About two years ago while visiting home in Galway, I was looking around a TK Maxx. Usually, I wouldn’t find anything for me in a place like that; but this time, I noticed that they had a ton of super cool Ben Sherman polos, which were cheaper than they should be. Now, I’m not one to make hasty purchases, but I’ve got a soft spot for bits like Ben Sherman and Fred Perry. So, I scooped up a nice black and yellow tipped Ben Sherman polo and was feeling pretty good about myself. Later on, I showed the shirt to my Mum and Dad–to which my Mum said, “I think that belongs to some white supremacist group.” That group turned out to be the Proud Boys.
This moment was incredibly upsetting; I hardly ever buy new things for myself, and the one time I do, it results in people questioning whether I’m a “western chauvinist”. To be a western chavunist is, for a lack of better words, to be a white supremacist. The Proud Boys believe that white, western, traditional culture is best.
However, the reminder of my resentment towards the Proud Boys and their beliefs was not the sole cause of my disappointment. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been hearing songs such as “Town Called Malice” by The Jam, “Ghost Town” by The Specials, and “Our House” by Madness. For the most part, these groups may be considered punk, or ska, but in particular, they belong to skinhead, Mod, and Rude Boy culture. This purchase should have been a moment of connection, and of a shared love for the culture to which this polo belongs–the same one that I was raised on. But instead, I felt as if I had been robbed of something which I hold dearly to my heart. It was as though a symbol of my own identity had been stolen from me.
Mod culture has existed since about the late 1950’s, and was born out of the working class youth of England of the time. The word “Mod”, is a shortened version of the term Modernist, which these youths coined in order to contrast individuals who aligned themselves with “Trad”, or traditional culture. Following World War Two, the youths of England sought to create a modern identity for themselves through their newfound modern world of fashion and music; subsequently, the Mods sparked a revolution for the youth of England.
The Mods were known for their fashion. Since most Mods were younger working-class individuals, their style was firmly grounded in utility and quality. This tendency was hard to ignore, given the constant sight of Mods rocking military surplus parkas and expertly tailored suits. In 1952, Fred Perry released its very first polo shirt; this quickly struck a chord with the Mods and their modern way of life. Fred Perry’s polo was designed with a function-first ethos, creating a perfect blend of sport functionality and neat tailoring. Second, the polo was affordable to working class youths, who may have had little to spend. But it’s also essential to mention that Fred Perry himself, the eponymous owner of the brand, was a living manifestation of many Mod values.
Fred Perry was born in 1909 in Stockport England, but later moved to London at the age of eleven. His father, Samuel Perry, was a self-made cotton miller, and was the very first national secretary of the Co-Operative party–a centre-left, labour focused political party in England, which was founded in 1917. Fred Perry himself was often seen as an outsider within the professional tennis world, mostly due to his extensive play in amateur tennis as well as his working-class background. The snottiness did not hinder Fred at all; he managed to secure eight Grand Slam titles, two Pro Slam titles, and six Major double titles. Today, he is almost unanimously regarded as one of the greats in tennis.
To a certain extent, Fred Perry is a Mod, whether he identifies as one or not. Fred Perry attacked an existing, traditional institution from a modern perspective and became a legend in the process.
Mod culture was first defined by modern jazz in the late fifties through the sixties. Then, in the mid 1960’s came groups such as The Who and the Small Faces. Later in the late 1970’s, the so-called “Mod Revival” arrived, and was defined by bands such as The Jam, The Specials, Madness, The Purple Hearts, and more. In 1979, the film Quadraphenia was released, which is now seen as an essential piece of Mod art. Throughout all these subcultures and their respective styles there has been one constant: Fred Perry.
Paul Weller, the frontman of The Jam, is known today as the “modfather”. It’s honestly quite difficult to find an old picture of Weller wearing anything but Fred Perry. The characters seen in Quadrophenia are also constantly sporting Perry polos. Even once Mod culture had diffused into the subdivisions of skinhead, ska, and punk, Fred Perry was still the era’s staple brand. The term skinhead was coined because this specific group almost exclusively wore their hair shaved, mostly due to the fact that they were factory-workers, and long hair would get in the way. Skinhead culture in particular is very closely linked to punk and ska. Ska music was born out of working-class immigrant neighborhoods, where immigrants from areas such as the Carribean and Jamaica were able to fuse their culture with punk and Mod culture. In terms of style, besides Fred, the general ethos of Mod style remained, while some of the pieces were swapped around. Skinheads dropped the fish-tail parkas for MA-1 bombers (to those of you with Alpha Industry bombers: thank the Skinheads, not Raf), combat boots and skinny jeans. Ska-heads were known as Rude Boys; who instead of furthering the militaristic style of Mods, took the menswear and tailoring to a new, beautiful extreme. Unfortunately, skinhead subculture is where where the white-nationalist, neo-nazi influence began to worm its way in.
Sadly, today when many people hear the word “skinhead”, they instantly make the connection to white supremacist and neo-nazi individuals, which unfortunately outshines and clouds the history and the beauty of skinhead culture. But the blame for this connotation can be chalked up to The National Front: a hard-right, fascist political party based in England. They were anti-immigration, anti-LGBT, and essentially wanted a clean-cut, white, male, Christian society. Founded in 1967, the group quickly began to target the younger generation, most notably by recruiting outside of football matches and other youth hubs. Once they had successfully established themselves within these communities, they began to set up music venues and social clubs for their newfound young members. In response to a series of concerts known as “Rock Against Racism” in the late 70’s, the National Front organized their own shows, which they dubbed “Rock Against Communism.” Today, Rock Against Communism is used as a general term to describe any sort of neo-Nazi, white supremacist punk/rock group. As time will tell almost without fail: when given a scapegoat for their troubles, those who are down on their luck will easily fall to hate. The National Front turned certain youth groups of the time against their black, immigrant, diverse neighbors. Since these kids were both poor and surrounded by a wildly diverse community, it was easy for The National Front to take advantage of the situation. Now, unfortunately since at that time, the youth in England was partly defined by mod, punk, and skinhead culture, it was only natural for those who would’ve joined The National Front to be into these specific genres of music.
From there, the issue of white-nationalism and far-right politics did not depart from skinhead culture, as we see today with the Proud Boys. However, it must not be forgotten that Skinhead culture comes from a place of multiculturalism, of a love for modern art, fashion, and music. Black culture is everywhere for true Mods and Skinheads: the term “Mod” partly stems from their love for modern jazz. The first skinheads arose from ska music scenes–a genre which is a direct love affair between English punk rock and the music of Jamaican and Carribean immigrants. Individuals such as the Proud Boys must not be allowed to cloud this history, and mustn’t be permitted to prevent any individual from calling themselves a skinhead, or from wearing a staple piece of history such as a Fred Perry polo.