Mod is a British youth subculture of the early to mid-1960s and was briefly revived in later decades. Focused on music and fashion, the subculture has its roots in a small group of London-based stylish young men in the late 1950s who were termed modernists because they listened to modern jazz.
Significant elements of the mod subculture include fashion (often tailor-made suits); music (including soul, ska, and R&B); and motor scooters (usually Lambretta or Vespa). The original mod scene was associated with amphetamine-fuelled all-night dancing at clubs.
There was a mod revival in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, which was followed by a mod revival in North America in the early 1980s, particularly in Southern California and Toronto, Canada.
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 argue that the definition of mod can be difficult to pin down, because throughout the subculture's original era, it was "prone to continuous reinvention." They claim that since the mod scene was so pluralist, the word mod was an umbrella term that covered several distinct sub-scenes. Terry Rawlings argues that mods are difficult to define because the subculture started out as a "mysterious semi-secret world", which The Who's manager Peter Meaden summarised as "clean living under difficult circumstances."
George Melly wrote that mods were initially a small group of clothes-focused working class young men insisting on clothes and shoes tailored to their style, who emerged during the trad jazz boom. Early mods watched French and Italian art films and read Italian magazines to look for style ideas. 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 during the emergence of Swinging London, though it has come to define Melly's working class clothes-conscious teenagers living in London and south England in the early to mid 1960s.
Mary Anne Long argues 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 asserts 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, who claims 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 argues that "Mod has been much misunderstood ... as this working-class, scooter-riding precursor of skinheads."
Coffee bars were attractive to British youths because, in contrast to typical pubs, which closed at about 11 pm, 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 notes that although coffee bars were originally aimed at middle-class art school students, they began to facilitate an intermixing of youths from different backgrounds and classes. At these venues, which Frith calls the "first sign of the youth movement", young people would meet 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.
Decline and offshoots
By the summer of 1966, the mod scene was in sharp decline. Dick Hebdige argues that the subculture lost its vitality when it became commercialised, artificial 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 fashion.
As psychedelic rock and the hippie subculture grew more popular in the United Kingdom, many people drifted away from the mod scene. Bands such as The Who and Small Faces had changed their music styles and no longer considered themselves mods. The peacock or fashion wing of mod culture evolved into the Swinging London scene. Additionally, the original mods of the early 1960s were getting 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 scooter rallies.
Many of the young hard mods of the mid-to-late 1960s lived in the same economically depressed areas of South London as West Indian immigrants, and those mods 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 Sloopy's. Hebdige claims that the hard mods were drawn to black culture and ska music in part because the educated, middle-class hippie movement's drug-oriented and intellectual music did not have any relevance for them. He argues 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. The early skinheads also liked soul, rocksteady and early reggae.
The hard mods eventually transformed into the skinheads. The early skinheads retained basic elements of mod fashion — such as Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts, Sta-Prest trousers and Levi's jeans — but mixed them with working class-oriented accessories such as braces and Dr. Martens work boots. Hebdige claims 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.
Revival 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, Purple Hearts 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.
Dick Hebdige argues that when trying to understand 1960s mod culture, one has to try and "penetrate and decipher the mythology of the mods". Terry Rawlings argues 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 claims 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 argue 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 argue 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.
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. Newspaper accounts from the mid-1960s focused 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 which mod fashion inherited its "narcissistic and fastidious [fashion] tendencies" and the immaculate dandy look. The Teddy Boys paved the way for making male interest in fashion socially acceptable, because prior to the Teddy Boys, male interest in fashion in Britain was mostly associated with the underground homosexual subculture's flamboyant dressing style.
Jobling and Crowley argue that for working class mods, the subculture's focus on fashion and music was a release from the "humdrum of daily existence" at their jobs. Jobling and Crowley note that while the subculture had strong elements of consumerism and shopping, mods were not passive consumers; instead they were very self-conscious and critical, customising "existing styles, symbols and artefacts" such as the Union flag and the Royal Air Force roundel, and putting them on their jackets in a pop art-style, and putting their personal signatures on their style. Mods adopted new Italian and French styles in part as a reaction to the rural and small-town rockers, with their 1950s-style leather motorcycle clothes and American greaser look.
Male mods adopted a smooth, sophisticated look that included tailor-made suits with narrow lapels (sometimes made of mohair), thin ties, button-down collar shirts, wool or cashmere jumpers (crewneck or V-neck), Chelsea or Beatle boots, loafers, Clarks desert boots, bowling shoes, and hairstyles that imitated the look of French Nouvelle Vague film actors. A few male mods went against gender norms by using eye shadow, eye-pencil or even lipstick. Mods chose scooters over motorbikes partly because they were a symbol of Italian style and because their body panels concealed moving parts and made them less likely to stain clothes with oil or road dust. Many mods wore military parkas while driving scooters in order to keep their clothes clean.
Many female mods dressed androgynously, with short haircuts, men's trousers or shirts, flat shoes, and little makeup — often just pale foundation, brown eye shadow, white or pale lipstick and false eyelashes. Miniskirts became progressively shorter between the early and mid-1960s. As female mod fashion became more mainstream, slender models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy began to exemplify the mod look. Maverick fashion designers emerged, such as Mary Quant, who was known for her miniskirt designs, and John Stephen, who sold a line named "His Clothes" and whose clients included bands such as Small Faces. The television programme Ready Steady Go! helped spread awareness of mod fashions to a larger audience.
The original mods gathered at all-night clubs such as The Roaring Twenties, The Scene, La Discothèque, The Flamingo and The Marquee in London to hear the latest records and to show off their clothes and dance moves. As the mod subculture spread across the United Kingdom, other clubs became popular such as Twisted Wheel Club in Manchester. They began listening to the "sophisticated smoother modern jazz" of Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet and became "...clothes obsessed, cool, [and] dedicated to R&B and their own dances."
