Skinheads first started at the end of the 1960s as a working-class offshoot of Mod. Like mods, skinheads put a lot of emphasis on fashion, although Skinhead style was not so much an innovation as a standardisation of the ‘heavy mod’ image, which could trace its ancestry back to Clacton, 1964.
But while undeniably neat, the look was about as unstylish as it was possible to get: shaven head (crops came in numbers with #1 being the shortest), big boots (Doc Martens, preferably ‘Cherry Reds’, and often steel-capped), Levi jeans rolled up to mid-calf and worn with braces which went over the sleeveless pullover that was worn as a vest, and – for very cold weather – the Harrington (a short, black ‘bomber’ jacket with a tartan lining), the sheepskin coat or the Abercrombie coat (‘crombies‘).
The uniform stressed the skinhead’s working classness and their ‘hardness’. Fighting was a big preoccupation.
For evening wear, the skinhead dressed more formally in two-tone Tonik trousers, Ben Sherman shirts with button-down collars and back-pleats, and Brut aftershave.
Skinheads, in the beginning, were not consciously racist. West Indian Afro Boys were often equals in skinhead gangs, and reggae, ska and bluebeat were adopted as “their” music – to which they evolved their own semi-military style of dancing – the skinhead stomp.
This happy state of racial harmony was undermined and finally destroyed by the emergence in 1969 – and the spread in 1970 – of the ugly sport of ‘Paki-bashing’.
It started in East and South London, reflecting the hostility of the wider working-class community to a large-scale influx of Asian immigrants at the time. ‘Pakis’, because of wider cultural differences from working-class whites, were despised – while West Indians were regarded with respect, or at least, as much respect as one can feel while kicking somebody in the head.
The football terraces became the skinheads’ public stage and recruiting ground. They followed soccer in the first place because it was a working-class tradition, and they were class conservatives. It also offered them a community with which to identify, a territory to defend and the opportunity – without the inconvenience of having to make arrangements as to time and place – to hit people.
Except for a few dedicated individuals, skins all but died out during the glam and glitter days of the 1970s until 1977, when the cult was revived en masse by mostly working-class punks disillusioned by the high debutante and dilettante quota of the supposed street movement.
The first new skinhead band was Sham 69, followed quickly by Skrewdriver. Like later new skinhead bands such as the Angelic Upstarts and The 4-Skins, these bands specialised in brutal punk music. Interestingly, cult memories were strong and pure reggae discos playing all the old faves from 1969 also flourished.
In 1979, Rude Boys and Girls sprang up as a ska-struck skin offshoot, drawing on a cross-fashion audience between skins and mods, though later, the movement became indistinguishable from skins.
Rudies looked like skins, except they were mostly smarter and more prone to wearing suits and porkpie hats.
The real distinguishing mark apart from fashion fineries was the attitude to race. Obnoxious neo-nazi sects became briefly popular amongst some skinheads, mostly as a fashion thing, and obviously, the 2-Tone rudies couldn’t be racialist.