Suedeheads

By Alex Roest

The very word Suedehead refers to the grown-out crop i.e. a Skinhead haircut. The attire and the attitude that went with it were not very different from those of his immediate predecessor however; it was rather a variation on a theme. The Suedehead of the early Seventies wasn’t so much a separate entity as a continuation of the smart Skinhead who (in many cases anyway) had always worn his hair slightly longer than the ubiquitous number one of ’69.

One has to remember when the Skinhead was yet to be christened as such; Peanuts (as they were somewhat inaptly called) still wore their hair in a college-boy style. The neatly side-parted hair re-appeared at the tail-end of the movement when what basically still were Skins had their hair in that style, or indeed a grown-out crop which resembles the “French crew” (which is like a crew cut but longer, about two inches all over) of the early Mods. So the whole style had come full circle, because Skinhead was Mod begat in the first place, so that’s where our story begins.

Although a certain ‘Spartan branch’ of Mod was spotted in the London clubs by some as early as ’65, I’d say a change started to become more or less apparent when Mod started to die down in ’66. There will always be present a certain ‘hard case’ element among young males growing up and in this case the Hard, or Gang, Mod deserves a mention. For day wear he may have opted for desert boots, Levi 501s, a Ben Sherman button-down shirt or a Fred Perry topped off by a Harrington or an MA 1 flying jacket. Gradually the Hard Mod would change into the boots-and-braces Skinhead with his mean looking number one (electric hair razors have settings known by their numbers). Sideburns were optional and remained just that all the way through. Those that were young enough adopted/adapted the new look of the kids that were too young to have been Mods in a neat working class amalgamation.

Now this is obviously where the pared down version of The Look takes shape. Boots, worn for practical reasons, jeans with precision turn-ups, shirts mostly plain or striped at this stage and thin braces worn for show. This look has its place of course when we’re talking street smart. Add to it a nice cardy or V-neck sweater and/or a nice casual jacket for instance, replace the boots with smart shoes and it will have a somewhat different effect altogether.

There is quite a bit of ambivalence surrounding the aggro side of the Skinhead and I will let that comment speak for itself. Most people will lose interest in that sort of thing soon enough (or turn pro indeed) because of relationships and other responsibilities. I do want to concentrate on the smarter end of the whole phenomenon anyway, but as far as the splintering of the original Mod movement went, the Hard Mod was definitely faction number one (sic).

The Hard Mods changing slowly into ‘Peanuts’

Then there were those who’d gone flamboyant, student, hippy or had settled down by then (’66 that is) already, but I will further ignore all of them for obvious reasons (apart from the fact that people were expected to settle down pretty early in those days and often did so, which in itself is an important social factor as we shall see later). Finally there was the Conservative or Suit Mod type that had stayed ‘with it’; the former Mod, as it were. He’s not necessarily the most interesting sort of person, although depending on where he is coming from, he can be quite interesting. He will probably have copied his look (to an extent) from the older guys from his neighbourhood or his older brothers or cousins maybe. Now where he truly becomes interesting, in my book, is when he is subtly adding his own ideas to “The Look”. He becomes more interesting still when he is broadminded enough to pick up new ideas from the next generation. Of course in this case, the new mood suited him perfectly, seeing as he’d worn his hair short for years anyway.

This ‘new’ street smart look did appeal to him shall we assume. Suits were for evening wear only now (mind you that during the heyday of Skinhead people like him were still called ‘suits’), but during the day he could be seen sporting e.g. loafers or ‘town looking’ brogues (Royals), Levi’s Sta-Prest trousers, that were basically slacks, a pristine button-down shirt and some nice casual jacket perhaps topped off with, say, a number three.

He wouldn’t have had his hair any shorter than that because it would have made him look suspicious in the eyes of young women for one thing, not to mention his employer. He would also be too mature to want to look like the younger kids and what’s more: the smartest dressers among these may have wanted to copy his more sophisticated look and in turn impress their mates. That’s called cross-fertilization I think.

