We Aren’t the Mods and Other Sorry Tales of a Fashion Slave

I wish I could at least say this was the first time I tried and failed to be a mod. Instead, I’ve proven that even personal histories unfold as tragedy and then repeat themselves as farce. I have no experience being an English teenager in the ’60s, and yet for the second time in my life, for reasons at once practical and mysterious, I find myself trying to emulate one. As with all my half-ass schemes towards self-improvement, the only lesson I’ve learned so far is the one that’s been painfully obvious all along: I am a dork.

I think I had more justification to go mod the first time around. I mean, I was only in 6th grade, then, so at least I had the adolescent excuses of being young and trying to get girls. I have no such excuses as a 40-year-old married man. But back then, I was a misfit kid in El Segundo, California, a WASPy suburb of L.A. where all the other kids seemed to call each other in the morning before school so they could coordinate clothes.

They all wore these little corduroy shorts from Australia called “Stubbies”, which were so stubby that the bottom of their boxer shorts hung out below. For some reason that year, the El Segundo fashion police decided that if your shorts were too long and they hid your boxers, you were a “gaywad”.

Also popular that year were Izod polo shirts with the collar turned up (Le Tigre was thought of as “ghetto” because it was a JC Penney’s brand) and a pair of blinding-white Reeboks. It was a preppy look and I hated it, not only because it looked stupid, but because there was no way I could afford to dress like that. I don’t know if my parents were poor then or just didn’t see the point in buying a $70 polo shirt for a kid who was just going to roll around in the grass the first time he put it on, but either way, my back-to-school wardrobe had “gaywad” written all over it.

My parents tried, sort of, to help me out. But the big corduroy clown shorts they got me sent the other kids into a teasing frenzy, and the knockoff Izods they got me in Chinatown were just ridiculous. All the alligators were glued on crooked and they were always two sizes bigger than the tag said. My folks’ assurances that I would one day “grow into” these awful clothes was not comforting in the least. I pictured myself a full-grown man with my underwear peeking out from my shorts and a pink Izod muu-muu draped over my upper half. I was in no hurry to grow into that.

I considered going punk, which would have been a pretty natural reaction at the time. I listened to a lot of KROQ, L.A.s original “alternative” station, where they played Suicidal Tendencies and The Vandals fairly often, and some of the 7th graders were already punk. Jeans and a flannel were within my clothing budget. But I had one of those punker guys in my Spanish class and he slashed the words “ILL WILL” into his forearm with a razor blade, and I was simply not that hardcore, yet.

I suppose Rockabilly was an option—I adored the Stray Cats and Little Richard and Eddie Cochran—but it didn’t even register as a fashion statement or whatever I thought I was trying for. It wasn’t until I saw a news segment on a mod scooter rally that I realized I had found my calling.

What I thought were Mods scootering through Los Angeles (but was actually probably in Brighton), circa 1964 (photographer unknown)

These kids had scooters! Vespas and Lambrettas with lots of extra mirrors and those iconic targets decaled all over them. And this was in Los Angeles, in the ’80s. Where they all came from and where they all went, I have no idea, because to my knowledge there’s never been a huge mod scene in L.A., but there it was on the news, so I figured it must be a real thing, a new thing. I figured it was the next big thing and realized that if I was right, I didn’t need to follow any stupid, preppy trends. I could be the one that went mod before anyone else! Those poseurs wouldn’t know what hit them!

A WWII cargo cult plane

That’s how people glommed on to fashions and cultural “movements” in those days. It was like being in a cargo cult, those islanders who fashioned non-functional air traffic control towers out of bamboo in hopes they could lure back the strange, airborne gods who used to drop supplies on them back in World War II. It really felt like that—like you had to build whatever shrine you could to these strange otherworlders and just have faith that someday you might have actual contact with them.

Now, with the Internet connecting us and everything — including fashion — moving almost too fast to catch, subcultures are smaller, more numerous and increasingly less distinguishable from one another. You can pick and choose styles like desserts at a buffet. But back then, going mod felt like a major life decision. Granted, it was a decision that made as much sense as constructing a non-functional landing strip on an island no one ever flew over anymore, but I think I half-believed that if I went mod with enough gusto, a Lambretta would one day parachute itself onto my driveway.

So I saved my allowance and convinced my mom to drive me to Restyle Too in Hermosa Beach, the coolest place I could imagine. It was a dark, little hole-in-the-wall that sold bondage pants and John Lennon sunglasses, which the mohawked shopkeeper wore to great effect. I only had enough money for one shirt, but my mom, who loved that I was suddenly interested in not looking like a total slob, pitched in and got me an army green bow-tie and a pair of blue shades like Elvis Costello wears on the cover of Trust.

At this point, it should become obvious that the five-minute news segment I saw had given me no clue as to how a mod should dress. The cover of my Madness cassette was too small to get any worthwhile fashion tips from, and I had yet to see an actual, living mod. So when I showed up to school in my Rayon button-up shirt and army-green tie and Elvis Costello shades, I got what should have been a predictable reaction:

“Why are you dressed like that?”

“Halloween’s not ‘til next week.”

“What a total gaywad.”

I held out for as long as I could, but with only one pseudo-mod outfit and no one exactly clamoring to jump on my awesome mod bandwagon, I eventually had to call it quits. In 7th grade, I acquiesced to punk and started hanging out with the “ILL WILL” guy. The El Segundo fashion police had won again.

Fast forward to the modern day, where we see our sixth-grade protagonist, now a slovenly, middle-aged man in old blue jeans and a worn-out Volcom shirt he got from a clearance rack, staring at his laptop screen and pondering how to spend an unexpected bonus from work.

