Currently reading : SB6 Archive (2012): Mysterious Skins
Unusually in the context of sub-cultures, skinheadism has continued to manifest itself in extremely disparate and paradoxical forms for over forty years. Beginning in the 60s, skinheadism is characterised by a persistent yet basic fashion and, through its multiple branches, by an ability to continually reinvent itself. Initially linked to chauvinist proletarian cultures, skinhead culture refers to an ever-growing spectrum of ideologies or lifestyles. Within such a prism, it is possible to address questions relating to class relationships, intercultural convergences, the nauseous drifts of radical right wing groups, homoeroticism or the globalisation of sub-cultures.
Gimme some of that ole moonstomping
For Dick Hebdige, skinhead culture dates from 1966 when the mod movement began to crack into two separate trends. On the one hand, a few mods got closer to middle class standards by paying more attention to the way they dressed and helping to shape the image of Carnaby Street during the years of Swinging London. On the other, a more popular faction – known as 'hard mod' – sought to differentiate itself as much as possible from middle class codes. The combination of polished Doc Martens, Levi’s Sta-Prest, Ben Sherman shirts, suspenders and shaved hair appeared as both a humble and standard uniform. By dressing like this, hard mods offered a contemporary redefinition of work garments traditionally worn in working-class spheres. This was a radical way to detach themselves from the bourgeois wing of the mod trend. The adoption of such a uniform reveals the nature of skinhead culture. Indeed, as much for its fashion as for the ideas it conveys, skinheadism stems from a vision of values and symbols extracted from popular culture. Moreover, in the struggle resulting from the transformations during post-war Great Britain, its aim was to restore a certain class-consciousness before immigration waves, the loosening of morals, or property speculation could “corrupt” it. A whole generation sought to bring back – imaginatively – the authentic lifestyles that their parents abandoned by adopting middle-class aspirations. As Phil Cohen judiciously puts it, skinhead culture tried to solve inherited contradictions “magically”.
Such a desire to revive forgotten British traditions was not exempt from paradox. Effectively, this return to traditional values was strongly based on cultural diversity, especially on the influence of Jamaican music – ska playing a major role in the first phase of skinhead culture. Indeed, because of the rudimentary and repetitive nature of ska, it offered an alternative to the more sophisticated orchestrations of progressive rock, the middle-class musical genre par excellence. From 1969 on, in places like the Ska Bar, the vision of mods adopting rude boys’ fashion and dancing the moontstomp on a mix of soul, ska and rocksteady was common. A few Jamaican groups also started producing records solely dedicated to this emerging wave. The phenomenon’s growth became such that reggae was eventually called “skinhead music”. This intercultural effervescence, and above all the interest of a white audience in this music largely contributed to the diffusion of reggae among mainstream networks in England.
"In certain cities, and specifically in London, this phenomenon has grown to the extent that some original skinheads have abandoned their uniforms."
A lace-up trajectory
Throughout the 70s, there were ever-growing racial disparities. On the one hand, reggae strongly propagated a rastafarianism’s sympathetic to the Black Power movement. On the other, one could see an answer from a fringe of skinhead culture, essentially based on racial criteria. This embryonic trend eventually found its base of support via football fans and other groups who later came to be known as the 'white power scene'. The adaptation of a basic rhetoric – generally founded on white racial supremacy and anti-Semitism – to fundamentally different socio-historical contexts allowed the diffusion of this nauseous trend all over Europe. Attacks against foreign communities, gays or hippies became widespread. In the early 80s, the level of radicalism reached by this “race war” and its sensationalist coverage in the media led to the assimilation of skinhead movement with those former members who had drifted towards neo-nazism.
However, not every skinhead lapsed into this tragic extremism. Some of the lovers of the music from which the movement originated kept championing the intercultural exchanges that defined the movement in the early years. Such a dynamic was made obvious during the ska revival of the late 70s which saw the success of multiracial bands such as The Selecter or The Specials. Following the same spirit, others got involved into an overtly politicised struggle, often of Marxist or anarchist obedience, and set up collectives against the perceived fascist threat. This latter trend, which is based on the promotion of multicultural exchanges, stands for the traditional, or 'trad', version of skinhead culture. Since then, if fashion has remained somewhat unchanged, lace colour has allowed various skinheads to define their camp. White laces signify a belonging to the National Front while red ones refer to radical left wing trends.
From the 80s on, the skinhead uniform has seen another paradoxical appropriation. Indeed, it has since then been largely spread among gay communities. This version of the skinhead uniform could impose itself via fashion, thanks to the works of designers such as Steve McQueen or Jean-Paul Gaultier, and via cinematic productions such as those of Bruce La Bruce. Such a combination has been one of the most surprising since – particularly in its neo-nazi guise – skinhead culture has always been marked by a powerful homoeroticism, generally translated into violent acts against members of gay communities. The reasons for this volte-face are multiple, but this fashion putsch has surely contributed to defuse xenophobic aspects attached to skinhead style by re-injecting it into fashion circuits. In certain cities, and specifically in London, this phenomenon has grown to the extent that some original skinheads have abandoned their uniforms.
Whether it is through a return to authentic values, intercultural dialogue, racism or cultural identity, through every mutation, skinheadism has unveiled new paradoxes. As pointed out by Les Back, the aesthetic carried through this style has lost its original meaning a long time ago. This reveals that the dynamics underlying contemporary socio-cultural processes are fundamentally hybrid and versatile. Far from being reduced to territorial or communitarian claims, skinhead culture perfectly exemplifies the complex processes of dissemination and reinterpretation subjacent to sub-cultures on a global scale.