The fact that people had relatively little time to indulge in that kind of thing was, as mentioned before, an important factor in their outlook on life as such. You were supposed to marry in your early twenties, so you had to save up if you were so inclined when money was in most cases tight to begin with. People on average couldn’t spend the amounts of money on clothes we are nowadays used to. So that makes it even more admirable how they managed to look so smart.

Another ‘hair thing’ is that you would soon have grown tired of attracting attention from the old Bill (police) let alone not gaining access to nightclubs full stop. I think that one is called natural progression or common sense really.

One should furthermore be aware of the fact that smart Skins had always dressed in what became later known as a Suedehead manner. The idea was, once again, to look smart and not like a thug. Trying to look hard when you’re really not (except maybe when you’ve got the numbers) doesn’t help anybody at the end of the day. The smartest answer in both senses of the word is to dress to impress and the Suedehead most certainly did just that!

Still of unknown Suede in typical check button-down and Harrington

Apart from the fact that Suedeheads resembled Mods in their overall smartness and colourful look, what should also be mentioned is that they borrowed some elements from the Rude Boy as well. Think shades, pork pie hats, cropped trousers, Crombies and the Rock-steady music. Ska/Reggae and Soul meant a lot to them (as in Deep, Black and Urban) because it set them apart from the undiscerning, or so they thought. And it was a soundtrack they could dance to obviously.

The ‘out-and-out’ Suedehead look consisted of smart shoes (mostly brogues and loafers like those made by Faith Royal), Sta-Prest trousers in all their various colours, check button-down shirts (Ben Sherman, Brutus or Jaytex were popular, a lesser known brand they wore was Arnold Palmer), plain coloured knitwear ( e.g. bright red or pastel V- necks or mustard cardigans although the latter were arguably more Skinhead), Harrington jackets and the aforementioned Crombies or a sheepskin, and then maybe that porkpie hat and ‘them’ shades.

Suits were basically three button, narrow shouldered, high buttoning with narrow lapels and waisted, worn with parallel trousers ( 20” bottoms by ’71 ). Exact styles differed a lot because of fast changing fashions at the time, but were also regional. They often came in tans and bronzes or light and petrol blues (with red linings), tonik two-tone material, Prince of Wales checks or dogtooth patterns. Ties were fairly sober and narrowish. Pocket squares were all the rage.

Suits were being worn during the day again

Girls often wore boy’s shoes, loafers mostly, crepe soled lace-ups, clumpy nurses’ style shoes with a brogue pattern or plain, and other popular high street fashions such as sling-backs both with flared heels, suede and patent-leather, buckled shoes, in bright multi-colours towards the end.

Geometric patterned, plain and side patterned tights were popular with miniskirts (again preferably mohair or failing that the cheaper Trevira, styles – plain A-line, pleated often tartan checks etc, lots of buttons). Same shirts as the boys, off-the-peg suit jackets of varying lengths, although 3/4 length just above the knee was very popular in 2-tone fabric, PoW checks, double breasted also. Crombies. Trevira two pieces and mohair, Mod-like shift dresses would be worn too, Maxi length dresses at the very end of this period, often backless halter-neck.

The hair was slightly longer than the boys’, it would be in a neat style, parted with lots of forehead, with the lengths razor cut, sometimes lacquered. Some girls would wear their hair just long as it happened, often in ponytails or off the face with an Alice-band or hair clips. Make up was eye heavy with pale lips, early-on sometimes no make-up at all; Skinny eyebrows-false eyelashes, perfume – Youth Dew, very popular.

So the foundations of this look were laid in ‘66/67. The somewhat older dressers even went back to the roots of Modernism, may it have been perhaps not consciously so. The “Ivy shop” and later “Squire” as well, catered for the former Mods that wanted to carry on looking sharp. Those two shops were totally Ivy League and both stocked beautiful knitwear, thick soled shoes (such as wingtips and plain cap brogues), button-down shirts, Harringtons, raincoats and Prince of Wales check suits to a collegiate cut.

