The economics of mods and skins

Last month I compared rates of violent crime between my generation and my daughters. It featured lots of teenage nostalgia, and was the most popular blog I have written in ages. As a follow up I wanted to extend the comparison to the generation before me – the baby boomers.

We think of the 60s as a violent decade. The Kray twins, mods and rockers fighting on Brighton beach. Although violent crime doubled over the course of the 1960s crime was much lower than the 80s or 90s:

Turns out that there are more movies, rock operas and books about mods and rockers fighting on Brighton beach than there were actual mods and rockers fighting on Brighton beach. More films about the Kray Twins that people killed by the Kray twins.

The rise in crime was driven by changes in the economy. There was more theft because there were more things to steal, for the first time since WW2 Britain was a consumer society.

People typically think of the baby boomer generation coming of age in the Summer of Love and going to Woodstock or the Isle of Wight festival, but this is only really true for middle class baby boomers who stayed on at school or went to University. 

In the UK in the 1960s most working class kids left between 14 and 16, and only a tiny fraction stayed on at school past then.   The bulk of British baby boomers left school and joined the mod or beat group generation, not the hippies.   

The immediate post war era was a golden age for pay rises. regularly averaging over 7% per year (over the last 10 years the average pay rise has been 1.5%). Most people left school without qualifications and were able to find well paid, secure manual work. Partly this was driven by shortages of labour after WW2; Britain was desperate for people to help rebuild the country.  The arrival of the Windrush Generation provided workers for public sector employers like London Underground, and the NHS.

This was the golden age of trades unions, collective bargaining and pay differentials, brilliantly satirised in The Boulting brothers classic “I’m Alright Jack” in which Peter Sellers plays a militant shop steward, a prototype Len McCluskey but without the penthouse flat.

Fred Kite. One out, all out

This was also however a world where men worked and women stayed at home.  A world before Equal Pay Acts and Divorce Law reform.   High pay rates were effectively a breadwinner premium paid to men in excess of their productivity to limit the economic opportunities of married women. 

This kind of gendered pay may sound like a different era but there were North East Labour-run Local Authorities paying a male premium on wage rates well into the C21st, with the active connivance of Trades Unions. 

14-16 year school leavers entered the workforce at a time when there were plenty of jobs, particularly in urban areas.  The increase in youth employment opportunities created a growth spiral; as wages for young people rose so did their spending power; as their spending power rose new business sprung up to meet consumer demand.

If you left school when the first Beatles LP was released by the time England won the World Cup you would have had a 35% pay increase.   If you were one of the working class kids who entered the new industries of advertising, photography, magazines, TV or music the pay rises were faster.  

New jobs were created in industries like advertising, pop music, TV and journalism which sucked in talent from working class young men who previously would have gone into factories.

Depictions of social mobility and employment in movies like Blow Up encourage the idea that it was all about working class kids becoming super cool fashion photographers, however the reality was often a bit more mundane.

For example; in the mid 60s cheap colour printing led to an explosion in magazines.  There were several weekly publications aimed entirely as housewives, such as Woman, Woman’s Own, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Realm.  n the 1960s these magazines sold upwards of 5 million copies a week, and provided plenty of work for journalists, print setters, illustrators, photographers. This was the era before desktop publishing and the physical production, printing and distribution of these titles employed huge numbers.    Demand for illustrators for magazines and book publishers drew in writers and artists from all across the UK and Europe to Soho.

Inspired by the growth of teenage fashion Hepworths the Tailors expanded their range of stores to take on the market leading Montague Burton (the Tailor of Taste).  Hepworths launched the first UK in-store credit programme, Club 24, which advanced money to salaried young men to buy mod suits.   They also launched the UK’s first designer diffusion collection with Hardy Aimes.  The store managers, the people picking the fashions and designing the advertising copy, were from the early 60s mod generation.

A typical mod may have been more likely to be working for Hepworths or Burtons, or Woman’s Realm than a Carnaby Street boutique, or being David Bailey, but these were still new, lucrative jobs, that supported a white collar lifestyle with disposable income.

These economic changes brought with them social changes too.  The attitudes of young people  were changing.  

The Mods obsession with black American RnB and Jamaican Ska originated with the people they grew up with.  They were the first generation who went to school with non-white classmates, sharing classrooms with the children of the first immigrant generation, particularly in big cities like London and Birmingham.   They responded to the style and music of their black neighbours.

That doesn’t mean that they were socially liberal in the way we think of anti-racism today, but it does mean that they had a close affinity with black immigrant populations in urban areas where they had grown up

We‘re heroworshipping the Spades,’ Dick Hebidge quotes a 60s mod in Subculture. This captures the rather limited sense of racial awareness.

It’s hard to gauge how diverse the 60s mod scene was. Certainly it produced the first mixed race pop groups:

And the audience that invades the Beatles stage at the end are definitely more diverse than I expected:

Hey Jude marred only by Lennon’s t-shirt and bow tie combination.

They were also the generation who grew up with the pill.   The oral contraceptive pill had been available in the UK from 1961, but only for married women.  From 1966 the Wilson Government made it available for the whole population, although it had circulated semi-legally before then.  In 1967 abortion was made legal, and the birth rate fell.   The 1968 cohort (that’s me) was the smallest of the post war era.

This of course was before women entered the workforce en masse and started to compete for jobs, so it was easier to pay lip service to feminism particularly if it meant more sex. The rise of feminism and demands of gender equality looked very different if you were a sharp suited twenty something with a white collar job, high disposable income, enjoying the era of sexual liberalisation.

Finally and most complicated were the attitudes towards homosexuality.  

The mod scene and the gay scene had a number of crossover points, through clubs like Le Duce, the Masquerade or the Apollo.  The gay scene had a massive impact on mod fashion, and gay tailors set the tone for increasingly dandified style code.   

