ⓘ Mod (subculture)
Mod is a subculture that began in London and spread throughout Great Britain and elsewhere, eventually influencing fashions and trends in other countries, and continues today on a smaller scale. Focused on music and fashion, the subculture has its roots in a small group of stylish London-based young men in the late 1950s who were termed modernists because they listened to modern jazz. Elements of the mod subculture include fashion ; music. In the mid 1960s, the subculture listened to power pop rock groups with mod following, such as The Who and The Small Faces, after the peak Mod era) The original mod scene was associated with amphetamine-fuelled all-night dancing at clubs.
During the early to mid 1960s, as mod grew and spread throughout the UK, certain elements of the mod scene became engaged in well-publicised clashes with members of rival subculture, rockers. The mods and rockers conflict led sociologist Stanley Cohen to use the term "moral panic" in his study about the two youth subcultures, which examined media coverage of the mod and rocker riots in the 1960s.
By 1965, conflicts between mods and rockers began to subside and mods increasingly gravitated towards pop art and psychedelia. London became synonymous with fashion, music, and pop culture in these years, a period often referred to as "Swinging London." During this time, mod fashions spread to other countries and became popular in the United States and elsewhere - with mod now viewed less as an isolated subculture, but emblematic of the larger youth culture of the era.
As mod became more cosmopolitan during the "Swinging London" period, some working class "street mods" splintered off, forming other groups such as what eventually became known as skinheads. There was a mod revival in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, which attempted to replicate the "scooter" period look and styles of the early to mid 1960s. It was followed by a similar mod revival in North America in the early 1980s, particularly in southern California, Vancouver, and Toronto.
1. Etymology and usage
The term mod derives from modernist, a term used in the 1950s to describe modern jazz musicians and fans. This usage contrasted with the term trad, which described traditional jazz players and fans. The 1959 novel Absolute Beginners describes modernists as young modern jazz fans who dress in sharp modern Italian clothes. The novel may be one of the earliest examples of the term being written to describe young British style-conscious modern jazz fans. This usage of the word modernist should not be confused with modernism in the context of literature, art, design and architecture. From the mid-to-late 1960s onwards, the mass media often used the term mod in a wider sense to describe anything that was believed to be popular, fashionable or modern.
Paul Jobling and David Crowley argued that the definition of mod can be difficult to pin down, because throughout the subcultures original era, it was "prone to continuous reinvention." They claimed that since the mod scene was so pluralist, the word mod was an umbrella term that covered several distinct sub-scenes. Terry Rawlings argued that mods are difficult to define because the subculture started out as a "mysterious semi-secret world", which the Whos manager Peter Meaden summarised as "clean living under difficult circumstances."
2. History 1958-1969
George Melly wrote that mods were initially a small group of clothes-focussed English working class young men insisting on clothes and shoes tailored to their style, who emerged during the modern jazz boom of the late 1950s. Early mods watched French and Italian art films and read Italian magazines to look for style ideas. They usually held semi-skilled manual jobs or low grade white-collar positions such as a clerk, messenger or office boy. According to Hebdige, mods created a parody of the consumer society that they lived in.
2.1. History 1958-1969 Early 1960s
According to Dick Hebdige, by around 1963, the mod subculture had gradually accumulated the identifying symbols that later came to be associated with the scene, such as scooters, amphetamine pills and R&B music. While clothes were still important at that time, they could be ready-made. Dick Hebdige wrote the term mod covered a number of styles including the emergence of Swinging London, though to him it defined Mellys working class clothes-conscious teenagers living in London and south England in the early to mid 1960s.
Mary Anne Long argued that "first hand accounts and contemporary theorists point to the Jewish upper-working or middle-class of London’s East End and suburbs." Simon Frith asserted that the mod subculture had its roots in the 1950s beatnik coffee bar culture, which catered to art school students in the radical Bohemian scene in London. Steve Sparks, whose claim is to be one of the original mods, agrees that before mod became commercialised, it was essentially an extension of the beatnik culture: "It comes from modernist’, it was to do with modern jazz and to do with Sartre" and existentialism. Sparks argued that "Mod has been much misunderstood. as this working-class, scooter-riding precursor of skinheads."
