Appropriation has become a media buzzword as of late, but regardless of your opinions on the matter, it has always been an indicator of upward social change. Today in America, people of different races and orientations are constantly participating with and engaging in each other’s culture, whether in genre-defying music, racially provocative comedy or cross-cultural dress.
And yet, this blending process–accompanied by gains in social equity–is nothing new. It can, in fact, be seen quite easily in 1960s Britain. On a superficial level, we can thank the early Mods for the current reappearance of unisex high-heels, Vespa scooters, androgyny, short skirts, butch haircuts, moccasins, and mohair. But beyond that, Mod culture was also concurrent with positive changes in gender and racial equality. If the Mod style comes with open-mindedness toward all sexes and cultures, what’s wrong with being Modern?
Style, freedom and lots of speed were the tenets of Mod culture: fast-paced jazz and R&B music, amphetamines, and mopeds were ubiquitous in the scene. Born out of the late 50s beatnik culture, Mod culture (coming from the “modern” in “modern jazz“) started when teens in the late 1950s began adapting cravats and three-piece suits from the Edwardian era into their style repertoire. Young, middle class white kids poured into jazz clubs and coffee shops to hear R&B and cool jazz, all donning tight jackets and suits from yesteryear. Sound familiar?
Coffee shops stayed open later than bars and public transport, so young people would pile into cities from all around the British countryside to hear their music and get strung up on amphetamines, dancing and drinking until the wee hours of the morning before riding their Vespas home. Vespa didn’t have the exposed, greasy machinery of a motorcycle, which is anathema to a clean pair of expensive trousers.
Mods were not without their conflicts, however. Britain was said to be in a “moral panic” as short-skirted women and fast-talking men clad in Italian suits and clunky shoes could be seen more and more frequently on the city streets. Some Mods would sew razor blades into their lapels to wound would-be attackers; usually the “Rocker” crowd (fans of small racer bikes and early rock music) would be the Mods’ aggressors.
Mod culture was an incredibly progressive and modern trend, redefining the British cultural standard. In postwar Britain, the women stayed at home or did the shopping while the men worked. A man fussing over his clothing, spending time in record stores, going out and cavorting with the opposite sex in corner cafes: this was blasphemy, unheard of in British culture. Mods simply wanted to “get away from the council estates, the pits and the factories, all that cloth-capped bullshit”.
Not surprisingly, Mod culture directly coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, a testament to the the fact that British youths’ open-mindedness extended beyond pure taste. One of the first modern trends to accept a woman as her own autonomous being, the female Mod felt free to make her own stylistic and personal choices.
The arrival of Mod culture in the early 60s saw the first British women “leaving the nest”. Though certainly not equally paid, women were beginning to take their own jobs and gain control of their own incomes. With that, women like Twiggy (pictured above) saw an opportunity to reclaim a bit of their autonomy: the skirts got shorter; the hair became less “feminine”; women would go out dancing alone. Like the Flapper girls of the 20s, Mod women were liberated, eager to participate as an individual in the society that had often excluded them. Today, we’re pretty socially and racially conscious: equal rights issues have re-garnered mainline media attention, and in the 21st century, it seems like the “Mod” way of doing things is coming back into style.