Mods in transition

By Derek Whelan

Mods in transition

In the late 1950’s some young Londoners began to follow the fashion and musical influences of American Jazz artists. Originally known as the ‘Modernists’ they became to be known as ‘Mods’.

During the sixties their musical interests evolved into American rhythm and blues, soul, and Jamaican blue beat. Soho in central London was the birthplace of mod culture and several popular nightclubs appeared in this area playing host to bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. Music and dancing played a significant part in Mod social life and ‘all-nighters’ with the use of amphetamines became common at weekend gigs. The Mod style was sophisticated and smart. Young men wore well cut suits with fashion influences taken from France and Italy.

Boutiques in Soho began to appear catering for the tastes of these youngsters. An androgynous aspect to Mod culture developed which challenged gendered stereotypes of that time. The bobbed hairstyle of girls was deemed by conservative attitudes as being too masculine while the boys’ style was considered too effeminate. Miniskirts became the fashion icon most associated with female Mods conveying a youthful sense of rebellion. Reinforcing a European style, the preferred mode of transport was the Italian scooter and the image of the parka clad Mod driving a Vespa remains for many the quintessential image of the subculture. This stylish image acted as a
counterbalance to the austerity Britain had experienced after the Second World War. Mods exhibited a youthful desire to create their own distinct identity in a space removed from their parents and institutional England. Adult concerns were reflected in the ‘moral panic’ caused by media coverage of the mid-sixties seaside clashes between the rival gangs of the mods and rockers. The rise of Mod culture occurred simultaneously to the rise of consumerism in the western world from the 1950’s. While the ‘baby boomers’ generation may have had more disposable income than their parents being a Mod required a serious financial commitment. Many were from working class backgrounds and any spare cash was spent on expensive clothing, music, nights out and if lucky a vespa scooter.

Mods pictured in Soho (London) 1964, Taken from Google Images 24/03/2022

Mods reflect the fluidity of an underground youth subculture where normative attitudes, fashion, and technology are in a constant state of flux. Age and time often result in young people transitioning from one subculture to another or adapting popular culture for their own agenda(s).

As the sixties came to an end Mod culture evolved leading to the arrival of other divergent youth subcultures. Northern soul emerged in English urban centres such as Manchester, Blackpool, and Sheffield. It developed from Mods who had a passion for obscure American soul tracks. Discos rather than live band performances became their medium of choice. Notwithstanding the acrobatic dancing at their discos followers of Northern Soul developed a fashion style distinct from the mods. The look was more casual with looser clothing and extensive use of symbolic badges. Their passion for rare soul music also reflects young people’s tendency to seek out trends which are not mainstream, a form of subtle rebellion against established norms. Northern Soul continues to remain a niche subculture in parts of North England where original followers and new converts continue to hold all night discos. ‘Hard mods’ were another spin off subculture from the original Mod movement at the end of the sixties. This group wore less formal clothing promoting an image more representative of their working-class backgrounds. Their philosophy challenged the Mod style which had its origins in the Victorian dandy seeking to dress above one’s station in life. The Hard Mods developed an interest in Jamaican blue beat music, and this genre later became known as ska. Some favoured a more urbanised and grittier and this precipitated the arrival of Britain’s first skinheads. Shortly after the arrival of punk in 1976 there was a Mod re-emergence with bands such as The Jam who tended to merge elements of mod and punk culture. While their image and clothing were reflective of the original mods their music tended to be influenced more from punk.

The Mod philosophy espoused a more optimistic version of modernity than that presented by Britain’s older generations. Rebelling against post war austerity and their parents’ conservatism, young Mods in England looked to the future with hope. Membership of this group allowed them to create their own identity articulated through foreign influences in music and fashion. While its origins lay in London mod culture transcended national boundaries becoming a prominent subculture in Germany, North America and Japan. The Mod movement in Germany represented one manifestation of youth rebellion, disillusioned with the older generation who had made Germany a global pariah after the trauma of the Second World War. The first opportunity for Mod culture to spread internationally occurred during the ‘British Invasion’ when major UK bands such as the Beatles toured the US. Technological advancements in TV along with the ubiquitous use of radio and print media were the conduits for the movement to reach a global audience. Mod iconography became synonymous with rebellious, sexy musicians and commercialised through stylish European fashion, Italian scooters and Cooper mini cars. This transnational flow of music, style, and iconography united young people in different parts of the globe. Arthur Marwick felt the decade of the sixties espoused an ‘ideal of a multicultural world’.
This unique era saw Mod culture blossom, largely facilitated by increased consumerism and technological improvements.

While the original British Mod movement had peaked in popularity by the mid-sixties, it’s influence in music, fashion and popular culture has endured to the present day. Contemporary rock groups such as Strokes and Franz Ferdinand mimic the smart suit styles of the early Mods. During the Brit pop era of the 1990’s bands such as Oasis and Blur look and sound like their 1960’s contemporaries. The transnational nature of Mod and youth culture in general was highlighted at the first ‘Modstock’ festival in London in 2004. This gathering included Mods of different generations from Great Britain, Europe, North America, and Japan. It was a sign that their beloved movement has successfully managed to transcend time and space.

On-line exhibition by Museum of Youth Culture, ‘We Are, We Are, We Are The Mods’ – The newly
affluent working class youth of the 1960’s’.
Feldman, Christine Jacqueline. ‘We Are the Mods’: A Transnational History of a Youth Culture, 2009.

Derek Whelan works as an accountant at the University of Galway where he completed an M.A. in history in 2022 as a mature student.