Young men that didn’t think of themselves as Skins would be considered just that by today’s standards. Although some of them did become Suedeheads. The difference would have been unmistakable to those In The Know (ITK) but it would have been a nuance that was subtle enough for the Suedeheads themselves.

The Modernist tradition of exclusivity and secrecy (some would call it elitism) carried on at any rate and the funny thing is youths began to wear suits again during the day in the early seventies. They were very likely a bit more daring colour-wise than they as Skinheads (and please note we’re talking about the same people here, expanding The Look) would have preferred and that’s basically another Mod trait.

Just previously to Suedehead there’d been a short-lived fad to sport the city gent look (in this version : navy or black blazer, white cutaway collar shirt, striped tie, grey flannel parallels and black toe-capped Oxfords) which had also taken place in ’62 (striped, waisted suits in this case, but also with the added bowler and brollie like their Seventies counterparts). In other words: young men experimenting with traditional garments in order to create a look of their own, subverting the very thing in their playful sartorial rebellion, if you will.

This (at the time) 17 year old Smooth from North London is wearing a made to measure Crombie and a trilby, Levi’s, a Ben Sherman shirt and Oxfords. The girl was a model and has on a petrol blue/gold Trevira suit. A lot of the gear came from High Street stores like Burton and Top Shop.

Now let’s get back to where the Suedes were taking The Look afterwards. The hair grew longer still (short on top, down to the collar at the back and sides) and they turned into “Smoothies” come ’73 with their either very plain shoes or Norwegians (clumpy loafers with a basket-weave vamp), round collared shirts, Fair Isle yoke sweaters, tank-tops, loose cords etc. Then feather cuts, Oxford bags, Budgie gear etc or back to denim and spray painted boots for some i.e. the return of the Boot-boy…shame !

Others went on to become early “Soul Boys” that carried on shopping at the better shops on the Kings Road, if they were from “The Smoke”, but that story is not for me to tell. More than a few of the older lads went for the ‘French Cut’ look thus going for individuality and leaving the uniform behind.

Although some Skins had stayed true to the cause there weren’t many left by ’76. When Punk came along people became very much aware again of the sense of belonging that is a big part of any youth culture, the attraction of that ‘community feeling’ was wearing on pretty heavily during that time. Many disillusioned Punks as well as those who disliked the scruffy image looked back to the fifties and sixties for inspiration. Of course there were those who followed in the footsteps of older relatives too, because they recognized the simple beauty of a concept their elders had enthused them with.

Among various revivalists were (again) some that wanted to be a little sharper and thought of themselves as Suedeheads. For many though, it was the idea of the sussed, “smart Skinhead” that proved appealing. The “smart Skinhead” went very much against the tide of the plastic Skins that had entered the scene and signaled a trend back to basics, and all that.

Tom McCourt made the change from Skinhead to Suedehead early in 1978. In this photo he is wearing a silver mohair suit which was handmade, one of his original Ben Sherman shirts: a very light stripe in pale green and a very pale lemon. The overcoat a dark navy wool number, it had raglan sleeves and was from Aquascutum. The shoes were brogues. He was probably also wearing a tank top, complementing his socks colour-wise.

Ever since the Eighties there have been purist Skins keeping the original styles alive. They won’t have to look that far really, especially these days with the www. For instance: Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler are all doing some excellent repro jeans, but also A.P.C. and Edwin are worth investigating. There are several sources imaginable as for an authentic American styled shirt as well. Sta-Prest is probably a little hard to come by, but YMC is an interesting label in that respect as well as for some other gear. A good pair of smart trousers, Crombie style coats, raincoats, sheepskins etc can be found without too much hassle in a decent men’s shop or in some of the High Street shops even (just like in the old days, if your imitation looks smart enough it’ll do the trick nicely). Footwear can be traced through the original makes or can indeed be modern and perhaps a bit sleeker, in true accordance with a Mod-like aesthetic.

