It's perhaps the most derided subculture Britain has ever seen, so why do young people continue to shave their heads and put their boots on?


Melissa Meyer


The Stereotype

Skinhead culture is one of the longest-running and best known subcultures in the world. With its beginnings in late 1960s Britain, the culture has now been exported to near enough every corner of the globe. Skinheads have been around for over forty years and they’re showing no signs of disappearing.

Across these four decades, the culture has been perhaps the most criticised and reviled subculture ever. Punks were once despised by society, but now they’re the acceptable face of teenage rebellion. Mods were derided for messing up seaside towns by fighting with rockers, but now they’re more likely associated with ginger sideburns and cycling round France.

whether it was going ‘Paki-bashing’ in the 60s or marching through city streets under the National Front banner in the 70s and 80s, the skinhead label has been problematic from the start.

Skinheads are the only group to have kept, near enough, the same reputation from their inception: (supposedly) heavy-drinking, violent thugs. To top it all off they’re racist too, whether it was going ‘Paki-bashing’ in the 60s or marching through city streets under the National Front banner in the 70s and 80s, the skinhead label has been problematic from the start.

The point of this article isn’t to delve into the history of skinheads. That’s been done time and time again and none of it really bares repeating here. What’s worth looking at is why, even to this day, the skinhead culture has held the same connotations for so long, while other groups seem to have shed their reputations.

Also worthy of consideration is: why do people still don the skinhead uniform of boots and braces today? The number of skinheads in this country is fairly low, especially compared to its previous heights. So why is it that skinheads are still the go-to for a TV thug? It might not be as common as before, but as recently as the 19th May of this year, the BBC drama Case Histories included a scene of a skinhead beating their own dog with a stick.

Even a New Statesman article recently said that Gabriele D’Annunzio, an Italian nationalist from the early 20th century, was the “first skinhead”. They also claimed that the reason skinheads shaved their head was in imitation of D’Annunzio’s followers who in turn shaved their own heads as he was bald. Even to someone with a minimal knowledge of skinheads, this just doesn’t ring true.

All hail the King Skinhead according to the New Statesman (Wikimedia Commons)

All hail the King Skinhead according to the New Statesman (Wikimedia Commons)

Skinheads have been consistently stereotyped by the press since the late 60s. The papers have had no problem in painting them all as racist fascists who loved nothing more than sniffing glue, going robbing and beating up immigrants. Now, it would be foolish to suggest that this didn’t have some base in the truth. Some people would like to look back at skinheads with misty eyes behind rose-tinted glasses as a wondrous example of black and white culture coming together. They’d like to think that all that National Front stuff was overblown and over exaggerated and that anyone who joined in weren’t ‘true skinheads’. That isn’t strictly true though. There were racist skinheads, there were glue-sniffing skinheads and there were thieving skinheads. To suggest otherwise is to be ignorant of the facts.

The racist tag that skinheads have picked up has pretty much excluded them from ever being an ‘acceptable’ subculture. Violence and drugs can be forgotten, but not racism. A telling sign is that one of the most positive mainstream representation of skinheads was Shane Meadow’s This Is England. Obviously Meadows was staying true to his experience and so leaving out the racism and fights between friends would have been altering history, but it highlights that it is always going to be near impossible to fully reconcile skinheads with the rest of society. Groups like SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) have tried, but any good they’ve done has been outweighed by the damage and rifts their work caused between skinheads themselves.

Then again, do skinheads really have any interested in being accepted like mods are today? The skinhead culture has been shaped and formed through the process of being outsiders. The common image of a skinhead on a cross has its origins in the notion of the group being ‘crucified’ by the media and society in general. One of the main points of it all is not giving a shit what other people think.

This isn’t surprising: 40 years of derision is going to have a profound effect on any culture, no matter who they are. So while the media to this day continues to perpetuate a certain image of a subculture they know nothing about, skinheads will carry on regardless because that’s what makes them skinheads after all.

What is so attractive about being a skinhead that people are willing to risk abuse just to become one?

So, with this stereotypical image still being bandied about, why do young British people still become skinheads? What attracts them to join a culture that they know will cause people to make assumptions about them? What is so attractive about being a skinhead that people are willing to risk abuse just to become one? The opinions of older skinheads has been aired and voiced many times before. It’s the voices of the current young crop that have yet to be heard.

The Basics

There is one reason for becoming a skinhead that comes up time and time again. None of the people I spoke to said they’d heard of skinheads and decided to go out and buy some boots and shave their head. For the most part, they had an outside influence that brought them into the fold.

