We’ve all seen it. The sea of shaven scalps. Right arms raised in salute through the sleeve of a military bomber jacket. Levi’s. Worn-down Doc Martens laced up well above the ankle. White skin. The union flag. And most damning of all, the crude anger strewn across the face. Skinhead: the look of the neo-Nazi. Even now, 40 years on from the movement’s doomed second wave, the sight alone of a bare-headed Ben Sherman wearer is enough to make an onlooker (internally) question, “racist?”. Never has a subculture been so fraught with controversy, and never has it been so eager to betray its roots. But before the media hijacks fascist ideologies and football rivalries, the Skinhead movement emerged from England’s working-class estates as a symbol of racial harmony. It didn’t last.
The 1960s saw England ‘welcome’ an influx of Jamaican immigrants, many of whom took up residence in poorer, inner-city areas. And as the native working-class rejected the bourgeois hippie ideals of the time, they embraced the style sported by many of their new neighbours, known as Rudeboy. This, combined with the already popular Mod dress, would form the basis of Skinhead fashion.
Mod and Rudeboy were aligned in their love of sharp suits, and elements of formal dress made their way into the Skins style too. There was the short leg of the trouser, a way to flaunt pristine white socks, and – for skins – boots. Levi’s Sta-Prest were the jean of choice, as they could be worn straight out of the wash with no ironing necessary. Perfect youth attire; neat with minimal effort. You already know the boots. Classic English leather from Northamptonshire’s finest. Workmanlike, they earned respect from the elders of working-class communities, benefitting the Skinhead in social standings as well as aesthetic. Button-down shirts became staples, the aforementioned Ben Sherman among the most popular brands of the day. These quintessential English garments gave Skins a sense of pride, in both their country and their clean-cut, presentable look. Outerwear included Harrington, bomber, and denim jackets. For the Skins up North, there were also long Crombie coats to keep out the cold.
Many of the garments had military associations, and so too did the hair. As the hippies championed femininity through length, the Skinheads began wearing their hair short. Very short. Some adopted shaved partings, a direct Rudeboy reference. Long before the days of cultural appropriation, this was seen as a sign of acceptance, of gratefulness for the existence of this new trend and people. It inspired a sense of solidarity within the working-class; an ode to their background and upbringing.
There’s so much to celebrate within the Skinhead style. Practicality, stylishness, heritage, community, but all of that now rings hollow as the clothes are soaked in an air of racism and thuggishness; connotations that will never be erased.
There’s so much to celebrate within the Skinhead style. Practicality, stylishness, heritage, community, but all of that now rings hollow as the clothes are soaked in an air of racism and thuggishness; connotations that will never be erased. Modern Skinheads must choose whether to accept these prejudices, or discard the electric razor, unlace the boots, and walk away.
It was during the 1980s that things changed. A second wave of Skinheads rose from the ashes of punk, spurred on by the advent of 2Tone Records – a shortlived Ska label home to bands such as The Specials, and Madness. But within the ranks of the subculture, violent, often racist tendencies came to fore. As ‘paki-bashing’ incidents garnered media attention, many peaceful, apolitical Skinheads abandoned the movement altogether, and as the balance tipped in the favour of racism, more violent, far-right individuals joined. They stole the look, and they hijacked the culture. This can be seen two ways, either as a deviant, premeditated “fuck you” to the Windrush generation, or as ignorant, downright hypocrisy. To assert the former is to presume intelligence on the part of neo-Nazis.
The power of Skinhead lies in its simplicity. The homogeneity of the shaven heads, once a symbol of peace, became a way to avoid police identification. Steel toe-cap boots, now weapons used for bludgeoning immigrants in train stations and back alleys. Even the shirts, distorted into an extreme nationalist statement. For the media, it was an easy stereotype, and one they dutifully endorsed. Fascists within the subculture were keen to back this link with racism, exploiting it as a new brand of far-right extremism.
Today we can reflect on the theft of Skinhead is a blatant example of cultural appropriation and a stark reminder of the power of fashion. Unfortunately, at the time it wasn’t so simple. While the Skinhead subculture may never be fully reclaimed, perhaps it’s time to openly condemn those who commandeered yet another part of Black British culture. Anger and fear are common responses to Skinhead sightings today. For the far-right, shame might be more appropriate.
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