Black American servicemen, stationed in Britain during the early part of the Cold War, brought over rhythm and blues and soul records that were unavailable in Britain, and they often sold these to young people in London.
The Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Kinks all had a following among mods, but a large number of specifically mod bands also emerged to fill this gap. These included Small Faces, the Creation, the Action, the Smoke, John's Children and The Who. The Who's early promotional material tagged them as producing "maximum rhythm and blues", and a name change in 1964 from The Who to the High Numbers was an attempt to specifically cater to the mod market. After the commercial failure of the single "I'm the Face / Zoot Suit", the band reverted to The Who. Although the Beatles dressed "mod" in their early years, their beat music was not popular among mods, who tended to prefer British R&B based bands.
A notable part of the mod subculture was recreational amphetamine use, which was used to fuel all-night dances at clubs like Manchester's Twisted Wheel. Newspaper reports described dancers emerging from clubs at 5 a.m. with dilated pupils. Some mods consumed a combined amphetamine/barbiturate called Drinamyl, which was nicknamed "purple hearts".
Due to this association with amphetamines, Pete Meaden's "clean living" aphorism about the mod subculture may seem contradictory, but the drug was still legal in Britain in the early 1960s, and mods used the drug for stimulation and alertness, which they viewed as different from the intoxication caused by alcohol and other drugs. Dr. Andrew Wilson argues that for a significant minority, "amphetamines symbolised the smart, on-the-ball, cool image" and that they sought "stimulation not intoxication ... greater awareness, not escape" and "confidence and articulacy" rather than the "drunken rowdiness of previous generations."
Wilson argues that the significance of amphetamines to the mod culture was similar to that of LSD and cannabis within the subsequent hippie counterculture. Dick Hebdige argues that mods used amphetamines to extend their leisure time into the early hours of the morning and as a way of bridging the gap between their hostile and daunting everyday work lives and the "inner world" of dancing and dressing up in their off-hours.
The media was quick to associate mods' use of amphetamines with violence in seaside towns, and by the mid-1960s, the British government criminalised amphetamine use.
Many mods drove motor scooters, usually Vespas or Lambrettas. Scooters were a practical and affordable form of transportation for 1960s teens, and in the early 1960s, public transport stopped relatively early in the night. For teens with low-paying jobs, scooters were cheaper than cars, and they could be bought through newly-available hire purchase plans.
Mods also treated scooters as a fashion accessory. Italian scooters were preferred due to their clean-lined, curving shapes and gleaming chrome. For young mods, Italian scooters were the "embodiment of continental style and a way to escape the working-class row houses of their upbringing". Mods customised their scooters by painting them in "two-tone and candyflake and overaccessorized [them] with luggage racks, crash bars, and scores of mirrors and fog lights". Some mods added four, ten, or as many as 30 mirrors to their scooters. They often put their names on the small windscreen. They sometimes took their engine side panels and front bumpers to electroplating shops to get them covered in highly reflective chrome.
Hard mods (who later evolved into the skinheads) began riding scooters more for practical reasons. Their scooters were either unmodified or cutdown, which was nicknamed a "skelly". Lambrettas were cutdown to the bare frame, and the unibody (monocoque)-design Vespas had their body panels slimmed down or reshaped.
After the seaside resort brawls, the media began to associate Italian scooters with violent mods. The media described groups of mods riding scooters together as a "menacing symbol of group solidarity" that was "converted into a weapon". With events like the November 6, 1966, "scooter charge" on Buckingham Palace, the scooter, along with the mods' short hair and suits, began to be seen as a symbol of subversion.
In Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson's study on youth subcultures in post-war Britain, they argue that compared with other youth subcultures, mod culture gave young women high visibility and relative autonomy. They claim that this status may have been related both to the attitudes of the mod young men, who accepted the idea that a young woman did not have to be attached to a man, and to the development of new occupations for young women, which gave them an income and made them more independent.
In particular, Hall and Jefferson note the increasing number of jobs in boutiques and women's clothing stores, which, while poorly paid and lacking opportunities for advancement, nevertheless gave young women disposable income, status and a glamorous sense of dressing up and going downtown to work. The presentable image of female mod fashion meant it was easier for young mod women to integrate with the non-subculture aspects of their lives (home, school and work) than for members of other subcultures. The emphasis on clothing and a stylised look for women demonstrated the "same fussiness for detail in clothes" as their male mod counterparts.
Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss claim that the emphasis in the mod subculture on consumerism and shopping was the "ultimate affront to male working-class traditions" in the United Kingdom, because in the working-class tradition, shopping was usually done by women. They argue that British mods were "worshipping leisure and money... scorning the masculine world of hard work and honest labour" by spending their time listening to music, collecting records, socialising, and dancing at all-night clubs.
Conflicts with rockers
In early-1960s Britain, the two main youth subcultures were mods and rockers. While mods were seen as "effeminate, stuck-up, emulating the middle classes, aspiring to a competitive sophistication, snobbish, [and] phony", rockers were seen as "hopelessly naive, loutish, [and] scruffy", emulating the motorcycle gang members in the film The Wild One, by wearing leather jackets and riding motorcycles. Dick Hebdige claims that the "mods rejected the rocker's 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 argues 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, claims that both mods and rockers could be seen at football matches.
John Covach writes 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 coast of England, such as Margate, Brighton, Bournemouth and Clacton. The mods and rockers conflict led sociologist Stanley Cohen to coin the term moral panic in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which examined media coverage of the mod and rocker riots in the 1960s. Although Cohen acknowledges that mods and rockers had some fights in the mid-1960s, he argues that they were no different from the evening brawls that occurred between 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 nation's 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 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.
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