The Mods: A Very British Coup

Photo (partial) from Mozzie magazine

PopMatters debuts our new fashion column. Swinging London’s Mods were at the cutting edge of the fashion world, setting a trend of rebellious dress that altered practically nothing from the standards of contemporary British society.

Back in the near mythical days of “Swinging London”, the grand old city that Len Deighton proposed as “where the action really is” in his London Dossier of 1967, there was the unquestioned belief that the Mods, and being Mod, were the definitive way to dress, act, and be. Mod was style. Being “Mod” captured what, retrospectively, Swinging London desperately wanted itself to be – to be young and look great being young.

Book: London Dossier

Author: Len Deighton

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 1967

Image: one says ‘Mod’, one imagines the fashion-obsessed young Londoner on her Vespa or Lambretta, indulging in speed and dancing the night away. But that was the Mod of the camera and nostalgic reminiscence – the early Mods and the fashion they created was a rebellious cultural response to the despondency of society, a failure of Britain to live up to the promised myths that had sustained the nation, and a sudden and deliberate inversion of the social values of modern Britain through lifestyle, affect, and most importantly, fashion. This also meant that the Mods as a lifestyle-fashion could have only existed at that place and at that time.

Popular conceptions of the Mod lifestyle have been indelibly colored by (much later) cultural depictions, from Phil Daniels in Quadrophenia, to a Mod-esque Babyshambles in Fuck Forever, and to the Mod-Foxes of The Mighty Boosh (and yes, I do count that as a relevant “cultural depiction”). But for the purpose of this analysis, we have to look at the “original” Mod – the Mod of affect and rebellion before the commercialized gloss.

Even so, describing Mod fashion would be extremely difficult given the group’s continual reinvention (as fashion is wont to do). It can, however, be agreed that the Mod was birthed in Southern England, and specifically around London amongst the young, disaffected working class. They were the inheritors of a crumbling empire that had just won the largest conflict in human history only to be regarded as irrelevant by the new world powers. The rousing imperial myths of earlier generations were simply in a post-Empire Britain.

While it became harder and harder for Britons to find comfort in a national mission of imperial glory, the sudden access to disposable income following the cash-short period between the Depression and war years allowed a new generation of young Britons to find outlets in the consumer lifestyle, and by extension, the world of self-expression through fashion. Fashion, as an outward symbol, came to define the Mods.

It was decided very early on that British fashion was dead – the make-do war years saw an end to domestic style and it was only with the gradual revival of the garment factories in the South and the importation of cheap American goods that a young Brit could even begin to accessorize. The first wave of Mods, inspired by (variously) imported cultural images of the New York mafia and Brooklyn sharp, the seeming “authenticity” that West Indian migrants oozed (disaffected youth yearning for the authentic… where have we heard that before?), and the beatniks of the late-night-all-night coffee house, sought fashion refuge in this competing mesh of styles, creating, for a brief period, a period of fashion experimentation and fragmentation.

It was however, the introduction of Italian fashion magazines and Nouvelle vague cinema that defined the epitome for the Mod. From films like À bout de soufflé and Le Beau Serge, the Mods found the fashion identity they were seeking – effortlessly cool, artfully framed, pure style. While la dolce vita was at the forefront of cultural consciousness in Britain, the Mods would be made all the more aware of their dreary post-colonial condition.

Thus, rummaging in her closet, the young Mod might decide on a slim fitting dress with daring Quant-patterns of simple line structure and dramatic color contrasts, or perhaps a tight-knit shift dress that flared to an ‘A’ 5-6 inches above her knees, buttoned side-taps and sporting a contrast-banded neckline, or a jersey fabric frock with pink and grey lines, a round color, with a thin line of silver buttons running down the side seam. To keep those exposed legs warm, a maxi-coat, a remarkably subdued nearly somber one-color piece, would guard her against the elements.

The boy across the street might find his Ben Sherman dress shirt tapering to the waist, a dark navy pinstripe jacket with a cuff length at least half-an-inch too short, and a pair of trousers that retained the shape of his leg just so, allowing the lad to have a go on the dance floor. His closet was dominated by the Oxford blues and charcoal grays usually associated with the Whitehall-set; hers displayed the inventiveness of contrast colors, complimentary hues, and a growing penchant for pastels.

Book: The Sound of Our Time

Author: Dave Laing

Publisher: Quadrangle

Publication date: 1970

Image: military parkas may have been required as protection against would-be scooter-related clothing damage, but the Mod version of military was quite unlike the clunky sort we presume to be had from military surplus stores; Mod military meant the parka was cut to a flattering effect (pinched at the waist, flared above the knees, ruffled collar). In The Sound of Our Time, Dave Laing notes British society’s reaction to the uptake of the suit by the Mods: “(they) looked alright but there was something… which adults couldn’t make out.” It was almost as if the sheer temerity was in doing something that had previously been hinted at as forbidden.

When Mary Quant opened up Bazaar in Chelsea, she ushered in the radical “London Look” that defied the muted palette of the ‘50s, and defined the Mod girl. In her designs, she brought bright, bold colors, a creeping hemline on miniskirts, and quirky, pastel tights to the new London girl. She also helped to popularize the bob – a hairstyle created by close friend Vidal Sassoon – that, contrary to contemporary tastes, featured a short horizontal fringe with angled sides. Make-up was minimal: pale foundation, light lipstick. Put all together, the girls of the Mod-era must have seemed quite androgynous, emulating silver-screen icons like Jean Seberg and Anna Karina.

Quant, Sassoon & The Bob

Male Mods adopted contemporary Franco-Italian styles, emphasizing the tailor-made over the mass-produced – tight, sharply silhouetted wool suits with narrow lapels. Fashion icon, and nouvelle vague star, Jean-Paul Belmondo popularized amongst the Mod-aspirants crewneck cashmere sweaters, button-down dress shirts and the winklepecker – sharp-toed, narrow leather shoes or boots that gained increasing notoriety as a badge of Mod gang-allegiance.

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