Dress Codes: Richard Benson Explores Fashion’s Tribes
Near where I live in norf London, there is a pub called, “amusingly”, The Fiddler’s Elbow. It’s in a tatty Victorian building, with a huge blackboard outside listing the genres its DJs will be playing that week. For example: Monday FOLK, Tuesday MOD, Wednesday INDIE, Thursday ROCK, Friday PUNK, Saturday SKA, Sunday SOUL. It’s different every week. Sometimes they don’t have a DJ on Mondays, and instead it’s TABLE TENNIS.
The best things about The Fiddler’s theme nights are the crowds of can’t-give-it-up tribalists they attract. On punk nights it has queues of people with mohicans and leather jackets, and on mod nights it’s blokes who have tried to do their hair like Paul Weller but have ended up a bit Pat Butcher. My personal favourites are the Oi! nights. Oi!, in case you don’t know, was a blend of punk and skinhead subcultures, soundtracked by bands with the rudest, angriest songs ever written (the best Oi! band, Peter and the Test Tube Babies, had a repertoire that included jaunty numbers such as The Queen Gives Good Blow Jobs, I Lust for the Disgusting Things in Life and Beat up the Mods). There were, it has to be said, racists involved in it – the bands and fans disputed this, naturally – but it was also anti-establishment, with a lot of political protest songs.
The Oi! look was an anti-everything, somehow-more-aggressive version of skinhead, and nowadays, its fiftysomething adherents who loiter outside The Fiddler’s look eye-grabbingly brilliant with their Crombies and Jiminy Cricket-length jeans and crinkly eyes and really massive boots. It’s a proper, single-minded, don’t-give-a- fuck look, utterly alien to the modern way that dictates grown men do “styles” and order “festival outfits” from ASOS in the summer. A few months ago, I watched as a couple of impressed, trendy-ish blokes stopped in street-style awe and asked some of the Oi! fellas if they could take their picture. The blokes obliged and looked quite flattered, but I found myself thinking, “Fucking hell, that’s 30-odd years of devotion to the cause you’ve just converted into five minutes of Instagram kudos there. What would Peter and the Test Tube Babies have to say about that?”
I remembered this when I was thinking about this season’s theme of rebellion and fashion, because it seemed to say a lot about what’s happened to the notion of using your clothes to express disaffection or other semi-political feelings. In the 2010s, sportswear brands fill their feeds with pictures of football casuals and mods and music subcultures, while sunglasses manufacturers repackage pictures of classic rock stars in shades, and the world’s streets barely produce enough stylishly dressed people to keep the blogs going. You need only stand on Soho’s Brewer Street for five minutes during London Fashion Week to see that the more outrageous the outfit, the more likely the wearer is to be snapped for social-media fodder and, possibly, to become internet-famous and co-opted for someone else’s marketing campaign.
Meanwhile, stylists plunder and pass on ideas so quickly that trends don’t travel from east London to the X Factor dressing room so much as they get teleported. Skinhead style emerged in the late 1960s as (arguably, etc, etc) a statement of identity expressed through an almost caricatured version of a traditional, crop-headed working-class look. It then had more than a decade to evolve its different offshoots, with little media coverage beyond the occasional moral-panic piece or concerned documentary. Had it emerged in 2017, it would have already been in Guardian Weekend, used to style a post- Sam Smith pop-soul sensation, ridiculed and discredited, and then revived in a nostalgic Vice documentary. Remember normcore? That has recently been tipped by a style pundit for a revival this spring – pretty good going for something whose actual existence was pretty debatable in the first place.
Whether the Oi! lot at The Fiddler’s can be said to be actually rebelling any more is debatable, of course; you could just see their night out as an indulgence in nostalgia, or a kind of battle-re-enactment- society event. Still, you can also look back enviously to a time when you could use your clothes to say, “Fuck off, everybody!” as you walked down the street and know that people would see you as something to wonder about, rather than a walking subculture Panini card.
Can we express rebellion like that through clothing any more, should we wish to? And do you really need to, when you can say what you like on Twitter, or have your personal feelings about Jeremy Corbyn or Brexit or the cast of Geordie Shore printed on the front of a T-shirt? Well, obviously you can still stage personal revolts against dress codes and uniforms, but there are a few other, modern forms of attritional attire as well, when you think about it.
Paul Smith used to say he designed for the sort of British man who liked to express style defiance through details such as wearing pink socks under a business suit. In the dressed-down and open-necked 2010s, there’s an updated version of this that involves wearing a nice bit of formalwear, not as a novelty (as with bow ties) but to show it can look great. One British businessman I know recently told me he likes wearing a tie and cuff links to meetings, and even having a manicure before, “because it freaks out the Germans I work with, who are so proud of being trendy and casual”. Richard Froomberg, the founder of Grey Flannel in Chiltern Street, Marylebone, and designer of the best knitted ties in the country, says that he likes to wear a tie to dinners where he knows everyone will be in open-neck shirts, “just because no one will be expecting it”.
At the more intellectual end of things, there’s the subversion of “good taste” and undermining of fashion/luxury conventions and business models – see Supreme, Demna Gvasalia and, from previous generations, Margiela and Kawakubo. To embrace these clothes as a way of expressing your shared sense of values and scepticism about the system would be a rarefied, postmodern and expensive sort of rebellion, and one fraught with contradictions. One might ask, for example, what the point is of subverting the fake glamour and “super-exclusivity” (Gvasalia’s term) of the fashion system by selling £28 branded bricks or £600 sweatshirts. However, if you choose to shop at the expensive end of the market, it can feel more interesting and constructive to buy clothes that feel as if proper thinking has gone into them, rather than overpriced basics designed to shift units in highly polished globo-mall outlets.
He may not be a rebel in the punk sense, but the sort of modern man who seeks out the handmade and authentic is often quietly protesting against corny, devalued “luxury” and the impersonality of contemporary life. The Tricker’s brogues, the bleu de travail, the Hiut jeans, the Harris tweed, the lifetime subscription to Hole & Corner magazine: such staples are sought not only because they come with great backstories, but also because they are selling on the basis of quality rather than on ads and celebridee endorsements. Those Hamilton and Hare boxer shorts may look innocuous to you, but to him they’re as potent a symbol as bondage trousers once were.
ENVIRONMENTAL AS ANYTHING
A lot of menswear retailers will tell you that while checking the eco-creds of a prospective purchase is still a minority pursuit, it has increased in the past 10 years and indicates a growing desire to avoid brands that harm the natural environment. The key label that flags up eco-rebel status is, of course, Patagonia, the Californian label that has been a byword for good eco-practice since the 1970s and has had a revival of late. This position, like Patagonia’s long-sleeve T-shirts, is more or less compulsory among fashionable tech workers.
Grime artists such as Skepta making tracks saying they’ve renounced luxury labels because they don’t represent black people in their ads, and wearing Nike because its brand messaging has positive portrayals of black people succeeding, is a genuine bit of style rebellion. It should make some big fashion houses pay attention, because in a wider sense it’s a strike against the basis of aspirational advertising, and a new, sceptical approach to high-end brands. You can imagine a future in which the way someone feels a particular brand represents them determines whether or not they buy that brand’s stuff – and no bad thing either.
We should remember that Skepta and like- minded people are not the only people for whom rebellion and fashion is a serious, meaningful juxtaposition. After all, this is a time when terrorists consciously use clothing to project their desired image (in his book Black Flags: The Rise of Isis, Joby Warrick observes that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, arguably the founder of ISIS, liked to project his power by dressing “fully in black… [while] the only colour contrast came from the green ammo pouch strapped to his chest and his jarringly white Made in the USA New Balance sneakers”).
At the same time, in more mundane settings in Britain, bosses can still send women home from the office if they won’t wear heels of a certain height, which in 20 years’ time will seem as weird as your mum or grandmother not being allowed to wear trousers to work right up into the 1970s.
So, yes, right now, it seems unlikely that street style will ever again be sufficiently ahead of liberal attitudes and social media’s addiction to visual novelty to shock with rebelliousness. But on the other hand, there are still plenty of rules and expectations being challenged, and plenty of dissent being, er, dissented by our outfits. Rock on, dudes, and let’s meet at The Fiddler’s in 10 years’ time for Complicated Ironic Postmodern Fashion night – we can take selfies together and everything.
Taken from the most recent issue of 10 Men, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…
Text Richard Benson
Illustration Charles Jeffrey