In the late 1950s, the United Kingdom's entrenched class system limited most working class people's educational, housing, and economic opportunities. However, Britain's post-war economic boom led to an increase in disposable income among many young people. Some of those youths spent that income on new fashions popularised by American soul groups, British R&B bands, certain movie actors, and Carnaby Street clothing merchants.
These youths became known as the mods, a youth subculture noted for its consumerism—and devotion to fashion, music, and scooters. Mods of lesser means made do with practical styles that suited their lifestyle and employment circumstances: steel-toe boots, straight-leg jeans or Sta-Prest trousers, button-down shirts, and braces (called suspenders in the USA). When possible, these working-class mods spent their money on suits and other sharp outfits to wear at dancehalls, where they enjoyed soul, ska, bluebeat and rocksteady music.
Around 1965, a schism developed between the peacock mods (also known as smooth mods), who were less violent and always wore the latest expensive clothes, and the hard mods (also known as gang mods), who were identified by their shorter hair and more working-class image. Also known as lemonheads and peanuts, these hard mods became commonly known as skinheads by about 1968. Their shorter hair may have come about for practical reasons, since long hair can be a liability in industrial jobs and a disadvantage in streetfights. Skinheads may also have cut their hair short in defiance of the more bourgeois hippie culture popular at the time.
In addition to retaining many mod influences, early skinheads were very interested in Jamaican rude boy styles and culture, especially the music: ska, rocksteady, and early reggae (before the tempo slowed down and lyrics became focused on topics like black nationalism and the Rastafari movement). Skinhead culture became so popular by 1969 that even the rock band Slade temporarily adopted the look, as a marketing strategy. The subculture gained wider notice because of a series of violent and sexually explicit novels by Richard Allen, notably Skinhead and Skinhead Escapes. Due to largescale British migration to Perth, Western Australia, many British youths in that city joined skinhead/sharpies gangs in the 1960s and formed their own Australian style.
By the 1970s, the skinhead subculture started to fade from popular culture, and some of the original skins dropped into new categories, such as the suedeheads (defined by the ability to manipulate one's hair with a comb), smoothies (often with shoulder-length hairstyles), and bootboys (with mod-length hair; associated with gangs and football hooliganism).
Some fashion trends returned to mod roots, reintroducing brogues, loafers, suits, and the slacks-and-sweater look.
In 1977, the skinhead subculture was revived to a notable extent after the introduction of punk rock. Most of these revival skinheads were a reaction to the commercialism of punk and adopted a sharp, smart look in line with the original look of the 1969 skinheads and included Gary Hodges and Hoxton Tom McCourt (both later of the band the 4-Skins) and Suggs, later of the band Madness.
From 1979 onwards, skinheads with even shorter hair and less emphasis on traditional styles grew in numbers and grabbed media attention, mostly as a result of their involvement with football hooliganism. These skinheads wore punk-influenced styles, like higher boots than before (14-20 eyelets) and tighter jeans (sometimes splattered with bleach). However, there was still a group of skinheads who preferred the original mod-inspired styles. Eventually different interpretations of the skinhead subculture expanded beyond the UK and Europe. One major example is that in the United States, certain segments of the hardcore punk scene embraced skinhead style and developed their own version of the subculture.
In the late 1960s, some skinheads (including black skinheads) had engaged in violence against random Pakistanis and other South Asian immigrants (an act known as Paki bashing in common slang). Although these early skinheads were not part of an organized racist movement, by the early 1970s there were skinheads who aligned themselves with the white nationalist National Front. However, there had also been anti-racist and leftist skinheads from the beginning, especially in areas such as Scotland and northern England. As the 1970s progressed, the racially-motivated skinhead violence in the UK became more partisan, and groups such as the National Front and the British Movement saw a rise in skinheads among their ranks. Although many skinheads rejected political labels being applied to their subculture, some working class skinheads blamed non-white immigrants for economic and social problems, and agreed with far right organizations' positions against blacks and Asians. By the late 1970s, some openly neo-Nazi groups were largely composed of skinheads, and by this point, the mass media, and subsequently the general public, had largely come to view skinheads exclusively as a subculture promoting white power.
However, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, many skinheads, suedeheads, ex-skinheads and football casuals in the UK rejected the dogma of both the left and right. This anti-extremist attitude was musically typified by Oi! bands such as Cockney Rejects, The 4-Skins and The Business.
The mainstream media started using the term skinhead in reports of racist violence, and has played the largest role in skewing public perceptions about the subculture. Geoff Pearson describes this simply as society using the skinheads as scapegoats for latent social problems:
Paki-bashing has become associated with skinheads. ... Liberal consciences might ask: "why on earth do kids beat up immigrants?" But liberal consciences had seen nothing on earth like the Skinhead: the senselessness of his football hooliganism, his violence, and his clothing forced a neat closure to any critical thought. Anyone dressed like that would do anything: it stood to reason. Thus we are left with one of those self-evident truths of a media-induced hypnosis, and there is no longer any reason left to search for the reason why people attack immigrants.
Bill Osgerby further supports the claim that it is the skinhead fashion which makes them an easy target. Osgerby says, "the skinheads’ defiant proletariat posture (work boots, braces, prison ‘crop’ hairstyle) was what ensured that the media would present skinheads as 'public enemy number one'. Television shows like Oprah and Geraldo make skinheads the theme of their shows and further perpetuate the stereotype. The media has also linked skinheads to football hooliganism, while it seems clear that hooliganism was a sort of subculture of its own..
Some skinheads countered the neo-Nazi stereotype by forming anti-racist organizations, such as The Minneapolis Baldies, who started in 1986; Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP), which was founded in New York City in 1987 and spread to several other countries; and Anti-Racist Action (ARA), which was founded in the late 1980s by members of the Minneapolis Baldies and other activists. Other less-political skinheads also spoke out against neo-Nazis and in support of traditional skinhead culture. Two examples of this were the Glasgow Spy Kids in Scotland (who coined the phrase Spirit of 69), and the publishers of the Hard As Nails zine in England.
Anti-racist skinheads, sometimes known as SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), are aggressively opposed to neo-Nazism and racism, although not always political in terms of other issues. The label SHARP is sometimes used to describe all anti-racist skinheads, even if they aren't members of a SHARP organization. Some anti-racist skinheads have been involved with political groups such as Anti-Fascist Action or Anti-Racist Action. White power and traditional skinheads (especially in the U.S.) sometimes refer to them as baldies, possibly referring to the development of Anti-Racist Action from a St. Paul Minnesota crew that termed themselves the Baldies.
Apolitical skinheads either oppose all politics in general, are politically moderate, or keep their personal political views out of the skinhead subculture. Skinheads on either extreme of the political spectrum sometimes refer to this type as a fencesitter or fencewalker.
Left wing skinheads are anti-racist and anti-fascist, taking a militant pro-working class stance. This category includes redskins and anarchist skinheads. The most well-known organization in this category is Red and Anarchist Skinheads.
White power skinheads or neo-Nazi skinheads are racist, extremely nationalist and highly political. Many Nazi skinheads have no connection to the original 1960s skinhead culture in terms of style or interests. SHARPs and traditional skinheads often refer to them as boneheads. One group associated with this movement is Hammerskins.
Coats: MA-1 type flight jackets (popular brands: Alpha and Warrior), usually black or green; blue-denim jackets (Levi's or Wrangler); Harrington jackets; donkey jackets; monkey jackets; Crombie-style overcoats; short macs; sheepskin 3/4-length coats; parkas.
Trilby hats; pork pie hats; flat caps (AKA Scally cap or driver cap) or winter woolen hats (without bobble, also known as Benny hats). Less common have been bowler hats (mostly among suedeheads and those influenced by the film A Clockwork Orange).
