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Derek ridgers skinheads 80s hair cut trend
Amanda Betterton & Susan Newman (1981)Photography Derek Ridgers

Former 80s skinheads reflect on the significance of their Chelsea haircuts


TextAlex Peters

Immortalised by legendary photographer Derek Ridgers, two skinheads look back on what the style meant to them

What we look like has always been about so much more than is often allowed for by the frivolous reputation that caring about our appearances carries. It is how we present ourselves to the world. It dictates how the world responds back to us in turn.

The way you wear your hair, the make-up that you choose can be a badge of honour. A way to proclaim to the world anything from your musical taste to your political opinions, sexual orientation or sports loyalty. It can be a passport into a scene or an expression of pure individualism. Make-up and hair can act as an outlet, a canvas onto which we can express how we are feeling on the inside, something tangible that we can control when the world around us feels capricious or the ultimate rejection of society’s expectations.

Back in the late 70s, a disenfranchised generation of working-class youth shaved their heads as a way of signalling their disillusionment amid social chaos and depression. When Margaret Thatcher and the Tories came into power in 1979, they brought with them a period of privatisation, miners’ strikes, welfare benefit cuts, recession, and high unemployment. 

From this fraught political and social landscape emerged skinheads, a second wave of the subculture which took its cues from the punk scene as well as the previous iteration of the 1960s trend. Alongside a uniform of Doc Martens, bomber jackets, braces, and bleached jeans, the young skinheads wore their hair in their signature style. For the women in the scene, known alternatively as ‘skinettes,’ ‘skin birds,’ or just skinheads, however, the look had a little more room to be expressive. 

Starting off with the same buzzcut as the boys, the girls then made variants on the look. The Chelsea involved shaving or cutting short the crown and back of the head but leaving a fringe and sometimes hair on the sides of the head around the ears. A similar style, the Feathercut, saw hair buzzed at the crown, with a fringe left, long sides around the ears known as dog ears and a long mullet-shaped piece at the back. Think Lol and Kelly in This is England or Tank Girl for a cyberpunk take on the look.

“Starting off with the same buzzcut as the boys, the girls then made variants on the look. The Chelsea involved shaving or cutting short the crown and back of the head but leaving a fringe and sometimes hair on the sides of the head around the ears”

Capturing many of the faces in the scene was photographer Derek Ridgers. Armed with a camera, in the 70s and 80s Ridgers found himself on the front lines of the subcultures that emerged during that time, compiling a definitive record of the kids defining the aesthetics of a movement. 

Two of those kids were Susan Newman and Amanda Betterton who Ridgers photographed in Chelsea in 1981. Teenagers at the time, the two girls were skinheads and can be seen in the picture with their hair buzzed at the top with wispy fringes and pieces on the sides, expressions equally defiant and curious in their matching denim jackets. Almost 40 years later, the two women reflect on what the style and culture meant to them.

SUSAN NEWMAN 

In 1979-80, I was in my final year of secondary school so about 15 or 16 years old. My best friend and her boyfriend (who were both punks) asked if I wanted to go to a gig at the Lyceum with them. I had never heard of The Specials prior to this, and being a staunch Soul Girl thought I'd maybe go along, just for a night out. However, I can honestly say that this night out absolutely blew my mind and completely changed my thoughts and ideas about who I was and what I wanted to be. The whole place was rammed full of skinheads and rude boys with the vibe and atmosphere absolutely buzzing from all the dancing and music. I finally found something that really excited me; I felt like I belonged. Being the third child, with two older sisters with very strong outgoing characters, I didn't know who I was or what path I wanted to travel and this new opportunity gave me a chance to express myself; I could be someone completely different to what everyone expected me to be.

After going to see The Specials, I knew very quickly that I wanted to cut my long, blonde hair so my new identity could be clearly defined. However, at that time, there weren't any other skinhead girls in my town nor hairdressers willing to shave my head so I first went for a very short pixie cut, which horrified my family, in particular my Mum who actually screamed. Little did she know, it was going to get even shorter and bleached white! When I started at college, a few months later, there were also two skinhead girls studying who both had the exact cut I was after; shaved on top with long sides and back. I asked one of them if they would take me to their hairdresser and so my new style began. It finally cemented the look I was aiming for. I loved that it defined who I was at that time and what I belonged to.

I had a lot of people telling me I was crazy to get rid of my lovely long hair, others saying I was an idiot to want to follow this culture. Most people would just stare at me as I walked through town, mainly because I was the only skinhead girl and people found it quite shocking. People generally couldn't believe a girl would do this to themselves; to completely spoil their beauty in this way – my parents were embarrassed of me. But then a few other people gradually became skinheads too which enabled me to socialise with like-minded people and not feel so isolated.