Coffee bars were attractive to British youth because, in contrast to typical pubs, which closed at about 11pm, they were open until the early hours of the morning. Coffee bars had jukeboxes, which in some cases reserved space in the machines for the customers own records. In the late 1950s, coffee bars were associated with jazz and blues, but in the early 1960s, they began playing more R&B music. Frith noted that although coffee bars were originally aimed at middle-class art school students, they began to facilitate an intermixing of youth from different backgrounds and classes. At these venues, which Frith called the "first sign of the youth movement", young people met collectors of R&B and blues records, who introduced them to new types of African-American music, which the teens were attracted to for its rawness and authenticity.
As the mod subculture grew in London during the early-to-mid 1960s, tensions could arise between the mods, often riding highly decorated motor scooters, and their main rivals, the rockers, a British subculture who favoured rockabilly, early rocknroll, motorcycles and leather jackets, and considered the mods effeminate, because of their interest in fashion. Violent clashes could ensue between the two groups. This period was later immortalised by songwriter Pete Townshend, in the Whos 1973 concept album, Quadrophenia.
However, after 1964, clashes between the two groups largely subsided, as mod expanded and came to be accepted by the larger youth generation throughout the UK as a symbol of all that was new. During this time London became a mecca for rock music, with popular bands such as The Who and The Small Faces appealing to a largely mod audience, as well as the preponderance of hip fashions, in a period often referred to as Swinging London.
2.2. History 1958-1969 Swinging London
As numerous British rock bands of the mid-1960s began to adopt a mod look and following, the scope of the subculture grew beyond its original confines and the focus began to change. By 1966, proletarian aspects of the scene in London had waned as fashion and pop-culture elements continued to grow, not only in England, but elsewhere.
This period, portrayed by Alberto Sordis film in Thank you very much, and in Michelangelo Antonionis 1966 film Blowup, was typified by pop art, Carnaby Street boutiques, live music, and discotheques. Many associate this era with fashion model Twiggy, miniskirts, and bold geometrical patterns on brightly coloured clothes. During these years, it exerted a considerable influence on the worldwide spread of mod.
2.3. History 1958-1969 United States and elsewhere
As mod was going through transformation in England, it became all the rage in the United States and around the world, as many young people adopted its look. However, the worldwide experience differed from that of the early scene in London in that it was based mainly on the pop culture aspect, influenced by British rock musicians. By now, mod was thought of more as a general youth-culture style rather than as a separate subgroup amongst different contentious factions.
American musicians, in the wake of the British Invasion, adopted the look of mod clothes, longer hairstyles, and Beatle boots. The exploitation documentary Mondo Mod provides a glimpse at mods influence on the Sunset Strip and West Hollywood scene of late 1966. Mod increasingly became associated with psychedelic rock and the early hippie movement, and by 1967 more exotic looks, such as Nehru jackets and love beads came into vogue. Its trappings were reflected on popular American TV shows such as Laugh-In and The Mod Squad.
2.4. History 1958-1969 Decline
Dick Hebdige argued that the subculture lost its vitality when it became commercialised and stylised to the point that mod clothing styles were being created "from above" by clothing companies and by TV shows like Ready Steady Go!, rather than being developed by young people customising their clothes and combining different fashions.
As psychedelic rock and the hippie subculture grew more popular in the United Kingdom, much of mod, for a time, seemed intertwined with those movements. However, after 1968 it dissipated, as tastes began to favor a less style-conscious, denim and tie-dyed look, along with a decreased interest in nightlife. Bands such as The Who and Small Faces began to change and, by the end of the decade, moved away from mod. Additionally, the original mods of the early 1960s were coming to the age of marriage and child-rearing, which meant many of them no longer had the time or money for their youthful pastimes of club-going, record-shopping, and buying clothes.
