Written November 2011
The evolution and revolution associated with one particular subculture
Weird & Wonderful
Since 1945, the world has seen an explosion of subcultures consisting of youths eager to do something different, something counter-culture, something that says “Bugger Off” to expectations and a world that worships the money god. These groups, whose ideas and lifestyles are inconsistent with those of the prevailing lifestyle, are usually dominated by the young and often cause some controversy. Some members of subcultures only stay within their group for a short period of time while they go through a ‘phase’; others migrate from group to group and some hold a lifelong commitment to one subculture only. Belonging to a subculture can be liberating and often provides certain freedoms that the rest of society won’t allow an individual to experience regarding lifestyle, appearance, beliefs, sexuality or politics. When an individual fits into the geographical, social and aesthetic boundaries prescribed by their subculture they achieve a sense of belonging and family. Click bottom of article for more! Before WWII, not many subcultures existed in the West. Some of the most prominent subcultures from before the 20th century were the Incroyables, Pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group. These groups risked mockery, and even social exclusion, to dress and behave effeminately as they wanted to considering that at that time, only aristocrats and artists were allowed to be so indulgently flamboyant. However, after the massive watershed of WWII, culture and society underwent a huge change. Alternative attire and behaviour was now not just for the elite. Post-war subcultures flourished because of high employment rates and the fact that teenagers suddenly found themselves to be affluent. Numerous subcultures popped up, including hippies, punks, beatniks, mods, Rudeboys, greasers, teddy boys, 2tone and indie, though by far the most contentious and misjudged subculture were the skinheads.
Skinheads have transformed and evolved immensely over the past 50 years. Different factions, media scandals, controversies, fashions, political viewpoints, protests, music statements, misrepresentations and relationships are just a part of what makes up the complicated skinhead history. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of skinheads.
The Beginning – the 60’s
The skinhead subculture formed in the 60’s, through a fusion of the working class British youngsters and the first generation of Jamaican immigrants. The Jamaican immigrants brought with them their sleek suits, bowler hats and pulsating music. The working-class kids of England immediately took a liking to the Jamaicans’ rhythmic music, smart dress sense and notion of brotherhood, and the two groups came together. The soon-to-be skinheads befriended the Jamaicans and took on board their style. They merged this new look and belief system with the prevailing consumerist subculture of the Mods. The Mods wore expensive suits and rode polished motorcycles and scooters. Eventually, these luxuries became too expensive for some mods who then turned to the simplistic up and coming skinhead style. Early skinheads sported tidy Edwardian-inspired suits when they needed to dress up, but ordinarily wore button-up shirts tucked into jeans, with worker style boots, typically of the Dr Martens brand. Their look frightened some people who didn’t understand the meaning of the tough boots and shaved heads, and thought the skinhead style promoted violence. Though in actual fact, the shaved head was due to the fact that many skinheads of the 60’s worked in factories, where close-cropped hair was the safest and most practical hairstyle. The boots and tucked in shirts with suspenders were also worn due to the practicality, simplicity and safety provided. Obviously when working in a factory, sturdy boots are the best footwear option, and tucking in your shirt minimises the risk of accidents in workplaces that involve heavy machinery. The younger skinheads, despite still being in school and not working in dangerous factories, adopted the same appearance because they looked up to the older skinheads.
Some people who found the skinhead style too harsh opted to go for a suedehead look, where their hair was a little bit longer, and they wore suits every day, as opposed to only wearing them at formal events. Skinhead and suedehead groups had good relations amongst themselves and often mingled.
To some who were viewing skinheads from afar, the subculture seemed like a dangerous gang who were keen to cause havoc in the streets. But the truth is far from this. The reason why skinheads formed a united faction was due to the fact that the young men who made up the subculture were ignored and excluded from the pop culture of the time. The 60’s was a flashy time of glitz and glamour, where money meant enjoyment and acceptance. The working-class kids of crummy English council houses could not fit within this mould of carefree spending and idolatry of fresh-faced pop stars. As all young people, they desperately wanted somewhere to fit in, so of course they turned to each other. Masses of kids who were neglected by pop culture or even their own families became skinheads, and felt whole, like they finally had a home.
