On Dressing Like a Skinhead

Dorset Estate  just off Hackney Road in London. Photo taken from Flickr Creative Commons, user Duncan C.

Dorset Estate just off Hackney Road in London. Photo taken from Flickr Creative Commons, user Duncan C.

The look of the skinhead is distinctive, intimidating, and for the last few years at least, on the rise. A skinhead’s style, in case you were unclear, looks like this: shaved heads, trench coats, suspenders, high-ankle straight-leg jeans, simple button-up shirts, and combat boots, usually Doc Martens. Over the last decade, high fashion brands as varied as Givenchy, Dsquared2, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Dries van Noten have sent out collections influenced by the provocative appeal of this aggressive, hyper-masculine image. Skinhead fashion is on the runway, on magazines, and, having trickled down to the streets, on campus.

On one level, it could be said to be beautiful in its blunt simplicity. On another - the political, because fashion is always tied with power - the term skinhead has immediate associations with white supremacism for many people. And for Jewish people and people of color, the question of whether their fellow students are broadcasting their political affiliations through their clothes or just in it for the aesthetic is one they have every right to be concerned about.

To try to answer this, a little history is probably useful.

Here’s a rundown: the subculture was born in London, England in the 1960s and gradually spread beyond Britain and continental Europe into the U.S. Originally, skinheads were themselves a marginalized group who rallied among a common sense of social alienation and working class solidarity. They formed a subculture out of a shared air of rebellion, distinctive style and interest in music such as dub, ska, reggae and African soul music. Significantly, they were also multicultural and multiracial, adopting elements of their style from the parallel movement of rude boys formed by Jamaican British and Jamaican immigrant youth. Whether this was an interactive relationship or identity theft is still a matter of debate, although it’s arguable that cross-pollination and tasteful appropriation has always been necessary to fashion. At its start and at its purest, though, skinhead culture was apolitical.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that a fringe movement of skinheads who supported the white supremacist agenda co-opted the culture from those who were traditionally apolitical. Explicitly anti-racist and left-wing skinhead groups put up some resistance, but skinhead culture had been effectively overtaken. And the image of skinheads as angry but apolitical, provocative but not intolerant, became corrupted in the popular imagination. Some skinheads carried on dressing like they always did, maintaining that their stance was apolitical, but for the most part skinhead fashion was mostly worn by white supremacists. Then over time, the popularity, mainstream and otherwise, of the style dwindled until its resurgence today.

Which leaves us with two questions: why are people now choosing to embrace the skinhead aesthetic? And why have white supremacists (largely) abandoned it in the first place?

There’s no data on this, but speculation tends to head this way: today, many young people who dress like skinheads are neither working class nor white supremacists. They have had no personal history nor encounters with skinheads. They adopt the skinhead aesthetic for the visual impact, without intending any associations with ideology or history. Just as the similar subculture of punk has been commercialized and integrated into the mainstream, skinhead fashion has gradually been stripped of its deeper meaning. Or people have tried to make it so anyway, by rebranding it as “industrial punk” for example. Real subcultures, in the sense of the communities of punks and skinheads, died long ago. What’s left are lookbooks and style starter packs.

This may explain why skinhead fashion has grown increasingly obsolete as a mode of expression for white supremacists. In the peak of skinhead’s cultural crisis, there were set uniforms, set codes of behavior. Apolitical skins wore their boots with white laces, and racist extremists tied theirs with red. This kind of us-versus-them dynamic seems like something from a simpler time, totally incongruous with the chaos and blurred lines of the moment.

Today’s Neo-Nazis choose not to stand out from the crowd. In Charlottesville, they wore the banal business-casual attire of polos and khakis, the most ordinary clothes you could imagine. This was done very deliberately. It was to send the message that white supremacy isn’t on the sidelines anymore: to normalize their bigotry. Supporting white supremacy doesn’t make you a pathetic outsider or a monster - on the contrary, you can comfortably identify yourself with ordinary, upright white citizens. In comparison, the flashy display of white supremacist skinheads seems almost cartoonish. This is not to say that it is any less frightening and wrong, but simply that the context around the aesthetic is changing. Image is still important, but codes of dress - now mostly followed by teenagers - and the color of one’s laces seem trivial compared to the real issues.

Can skinhead fashion be re-claimed as apolitical? High fashion will no doubt continue to adopt and repurpose elements of the style, treating it with irony or simply choosing to focus on its inoffensive origins, as will many consumers. It’s still debatable whether casual adoption and proliferation of the style can nullify its problematic past.

Maybe it can, and that would be a win for original skinheads and for young people who just want to have the freedom to dress however they want. But even if this were possible, the process of getting there would still be painful. Tainted associations linger, and knowledge about the full history of skinheads is hardly commonplace. Is the aesthetic worth the fear and uncertainty a Jewish person or person of color feels in your presence? You have to wonder.

Chelsea Liu '21