One of the most complex British subcultures was that of the skinheads. Skinhead culture originated among white working class youths in Britain in the late 1960s. The name derives from the way they shaved their heads to produce an aggressive, militant look. We tend to associate the Skinhead look with inner-city racism, but the original skinheads were not racist and werer united by a love of black Jamaican culture.
The first skinheads were greatly influenced by West Indian culture, especially Jamaican rude boys and Jamaican music, including ska, reggae and rocksteady. Like other subcultures, their group identity was formed by fashion, music and lifestyle – what Hebdige calls ‘homology’.
In the late 1950s, entrenched class system limited most working class people's educational, housing, and economic opportunities. Britain's post-war economic boom led to an increase in disposable income among many young people. Some of those youths spent that income on new fashions popularised by American soul groups and Carnaby Street clothing merchants. These youths became known as mods, a youth subculture noted for its consumerism and devotion to fashion, music and scooters. Around 1965, a schism developed between smooth mods, who were less violent and always wore the latest expensive clothes, and the hard mods, who had a more working class image. Hard Mods often lived in the same economically depressed areas of South London as West Indian immigrants and began to emulate the rude boy look of pork pie hats and short Levi jeans. The hard mods transformed into the first Skinheads by about 1968.
What elements made up the skinhead look? It was based on practical clothing styles.
- Short hair: between a 2 and 3 grade clip-guard for men; feathercuts for girls
- Army surplus boots or Dr. Martens; brogues; loafers
- Sta-Prest flat-fronted trousers; Jeans (Levi's, Lee or Wrangler) with turn-ups to show off boots (many skinheads would sit in a bath of water with their shrink-to-fit Levi 501 jeans to get the extreme skinny-legged look)
- Button-down gingham shirts by brands such Ben Sherman or Brutus (the size of the check denoted your place in the gang – the larger the check the more authority you had)
- Polo shirts by brands such Fred Perry
- Fitted blazers; MA-1 type flight jackets (popular brands: Alpha and Warrior)
- Denim jackets; Crombie overcoats
- Suits made of two-tone fabric that changes colour in different light or in a Prince of Wales or houndstooth check pattern
- pork pie hats; trilbies
Hebdige argues that the look was a parody of the model worker: it was neat, functional and inherently working class. This was a way of escaping the Skinheads’ gritty industrial reality. Again, music is an important element. The skinhead subculture was associated with ska, rocksteady and reggae. The link between skinheads and Jamaican music led to the development of the skinhead reggae genre by artists like Desmond Dekker, Derrick Morgan and The Pioneers.
In the late 1960s, some skinheads in the United Kingdom had engaged in violence against South Asian immigrants (Indian and Pakistani). There had been anti-racist and left-wing skinheads since the beginning of the subculture, but by the 1970s, some skinheads aligned themselves with the right-wing National Front. The National Front was a notorious racist organisation and the forerunner of the British National Party. Racially-motivated violence increased. Many skinheads’ participated in violent football hooliganism. Since then, the mass media and the general public have viewed skinheads as racists and neo-Nazis.
By the 1970s, the skinhead subculture started to fade from popular culture. In 1977, however, the skinhead subculture was revived after the introduction of punk rock. There was a revival of ska music, lead by groups like The Specials, Madness and The Selecter. These were released on a label called 2-Tone. The records sleeves featured a rude boy figure in black and white, as well as black and white check patterns.
Many of the groups were also two-tone: The Specials were racially integrated. The ska revival was defiantly anti-racist, as evidenced by tracks such as 'Concrete Jungle' by The Specials.