3.1. Later developments 1969-present Offshoots
Some street-orientated mods, usually of lesser means, sometimes referred to as hard mods, remained active well into the late 1960s, but tended to become increasingly detached from the Swinging London scene and the burgeoning hippie movement. By 1967, they considered most of the people in the Swinging London scene to be "soft mods" or "peacock mods," as styles, there, became increasingly extravagant, often featuring highly ruffled, brocaded, or laced fabrics in Day-Glo colours.
Many of the hard mods lived in the same economically depressed areas of South London as West Indian immigrants, so these mods favoured a different kind of attire, that emulated the rude boy look of Trilby hats and too-short trousers. These "aspiring white negros listened to Jamaican ska and mingled with black rude boys at West Indian nightclubs like Ram Jam, A-Train and Sloopys. Hebdige claimed that the hard mods were drawn to black culture and ska music in part because the educated, middle-class hippie movements drug-orientated and intellectual music did not have any relevance for them. He argued that the hard mods were attracted to ska because it was a secret, underground, non-commercialised music that was disseminated through informal channels such as house parties and clubs.
By the end of the 1960s, the hard mods had become known as skinheads, who, in their early days, would be known for the same love of soul, rocksteady and early reggae. Because of their fascination with black culture, the early skinheads were, except in isolated situations, largely devoid of the overt racism and fascism that would later become associated with whole wings of the movement in the mid to late 1970s. The early skinheads retained basic elements of mod fashion - such as Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts, Sta-Prest trousers and Levis jeans - but mixed them with working class-orientated accessories such as braces and Dr. Martens work boots. Hebdige claimed that as early as the Margate and Brighton brawls between mods and rockers, some mods were seen wearing boots and braces and sporting close cropped haircuts for practical reasons, as long hair was a liability in industrial jobs and street fights.
Mods and ex-mods were also part of the early northern soul scene, a subculture based on obscure 1960s and 1970s American soul records. Some mods evolved into, or merged with, subcultures such as individualists, stylists, and scooterboys.
3.2. Later developments 1969-present Revivals and later influences
A mod revival started in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom, with thousands of mod revivalists attending scooter rallies in locations such as Scarborough and the Isle of Wight. This revival was partly inspired by the 1979 film Quadrophenia and by mod-influenced bands such as The Jam, Secret Affair, The Lambrettas, Purple Hearts, The Specials and The Chords, who drew on the energy of new wave music.
The British mod revival was followed by a revival in North America in the early 1980s, particularly in Southern California, led by bands such as The Untouchables. The mod scene in Los Angeles and Orange County was partly influenced by the 2 Tone ska revival in England, and was unique in its racial diversity, with black, white, Hispanic and Asian participants. The 1990s Britpop scene featured noticeable mod influences on bands such as Oasis, Blur, Ocean Colour Scene and The Verve. Popular 21st century musicians Miles Kane and Jake Bugg are also followers of the mod subculture.
Dick Hebdige argued that when trying to understand 1960s mod culture, one has to try and "penetrate and decipher the mythology of the mods". Terry Rawlings argued that the mod scene developed when British teenagers began to reject the "dull, timid, old-fashioned, and uninspired" British culture around them, with its repressed and class-obsessed mentality and its "naffness". Mods rejected the "faulty pap" of 1950s pop music and sappy love songs. They aimed at being "cool, neat, sharp, hip, and smart" by embracing "all things sexy and streamlined", especially when they were new, exciting, controversial or modern. Hebdige claimed that the mod subculture came about as part of the participants desire to understand the "mysterious complexity of the metropolis" and to get close to black culture of the Jamaican rude boy, because mods felt that black culture "ruled the night hours" and that it had more streetwise "savoir faire". Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss argued that at the "core of the British Mod rebellion was a blatant fetishising of the American consumer culture" that had "eroded the moral fiber of England." In doing so, the mods "mocked the class system that had gotten their fathers nowhere" and created a "rebellion based on consuming pleasures".
