Mod (from modernist) is a subculture that originated in London, England, in the late 1950s and peaked in the early-to-mid 1960s.
Significant elements of the mod subculture include fashion (often tailor-made suits); music, including African American soul, Jamaican ska, British beat music, and R&B; and motor scooters. The original mod scene was also associated with amphetamine-fuelled all-night dancing at clubs. From the mid-to-late 1960s and 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.
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.
The term mod derives from modernist, which was 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 by Colin MacInnes describes as a modernist, a young modern jazz fan who dresses in sharp modern Italian clothes. Absolute Beginners may be one of the earliest written examples of the term modernist being used to describe young British style-conscious modern jazz fans. The word modernist in this sense should not be confused with the wider use of the term modernism in the context of literature, art, design and architecture.
Dicks Hebdige claims that the progenitors of the mod subculture "appear to have been a group of working-class dandies, possibly descended from the devotees of the Italianite [fashion] style." Mary Anne Long disagrees, stating that "first hand accounts and contemporary theorists point to the Jewish upper-working or middle-class of London’s East End and suburbs." Sociologist 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 youths, because in contrast to typical British 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 some of the space in the machines for the students' 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", youths 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. They also watched French and Italian art films and read Italian magazines to look for style ideas.According to Hebdige, the mod subculture gradually accumulated the identifying symbols that later came to be associated with the scene, such as scooters, amphetamine pills, and music.
Decline and offshoots
By the summer of 1966, the mod scene was in sharp decline. Dicks Hebdige argues that the mod subculture lost its vitality when it became commercialised, artificial and stylised to the point that new 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 mixing different fashions together.
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 musical styles and no longer considered themselves mods. Another factor was that the original mods of the early 1960s were getting into the age of marriage and child-rearing, which meant that they no longer had the time or money for their youthful pastimes of club-going, record-shopping and scooter rallies. The peacock or fashion wing of mod culture evolved into the swinging London scene and the hippie style, which favored the gentle, marijuana-infused contemplation of esoteric ideas and aesthetics, which contrasted sharply with the frenetic energy of the mod ethos.
The hard mods of the mid-to-late 1960s eventually transformed into the skinheads. Many of the hard mods lived in the same economically depressed areas of South London as West Indian immigrants, and those mods emulated the rude boy look of pork pie hats and too-short Levis jeans. 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.
Dick 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 also 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 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 streetfights).
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, creating a mixture of "taste and testosterone" that was both self-confident and streetwise.
Revival and later influences
A mod revival started in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom, with thousands of mods attending scooter rallies in places like Scarborough and the Isle of Wight. This revival was partly inspired by the 1979 film Quadrophenia and by mod-influenced bands, initially The Jam whose clothes and graphic imagery set them apart from the prevailing punk rock scene. They were followed by Secret Affair, Purple Hearts and The Chords drawing on the energy of New Wave music.
The British revival was followed by a mod 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.
Jobling and 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. Maverick fashion designers emerged, such as Mary Quant, who was known for her increasingly short miniskirt designs, and John Stephen, who sold a line named "His Clothes", and whose clients included bands such as Small Faces.
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 "narcissitic 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.
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". 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 symbol, and putting them on their jackets in a pop art-style, and putting their personal signatures on their style. The song "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" by The Kinks from 1966 jokes about the fashion obsession of the mod community.
Mod fashion adopted new Italian and French styles in part as a reaction to the rural and small-town rockers, who were seen as trapped in the 1950s, with their leather motorcycle clothes and American greaser look. Male mods adopted a smooth, sophisticated look that emphasised tailor-made Italian suits (sometimes white) with narrow lapels, mohair clothes, thin ties, button-down collar shirts, wool or cashmere jumpers (crewneck or V-neck), pointed-toe leather shoes that were nicknamed winklepickers, as well as Chelsea or Beatle boots, Tassel Loafers, Clarks Desert Boots and Bowling shoes, and hairstyles that imitated the look of the French Nouvelle Vague cinema actors of the era, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo. A few male mods went against gender norms of the era by enhancing their appearance with eye shadow, eyepencil or even lipstick. Scooters were chosen over motorbikes because scooters' use of bodypanelling and concealed moving parts made them cleaner and less likely to stain an expensive suit with grease. Scootering led to the wearing of military parkas to protect costly suits and trousers from mud and rain.
Female mods dressed androgynously, with short haircuts, men's trousers or shirts (sometimes their boyfriend's), flat shoes, and little makeup — often just pale foundation, brown eye shadow, white or pale lipstick and false eyelashes. Female mods pushed the boundaries of parental tolerance with their miniskirts, which got progressively shorter between the early and mid-1960s. As female mod fashion went from an underground style to a more commercialised fashion, slender models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy began to exemplify the high-fashion mod look. The television programme Ready Steady Go!, presented by Cathy McGowan, helped to spread awareness of mod fashions and music to a larger audience.
