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Northern Soul dance subculture Menswear Topman SS16
Northern Soul dancersPhotographer unknown, via

How Northern Soul sparked a fashion revolution

Inspired by Topman Design’s SS16 show, here’s your primer on the style subculture that heralded the dawn of clothes you could really dance in

How does fashion shape adolescence? Every month, Claire Healy deconstructs the ways that style culture has contributed to the idea of the teenager in new series Extreme Adolescents

The Northern Soul style revival is fast turning into an all-nighter: introduced to a new generation via Elaine Constantine’s fantastic 2014 film, Topman Design sealed the return of the subculture’s style codes with its SS16 show. But for those among the thousands of teenagers who danced to the same beat in the north of England in the 1970s, keeping the faith has never been a question of trends. The wider than wide flares, nipped-in knit tanks and appliqued patches we’ve come to associate with the era (and saw on the runway at Topman) were more than just a statement of belonging. In the heaving ballrooms and halls that hosted Northern Soul club nights in the late 60s and 70s, they were a matter of practicality. As one vest read at the Topman show on Friday, the clothes they wore were intimately connected to how they moved: you’ve simply got to “Danz like you’re Northern”.

Gordon Richardson, design director at Topman Design, didn’t want his SS16 collection to read as pure nostalgia: it was all about the mix – in his words, “Northern soul mixed with Billy Idol and surfers.” But the idea of absorbing different cultures to create something new was one embodied by the adolescent proponents of the Northern Soul movement. The packed clubs played records from bygone eras, after all – characterised by the sped-up tempo and soulful vocals of mid-1960s Motown records, DJs would source the rarest North American vinyls and introduce them to whole new audiences in the North back home. Aspects of the clubgoers’ style was similarly inherited: early fashion nodded to a classic mod style, like Fred Perry button-down shirts, smart brogues and Levi’s shrink-to-fit skinnies. But as the dancing got faster ­and the hours spent in the club got longer, the burgeoning style tribe needed to carve its own identity: one that began with whether you could dance in it. As Elliot James Langridge, star of Northern Soul, told Dazed, you can’t really understand the style of Northern Soul – whether that’s what to listen to, or how to dress – until you start to dance: “It makes it mean more.”

Anticipating subsequent generations of teenagers who would dress for sweat – from the acid house hedonism of Balearic Britain to the hotpants and slogan tees of Jungle fashion – Northern Soul fans needed clothes that wouldn’t overheat in the clubs. So, as the clubs got bigger, the clothes get baggier: light and loose-fitting, high-waisted, ultra-baggy Oxford Trousers with tight, sporty vests became the go-to uniform for the boys. But far from an identikit look, individual details were what marked a true Northern Soul acolyte: sew-on patches on the vests or jackets would signify your club night allegiance. The across-the-pond influence of the soul sounds registered in some of these patches – including the movement’s most enduring symbol, the clenched raised fist that travelled from the Black Power movement of the USA a decade earlier. Dancers would punch the air between songs, shouting: “Right on now!” 

But what about the girls in attendance? While some have called Northern Soul a sexist scene, the overwhelming recollection is one of equality – as Elaine Constantine told the Guardian, you might even go as far as saying the girls were more predatory than the boys. Absorbing aspects of the boys’ look, girls on the scene held the advantage for breathability in the packed-out clubs: full circle skirts that fell to the ankle would swirl as they twirled, exaggerating the skilled movements. Hair was often kept cropped, echoing across from that different style strand that emerged out of mod, skinheads. Not that the girls or boys would automatically know what to wear when they entered the club for the first time – it’s not like any mainstream media outlets were prepared to endorse what was seen by elders as first and foremost a drug-fuelled scene. Yvonne Duckett, who designed the women’s costumes for Constantine’s film, describes her first experience of Wigan Casino, aged 14, in Northern Soul: An Illustrated History: “We’d obviously come wearing the wrong clothes. It was so hot in there and I was wearing a green polo-neck jumper. Under the fluorescent strip lights you could see my white bra all night and I was really self-conscious about it.”

“Early fashion nodded to a classic mod style, but as the dancing got faster ­and the hours in the club longer, the burgeoning style tribe needed to carve its own identity”

One of the UK’s most enduring, evocative style subcultures, Northern Soul is a prime example of fashion and music’s mutual ability not only to shape subcultures, but to absorb vibrations of youth cultures across the world decades before internet connectivity and Pinterest boards. Ripping style codes of the past in order to start again, the clothing of Northern Soul lets us tap into a nostalgia that’s more about an attitude than mere appearances. The look of the clothes was a direct consequence of their function – non-stop dancing – and capture the pure, real adrenaline of adolescence. The three songs that traditionally ended every all-nighter speak to the mix of endurance and era specificity that marks Northern Soul style: “Time Will Pass You By” by Tobi Legend, “Long After Tonight is Over” by Jimmy Radcliffe, and “I’m On My Way” by Dean Parrish.

See all the images from Topman Design below: