Many of us immersed ourselves in subculture during our early days. But for some, it wasn’t just a phase. Kelly-Rose Bradford talks to five people who have stayed true to their roots…
Mods, rockers, skinheads, hippies, punks, goths – whether you subscribed to a specific subculture or not (maybe you’re more a fields of wheat type), the chances are that you ‘grew out of it’. Joined the rest of the norms, and moved forward into a more sedate look and life at some point. But that’s not the case for everyone.
Pauline Grace, 51, Goth, Birmingham
I’m a lecturer, and when I first started working at the university it was constantly assumed that I was a student rather than staff because of how I looked. I’ve been dressing much the same way since the 1980s. I was a huge fan of the New Romantic sound, and the idea that music, fashion, and way of life could be something other than blonde highlighted hair and a suntan was deeply appealing to me.
I was also really influenced by punk even though I was too young for the movement. The anti-authoritarian swagger, and the fact that women were not meant to be pretty or quiet drew me in. I hated school, and was defined by the state as a ‘chronic non-attender’. But I would go to the local library instead and read DH Lawrence or Sylvia Plath. I was never going to be ‘trendy’ or ‘normal’, but my sense of adventure and artistic expression firmly found a home amongst my goth tribe. I loved the gender-bending nature of it, too – some of my boyfriends wore more makeup than me!
I do not give a flying feck what people think about my style
Before I became a lecturer, I was a youth worker, and my appearance helped me build relationships with young people who may also have been considered outsiders. A shared interest in alternative music helped, too. I still listen now to the bands of my youth – Bauhaus, Alien Sex Fiend, the Cure and The Sisters of Mercy.
The sense of freedom that I found in my teenage years has been amplified in my 50’s. I do not give a flying feck what people think about my ‘style’. I dye and cut my own hair, and although my obsession with black has lessened, I am still heavily influenced by the colour, and my old outfits – I still have my first pair of Dr Marten boots. They are in a sad state, but man, have they seen some action!
Ian Blyth, 73, Rocker, Stratford upon Avon
I joined the rocker youth culture in 1962 after admiring a Triumph 350 motorcycle. I decided there and then that motorcycling had to play a part in my life. Then came a gradual slide into the world of the leather clad rocker. The jacket and jeans became a recognisable uniform, and identified youths of a like mind throughout the country.
The social scene was changing rapidly at the time, most noticeably the clashes between Mods and Rockers. I was quite happy to bask in the reflected notoriety of lurid press reports of mayhem caused by youths on motorcycles! My first clash with the ‘establishment’ was when I had a job with the Ordnance Survey. I could see nothing wrong with going into work on a Friday in my studded leather jacket and jeans, ready for the off at the start of the weekend. The OS was not quite ready for this though, and after a few months of my obstinately sticking to my unconventional dress code, we parted company.
The bikes and the culture have lasted a lifetime
Now I’m in my 70s, I don’t do group riding anymore, but I still own two bikes, and attend themed meetings at the Ace Café. I still dress the part, and choose events that reflect the culture I grew up with – the 60s and the Cafe Racer bikers of the time.
I have eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren, and while the ‘greats’ are too young to know what drives their great grandad, the grandchildren tell me to go for it. My contemporaries may wonder if I’m getting a little too old to be cavorting about on two wheels, but no one has actually inferred that I should sink sedately into my dotage.
I think the only limitations are my own inhibitions as, unlike in my youth, it concerns me now as to how I am perceived. There’s no rocking and rolling now, and to borrow a line from Blackadder, the days of roaring, rogering, gorging and puking are long gone, if they really existed in the first place. The bikes and the culture have lasted a lifetime though, and I hope will stay with me to the last.
Louise Bolotin, 58, Punk, Manchester
At 18 I acquired the leather biker jacket I still wear. It turned 40 on my last birthday, and looks more battered than me. The jacket was a present from my parents, who hated how I looked and threw me out at 16 for dyeing my hair grass green. It’s my second skin and it’s rare I go out without it.
