Written by LDS, May 2015
“Little masterpieces, that’s what they were. The jewels of the cities and the high streets. Dressed with a stunning precision that spelt obsessive, a minefield of detail from head to toe, a work of art encased in mohair and existing for clothes, music and kicks, Mods listened to the best music, danced the best dances and helped transform British cultural life”.
(Paulo Hewitt on the Gen-1 Mods in ‘A Mod Anthology’, 1999)
So lets continue from where we left off in Mods (Issue 1). We’re currently still in London, the epicentre of a youth rebellion. Its now the early Sixties and change is vogue with major developments just around the corner. The social demographic has shifted to a more youthful Britain following the baby-boom of the Second World War (By the mid-1960’s around 40% of the population were under the age of 25!) and following the Anglo-American Loan (US$57m in today’s money) vast improvements in the social-economic state of the UK were now evident meaning that the kids of the lower ranks of society had it far better than any generation before them had ever known!
“He was fifteen and he was the best-dressed man in the whole big building. He spent more money on clothes in a week than they spent in a month – despite the disparity between their expense account padded salaries and the handful of peanuts in his wage packet…. What was the point of wearing a suit if you looked like a sack of potatoes in it?”
(Tony Parsons in ‘Limelight Blues’)
This decade changed everything and believe it or not some of the changes and innovations of the Sixties still to this date dictate our hunger for style. Before dancing, scooters and pills it was ALL clothes for Mods. Clothes dictated the Subculture and as it began to form its style there were of course those who naturally lead and those who followed. The leaders as such were so ahead of the game, the few that would daringly break the code of social norm and bring a real extravagance to their appearance. These leaders were known as the “Faces”. The Faces were looked up to, respected by their local peers over whom they exerted huge style influence. They would always appear in new styles ahead of anyone else, tapped deep into the local scene, created new dances, though unbelievably quite often thwarted the attention of a vast number of female admirers to be clearly focused on one thing and one thing only; to look the business.
One of the more publicly known Faces of the time was Mark Feld (better known today as Marc Bolan of T-Rex). In 1962 the 15 year old Mark was picked up by Town Magazine in an article on this new found youth fashion and about what it is to be “a Face“. This was the first media release on Modernists and from here everything that was happening in their own regional pockets started coming together to form a Popular Subculture.
“It was now important to walk properly, hold a cigarette the correct way and know the right way even to stand. Correct stance was important because a lot of the time was spent hanging around posing and talking and showing oneself off.”
(Richard Barnes in ‘Mods’)
What is apparent is that when the Modernist subculture took off, it all happened so fast and as a result a stigma developed; a guarding competitive streak amongst the original Gen-1 Mods to separate themselves from the bandwagon “tickets”. Mods created a fair bit of their own lingo too to further separate themselves from the dandies. A “ticket” (or “third class ticket” in full) was borrowed from the rail system (i.e. you could travel 1st, 2nd or 3rd class back then) to describe those who attempted to mirror the Mod styling though went about it half-cocked.
Desperate to remain unique and not get swallowed up by the masses a fair amount of additional investment was required. In effect this saw the fashion evolve very quickly and left many struggling to keep up. Mark Feld was known to drive his local shoe shop in Stoke Newington barmy by asking that they made him a new pair of shoes every other day at one point.
“See, us Mods, we were the only ones that really cared about how we looked. And judging by the speed of the fashion, it soon became apparent that the only way any Mod worth his salt could keep abreast of things was to have a job. We were the only youth culture that honestly believed in work. Teds and beatniks didn’t. We had to earn the money to buy the clothes. I mean, I was a bleedin’ filing clerk with the L.E.B. and my friend was a meat pie packer – and we were just as Mod as each other. That was the thing about this big army of Mods; we could be working at anything really and still dress smart and be Mod.”
(Irish Jack in ‘History’)
We have to remember that Modernist Britain was a social movement as much as it was a fashion movement. The age old class system of Britain lost its edge following a World War that saw upper and lower classes fighting together side by side. Despite difference in wage packets, the improvement in disposable income by the Sixties was inspiring. Business opportunities grew and with it an evolution in advertising with campaigns vastly more comprehensive than anything seen before. In short, a materialistic economy had developed in parallel that would see the Modernist Subculture explode.
A Fashion Evolution
The British fashion industry’s journey into the Sixties was colourful to say the least with styles borrowed predominantly from America, France and Italy. The clothes worn by the earliest Mods were as foreign inspired as the music they had taken to, but certainly more integral in defining the Subculture. Initially Mods reached out to the American jazz style once more. Chris Stamp once went on record to say that a good portion of the GEN-1 Mods weren’t even all that into the jazz music but more the clothes that they wore.
