Skinheads: come and see the show if you think you’re hard enough

The bogeymen of our youth are back in a London exhibition that explores both the creeds and contradictions of bootboy culture. Tim Willis reports

It’s a brave pop-cultural historian who would plant his Doc Martens on the territory marked ‘skinhead’ and claim he saw the whole lie of the land. Would he know, for example, that there is now an international left-wing movement – describing themselves as ‘redskins’ – who affect the classic number-two buzz-cut and button-down Ben Sherman?

Or that, when I was a teenager in Yorkshire, there was a gang called the Leeds Clockwork who dressed in white – shortened wide jeans, collarless shirts – and sported the bowlers, eyeliner and canes that Alex and his droogies favoured in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange? (Christ, they were scary.)

What’s more, the semiotics of skin-style have become so complicated since its emergence – among working-class British white boys in the early Seventies – that they must now encompass its homoerotic aspects, as well as its subversion-cum-appropriation by gay men and YBAs.

Then there’s the allure of the cheap skinhead novels that transfixed us in the Seventies; the links between the skins and various nationalist and neo-Nazi movements here and abroad; the curious crossover between punk and bootboy tribes that led to the Oi! sound. The list goes on…

However, the following creation story is generally agreed:

Skin-ism sprang from a division among Mod-oriented youth in the late Sixties. As the hippies – who actually had the same sartorial roots – became hairier and flakier and noodled away (a long way) from the culture of the three-minute dance song, the poorer Mods felt angry, alienated and rather disgusted.

They were mostly in manual jobs, which didn’t suit flowing locks and flapping loons, and mostly educated in the school of hard knocks and not the local grammar, and their brutal appearance was a rebellion against current styles; their attitude essentially defensive (with their best form of defence being attack…).

‘Peace and love? I’ll give you fuckin’ peace and love’ might be their slogan. Their favourite victims were the even more marginalised ‘Pakis’ – comprising pretty much anyone from the Indian sub-continent – followed by ‘poofs’ (despite a fondness for David Bowie; see homoeroticism, above) and ‘niggers’.

Except ‘niggers’ fought back. Besides which, they had the best music. While rockers, hairies and hippies had whitened the black man’s rhythm’n’blues, the authenticity of what the Brits called ‘Northern’ soul, as well as Jamaican ska and its later development as reggae, were valued by these head-shaven hard men.

And they were mainly men. Although female skinheads existed – feather-cut and forbidding – this was largely a working men’s club; a last gasp of misplaced class pride before the advent of both chav-dom and council-house ownership.

Today you’re more likely to see a close-cropped Brighton lesbian in a green flight jacket and pair of 14-hole Cherry Reds than a skin in, say, Dagenham.

Anyway, all these themes and more will now be touched on in an exhibition starting this week. mounted by the amiable Toby Mott, 49, who himself played with the look, as a member of art-poseur group The Grey Organisation. One only hopes he will address visitors with that traditional skinhead greeting:

“What you fuckin’ lookin’ at?”

Where Have All the Bootboys Gone? Skinhead Style and Graphic Subcultures is at the Street Galleries, London College of Communication, University of the Arts, 
London SE1 6SB from 23 October to 2 November