Most commonly it was family members. Jedd Baker, a 17 year old skinhead from Birmingham and member of Oi! bands No Quarter and Close Shave, said he’d “always been around the culture due to both parents being skinheads”. The other route for entering the culture is usually through meeting older skinheads. Billy Morton, 27, from Crewe said he “started going to see punk and Oi! bands with a skinhead that was a few years older”. Shortly after that he shaved his head and was given his first Fred Perry.

Jedd Baker of No Quarter and Close Shave

Jedd Baker of No Quarter and Close Shave

It becomes pretty clear why skinheads haven’t died out despite the negative views people and the media have of them. Older skinheads, or those who used to be part of the scene before, have kept the culture alive and ensured it is passed. Skinhead culture is never going to become ‘cool’ in the way other cultures have and while some are still drawn to it on their own, it’s the old skinheads who have kept the flame burning.

People tend to lose interest or grow out of things when they’re young. So why is it that older skinheads feel the need to pass on their traditions? Some of the younger skins are already catching onto the aspects that make the skinhead culture so special.

Sid Ryan, 15, from the Isle of Wight, says “it’s good to be different and not follow what everyone else does”, while Maeve says “I’d never felt like I fit in with other groups of people as well as when I became a skinhead…I felt very at home and comfortable”.

Majella Gillan, 17, from York: “for the first time I felt like I belonged”.

These are strong sentiments from people of a young age. This sense of belonging is a theme that’s been present in skinhead culture across time –- the culture presents a way of life that has a strong influence on how you interact with society. It also gives people something to belong to, to find like-minded people they can’t seem to find anywhere else. It gives them all something in common, that little nod to each other that says “I know what you’re about.”

What Makes A Skinhead?

All subcultures have arguments along these lines. Rules and guidelines appear and differ from area to area – often leading to accusations of people being ‘poseurs’ or ‘try-hards’. Skinheads are far from the exception. As it’s spread around the world, arguments about what is right and wrong in skinhead culture have become more heated and diverse.

In America, for example, some groups have elders (those who are older and more knowledgeable about skinhead culture). To become a skinhead you need to show enough interest over a certain amount of time and when you’re considered ready, an elder will ‘shave you in’. That makes you a skinhead. To a lot of British skins this practice goes against a big part of the culture itself and would never be allowed.

So what about in Britain then? What does make a skinhead? In the end, there is no one answer. As Billy points out:

“there is so much variation within the skinhead subculture that it is very hard to answer what it means to be a skinhead. I guess it means different things to different people.”

There’s no arguing against this in the end. When it comes to clothes and music, you could easily get two skinheads that have nothing in common, so it’s hard to give a steadfast definition of what a skinhead is.

Despite this, there are some common elements which link all skins.

Dressing well is important. As with pretty much every subculture, clothes are a major part of identification. Skinheads make an effort to look their best and dress sharp. Definitions on what’s sharp will differ, but that’s beside the point. It’s about taking some pride in your appearance. Another part of it is about being yourself rather than following the mainstream. While it’s not about making a statement as such, it is about wearing what you want and not caring about how everyone looks at you for it. In the end, it comes down to having a strong sense of pride in what you’re about.

The Clothes

There are few subcultures, if any, that have as much variation in clothing styles as skinheads do. On the one hand, there are those who dress pretty closely to the original skinheads of the 60s: Levis 501s , white button-down shirts, black braces and a Crombie. On the other hand there are those, influenced by the trends of the 70s and 80s, that wear cut-off drainpipe jeans, band t-shirts, flight jackets and 14 eyelet boots. Stand them next to each other and you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they had hardly anything in common. There’s a long list of what’s considered skinhead clothes, but in essence the clothes haven’t progressed with the current generation of skins.

Billy Morton.

Billy Morton.

On top of that, people have different rules on how to actually wear the clothes as well. Braces need to be a certain thickness, turnups on jeans have to be sewn in, laces must be tied correctly, while the top buttons of shirts must always be undone. Of course, you could talk to a different skinhead and get a very different set of rules. Skinhead culture in itself is mostly to blame for these discrepancies. Given the emphasis on being yourself and not caring about what other people think, what’s to stop someone wearing a leather jacket and a top hat from calling themselves a skin?

In the end, Jedd sums it up well: “you can’t be a skinhead if you live in tracksuits.”

While there are undoubtedly variations in the skinhead ‘uniform’, these only goes so far in the end. There’s still a certain style to adhere to and there’s still a basic set of rules that most agree with.

You’re not going to get away with calling yourself a skin with dreadlocks hanging off your head. There’s still that certain sense of style that runs through the culture. In the end, its easy to spot those who just aren’t getting it right.