“…Subconsciously we knew that the blacks had no real power in the States any more than we did, but their clothes made them look in control, on top, not to be messed with. That attitude was why clothes were part of the triad with music and pills for Mods…”
(Chris Stamp – Co-Manager, The Who)
From here the style evolved as it borrowed many features from the European Continent. The French New Wave cinema gained momentum in the late Fifties and Mods would often go to watch these films in back-alley London without a care for the dialogue. Italian styles were also imported and films as early as ‘Roman Holiday’ caught the eye of many. The younger working classes were desperate to mirror these heroes of film and as a result soon became better dressed than their bosses (which is now something of a Mod commandment).
In 1955 Alexander Plunkett Green and Archie McNair opened a boutique on the Kings Road, Chelsea called ‘Bazaar‘ with fashions designed by Mary Quant. Quant later became an equal partner and married APG. She is quite famous for designing the mini-skirt/dress and further revolutionising British female fashion design and producing an expensive sexiness at an affordable price tag, quashing the socio-economic hurdle associated with looking good.
“There was a time when clothes were a sign of a woman’s social position and income group. Not now. Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dress.”
(Mary Quant in ‘Quant by Quant’)
By 1956, the ‘Italian Look’ was ready to take off. Brioni of Rome were the lead stylists of Italy, their new lightweight tailor-made suits with a narrow leg and squared boxlike jacket were getting some recognition and worn by travelling movie stars like Carey Grant. On a holiday to Italy in 1956 Cecil Gee discovered this new tailoring and returned to England not with a prototype, but with an Italian tailor to really push this continental style in his shop on Charing-Cross Road. The result in the UK was a suit that became known as the ‘Bum-Freezer’ popular with the few Mods of this time.
Meanwhile down the road on Old Compton Street, Soho (infact next-door to famous 2I’s cafe), a man by the name of John Michael Ingram opened Sportique, a reaction to Cecil Gee which for all of it’s new styling he thought was still too rigid and formal. John Michael stocked all the Mod staples of herringbone, vented jackets, gingham, flannel and hounds-tooth. He had no plan to cater to this Subculture, just simply shared a love for good fabric and tailoring. To own a John Michael Suit was every Mod’s dream. The popularity of Sportique led to the opening of John Michael on King’s Road, Chelsea.
In 1957 John Stephen acknowledging the gentle shift that was developing in British male fashion seized the opportunity (in a more holistic sense) and as a young man believed he knew exactly what other young men of his generation were searching for. It didn’t take long for him to open his first mens clothing store called His Clothes which was reopened at number 5 of (at the time) a little known thorough-fare known as Carnaby Street. Stephen brought new energy to the whole shopping experience; painting the building’s façade a bright canary yellow, dressing it with large kaleidoscopic window displays and allowing ‘pop’ music to spill quite freely into the street. His Clothes quickly attracted the masses and became the place to be seen.
“…My ambition in life is to see a young man walk down the street in a pink shirt and not be called gay…”
Through its success Stephen opened around 15 other mens boutiques along Carnaby Street of various names including Mod Male and was later dubbed the ‘King of Carnby Street’ and the ‘Million Pound Mod’.
Back in women’s fashion, a star boutique was born in Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba which opened on Church Street, Kensington in 1964. Biba stocked everything vogue for the Modernist woman and at a small budget it became incredibly popular with around 3000 customers per week including the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Mia Farrow.
“Biba’s customers are virtually all working girls on slender £10-15 weekly incomes. Miss Hulanicki calculates that the average Biba shopper spends about £7 a week on clothes and accessories. The high expenditure rate never ebbs since after a month’s wear a new dress is an antique.”
(Jonathan Aitken summarises the importance of style and quick fashion turnover of this period in his book ‘The Young Meteors’)
..As I say Modism, Mod is a euphemism for clean living, under difficult circumstances…”
(Peter Meaden in his interview with Steve Turner of the NME, 1975)
Tailors played a pivotal role to the Mod Subculture as a good suit was probably the most important item of clothing to any self-respecting Mod. Good tailoring cost serious money and many Mods saved 3 months wages or more for a new one. Other than the pre-mentioned John Michael, a very well established tailor Sonny Bilgorri catered to all of the detailing that came with designing a unique number. Bilgorri’s of Bishopsgate featured in the Mark Feld Town Magazine article in 1962 and became synonymous with Mods thereafter.