The influence of British newspapers on creating the public perception of mods as having a leisure-filled club-going lifestyle can be seen in a 1964 article in the Sunday Times. The paper interviewed a 17-year-old mod who went out clubbing seven nights a week and spent Saturday afternoons shopping for clothes and records. However, few British teens and young adults would have had the time and money to spend this much time going to nightclubs. Paul Jobling and David Crowley argued that most young mods worked 9 to 5 at semi-skilled jobs, which meant that they had much less leisure time and only a modest income to spend during their time off.
4.1. Characteristics Fashion
Paul Jobling and David Crowley called the mod subculture a "fashion-obsessed and hedonistic cult of the hyper-cool" young adults who lived in metropolitan London or the new towns of the south. Due to the increasing affluence of post-war Britain, the youths of the early 1960s were one of the first generations that did not have to contribute their money from after-school jobs to the family finances. As mod teens and young adults began using their disposable income to buy stylish clothes, the first youth-targeted boutique clothing stores opened in London in the Carnaby Street and Kings Road districts. The streets names became symbols of, one magazine later stated, "an endless frieze of mini-skirted, booted, fair-haired angular angels". Newspaper accounts from the mid-1960s focussed on the mod obsession with clothes, often detailing the prices of the expensive suits worn by young mods, and seeking out extreme cases such as a young mod who claimed that he would "go without food to buy clothes".
Two youth subcultures helped pave the way for mod fashion by breaking new ground: the beatniks, with their Bohemian image of berets and black turtlenecks, and the Teddy Boys, from whom mod fashion inherited its "narcissistic and fastidious scruffy", emulating the motorcycle gang members in the film The Wild One, by wearing leather jackets and riding motorcycles. Dick Hebdige claimed in 2006 that the "mods rejected the rockers crude conception of masculinity, the transparency of his motivations, his clumsiness"; the rockers viewed the vanity and obsession with clothes of the mods as immasculine.
Scholars debate how much contact the two subcultures had during the 1960s. Hebdige argued that mods and rockers had little contact with each other because they tended to come from different regions of England mods from London and rockers from rural areas, and because they had "totally disparate goals and lifestyles". Mark Gilman, however, claimed that both mods and rockers could be seen at football matches.
John Covach wrote that in the United Kingdom, rockers were often engaged in brawls with mods. BBC News stories from May 1964 stated that mods and rockers were jailed after riots in seaside resort towns on the south and east coasts of England, such as Margate, Brighton, Bournemouth and Clacton. The "mods and rockers" conflict was explored as an instance of "moral panic" by sociologist Stanley Cohen in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which examined media coverage of the mod and rocker riots in the 1960s. Although Cohen acknowledged that mods and rockers had some fights in the mid-1960s, he argued that they were no different from the evening brawls that occurred between non-mod and non-rocker youths throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, both at seaside resorts and after football games.
Newspapers of the time were eager to describe the mod and rocker clashes as being of "disastrous proportions", and labelled mods and rockers as "sawdust Caesars", "vermin" and "louts". Newspaper editorials fanned the flames of hysteria, such as a Birmingham Post editorial in May 1964 which warned that mods and rockers were "internal enemies" in the United Kingdom who would "bring about disintegration of a nations character". The magazine Police Review argued that the mods and rockers purported lack of respect for law and order could cause violence to "surge and flame like a forest fire". As a result of this media coverage, two British Members of Parliament travelled to the seaside areas to survey the damage, and MP Harold Gurden called for a resolution for intensified measures to control youth hooliganism. One of the prosecutors in the trial of some of the Clacton brawlers argued that mods and rockers were youths with no serious views, who lacked respect for law and order.