex and David Bowie in his many guises offered a careless camp alternative to the masculine rock’n’roll music cultures that preceded it. As a precursor for his later gender-bending stage appearances, for the 1970 cover of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie – all tousled hair and a Venus recline – wore a silk dress, cut nearly to the navel.

Q IS FOR QUEER SKINHEADS

The idea of a Skinhead that comes instantly to mind for many – jeans and a denim jacket paired with a button down shirt, laced Dr Martens primed for stomping and a neo-fascist agenda – is far from the full story. Not all Skins were right wingers, and not all of them straight: queer Skinhead Nicky Crane has become a kind of posterboy for the complexity of identity within the scene, as a neo-nazi who moonlighted as a bouncer at a gay club (and once saved Derek Ridgers from getting beaten up).

R IS FOR ROCKERS

In the 50s and 60s Rockers would adorn their leather jackets with studs and patches, slather their hair in Brylcreem, and hang out with their mates in roadside caffs between tearing up the tarmac. They’re often compared with their Mod counterparts, with whom they famously clashed in Seaside town riots culminating on Easter weekend in 1964, sparking a moral panic about wayward, violent youth. With both style tribes results of the postwar boom in youth culture, they were expressions of a new working-class pride and outsider identity.

S IS FOR SEX ON THE KING’S ROAD

Between 1974 and 1976 430 King’s Road played host to SEX – the boutique run by punk’s most dynamic duo: Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Spelled out in four foot pink letters, the shop sign became emblematic of the scene’s recklessly offensive nature. Inside, as well as Dame Viv’s creations, SEX stocked fetish and bondage wear – a “fuck you” to conservative prudes. Speaking to Dazed in 1996, McLaren described a pair of trousers he’d made to accompany the news that the Sex Pistols had won “Young Businessmen of the Year”, with a zip that went from the crotch, under and right to the back. “As you unzipped it, all your goolies would fall out.”

T IS FOR TEDDY BOYS

Born out of a feeling of growing discontent and increasing anti-immigration sentiment amongst young working class British males after the war, the Teddy Boys (so named after their fondness of Edwardian dress) were arguably the first real style and youth subculture in Britain, timed with the arrival of rock’n’roll from the States. Rebelliously borrowing elements of lavish upper-class dress in an era of clothes rationing, to look the part Teds had their existing suits adapted (often by their mums) to fit the desired look. 

U IS FOR UK GARAGE

In ostentatious head-to-toe print (preferably Moschino but other Italian labels sufficed) and toting expensive bottles of champagne was how you’d find the average attendee of the UK Garage scene that flourished thoughout the 90s and into the early 00s, captured by Dazed in our documentary Brandy & Coke. Fashion was vital when it came to Garage, with “the abiding style code of UKG,” according to photographer Nina Manandhar of What We Wore, “pure, hard cash. Spending it, and looking and feeling as expensive as the clothes on your back. Versace, Versace, Versace. [People had] a beg, steal and borrow attitude to designer labels.”

V IS FOR VESPAS

“Mod is a shorter word for young, beautiful and stupid,” said Pete Townsend of The Who, a seminal figure for Mods old and new. Looking upon old images of tribes of impeccably groomed boys on scooters cruising around town in the 60s, it’s a difficult statement to deny. With the girls declaring Cathy McGowan, presenter of music TV show Ready Steady Go as the queen Mod, the boys wore parkas with fur trims over their suits to head down to coastal towns on their vespas to brawl with their arch enemies, the Rockers. 

W IS FOR !WOWOW!

Born out of the back room of The Joiners Arms by then Camberwell students Matthew Stone and Hanna Hanra in the mid 00s, the Children of !WOWOW! were a collective of creatives who, just a year from their inception, managed to transform what was a modest dream of an art performance night into a four-storey artistic hub that hosted exhibitions, warehouse parties and formed studio spaces. All unofficially, of course. In a move that would seem nigh on impossible in London’s current climate of unaffordable rent and a strict squatting clampdown, !WOWOW! set-up camp in an abandoned department store and reimagined a corporate space into an artistic one, giving us talents including Gareth Pugh and Katie Shillingford in the process.

X IS FOR GEN X

The term “Generation X” was catapulted into mainstream consciousness when American novelist Douglas Coupland wrote the 1991 book about the disaffected post-baby-boomer youth. Sometimes called the Slacker generation because they were uncertain about their future, and cynical about what was occurring around them (Cold War threats and Chernobyl), it was through this apathy and malcontent that many subcultures were born. Reeling after their parents left the economy in tatters and angry at the state of the nation, Goths and Blitz kids were all a byproduct of a youth striving for identity in a country under Thatcher.

Y IS FOR YOUNG REVOLUTIONARIES

The UK Underground scene that emerged out of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove in the mid 60s (the British counterpoint to the hippie movement blossoming across the pond) was made up of the young and the educated who were anti-war and anti-establishment, but pro-illegal substances. Barry Miles and John “Hoppy” Hopkins created the subculture’s bible, the International Times, an underground paper that would include covert gay columns and advise readers of the price of weed around the country, and had Germaine Greer as a contributor. Later, they met resistance from authorities when the police raided their offices in an alleged attempt to shut them down.

Z IS FOR ZINES

Zines have long been the DIY option for independent publishing, even Dazed’s roots lie in the cut-and-paste improv nature of zine-making. Used for circulating radical ideas among under-represented groups, before the far-reaching power of the internet, zines were the way to get your voice heard, however irreverent or obscene. Although zines remain a tool for young outspoken creatives (see Polyester, OOMK, Motherlands and Diaspora Drama), they were particularly prolific in in the punk scene, with Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue gaining so much notoriety he ceased its production because of its deviation into mainstream territory.

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