After a few years, I started to feel I was outgrowing the scene and not really wanting to be part of it anymore; for me, it had served its purpose in giving me an identity different to everyone else of my age.

“The hairstyle was all about being different to what was expected of me, it gave me a feeling of belonging to a cool, minority group that rebelled against ‘normality’. It gave me the confidence to be someone else, to hide behind and to stand out from the crowd – it represented a ‘new me’ and opened up a whole different life of gigs, boys and music” – Susan Newman 

Looking back, the hairstyle was all about being different to what was expected of me, it gave me a feeling of belonging to a cool, minority group that rebelled against ‘normality’ – something I would never have experienced in my small-town life. It gave me the confidence to be someone else, to hide behind and to stand out from the crowd – it represented a ‘new me’ and opened up a whole different life of gigs, boys and music. For quite a while, in my twenties, I felt embarrassed about my time as a skinhead as it was looked upon with such distaste with derogatory connotations. However, I now look back at that time with absolute joy and an experience like no other. I feel grateful for the outlet it gave me to escape the boring teen life I was living and the great experiences it enabled me to have. I have recently seen so many pictures of me (that I didn't even know existed) and have been inundated with compliments about how cool and beautiful I looked – funny how the tables have turned with time and the look is now seen as iconic.

AMANDA BETTERTON 

I was probably 16 years old when I first noticed the emergence of skinheads in my town, this was around 1979-80. There had been an explosion of two-tone music plus not long after the release of the film Quadrophenia which had a message of finding your tribe and sense of belonging that called to me. Punk had been around for a while but always looked slightly grubby, whereas skinheads had a sharper, cleaner look with their highly polished boots and crisp Ben Sherman shirts. It was a look that was calling me.

I can remember seeing a few skin girls around at the time. I think for me, it represented the ultimate rebellion to society, plus a certain amount of guts for a girl to shave her hair off! They had an element of danger about them and definitely turned heads – something that was appealing to a bored 16-year-old in an Essex town. Thinking about it now, part of the attraction was also that you were treated quite equally as a female which was virtually non-existent back in the late 80s, early 90s. I always thought of myself as a skinhead not a skinbird. 

My hair had gradually been getting shorter from when I was 15. My mum was a hairdresser so she gave me my first crop, a kind of pixie crop. But this was still way too long so I used to go into her room where she kept a pair of scissors and cut it shorter. I finally went to the barbers one Saturday after work (I was a Saturday girl in the hairdressers where my mum worked) and asked for a no.4 feather cut as it was known then – your fringe back and sides were known as feathers. I remember sitting in that barber’s chair feeling like I'd arrived! One of the very few times I’ve had a haircut and loved it. 

I don't really remember my parents having a major reaction, I think possibly they could see the way my look was emerging although I don't think they were overly pleased when a few weeks later I took my sister to the barbers and she came back with the same haircut, she was 13! Living in a small Essex town with such a distinctive look made you easily recognised, and friends of my parents were only too keen to tell tales on us. 

“For me, it represented the ultimate rebellion to society, plus a certain amount of guts for a girl to shave her hair off! They had an element of danger about them and definitely turned heads” – Amber Betterton 

To get away from the local gossips, I started to head up to London at every given chance I got. I would go to the Last Resort shop in Petticoat Lane, and a well known pub where skinheads used to hang out in. The girls were very proud of our hair, I can always remember being slightly envious of girls with really long feathers, the longer the better. l remember the guys were equally obsessed with their hair, it was never let to grow out, and if someone did it was normally cos they had an interview for a job, as soon as they got the job, out the clippers would come. When I was 19 I fell pregnant and I finally gave into pressure from my parents who thought it was best if I grew out my hair for motherhood, although what difference a haircut makes I don't know.

The haircut was definitely a way of pushing boundaries, a mini rebellion. It gave me confidence and it gave me a sense of belonging in a time when there wasn't much else going on – in 81-82 there was high unemployment. I look back on my skinhead years with a huge smile, I had the absolute best time, got up to all sorts, and made a lot of friends from all over. There was very much a comradery with skins and I’m still in touch with some.

I’d love to go back to that look but I’m not so bold anymore, and age has got the better of me – I’m 56! I do every 10 years or so end up with a pixie crop and bleach it blonde, I can feel it calling me again. At the moment it's a short bob with an undercut, no.3, my own secret nod to my past.

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