Braces, various colours, usually no more than ¾ inch in width, clipped to trouser waistband. In some areas, braces much wider than that may identify a skinhead as either unfashionable or as a white power skinhead. Traditionally, braces are worn up in an X- or Y-shape at the back, but some Oi!-oriented skinheads wear their braces hanging down.
Silk handkerchiefs in the breast pocket of the Crombie or tonic jacket, in some cases fastened with an ornate stud. Later, pocket flashes became popular. These were pieces of silk in contrasting colours, mounted on a piece of cardboard and designed to look like an elaborately folded handkerchief. It was common to choose the colours based on one's favourite football club.
Badges and Scarves:
Button badges or sewn-on fabric patches with text and/or images related to bands or the skinhead subculture. Politically-minded skinheads sometimes wear badges related to their ideological views. Striped woollen or printed rayon scarves in football club colours, worn knotted at the neck, wrist, or hanging from a belt loop at the waist.
Some suedeheads carried closed umbrellas with sharpened tips, or a handle with a pull-out blade. This led to the nickname brollie boys.
Tattoos have been popular among many skinheads since at least the 1970s revival. In 1980s Britain, some skinheads had tattoos on their faces or foreheads, although the practice has since fallen out of favour. Some skinheads get tattoos with images or text related to the skinhead subculture in general, their affiliations and/or their beliefs.
Oi! skinheads appeared after the development of punk rock in the 1970s. They often have shorter hair and more tattoos than 1960s skinheads, and wear items—such as higher boots, tighter jeans, T-shirts, and flight jackets—that differ from those of their traditionalist counterparts.
Hardcore skinheads originated in the United States hardcore punk scene in the late 1970s (with bands such as Iron Cross, Agnostic Front, Cro-mags, Sheer Terror, Warzone, and Murphy's Law). They differ from traditional skinheads by their musical tastes and a style of dress that is less strict.
The most popular music style for late-1970s skinheads was 2 Tone (also called Two Tone), which was a musical fusion of ska, rocksteady, reggae, pop and punk rock. The 2 Tone genre was named after a Coventry, England record label that featured bands such as The Specials, Madness and The Selecter. The record label scored many top 20 hits, and eventually a number one.
Some late 1970s skinheads also liked certain punk rock bands, such as The Clash, Sham 69 and Menace; and by the late 1970s, the Oi! subgenre was embraced by many skinheads and punks. Musically, Oi! combines elements of punk, football chants, pub rock and British glam rock. The Oi! scene was partly a response to a sense that many participants in the early punk scene were, in the words of The Business guitarist Steve Kent, "trendy university people using long words, trying to be artistic...and losing touch". Some forefathers of Oi! were Sham 69, Cock Sparrer, and Menace. The term Oi! as a musical genre is said to come from the band Cockney Rejects and journalist Garry Bushell, who championed the genre in Sounds magazine. Notable Oi! bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s include Angelic Upstarts, Blitz, The Business, Last Resort, The Burial, Combat 84 and The 4-Skins. Not exclusively a skinhead genre, many Oi! bands included skins, punks and people who fit into neither category (sometimes called herberts).
American Oi! began in the 1980s with bands such as The Press, Iron Cross, The Bruisers, Anti-Heros and Forced Reality. American skinheads created a link between their subculture and hardcore punk music, with bands such as Warzone, Agnostic Front, and Cro-Mags. The Oi! style has also spread to other parts of the world, and remains popular with many skinheads. Many later Oi! bands have combined influences from early American hardcore and 1970s British streetpunk.
Although many white power skinheads listened to Oi! music, they also developed a separate genre known as Rock Against Communism (RAC). The most notable RAC band was Skrewdriver, which started out as a non-political punk band but evolved into a neo-Nazi band after the first lineup broke up and a new lineup was formed. RAC started out musically similar to Oi! and punk rock, and has adopted some elements from heavy metal and other types of rock music.