Contrary to the racist label pinned onto skinheads, they were actually some of the first people in the UK to accept the arrival of immigrants in to the country. They embraced Jamaican reggae, black soul music and rocksteady, and fused it with white rock and roll to create a genre of music called Ska. Working-class British youngsters would work on the docks that new Jamaican immigrants would also seek work at, allowing the cultures to mingle.
Practically all skinheads of the 60’s were peaceful, barring the occasional scuffle outside the pub or football stadium. These young people were some of the first to unite black and white, and just wanted to find a community which they could belong to.
The Caustic Generation – Late 70’s to 80’s
During most of the 70’s, seeing a skinhead was quite a rare phenomenon. By the late 70’s and into the 80’s, the skinheads resurfaced, though many were very different to their predecessors.
Unfortunately, by this time skinheads were synonymous with only one thing: racism. This was due to organisations such as the National Front, British Movement, Rock Against Communism (a reaction to the Rock Against Racism music festivals) and Blood & Honour arising in the 80’s and recruiting predominantly young men onto their side. The British Movement appealed to young men in particular because it provided an outlet for frustration. These belligerent youths were immensely susceptible to poisonous thoughts, and immediately fell into neo-Nazi groups. Fascist groups began recruiting racist Skinheads (whom the genuine Skins nicknamed Boneheads) to act as foot soldiers in bloody street fights with immigrants, racial minorities and Communists. They sent out flyers to high schools, filled music that appealed to young men with hateful lyrics and used word of mouth to recruit their ‘army’. Members of these movements who weren’t already skinheads decided to toughen up their image by shaving their heads, wearing worker’s boots and suspenders with button up shirts, and decided to call themselves the ‘real’ skinheads. This immediately brought a huge stigma upon other skinheads who did not hold any prejudiced ideals at all.
The fuel that fed the flame of the neo-Nazi skinheads was the mass media exposure they received (because the media loves horror stories). Once neo-Nazi leaders had established a foothold thanks to the media, they got straight to work on creating their own malicious music genres and terrorising any foreigner they came across. They engaged in Paki-bashing (beating up any South Asian who happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time), hippie-bashing and gay-bashing. They relished in smashing the shop windows of hardworking migrants who were just trying to start a new life in a supposedly safe country.
The neo-Nazis of England stood fast to calling themselves the ‘true skinheads’ who were simply ‘concerned about the future of England’. For people who apparently wanted England to be safe, their actions did quite the opposite.
Frighteningly enough, the National Front was actually seen as a legitimate political party in the 80’s, and seemingly ordinary men and women were drawn to the organisation as well as violent young thugs. In the 1979 elections in the UK, the National Front amassed 191,791 (Source: Wikipedia ‘The National Front’) votes. But thankfully, with the huge anti-racism movement amongst the youth of England in the 80’s, including the Rock Against Racism music festivals which featured massively influential bands like The Clash and Buzzcocks, these racists were finally surpressed in the UK. Of course, they still exist in small numbers, but there’s been a huge decline since the 80’s when bonehead numbers were at alarming highs.
It wasn’t too long before the boneheads spread to other parts of the world, particularly Russia, America, Germany and some smaller European nations like Czechoslovakia. In America, these neo-Nazis became very intimately associated with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organisations like Church of the Creator and White Aryan Resistance (WAR). New organisations also sprang up, like the Hammerskins. They also revived, for a brief period of time, organisations like the Hitler Youth. In 1988, there were approximately 2000 neo-Nazi skinheads in the US. They were hardly the fearsome army that they imagined themselves to be, but they were a threat to peace in America nonetheless.
To combat these American boneheads, several anti-racism and anti-fascist organisations arose, chief of those SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), who now have branches all over the world, including Australia. They weren’t averse to physically ‘taking care of’ boneheads that they ran into, but nowadays the organisation is a respectable anti-fascism group that has no political agenda and goes on peaceful marches. A smaller organisation called Baldies was also formed to educate the public about the illegitimacy of racist boneheads.
Neo-Nazis hold none of the same principles of mateship and resilience that original skinheads held. They are simply using the cover of the skinhead subculture to somehow validate their own beliefs and get some attention with their unnerving appearance.