Suits can be bespoke of course, or seeing as the fashions were changing so rapidly back in the day, they could just as easily be e.g. Paul Smith or Ozwald Boateng, as in classic with a twist.
Away from any sub-cultural meaning, as the photos will hopefully show, The Suedehead look is a look that can definitely still work when updated ever so slightly. Looking smart doesn’t mean ‘boring old man’ by any means and the haircut remains a classic.

The women’s ‘updating’ bit requires some thinking that I will gladly leave to a female person to be honest, but that aside. I think both men and women will be able to see the subtlety of this classic, timeless look, if they really want to.

Callum McCourt is one of the few contemporary Suedeheads. Here he’s sporting a silver and black tonik suit with a black/blue/white check vintage Ben Sherman button-down shirt. Not in the pic are a pair of original oxblood tassel loafers ( without fringe ) and a dark grey and black herringbone check chesterfield overcoat ( with black velvet collar, very Suedehead ) by Duffer of St George.

Alex Roest

Many thanks also to Bomber and Brideshead (the two Johns ). Special thanks to Lily and Rosa.




Recommended reading:

The Great Lost Look essay from Kevin Rowland to be found in The Look by Paul Gorman
The Button-Down Types chapter in The Soul Stylists by Paolo Hewitt
Jim Ferguson’s Fashion Notebook in Skinhead by Nick Knight
Suedehead by Richard Allen

Viewing:

Bronco Bullfrog by Barney Platts-Mills

Listening:

Trojan Suedehead Box Set
This Is Soul: Remastered & Expanded/Vinyl Replica Edition





  1. the weekender    Jan 23, 07:00    #

    hi !
    nice article. suedehead is a very underrated subculture today. i linked the article in my blog:
    http://weekenderonline.blogspot.com/2008/01/suedeheads.html


  2. — Harry Facer    Jan 24, 10:57    #

    Nice article. Well written and well reserched.


  3. — Peter Jachimiak    Jan 26, 07:27    #

    Dear Alex,

    I liked the article on Suedeheads very much. If you’re interested, here’s a link to a new book on Anthony Burgess in which I discuss Skins, Suedes, etc., in relation to “A Clockwork Orange” (pages 155-158) – just click on “sample ebook” to access/download the PDF.

    http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/catalogue/book.asp?id=2126

    Regards,

    Peter (Jachimiak)


  4. — Lex Angel    Mar 14, 11:18    #

    what can I say? Great article, well researched.


  5. — Ralph    Jun 28, 15:28    #

    great article,on the nail.I was there in the early 70s,and you have summed up the feel.


  6. jason    Oct 10, 16:01    #

    there is a lot of skinheads in to scooters

    vespas and lambrettas


  7. — Paul    May 8, 06:12    #

    I really enjoyed that article. The whole era was great, even if I was a bit too young to get fully involved, it was far more interesting to witness, especially compared with what we have today.


  8. — SJK    Jun 15, 03:00    #

    Good article.The Fred Perry ‘Laurel’ range is also worth looking at. Better fabrics and fits than the main collection


  9. — Dagenham Max    Jul 30, 21:22    #

    Don’t remember seeing the MA1 jacket around till the early 80s, certainly not a skin/suede/smoothie item in 60s/70s.


  10. — Chris Brown    Aug 1, 12:44    #

    Quality, well written and accurate article – surprised Alex didn’t mentioned my book ‘Booted and suited’ he rated my original book ‘Bovver’ as ‘well written and humorous, the best book on the subject’ [terrace culture]


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    Very, very good article, nice one. can I steal/borrow some of your images and text for my webiste?


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  16. — Simon Songhurst    Sep 8, 08:03    #

    Hi,
    Great read sir, thanks.
    Interesting about wearing clothes that are hard to find. Was at a mod weekender in Italy earier this year. Great clothes to be had in the high street there, I had to buy another suit case, bought some great shoes, jackets and shirts. Weird thing was during the day all the local mods wore was Sherman, FP and Merc.


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    The whole era was great, even if I was a bit too young to get fully involved, it was far more interesting to witness, especially compared with what we have today.


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