New book on Skinhead Culture
Many of Derek Ridgers' skinhead photos play to the common understanding of skinheads. There is the camaraderie, yes, but there is also the aggression. It is remarkable just how many of the youths in Ridgers' shots seem to have their fists clenched, assuming that is, they're not giving their 'sieg heil' salute.
More sympathetically understood, with hindsight one can see how skinheads were no more - and no less - than an expression of youthful angst in a troubled era. They were the 1970s' answer to the sweat-panted and hoodie-topped youths that haunted council estates and, with others, rioted across east London in 2011 - only arguably much less hateful, in every sense.
John and Dave, Chelsea, 1981 (Derek Ridgers)
Of course, the skinhead was a folk devil - a concept introduced by sociologist Stanley Cohen during the same decade as the skinheads' greatest prominence: indeed, although the concept was inspired by earlier mods and rockers, its arrival was perfectly timed for the skinheads.
The folk devil was the subject of a media-fuelled moral panic, blamed for rising crime, bouts of personal violence and perceived as an organised threat to society's moral norms. This is not to say there were not problems, even if the skinhead's bad reputation was over-played throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, both by the media and in a series of popular if controversial skinhead novels by Richard Allen - some of which sold in excess of a million copies - in which fighting, and fighting with racist intent at that, was a key event.
Near Carnaby Street, 1980 (Derek Ridgers)
There is no denying that there was skinhead trouble, and that some skinheads were troubled. But the fact is that, for all that the skinhead was a provocateur, fought in the streets, ruined football as a family affair and got scooter rallies campaigned against across the UK, he was not aggressive beyond anything that might be regarded as the high jinks of excess testosterone, which had been seen before and which has been seen since.
Sadly that notion is mostly lost: the bad apples of skinhead seemingly have tarnished the name irretrievably. In fact they continue to shape public perception of this youth movement even today - just getting a closely cropped hairstyle is to invite the impression that you are not to be trusted. Incredibly, so mistrusted was the hairstyle that US servicemen stationed in Britain during this period - and whose regulation haircuts resembled that of skinheads - were granted permission to wear a hairpiece when socialising off base, so as to help them avoid trouble.
Kevin, outside The Last Resort in Goulston Street, Aldgate, 1981 (Derek Ridgers)
Certainly for most within the movement - if it can be called that - being a skinhead was apolitical, a unifying sharing of a style and taste that, like most youth tribes, provided a sense of identity for the mostly white, mostly male, mostly working class displaced youth. Like tribes before and after, clothes, music and sport proved a powerful bonding agent.
It is this simple tribal notion of skinhead that should have been the one to have lasting resonance - skinhead as youth phenomenon, as an often sharp street style. Indeed, skinhead was arguably the last fashion-based youth tribe of any real significance in the UK. The Casuals who followed through the 1980s were deeply regionalised and barely noticed by the media at large, and British youth has since been fractured further by the possibilities of the internet and, to many in the older generation, now appears rather unimaginatively disheveled.
Leicester Square, 1981 (Derek Ridgers)
Of course, skinheads might argue that their garb was entirely functional - a kind of battle dress for the streets: the hair, for example, made hair hard to grab in a fist fight. But on a closer look it is hard to deny that, for all of its sometimes cartoonish machismo, the look of the skinhead was a deeply narcissistic one. And it was rooted in a proudly British working class idea of always being in presentable dress, a notion that even the skinheads' parents would recognise, even if they might not appreciate the results.
What most people who take the folk-devil line in their understanding of skinhead don't appreciate are the deeper origins of their tribe. The pioneers of the skinhead look - and this was long before skinhead even became a self-defining term - were known as "hard mods". The boots were already part of the style, the haircuts then more extreme takes on the Modish French crew cut. The style they pioneered, to which many of Ridgers photos attest, could be exacting, but culminated in that most skinhead of attributes: pride and swagger. There were the uncompromising haircuts and the jeans - always rolled, sometimes splashed with bleach. And there were the boots, with that preference for steel toe-capped army boots - or later, Doc Marten's - with the laces worn tied around the top of the boot, fed through the pull tab at the rear, and colour-coded (with white laces suggesting supremacist leanings).
Wally and friends, Gossips, Soho, 1979 (Derek Ridgers)
Shirts were in Oxford cloth, plain, striped, and later checked - gingham was a favourite - with button-down collars a relatively late addition to the dress rule book. Braces, for show rather than actual support, were some kind of statement of working class solidarity.
There was also the skinhead's predilection for certain labels - button-down shirts by Ben Sherman ("Bennies", as they became known), polo shirts were by Fred Perry, loafers or brogues by Faith Royal and coats by Crombie. And although skinhead might arguably be considered the first youth tribe to be determined, sartorially speaking, by an obsessive regard for certain brands, cheaper alternatives were never shunned providing the overall look was adhered to. Membership was what mattered.
Chelsea, 1981 (Derek Ridgers)
And the music skinheads first danced to? Thanks in part to the records brought over by US servicemen, they included the then still underground genres of American soul and Jamaican reggae - black music.
Indeed, before right-wing extremism, silly scowls and one-finger salutes becamea default setting for skinhead, the relationship between it and black music culture was mutually appreciative. Among the songs tripping off the records from labels such as Island and Trojan were the likes of the "Skinhead Shuffle" and "Skinhead Moonstomp". The ska inflection in the style of the skinhead with the Madness button on his jacket or his pork-pie hat makes that clearer still.
These are what, in contrast to those hard mods, one might call the "soft skins", and are what skinhead became: the style not so extreme, the nationalism now more patriotism, the scowl now more cheeky chappy grin. In other words, while it continued in more adult form abroad, in the UK skinhead more clearly reverted to what it had, at heart, always meant to be about: lads having fun and being young together.
This is an edited extract from the foreword to Skinheads 1979-1984 by Derek Ridgers, published by Omnibus Press, £14.95