Thanks to the idiotic brutes who simply donned a certain attire and therefore believed they could be skinheads, an entire subculture of well-meaning, hard-working people was dishonoured and slandered. The general public at large fail to comprehend that the actions of a minority do not represent everyone within a particular group. Because of the large white supremacist movements in America and England in the 80’s, and the groups that still exist today in America and Europe, the mainstream media has labelled the whole skinhead community as passionate White Supremacists who lynch anyone they don’t approve of.
In America, Russia and Germany, however, neo-Nazis still hold a firm, underground foothold. Though they still aren’t, and never will be, the world conquering military force they so wish to be.
Rebirth and Dissemination- Today
Now, in the 21st Century, skinheads are still generally seen as bad guys, misrepresented by the ferocious media. Ever since the 80’s, the media has been absolutely fanatic about generating stories which feature mysterious skinhead rituals and traditions. Films like ‘Romper Stomper’ and ‘This Is England’ also glamourize and promote the racist skinhead as opposed to the real ones. Such accusations have put a horrid blight upon skinheads which will be very hard to erase.
The media like to label a group of mates as a ‘gang’ if they happen to be skinheads (similarly, they label groups of friends of a particular ethnicity as ‘gangs’ as well e.g. Middle Easterners or African Americans) and frequently ignore the real facts when reporting on criminal cases involving skinheads. For example, in The West Australian newspaper article titled ‘Teenager charged with school fight’ (Australian Youth Subcultures, 7/3/91 pg. 27)“The 19 year old was allegedly part of a gang of at least three.” Does it really constitute as a vicious skinhead gang if it only consists of three members?
Another West Australian article called ‘Police swoop on gang’ (24/5/90, pg. 30)2 caused a fair bit of panic in the community, but eventually it was found that the alleged ‘gang’ was only a pair of erroneous youths. In ‘Police target gang wars’ (20/3/95, pg. 5)2 four incidents were cited. The largest group involved only three people.
Examples such as these make it clear that the media relishes in producing a fear-inducing story where they can talk about gangs and gangland wars, whereas in reality, only a couple of people are involved in minor incidents. Skinheads, more than any other subculture, seem to be the ones targeted the most in such phony news reports.
As for the neo-Nazi skinheads, luckily they are in smaller numbers than the 80’s. America still has a large population of White Supremacists scattered all over the country, particularly in the south, but their membership doesn’t normally consist of skinheads.
Germany and Russia have had problems with racist skinheads in the past few years, however. Three bonehead terrorists were arrested in Germany in November 2011 for killing 10 people over a period of 14 years and committing 14 bank robberies.
Overall though, the power, influence and validity of boneheads and white supremacists have diminished.
Sadly, the few remaining genuine skinheads are having their authenticity stripped away from them due to haute couture’s greedy grasp and pretentious teenagers trying to be cool. The symbols, beliefs and ideology of this subculture, along with many others, are slowly being denigrated with its commercialisation. ‘Who is who?’ has never been a more confusing question.
High fashion is stealing street styles of all kind, but seems to focus on taking away the integrity of skinhead fashion particularly. Skinheads emerged as an iconoclastic subculture alternative to high fashion because they simply couldn’t afford to dress so elegantly, and were thus forced to create something different, innovative and most importantly, cheap. The labels that original skinheads used to wear now exert dominant sartorial influence. International fashion designers are attracted by the energy and rawness of the streets and try to harness it in their designs. They of course lose the essential aspects of a subculture as passionate and powerful as the skinheads. As Amy de la Haye, author of ‘Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads and Skaters- Subcultural style from the forties to the nineties’ said in her book, “Fashion’s focus is, of course, upon clothing and adornment, rather than rooted in ideas and lifestyles.”