If you want to understand how underground the gay scene was think about the number of references to homosexuality in popular music. I have piles of 60s pop records, and I could only find 2 records with any acknowledgement of homosexuality: Do You Come Here Often by the Tornadoes, and Dedicated Follower of Fashion by The Kinks (based on gay tailor Tommy Nutter and his “frilly nylon panties”). The Tornados of course were proteges of the great Joe Meek.   Care of Cell 44 by the Zombies, with it’s oblique references to the Leo Abse Act was enough to get their second album canned for over a year by their record label

Tommy Nutter

The sharp suits of the mods, the psychedelic finery of the hippies, and their relatively progressive social attitudes were the products of a labour market without much competition and a set of social changes that were favourable to them. The rise of a well off, young, upwardly mobile mod crowd particularly in London went hand in hand with more liberal social attitudes

The world was very different for their younger brothers and sisters

Post War Governments had followed Stop/Go economic policies and in the first few years of the Wilson Government they had been in the Go phase. Harold Wilson increased government spending to boost the economy; abolition of prescription charges, introduction of supplementary benefits, increases to pensions, disability allowance, widows benefits, sickness benefits. This would be the largest increase in benefits and pensions in the history of the welfare state until New labour introduced Tax Credits.

By 1967 worried about inflation rising, and a balance of payments crisis they embarked on the Stop phase, raising interest rates and reducing spending. Prescription charges were re-introduced, and the pound devalued to try and stop another balance of payments crisis.  

The obsession with balance of payments in the pre-EU era was so extreme that British citizens could only move £250 per year out of the country without prior approval.  When Spurs tried to buy Jimmy Greaves from AC Milan for £100,000 the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to personally agree the deal. 

By 1968 the labour market was a much tougher place. Once the baby boomers had entered the workforce the labour shortage ended, and it got harder for unions to drive through wage increases. Average pay rises fell from 9% in 1964 to 7% in 1966 to 1% by 1968.  If you entered the workforce when England won the World Cup you would have to wait until Sunderland won the FA cup in 1973 to achieve the same pay rises that workers achieved 63-66.

Unemployment was higher in this era; averaging 1.5% between 1964-66 it rose to 2.5% between 1967-70 and 3.5% between 70-73.

Low wages and rising unemployment hardened attitudes to immigration: Wilson introduced the Commonwealth Immigration Act to head off rising discontent, while Enoch Powell made his infamous rivers of blood speech

The Mods came from the mid-60s era of high pay increases, and easy to find white collar employment.  Their style and attitudes reflect that.   Skinheads appear a few years later and both in style and attitude reflect the more austere environment.

The first skinheads emerged in the late 1960s taking elements of Mod and Jamaican immigrant fashion. They adopted a self-conciously working class identity, complete with braces and work boots. The tough working-class counterpoints to foppish mods, and long-haired hippies

One of the oddest things about the Skinhead scene of the late 60s early 70s was the mixture of Ska and Reggae music and overt racism.   

Like the mods the early skinheads had grown up with black classmates, and black music, and white skinheads took on an identity that mixed admiration for white working class culture with kinship with a new generation of working-class West Indian immigrants. Like the Jamaican immigrants of the time, the first skinheads were clean-cut, neat, and sharp-looking compared to the shaggy hippies and dandified mods..

But unlike the mods they were competing more directly with immigrants for jobs, and blamed immigration for low wages.   They still looked up to the older generation of Jamaican immigrants, many of whom had brought with them some rather prejudiced views of women and in particular homosexuals

They were also the generation who encountered a new generation of Asian immigrants who came to this country in the late 60s and 70s either straight from Indian, Pakistan and Bangladesh to work for the NHS, or from Kenya and Uganda after the Amin purges.

They became the focus of skinhead racist violence.

By the early 70s the list of targets for “bashing” had extended to include homosexuals as well.

As the 70s went on white skinheads lost their affinity for Jamaican culture as Ska gave way to Rastafari and dub, with their emphasis on black pride and pan-Africanism. The skinhead scene moved close to the far right as the National Front targeted skinheads and football hooligans for recruitment as “political soldiers”.

50 year on the skinhead as became an archetype, present around the world, ubiquitously associated with the far right.

The prevalence of skins can be seen in this amazing drawing from the East German Stasi in the 80s. East German goths apparently were called Grufties, hippies were Trampers.

Red Square is dead square we know that for a fact. Because there ain’t no Mods in the Warsaw Pact

If the skinhead was a archetype of the white working man; braces, boots, cropped hair, the mod was a subversion of the English gent – smart suit, shirt tie, neat hair, with complex style codes and signifiers hidden in the details.

While the skinhead, like the hippy and the punk, have become universal style codes, the Mod hasn’t travelled or translated as well. Tokyo has perfect gangs of teddy boys, punks, and rockers, but no mods. Apart from Southern California the mod scene was pretty much exclusively British.

The mod look has however become a timeless style which every generation reinvents; Paul Weller, Liam Gallagher, Martin Freeman. No-one however reinvents it better than Hedi Slimane for Dior and Celine:

The contrast between the 2 sets of photos is pretty stark. Skinhead has become the fashion code for every thuggish dickhead from Charlotteville to Vladivostok. Mod has become a timeless fashion style re-invented again for every generation. The economic circumstances of the birth of the 2 style codes shape their future evolution even now.

I opened last months blog with a photo of me as a teenage mod. I was never much of a skinhead, but I did give it a go once.

Look away now if you are easily shocked

Subculture, Dick Hebidge

Resistance Through Rituals, Hall and Jefferson

The Sixties, Marwick

1966, Savage

Noonday Underground, Wolfe

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