If you’ve ever wondered how Mods became Skinheads, Punk style evolved into Goth, or what exactly killed Britpop, Style Tribes: The Fashion of Subcultures is a must-read. In her newly-published book, Caroline Young charts the growth of major 20th and 21st century style movements with ease, showing how – despite the aesthetic differences – they actually have a lot in common.
The level of research in Style Tribes isn’t obvious at first glance, as the picture to text ratio makes it look like a light coffee table read, but Young has really done her homework. You might think you know a movement well, but you’ll be surprised by what she’s uncovered – brothel creeper shoes adopted by Teddy Boys from WWII desert boots; hippie roots stretching back not to California but to an early 20th century German movement called Der Wandervogal (store those facts in your brain for a pub quiz). The Harlem Renaissance story of auditioning black dancers forced to do the ‘paper bag test’ was an uncomfortable nugget of truth: ‘their skin was not to be darker than the bag’. Today we may not officially have a ‘paper bag test’, and dancers of all colours can build a career, but there’s still inherent racism in the fashion industry. Even idolised black celebrities can find their skin has been lightened in Photoshop before it graces the pages of a magazine.
There are also some really interesting evolutions of trends, where a marginalised community adopts a look that then becomes high fashion or begins to resonate with an entirely different group. An example? See the zoot suit that started in 1930s Harlem, remarkably started a wartime riot, then became cool with Mexican American Pachuco gangs, followed by mainstream shoppers, then Mexico itself, where you can still spot it today.
The more you delve into this book, the more the word ‘tribes’ feels incredibly accurate. Many of the groups mentioned had a fierce loyalty to each other and either avoided or fought against anyone who didn’t fit into the picture. Mods and Rockers are an obvious example of style tribe clashes, but Young finds plenty of other rivalries. She touches on fashion-related hate crime too, but it would be good to expand on this – the 2007 murder of Sophie Lancaster, purely because she was a Goth, had a direct impact on British hate crime definitions, but isn’t mentioned here.
Of course, clashes with the establishment were rife as well, but none were more shocking than the German swing kids rebelling against the Nazis. Swing was seen as appropriate for Jews and non-Aryans, to the point where ’40 to 70 swings were sent to [concentration or labour] camps from 1942 to 1944’; two women were lucky to survive the ‘sadistic cruelty’ of Ravensbrück concentration camp. Over the page, descriptions of the self-absorbed and privileged Beatniks jar with what the Swing Kids went through.
Coming at this fashion bible from a fashion-loving perspective, I was perhaps a little naïve. One of the biggest overriding similarities between groups is drug use and, whilst I was prepared for stories of hippies on LSD and Acid House ravers on, well, acid, it was a bit of a revelation to find drugs so prevalent in other movements like Northern Soul (I innocently thought it was enthusiasm, not amphetamines, that kept them dancing all night). Descriptions of the peace-loving, anti-drug Bronx Black Magic gang, going against the grain in Hip Hop, form a nice contrast. Talking about the habits that went alongside the outfits is important as they were so intertwined.
What really strikes is the counterbalance and contradiction in many of the style tribes – rebellious and fresh, yet almost tied to a uniform, from the block haircuts and bum-skimming skinny jeans of Emos to the excellent suits of the Sapeurs, as captured in the 2014 Guinness advert and in a music video by Solange Knowles. Sapeurs live in cities crippled by poverty, mainly Kinshasa and Brazzaville, but fashion and brand names are everything to them.
Sometimes ideals got lost as movements progressed: the racist strands of Skinheads had to be reminded by Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) that their look and sound owed much to Jamaican culture. Meanwhile Kagal, from Japan, saw girls dressed ‘in a sexualised way’ (basically Lolita-style schoolgirl ensembles) who would tease men and yet celebrate Hello Kitty. One contradiction I really struggled with was the idea that ‘Mods shared the values of the Conservatives because they believed in working for a disposable income to afford their consumerist lifestyle’. Spending all your money on clothes doesn’t necessarily make you a Conservative (at least I hope not), and although Mod idols The Who seem to be getting more right wing in their old age, they wouldn’t have been described as such when Keith Moon was smashing up guitars and hotel rooms in the 60s.
Minor discrepancies aside, Style Tribes is a powerful read and it emphasises that fashion is far from frivolous – it’s a lifestyle choice and a badge of identity we shouldn’t take for granted.
Style Tribes: The Fashion of Subcultures by Caroline Young is published by Frances Lincoln.