‘I didn’t start travelling to leave society as such … I started travelling because I saw an alternative society that was better than the one that was offered me in town, and a family structure that was better than the one that I’d been brought up with.’
Carol Waller, traveller at the Sheepcote Valley site, oral history recording, OH000110
The 1980s saw the rise of what became known in the media as the New Age Travelling community. Often ideologically motivated, travellers were anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment, believing in a more simple and communal way of life outside of mainstream consumer society.
Part spiritual hippy and increasingly part Anarcho-Punk, travellers moved from festival to festival in the summer months, trying to live a more self-sufficient and environmentally friendly way of life. This was informed by anarchist and green politics and the squatter movement that had grown in popularity in the 1970s, and which was taken up by the Anarcho-Punk band Crass who become an important focus for younger would-be travellers in the early 1980s.
Converted buses, trucks and old caravans became the new homes for travellers. However, their unconventional way of life made them the focus for an increasingly hostile media, police force and Conservative government. This hostility culminated in the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ in 1985, a confrontation between travellers and their vehicles trying to get to the Stonehenge Free Festival and an uncooperative police force.
The traveller outfit in Brighton Museum’s Renegade collection has a strong punk influence, reflecting the interests of the wearer when she first started travelling in the mid 1980s.
‘Sensible clothing that don’t look sensible.’
Many Travellers would reject the notion of style in relation to their dress, with its suggestions of commodification and consumerism. However, individuals bring their own style to the travelling community and a common sense of style has developed, characterised by colourful eclecticism and practicality. This is defined by a traveller at Brighton’s Sheepcote Valley Site as ‘practical and party.’
‘There are lots of, sort of groups of different styles of dressing, you get lots of people that you know aren’t bothered, they wear the big baggy jumper, pair of para boots, pair of old combats, loads of rips and holes, and then there’s like a group of people that all wear platform trainers and they’ve got the spot on flares…and pucker trainers…and little skimpy tops.’
Becky, traveller based at Sheepcote Valley Site, Brighton.
Boots are an essential item of clothing for travellers rather than a style item as they are cheap, practical and hardwearing; able to withstand a range of weather conditions experienced on a Traveller site.
Handmade clothes are popular with some travellers as they are cheap to make and enable the wearer to create an individual look. This style choice has its roots in ideological notions of recycling and self-sufficiency made popular by the hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, together with the DIY ethic of the punks.
From Crusties to Grunge
Crustie was a term made popular by the media in the early 1990s to describe travellers who were supposedly identifiable by their muddy boots and clothes and dreadlocked hair. This stereotype was usually accessorised with a ‘dog on a rope’.
The traveller wardrobe staples of para boots, combat trousers, and layers of striped jumpers and t-shirts found their way onto the catwalk and the highstreet in the early 1990s. With the increasing popularity of commercial music festivals, including Glastonbury, music again became a key element in spreading the traveller lifestyle, with Brighton band The Levellers achieving significant commercial success.
Traveller outfit worn by Sophie Xi- Zita, c1985-1990
Sophie Xi-Zeta is a tattooist and a welder living on a Traveller site in Brighton. She says of her style:
‘…somebody once described it to me as medieval school girl which I’m not quite sure how to take. It’s very influenced by I suppose 80s punk rock. I haven’t really grown up out of that … I don’t know, bargain chic, that’s the best way I can think about it.’
Sophie donated her travellers’ outfit to Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection, which illustrates the history of subcultures in Brighton.
This outfit includes, from top to bottom:
Grey printed jacket, CT003645
Black cropped lurex jumper, CT003644
Purple and black striped vest, CT003646
Studded belt, CT003649
Handmade patchwork velvet skirt, CT003643
‘The skirt is my medieval school-girl skirt and it’s like…I spent ages and ages stitching all the patches on and my needlework’s not very good so they’re coming off. I had many good occasions in that.’
Purple and black nylon striped tights (body and feet cut off), CT003647
Black leather para boots with purple laces, CT003642
‘…People in towns kind of wear them [boots] with their laces undone…but when you live in trucks and trailers there’s a reason for this. You sort of go into other people’s vehicles and it’s polite to take your boots off so you don’t take mud through and stuff. That’s why travellers have their boots undone on site.’
Festivals are central to traveller culture, providing a spiritual focus for some, as with the Stonehenge Summer Solstice festival, or a party focus for others as with the Castlemorton festival established in 1992. Whether the emphasis is spiritual or temporal, festivals continue to provide the focus for the bringing together of fellow travellers in larger, albeit temporary communities.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s traveller numbers were swelled by the growing number of Sound System collectives and their weekend followers. Sound System collectives provided music rigs run by generators, supplying the free dance music at festivals and brought traveller culture into contact with the burgeoning rave culture of the time. This was not without its tensions as the weekend ravers gained a reputation for arriving, partying and then disappearing back to their homes and jobs, leaving the travellers to clean up in their wake. The most famous of these collectives were the Spiral Tribe collective who were instrumental in organising what became the largest illegal free party in Britain at Castlemorton in 1992.
Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade Collection contains oral history interviews with travellers who describe their lifestyle.
To learn more about oral histories visit Community History.