The Gentleman, Inverted
Ties were skinny, belts even more so; skirts grew shorter along with parental fuses – this was a time of fashion experimentation that rebelled against expectations.
British Mods took the Italian style further, incorporating contrast color collars and houndstooth-patterned jackets, adding something quintessentially British to the proceedings. Ties were skinny, belts more even so; skirts grew shorter along with parental fuses – this was a time of fashion experimentation that rebelled against expectations. Given their intense attention to detail and their rabid absorption of fashion trends, it was not unheard of for young Mods, freshly introduced to the labor force, to very quickly adopt a sense of style so polished as to be better (much better) dressed than their bosses. Were fashion not of that high importance to the Mods, dropping hard-earned pounds for a suit would have been foolish.
This, however, proved a problem for British elders. For reasons that can be better explained by a European film theorist of the post-war period, but no doubt connected to contemporary ideals of beauty, New Wave icons were often appareled in considerably respectable ideas of fashion – the sharp suit, the accessorized dress, the waif-like androgynous form – or rather, perhaps, that New Wave came to help define what was respectable. While it might be difficult to identify whether or not the Mods adopted the respectable as a direct challenge to the upper classes’ monopoly on the suit, or whether all of Britain was seized by the same inspirational, the Mods now, importantly, had the access to procure these symbols of respectability and flaunt them in public
What defined Mod fashion was not the way the Mods wore their newfound apparel. It was also not in the sharp new cuts or daring combinations the Mods assembled into outfits either. A member of the establishment could conceivably dress exactly the same and not be a Mod; this was a lifestyle choice and with it came an ideology of fashion. How the Mod radicalized respectability was in the transformation of its outwardly visible fashion commodities into something more accessible, and in making the outfit more democratically practical, redefine its status in society.
They took the ideals of a gentleman in society – hard-working, industrious, courteous – and inverted it; adopting vices like sloth, laziness, and arrogance which became markers of Mod-social progress. The suit or the dress did not lose their social value but gained a new dimension – the Mod had simply taken its visible meaning, internalized it within the young working-class, and then redefined its use and value to apply to a different context. Post-war society was still visibly segregated along archaic class lines and, to a certain extent, was reflected in the outward dress of Britons.
Pattie Boyd & The Rolling Stones looking rather Mod
For the early Mods, fashion was much, much more than Carnaby Street which would rightfully, but much later, take its place in the Mod imagination. Mod fashion was a unique new experience in consumption and consumerism for the recently economically-liberated; Mod fashion might have been, for many at least, the very first suit owned to make the wearer show off.
Bands like The Yardbirds and Small Faces came to popularize and disseminate Mod-fashion sensibilities even further, freeing rural Britain from the “rocker” aesthetic that was only previously available to youths in the country. Where style reigned supreme, the would-be Mod was required to reinvent and combine objectively disparate elements of respectability into symbols of rebellion. When Her Majesty’s Colours were themselves re-imagined into everything from drapes and dresses, it was a deliberate exclamation of Britain’s place in the world. London, bereft of all that stuffiness and hard-up war years, was swinging once again, using all the very symbols of her age-old empire as the foundation of a new Mod culture.
Thus, the Mod took apart and reinvented British fashion. Suddenly, the curmudgeonly hallmarks of British institutions were revamped – it was cool to be patriotic again and embrace all that was British, but there was a distinct underlying hint that it was all a big laugh. Tweed, so beloved of Oxbridge alums, was re-installed as autumn jackets for the playful and young. Debonair scarves so beloved of the heroes of the RAF were tossed casually around the neck and worn whilst driving recklessly; the RAF roundel itself became a symbol of the new British woman, emblazoned on bags, printed on. Oh what a lovely war indeed…
The Mod had become such a compelling figure of the over-glamorous youth ideal that society, already well on its way to follow the road down to the pursuit of all things youthful, simply co-opted it back into the fold. And why would it not? The Mod, in his dapper suit and her miniskirt, came to symbolize a reassertion of a uniquely British popular culture. While the empire eroded, America rose, and Russia threatened, there were the Mods who were the progenitors of a truly unique British phenomenon. Bands like The Who and The Kinks who, in their early careers indentified as Mods, came to international prominence, and provided a new British cultural export. But even as the Mods appropriated styles, the Mods themselves could not resist the commoditization of Mod-fashion.
As the Mods deliberately adopted the forms of respectability, it made it easier for the powers that be to re-appropriate the Mods. Arguably, when a style of dress can be described with authority (as it did with Ready Steady Go!), when it comes to symbolize an era and a nation, it has lost its credibility as a ritual of resistance. After 1964’s “Second Battle of Hastings”, with the proliferation of all things “pop”, and the elevation and adoption of the previously radical into the folds of contemporary culture, what the Mods had gained in affect, they had lost in stature.
The movement had lost something. The original Mods had to work to define themselves; they blazed new ground by doing the ordinary. Once the individual could “buy-in” to Mod culture, being a Mod lost its original rebellion – it became simply a fashion choice. The Mod became another face to be encountered on the streets of London and not, as Stan Cohen would describe in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, “out of place actors”. The stage that was London had become a deliberate platform for a carefully prepared (and implicitly directed) mainstream social and cultural trend.
Revived, but not Resucitated
Mod revivals would take place periodically with Phil Daniels’ memorable portrayal of the quintessential East End Mod in Quadrophenia (1979) lead to a short-lived, Scarborough-centric resurrection; Southern California too hosted an unlikely rebirth in the mid-‘80s, blending the anarchic ‘80s surfer look with buttoned up Italian wool. What these revivals attempted to replicate was the Mods’ lifestyle – the fashion consciousness, the music, and the parties. What they failed to do, however, was re-assume the ideology.
While the revivalists might look like the Mods, they could not portray the original Mods critique of social hierarchies or disaffected national consciousness – there simply was not the scenario and opportunity to do so. The idea of the Mods, however, retained that vitality of youthful energy – the one facet so perfectly appropriated for commercial purposes – and with that, took the defining symbols of Mod fashion to be re-adopted, re-examined, and re-circulated as new.
It took a very specific point in history of a very specific culture to produce the Mod. It could only have happened in post-war Britain at that specific point in her long history to see a finely-tailored suit become a symbol of both the power and the resistance simultaneously, to make the national colors both a symbol of national pride and appropriately tasteful underwear. The combination of foreign cultural imports, an empire lost after a victorious albeit devastating war, and a recently politically and economically liberated youth that found no purchase with a fading social hierarchy allowed the Mods to launch their own Very British Fashion.