Clubs, music, and dancing
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 mod 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." They became "...clothes obsessed, cool, [and] dedicated to R&B and their own dances." Black American servicemen, stationed in Britain during the Cold War, also brought over rhythm and blues and soul records that were unavailable in Britain, and they often sold these to young people in London. 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. 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 The Small Faces, The Creation, The Action, The Smoke, John's Children and most successfully The Who. The Who's early promotional material tagged them as producing "maximum rhythm and blues" and a brief name change in 1964 from The Who to The High Numbers was an attempt to specifically cater for the Mod lifestyle. However, they soon reverted back to The Who in late 64 due to the commercial failure of the first High Numbers single "I'm the Face / Zoot Suit" and a desire in the market for original material rather than R&B covers. Many bands were able to enjoy cult and then national success in the UK, but only the Who managed to break into the American market.
The influence of British newspapers on creating the public perception of mods as having a leisure-filled clubgoing 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 the time and money to spend this much time going to nightclubs. Jobling and 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.
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. Mods bought a combined amphetamine/barbiturate called Drinamyl, which was nicknamed "purple hearts" from dealers at clubs such as The Scene or The Discothèque. Due to this association with amphetamines, Pete Meaden's "clean living" aphorism may be hard to understand in the 2000s (decade). However, when mods used amphetamines in the pre-1964 period, the drug was still legal in Britain, and the mods used the drug for stimulation and alertness, which they viewed as a very different goal from the intoxication caused by other drugs and alcohol Mods viewed cannabis as a substance that would slow a person down, and they viewed heavy drinking with condescension, associating it with the bleary-eyed, staggering lower-class workers in pubs. Dick Hebdige claims that mods used amphetamines to extend their leisure time into the early hours of the morning and as a way of bridging the wide gap between their hostile and daunting everyday work lives and the "inner world" of dancing and dressing up in their off-hours.
Dr. Andrew Wilson claims 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 the paramouncy of LSD and cannabis within the subsequent hippie counterculture. 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. The emerging hippie counterculture strongly criticised amphetamine use; the poet Allen Ginsberg warned that amphetamine use can lead to a person becoming a "Frankenstein speed freak."
Many mods used motorscooters for transportation, usually Vespas or Lambrettas. Scooters had provided inexpensive transportation for decades before the development of the mod subculture, but the mods stood out in the way that they treated the vehicle as a fashion accessory. Italian scooters were preferred due to their cleanlined, 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". They 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", and they often put their names on the small windscreen. Engine side panels and front bumpers were taken to local electroplating workshops and recovered in highly reflective chrome.
Scooters were also a practical and accessible form of transportation for 1960s teens. In the early 1960s, public transport stopped relatively early in the night, and so having scooters allowed mods to stay out all night at dance clubs. To keep their expensive suits clean and keep warm while riding, mods often wore long army parkas. For teens with low-end jobs, scooters were cheaper than cars, and they could be bought on a payment plan through newly-available Hire purchase plans. After a law was passed requiring at least one mirror be attached to every motorcycle, mods were known to add four, ten, or as many as 30 mirrors to their scooters. The cover of The Who's album Quadrophenia, (which includes themes related to mods and rockers), depicts a young man on a Vespa GS with four mirrors attached.
After the seaside resort brawls, the media began to associate Italian scooters with the image of violent mods. When groups of mods rode their scooters together, the media began to view it 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. After the 1964 beach riots, hard mods (who later evolved into the skinheads) began riding scooters more for practical reasons. Their scooters were either unmodified or cut down, 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.
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
As the Teddy Boy subculture faded in the early 1960s, it was replaced by two new youth subcultures: 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 Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang leader character 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 not particularly masculine.
Scholars debate how much contact the two groups had during the 1960s; while Dick Hebdige argues that mods and rockers had very little contact, because they tended to come from different regions of England (mods from London and rockers from more rural areas), and because they had "totally disparate goals and lifestyles". However, British ethnographer Mark Gilman claims that both mods and rockers could be seen at football matches.
John Covach's Introduction to Rock and its History claims 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 admits 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. He claims that the British media turned the mod subculture into a negative symbol of delinquent and deviant status.
Newspapers described 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".
Cohen argues that as media hysteria about knife-wielding, violent mods increased, the image of a fur-collared anorak and scooter would "stimulate hostile and punitive reactions" amongst readers. 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. Cohen says the media used possibly faked interviews with supposed rockers such as "Mick the Wild One". As well, the media would try to get mileage from accidents that were unrelated to mod-rocker violence, such as an accidental drowning of a youth, which got the headline "Mod Dead in Sea"
Eventually, when the media ran out of real fights to report, they would publish deceptive headlines, such as using a subheading "Violence", even when the article reported that there was no violence at all. Newspaper writers also began to use "free association" to link mods and rockers with various social issues, such as teen pregnancy, contraceptives, drug use, and violence.