Personalities were defined by the suit you wore. The details were countless but also dictated the rules of engagement, and fashionable suit styles changed every 3 months! The typical details would include placement and length of jacket vents (side vents were most popular), number and angle of jacket pockets, length and width of lapels (skinny and short were preferred), jacket corners, stitching, lining, buttons (covered buttons was a preference), trouser cut (hipster was fashionable for some time), width of trouser bottoms, acid cut detailing at the hems etc etc.
The pride displayed by Mods in looking after their suits can be quite well summarised by Nik Cohn:
“In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I knew a boy called Thomas Baines, who refused to have sex at parties unless there was a shoe-tree available and a press for his trousers”
(Nik Cohn in ‘Mods‘)
Shoe makers boomed and like anything with Mods, if it was ‘off the peg’ it wasn’t worth a second look, the two most famous for shoes were Anello & Davide of Covent Garden and Stan’s of Battersea. The latter designed probably the most iconic shoe of the Sixties; this was the ‘winklepicker’ named so as the toe was so long and pointy you could virtually shell your seafood with them. But other popular shoes included the now known ‘beatle-boot’, ‘brogue’, ‘cuban heel’ or more casual ‘desert boot’.
Hair was the other final touch and although men’s hairstyles varied, they did have one constant; no lacquer. From the ‘crew-cut’ to the ‘French-crop’ (or ‘college boy’) to the ‘Ivy League’ (short back and sides), hairstyles were generally short but sometimes with small details like a slightly longer feathered front.
Women’s hairstyles were completely redefined by Vidal Sassoon. Sassoon opened his first salon in 1954 and from the outset challenged himself in re-inventing hair-styles.
“If I was going to be in hairdressing, I wanted to change things. I wanted to eliminate the superfluous and get down to the basic angles of cut and shape.”
His back to first principles approach resulted in big geometric designs which were both elegant but low maintenance. His most notable work; his take on the ‘bob’ cut.
The Modernist look and style was original, it was cool and with time naturally became popular to the point of stimulating a fashion revolution that by 1963 created a whole new Generation of Mods. Carnaby Street, only made possible by the original Faces, was quickly becoming disregarded as the GEN-1 watched their whole world become increasingly commercialised as the word ‘Mod’ was thrown around so loosely by Ad Men. A new bandwagon breed emerged, one without the same attitude, ethos or attention to detail that first coined the subculture, the false Mod.
Mods were so competitive, always trying to keep ahead of their peers and no more so than now. Styles evolved so quickly that they were only fashionable for a number of weeks before something else came in. As a result Mods became monster consumers and financed the growth of the high street, strengthening the post-war economy.
“…It was incredible to me that the fashions were constantly changing and the frequency with which they did. I wondered who thought them up. I was convinced that there was an inner clique of policy making Mods who dictated fashion. I wondered whether they had a secret bunker beneath the Scene Club and whether Peter Meaden wasn’t one of them…”
(Richard Barnes in ‘Mods‘)
The cost of keeping up meant that for many of the Mods they would simply gaze the latest wares along the Kings Road or Carnaby Street and then head to cheaper but established outfitters such as Burtons Menswear to have the clothes made at a far lower price.
“…my masterpieces were made in Burton’s tailoring chain in the West End… I drove them berserk by taking them up on their tailoring invitation in which you picked the details. I had a dove-grey mohair suit with nipped waist, covered buttons, inverted pleat in the back of the jacket, draped trousers, slanted pockets and a paisley lining…”
(Andrew Loog Oldham reflects in ‘Stoned‘)
Andrew Loog Oldham further admits in his book ‘Stoned’ going as far as starving himself for a short period to buy a superlative skinny wool-knit tie and gingham tab-collared shirt from the Kings Road as was the importance in keeping on point.
The original Gen-1 style came completely out of left-field and evolved into the peacock generation with men attentively looking after themselves as much if not more than their female counterpart. Women likewise broke down many conservative boundaries and pushed a new freedom of expression. The Mod Subculture re-defined style and many parts continue to be the backbone of our fashion today.
As the limelight came, so to it went and Mods have ever since remained more underground. The lights went out around the same time that The Beatles released the psychedelic ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band’ (June 1967). Though just as the advertising moguls began to switch focus to the new hippy vibe, so too did a good many of the bandwagon Mods and from the ashes a new Mod breed assembled of whom we’ll discuss another time.
Keep the Faith.
Paulo Hewitt – A Mod Anthology (1999) / Andrew Loog Oldham – Stoned (2000) / Richard Barnes – Mods (1979) / Tony Parsons – Limelight Blues (1987) /Mary Quant – Quant by Quant (1966) / Jonathan Aitken – The Young Meteors (1967) / Nik Cohn – Mods essay (1989)