Skinheads are one of the most controversial renegade youth cultures. Taking pride in their working-class roots, they nevertheless carry with them an enduring association with right-wing political extremism and football hooliganism that dates back to the rise of the National Front party in the 1970s.
The perception of skinheads being aggressive is reinforced by the stripped-back hard functionalism of their dress; the shaved hair, big boots and tight jeans suggesting an aggressive masculinity. Skinheads look like they are dressed for ‘aggro’ or ‘bother’, hence one of their earned nicknames ‘bovver boys’, and ‘bovver boots’ to describe their footwear.
However, like all subcultures, looks can be misleading. Over the years skinhead culture has diversified and opened up to different groups, many of whom seek to distance the style from its negative associations.
Both the ska music revival of the late 1970s, known as 2-Tone, and the emergence of the SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) skins in the late 1980s have helped to do this. The adoption of the skinhead look by gay men in the early 1990s has also helped to diversify and blur the meaning of skinhead style.
The skinhead outfit in Brighton’s Renegade collection reflects the importance of the original look of the early 1970s to contemporary skinhead culture, for example the attention paid to details such as the width of trouser turn-ups and the colour of laces.
Skinheads grew out of the Mod subculture in the late 1960s, sharing the same interest in the sharp suits and Ska and Blue-Beat music of the Jamaican rude boys. This relationship to Mod is reflected in the importance of detailing in skinhead dress.
A distinctly urban style, their functional clothing reflected their pride in being working class: heavy boots, shortened jeans, button-down shirts, braces and shaved heads. This hard image was in direct contrast to the middle-class bohemianism of hippy style, and hippies were frequently targets for skinhead ‘aggro’.
Skinhead style now is characterised by a uniform that has consolidated elements of skinhead dress from over the past 30 years. Whilst there are noticeable differences between skinhead factions such as the smarter ‘suedeheads’ and the harder and scruffier Oi! skins, the essence of a skinhead wardrobe remains relatively constant. Labels and garment styles remain the same, whilst some details, such as collar length and brace-width, reflect wider changes in mainstream fashion.
Sussex born Ben Sherman has a long-standing association with Brighton, having been originally established here in the 1960s as Sussex Shirts with a small factory in Hove and a shop on Duke Street. His Ivy-League style button-down checked shirts have been one of the staples of the skinhead wardrobe since the late 1960s. The shirts are usually characterised by their checked fabric and button-down collar with fastenings on the collar points and at the centre of the back collar. Details such as collar length and cut have been altered over the years to keep up with mainstream fashion, and this has lead to greater value being placed on early Ben Sherman originals by skinheads. Other shirt brands that were popular with skinheads in the 1970s were Brutus and Jaytex button-downs.
Dr Martens boots
Quintessential skinhead footwear, Dr Martens boots with the Air-Wair sole were invented in 1947 and marketed in Britain as labourers boots. Originally only available with 8-hole laces, by the 1980s 14-hole black Dr Martens were the most common style worn by skinheads. The higher the boots, the shorter the leg-length of the jeans to expose the maximum amount of boot.
At the height of football hooliganism in the 1970s and 80s steel toe-capped boots became classed as an offensive weapon. Police would often remove the laces from skinheads’ boots as a preventative measure against skinhead ‘aggro’, preventing the wearers from being able to kick with or run in them. The Brighton Argus, 5 May 1981, reporting on the May Day Peace march, described how ‘a special de-lacing operation was mounted…. Squads of officers confiscated the skinheads’ boots before the march got under way’ (above) to prevent trouble against the marchers from the skinheads.
Female skinhead style was very similar to the men’s, although slight modifications feminised the look. Their most distinctive feature was the haircut known as a feather-cut. The hair was cropped very short on the top but leaving a longer fringe, often bleached, around the edge of the hairline.
The girls would wear the same styles of Ben Sherman or Fred Perry shirts and the clip-on braces as the men, although these were often teamed with mini-skirts and fishnet tights worn with Monkey boots – a lighter and shorter boot than the Dr Marten.
Make-up drew focus to the eyes with dark eyeliner and narrow eyebrows.
Skinhead outfit c1984-1994
John G. Byrne is a true Brightonian and has been a dedicated skinhead since 1970. This classic skinhead outfit in Brighton Museum’s Renegade Collection contains elements of skinhead style from both the early 1970s, such as the Ben Sherman style shirt, and from the 1980s such as the MA-1 flight jacket.
This outfit includes (from top to bottom):
Green MA-1 style nylon jacket customised with England patches (CT003685)
Red clip-on braces (CT003688)
Ben Sherman style handmade shirt (CT003686)
Levi’s jeans with shortened legs and quarter-inch stitched turn-ups (CT003687)
Leather 14-hole Dr Marten boots with white laces (CT003689)
Skinheads were well catered for in Brighton, where John bought most of his Skinhead clothes:
‘I did buy most of my clothes in Brighton, but I used to get one or two things at a skinhead shop in London as well. I used to go to the Ben Sherman shop in Duke Street in Brighton … I remember getting one-inch braces in Woolworth’s in London Road. I used to get some of my skinhead stuff from a shop in London Road, Brighton that was called Carnaby Styles. They used to sell all the skinhead gear including the two-tone suits and they had Ben Sherman shirts and Brutus shirts and things’.
John Byrne made his own copies of the early 70s Ben Sherman shirt, even sewing in his own labels: ‘I made my own Ben Sherman type of shirts because you couldn’t get the original 1970s style of Ben Sherman and you still can’t as well… The original style had three and a half inch collars and a criss-cross patterning down the front and they were mostly checked ones but you could get white…and they had some striped ones as well which I didn’t like, but mostly they were the bigger collars you know that you can’t get now’.
Skinheads were greatly influenced by the young Jamaican rude boys of the 1960s. Rude boys went to underground clubs to listen to ska music, wearing Pork Pie hats, wrap around shades, long black Crombie coats, short trousers, white socks and polished black shoes.
This rude-boy style was the main reference point for the 2-Tone ska revivalists of the late 1970s.
Richard Allen was a Canadian pulp novel writer who achieved notable success in the 1970s with a series of exploitation novels that chronicled the skinhead culture of the time through his skinhead anti-hero Joe Hawkins. Published by New English Library, the novels cashed-in on many youth crazes and cults of the 1970s, including glam and punk rock, football hooliganism and even karate, although his series of skinhead novels remain the most well-known. The novels included Skinhead, Suedehead, Skinhead Escapes, Skinhead Girls, Terrace Terrors and Punk Rock. These are now highly collectable ‘documents’ of 1970s skinhead and youth culture.