I was 14 in the summer of ’76, when punk splattered its way into public consciousness, and that was the start of cementing my look. I was already dressing myself with charity shop finds as I hated the ugly 70s sartorial norms of hippy flares or Bay City Rollers tartan. Never a girly girl, punk enabled me to be as butch as I pleased, and it pleased me a lot. I made a lot of my own clothes back then, supplemented with 60s vintage.
My hair is currently metallic purple
In the past I toned down my look a bit for staff jobs, but after turning freelance, I donated the office wear to charity shops and I now dress as I please. My look has evolved over the decades – more grown up and polished, less overt punk but still ‘me’. My base uniform is the biker jacket, skinny jeans (or drainpipes as we called them back then) and Chelsea boots, with a rotating top half of funky print shirts, tunics or hoodies, plus a lot of animal print, although I also still wear my punk mohair from 1979.
My hair is currently metallic purple and I get a lot of compliments in the street, from younger people as well as women of my age who sidle up to tell me they wished they had the balls to colour their hair. My husband loves how I look, but I really don’t care what anyone thinks – I’m very comfortable in my skin and dress only to please myself. I like what I see in the mirror.
Chris Wheal, 54, Skinhead, London
Riding motorbikes, as I have done since I left home aged 18 on Vespa scooter, means a skinhead cut has always been most practical for me. My look has always had to be compromise between what I wanted and what I could get away with. I once came home with a Mohican and my mum made my sister cut it off, but as I’ve got older, and society has become more accepting of different styles, I compromise less.
My mum taught me to sew when I was young, and I have modified my clothing ever since. I no longer taper cricket whites like I did when I was a teenager, but every new pair of Levis gets the legs taken in to make them into drainpipes.
My brief full-on skinhead spell coincided badly with the association of skinheads with the far right
Throughout my working life I’ve had to conform with suits and ties, but these days offices are full of people in different fashions. I might still smarten up with button-down collar shirts, but the jeans and DMs always get an airing – I first started wearing them at school when I convinced my mum that everyone else did. I do posses a suit, but it’s a Ben Sherman, and I bought a pair of oxblood brogue boots described as ‘Hard Mod/Smart Skin’.
My brief full-on skinhead spell coincided badly with the association of skinheads with the far right National Front, so although I’d really got into reggae and ska, people would make the wrong assumptions. Never smart enough to be a Mod, I loved all the bands (I still go to see The Chords UK regularly). I was really a late punk. I saw Belfast punk rockers Stiff Little Fingers for the first time in 1981, aged 15, and last year I went to Glasgow with my wife to see them two nights in a row.
When I look back and see photos of me in my black jeans and oxblood DMs on my wedding day 27 years ago, I wonder have I been consistent, or just boring? I do know though that by wearing the same clothes for all these years, I have come back into fashion three times…
Read Mark Little’s article on the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Stella Ralfini, 73, Hippy, Hertford
My dress style now, at 73, remains psychedelically bold, to express the colour of my hippy soul.
There was never a question of me toning down with age, and as a youngster, my parents loved the ‘Ban the Bomb’, flowers-in-hair young woman that I was. There was a point where I embarrassed my daughter, but these days she regards me as cuckoo but cool.
I am a bit too hippy for most guys though, which affects relationships. Whilst they accept me blinding them with my colourful clothes, they don’t tend to share my wanderlust sense of adventure, and have mostly never lived in a hippie commune, smoked cannabis or protested for world peace like I have, so they find me odd.
I will fight to keep hippy love alive until the day I die
In the 70s, I was working in the music business as personal assistant to the Rolling Stones – I like to think I balanced their wild side with my hippy calm! Earlier this year I published a book called Rock ‘N’ Roll Mayhem 1970, the proceeds of which will benefit people in Africa, because a hippy represents the embodiment of love, something sadly missing in today’s world.
Had it not been for Covid, I would have been attending a very special hippy love gathering in Hyde Park last year. I would have worn a dress which was made for me in 1970 and has lots of memories attached to it. I wore it when chatting to George Harrison about spiritual teachers in India, and at a party where Cat Stevens was strumming Peace Train.
Imagine droves of folk in their sixties and upwards dressed in hippy threads coming together to picnic, and share world love. That dream may have been temporarily suspended, but it will happen. And I will fight to keep hippy love alive until the day I die.