The skinhead of the 60’s wore only what he could afford. His worker boots, his braces, his dress shirts, were inexpensive and inelegant items. These days, a pair of Dr Martens boots, the staple piece of skinhead fashion, cost around $200 (ASOS). Dr Martens are to skinheads what Harley Davidsons are to bikies, what safety pins are to punks, what tie-dye is hippies, and yet, because of the commercialisation and apparent ‘coolness’ of certain skinhead fashions, they aren’t affordable for most working class people. In fact, the quintessentially English Dr Martens aren’t even made in England anymore. If you want to buy a pair specially made in England, that’ll cost you an extra $503, thank you.
Same goes for practically everything else that was a focal aspect of skinhead dress sense. Ben Sherman cardigan: $1803. Fred Perry button up shirt: $1403. Levi’s jeans: $164. Harrington jacket: $2403. Porkpie hat: $603. Braces: $203. Being a skinhead these days certainly is a lot more of a burden on your wallet than it was just 15 years ago.
The whole point of skinhead fashion was that the average factory worker or miner could easily buy the attire he required. But we seem to have lost that sense of verity. High fashion’s interest in ‘real people’ has made it impossible for ‘real people’ to buy anything they want.
Another factor that has reduced the believability of skinhead fashion is the large amount of clueless kids who buy these overpriced items. In the past few years, a new subculture has emerged called Hipsters, who are teenagers or young adults that desperately want to appear intellectual and historically savvy, and are very image-conscious. Ask them what spirit their Dr. Marten boots embody or who made the boot an icon, and they will stare at you blankly. To skinheads believing in what you wore was essential. Teenie bop weenies wearing lavish things they saw in a Cleo magazine is exactly what skinheads wanted to escape from. It’s ironic and saddening that the skinheads’ own items are being worn by supermodels and ignorant teens, and promote the mass consumerist society that skinheads were so strongly against.
Skinheads Aren’t Dead!
In the 21st century, skinheads are more diverse than they have ever been. Black and white skinheads have always existed, but now a huge population of Latino and Chinese skinheads has also arisen, along with skinheads of many other cultural backgrounds. This shows that skinheads aren’t dead, and are still flourishing in certain communities, though they don’t dominate youth subcultures as much as they did in the 60’s and 80’s.
Misrepresented by the disgusting minority, skinheads are a resilient group of people who have been more important to the changing attitudes of society, fashion, social reform and youth culture than anyone cares to admit.
Spot the Difference
– Cortez, Daniel. (2005). History. Available: http://www.skinheadrevolt.com/content/info/history.html. Last accessed 20 November 2011.
– Watson, Gavin. (2010). Gavin Watson Photography. Available: http://gavinwatsonsphotography.blogspot.com/. Last accessed 19 November 2011
– Lee. (2010). History. Available: http://londonskinheads1970sand1980s.webs.com/ . Last accessed 19 November 2011
– Libcom. (2006). 1960-today: Skinhead culture. Available: http://libcom.org/history/articles/skinheads . Last accessed 20 November 2011
– Pidd, Helen. (2011). How could German neo-Nazi killers have evaded police for 13 years?. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/18/how-german-neo-nazis-evaded-police?INTCMP=SRCH. Last accessed 19 November 2011.
– Various. (Unknown). National Front, Skinheads, Rudeboys, Mods. Available: Various. Last accessed 20 November 2011.
– ASOS, Various Pages. Available: http://www.asos.com. Last accessed 20 November 2011
– Tumblr, Various Pages, Available: http://tumblr.com. Last accessed 20 November 2011
– Man Alive – What’s the truth about skinheads? Documentary, 2010, United Kingdom, BBC TV
– Roots of the Skinhead, 2006, United Kingdom, Skinhead Attitude, Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion AG
– SHARP, 2008, United Kingdom, The Hood Up
– Skinhead Reggae 1970- Skinhead Moonstomp, 2007, United Kingdom, Production Company Unknown
– Skinheads and Rude Boys London 1970, Original 1970, rereleased 2007, United Kingdom
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– de la Haye, Amy; Dingwall, Cathie; McGrath, Daniel (1996). Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads & Skaters: Subcultural Style from the forties to the nineties. London: Victoria and Albert Museum. All.
– Sercombe, Howard. (1999). Boots, gangs and addictions: Youth subcultures and the media. In: White, Rob Australian Youth Subcultures. Hobart: Australian Clearinghouse for Youth Studies. All.