That would be me.

I got a new boss, and our first management meeting was about two things: This bonus he was giving everyone and the importance of dressing in a professional manner. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed he was hinting at something, so I decided I would spend my bonus on clothes. My annual clothing budget for the last couple of years allowed for a pair of jeans, one package each of socks and undies, two or three new shirts and whatever I wanted at the thrift store as long as it’s half-off day. Part of that frugal choice of dress is the economy, but another part is that I don’t like to buy clothes because I never really learned how to dress. Punk was great for exempting me from all the high school fashion trends, but it was a disaster when I had to grow up and pretend to be a professional.

Case in point: 26-year-old me with my first job at a newspaper. I’d spent the last decade with bleach-blonde Billy Idol hair, ironic T-shirts, tattered jeans and oversized construction boots that I found in the Goodwill free box. Even as a punk, I looked like a dork, but it didn’t matter because we all looked like that. Suddenly, as an adult who wanted desperately to move up from News Clerk to Staff Writer, fashion mattered. And that’s where the khakis come in.

I had no idea what to wear, and not much money to experiment with. You all who’ve been there, you all know where I ended up: Ross Dress for Less. That’s right, I got it at Ross. I walked out of there thinking I was so grown-up and wise, having purchased an entire professional wardrobe for under $50. I even went so far as to buy khaki pants, a clothing item I completely loathe, and yet I felt so mature at that moment, I thought maybe it was time I changed. I could man up and wear khakis. But somehow, instead of regular khakis, I ended up with a pair of baggy, tube-legged, French sailor pants with blue and gray stripes down the side and, I’m not kidding, an elastic waistband. I actually wore them once to work.

“Nice pants.”

“Where’s the rave?”

And I swear I heard one of the reporters mutter under her breath, “What a gaywad.”

This time around, I vowed not to return to Ross. I vowed not to buy anymore khakis, nor any more flannels (although I’ve always secretly thought I’d make a pretty hot Cholo). This time, I decided to go mod for real. You could chalk it up to me listening to way too much Specials and Small Faces as of late, but I felt like I had at least done my research, and what I found was this: Everything classic and stylish in modern fashion seems to have come directly from the mod movement of the early ’60s. Even the better-looking punk stuff comes directly from mod. You don’t see any Teddy Boys walking around anymore because that shit looked ridiculous. But the original mod stuff still looks sharp to this day.

I don’t know why I can’t just dress like everybody else, by the way—I seem to have some natural aversion to it. But in the little college town where I live, that’s probably a good thing, because around here, you see a lot of terrible fashion on display. I’d never seen so many shirtless men in my life before I moved here. Most of the college students rock what I’d call a preppy/skater look, or just whatever they sell at the mall. Typical daywear includes cargo shorts and a tanktop that says “Balls Deep” or “Affliction” or “Fatal”—as long as it’s both obnoxious and meaningless, it’ll sell on a shirt, apparently.

The hipsters in town are currently in a transitional phase, with some still rocking a bearded gypsy steampunk look, while others are attempting some kind of Wright Brothers revival, complete with goofy hats and facial hair. For the older set, the height of Chico evening wear is, again, cargo shorts, but usually set off by a Hawaiian shirt, complimented by Birkenstocks sandals and knee-high white tube socks.

None for me, thanks. I’m not growing any waxed mustache and there’s no way I’m donning socks and sandals. If I’m ever found dead in socks and sandals, I want everyone reading this to know that it’s a sure sign of foul play. Seriously, call the authorities.

So I go on the internet and buy some mod clothes. Trousers, all the way from England. Not pants—trousers! And a polo shirt—but not an Izod—a Fred Perry, which to me looks like any other polo shirt and makes me feel like the manager of a steakhouse or something, but apparently polo shirts are mod, so I had to get one. And some jumpers. That’s right, we mods call sweaters “jumpers”, and we wear those a lot. Just another thing we do, like ride scooters and listen to The Who and stuff. I even went whole hog and got my hair cut like Keith Moon, which was probably my downfall.

“Hey, Ringo!”

“What do you call that kind of hair?”

“You look… different.”

So, yeah, that didn’t go over well. One of the kids at juvenile hall, where I tutor sometimes, seemed to think I was some kind of secret skinhead, which made me kind of uncomfortable. I also wasn’t sure what to make of my boss’s comment: “Look at you; you’ve got your little sweater on.”

It’s a credit to the educational profession that none of my colleagues were so crude as to call me a “gaywad”—not to my face anyway. But one teacher did say that my new look reminded him of John McCain, the Republican Senator from Arizona. I was like, “First of all, John McCain can’t name a Kinks song to save his life. And second, when’s the last time you saw John McfuckingCain in Blue Docs and a Fred Perry jumper? That’s right—it’s not a sweater—it’s a fucking jumper!”

But nobody was buying it. None of my new clothes went with my old clothes and it just seemed like I was dressing too nice all the time. I felt like what I was: a poseur.

The thing about being a poseur is, you do it long enough and eventually you become the thing you are posing as. But I didn’t even last as long with this new fashion as I did in the 6th grade. I still can’t afford a scooter and I don’t have the time, patience or inclination to iron all my shirts. The final straw was when the temperature hit 90 and my expensive Ben Sherman longsleeve started to feel like it was made of Malamute hair. It made me wonder if all the shirtless men in this county were actually on to something. In any case, modwear was made for cold, English nights, not hot summer days in California.

The hell with it. If anyone needs me, I’ll be at the mall buying cargo shorts.