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Mod

Mod

Of the many youth subcultures that have sprung from pop music, few style cults have endured as long as mod, which involves an almost religious fealty to style as a way to transcend class distinctions. Now, after three decades, it is a perennial style with a well-defined set of mannerisms, chief among them an almost fetish-like attachment to mass-produced objects like Italian scooters and army-surplus parkas, and a devotion to certain types of music—the early Who, rhythm and blues, and ska. Over time, the original impetus for mod, a subversive sort of working class dandyism, has fallen away, and shorn of these implications—American mods are more apt to be suburban and middle class than urban and working class—it has become a quaint type of revivalism.

West Indian immigrants began to settle in London during the 1950s, an unsettling development for the traditionally xenophobic British, especially for the working class, to whose neighborhoods they intruded and whose presence promised an unwelcome economic dislocation. Their presence did not go without response. The Teds, an Edwardian version of the American greaser, were hostile to the black immigrants, figuring prominently in London's 1958 race riots, but the mods idolized black singers, black styles, and above all, the indefinable cool of the rude boys, dapper West Indian delinquents. It was "an affinity which was transposed into style" as Dick Hebdige writes, with the black man "serving symbolically as a dark passage down into an imagined underworld … situated beneath the familiar surface of life where another order was disclosed: a beautifully intricate system in which the values, norms and conventions of the 'straight' world were inverted."

In working class London neighborhoods in the early 1960s, these various elements were percolating. A style of dress was evolving that eschewed the churlish vulgarity of the 1950s greaser teddy boy. Its proponents numbered among the hoards of teenage office workers the British educational system set loose on employers. The mods chose to fit into work environments, unlike the petulant hoodlum-worshipping teds, but they suffered no illusions about the strictures of class. "There is hardly a kid in all of London," writes Tom Wolfe, "who harbors any sincere hope of advancing himself in any very striking way by success at work. Englishmen at an early age begin to sense that the fix is in, and all that work does is keep you afloat at the place you were born into." In response to this manifest truth, the mods developed a covert form of rebellion. They made themselves into sartorial masterpieces, every detail in place and, often, hand-tailored. They lived for weekends and bank holidays, for seeing and being seen in the right gear, at the right places, and preferably, under the influence of the right drugs—amphetamines chiefly (which tended to exacerbate their maniacal neatness); in short, living a whole style of life that had very little to do with jobs and futures and everything to do with a temporary form of emancipation from an oppressive society.

It was another instance of teenagers creating a ritualized world to evade the grown-up one. There was a hierarchy (faces, as the trend-setters were called, and tickets, the term for the followers), a set of rituals, and a value system. Ironically, all this energy was expended in the service of a most ephemeral of styles. Mod was a stylized version of planned obsolescence with fashions changing from month to month or even week to week, which tended to consume a large chunk of the average mod's paltry salary, and often led to petty larceny and male prostitution as a means of subsidizing visits to the tailor. In a way, mod was very much like the cargo cults and other religious rituals that aped colonialism, mimicking the dominant ideology in a stylized buffoonish manner where authority, be it a colonial official or office manager, could not help but see the asinine picture being painted of them.

Such movements can only exist in a vacuum for so long, and in the spring of 1964, a series of bank holiday riots between mods and teds catapulted the unfamiliar mod into national prominence. Then came the first self-consciously mod band, the Who, who had grown up with the style, were of its milieu, and were thus able to voice the mods' inchoate beliefs in song. With the heightened profile came the magazines, the clothing stores, and the whole armature of marketing that turned the mods from idiosyncratic rebels into the originators of yet another fashion craze, and by the time mod became visible, as it were, it had already begun to break into factions; excessive protohippie dandyism and the skinhead, a "kind of caricature of the model worker" as Phil Cohen described them, who turned away from the implied upward mobility of early-mod style, fashioning instead a "lumpen" proletariat fashion politics out of ordinary work clothes.

Mod lay dormant for nearly ten years before being resurrected in the late 1970s, partly due to the 1978 release of Quadrophenia, a film chronicling the mod-rocker bank holiday riots of 1964, and partly as a consequence of punk rock, which as a side-effect led to revivals of mod, and two-tone, a rude-boy-inflected ska music. The movements in England might still retain vestiges of the class antagonisms at the root of the original subculture, but in America, divorced from the particulars of class, time, and place, mod was stripped of its rich array of signifiers, a style revival movement among many others. What attracted Americans to this style—its exoticism, impenetrability, and the rigor of its conventions—they could inhabit, but never own. But without the milieu of working-class social dynamics, the latter-day mods had about them the still, airless quality of a museum exhibit.

The original mods, the mods from Shepherd's Bush and Brixton, developed in response to specifics of time and place—the rigidity of the British class system, the economy, and educational opportunities. Mod was a secret dissent, but in America it was stripped of its class signifiers. American mods were more likely to be college students than blue-collar workers. It was a style cult divorced from its origination by the vast difference in cultures—no amount of Union Jack flags, Doc Marten boots, and Lambretta scooters could ameliorate the difference. Mod was a market choice, one alternative among many, meant to convey that very American trait—individualism—and not class. This is perhaps the biggest irony of mod's international success; that it came to exist as a consequence of the consumerism it initially lampooned.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of Mods and Rockers. London, MacGibbon & Kee, 1972.

Hall, Stuart, and Tony Jefferson, editors. Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. London, Hutchinson, 1976.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, Methuen, 1979.

Laing, David. The Sound of Our Time. London, Sheen & Ward, 1969.

Marsh, Dave. Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1983.

Mungham, Geoff, and Geoff Pearson, editors. Working Class Youth Culture. London, Routledge, 1976.

Wolfe, Tom. The Pump House Gang. New York, Farrar, Straus &Giroux, 1968.

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