The Music

As with the clothes, there is a fair bit of variation between the music that skinheads listen to. There’s reggae, ska, soul and Oi!, and even within those there are differences. Reggae is a pretty vague definition.

Some will only listen to 60s reggae (also called skinhead reggae) while others will listen to near enough anything included in the genre. Ska has a few different waves of varying popularity ranging from the original 60s Jamaican works to the more modern ska-punk. Soul is vague too as skinheads might listen to obscure Northern Soul tracks or just stick to Motown. Oi! is fairly straight forward in terms of style. It’s with the opinions and lyrics of many of these bands where the trouble starts.

There are plenty of skinheads out there who love Oi! because it’s Oi!. The politics are superfluous in the end, they just love the music. They don’t really give a damn about the lyrics, they just want to listen to something they enjoy hearing. While it may seem strange to imagine a non-racist person listen to a racist song, it’s important to remember that listening to a song doesn’t mean you agree with what the singers talking about. For example, not everyone who listens to Billy Bragg is a socialist and those who like Rage Against The Machine don’t necessarily want to smash the Evil Empire.

It all depends on who you talk to in the end. A few of the respondents made a point of saying they steered clear of any white power music, while others didn’t feel any need to differentiate, they just like Oi!. It’s clear though that things have changed. Back in the 80′s Oi! gigs from either side of the spectrum carried the risk of being disrupted or attacked by ‘the other side’. This isn’t so much the case any more. While there are less skinheads and fewer gigs, the hostility between skinheads themselves has simmered. While certain Oi! gigs are still dogged by the politics of others, it’s more likely to be anti-fascist activists than skinheads themselves.

The Politics

Politics has played a large part in skinhead culture. It also plays a huge part in people’s perception of what a skinhead really is. While many want to make the scene apolitical, this aspect cannot be ignored.

So, what is it like today? Are skinheads political? The answer is yes…and no. Many are political in the sense that they have an interest in politics in the same way that anyone their age does. They’re still interested in the world around them and have their own thoughts and feelings about it. What they strive to make clear now is that it has nothing to do with the way they dress and the music they listen to. To the majority, skinheads and politics are two completely separate entities and should remain that way.

Declan Potts, 14, from Middlesbrough, repeated the quote, “I’m not a Nazi, I’m not a red, I’m just simply a skinhead.” This isn’t exactly spot on with everyone of course, but the point is that being a skinhead doesn’t have to have anything to do with politics. Skinheads nowadays, for the most part, see it this way: feel free to believe what you want, just leave the politics at home. In the end, skinheads are the same as everyone else. Some of them have no interest in politics, while for others it’s a big part of their lives. To many of them the strong association between skinhead culture and politics is odd and unnecessary nowadays.

The Activities

Some skinheads and their mates.

Some skinheads and their mates.

While sniffing glue has lost favour over years, some things never change. You’ll be hard pressed to find a skinhead who doesn’t like a good drink. It’s just part and parcel of the culture. You might be able to find the odd straight edge skinhead, but they’ll always be in the tiny minority.

So aside from drinking, which is part of British youth culture anyway, what else do they do? For the most part, they’re the same as every young British kid, just with slightly different choices. They’re still up for going to the pub like everyone else, but when it comes to clubs they’re going to seek out the ones that play their music. They’re after reggae and ska rather than house and drum and bass. When it comes to festival season they’re off to the scooter rallies rather than Reading or Leeds.

Of course, some of them are too young for the pubs and clubs. Their remaining option is the same as everyone else at that age: hang out with your mates, do your best to get your hands on some alcohol and just generally mess about wherever you can. Skinheads go through the same experiences as everyone else: a part-time job somewhere, having nothing to do on a Saturday but wander about town and generally just try to eke out some fun.

Again, young skinheads are just like any other young kid in Britain. They’re out playing in bands, going to gigs, playing football, going to the gym, taking up boxing or anything else that they fancy. It’s a stark contrast to the idea that they spend their time plotting their next attack of an innocent pedestrian or sitting at home sharpening their favourite knife.

The Skinhead

Skinhead shopping.

Skinhead shopping.

It still isn’t really possible to give one definitive definition of a skinhead. The variation in clothes, music and opinions makes it too hard. What it also does is make skinheads unique. While there might be a ‘uniform’ as such, it’s so wide-ranging it allows people to put more of their own personal preference into it or alter it for certain situations. In the winter you can break out your flight jacket and boots and when summer comes it’s a crisp short-sleeved button down and some loafers. There’s more freedom in it all.

The same goes for the music. There’s nothing stopping you from almost getting beaten up in a mosh pit at an Oi! gig and then going to a relaxed reggae event in a scorching beer garden the next day. This variety works well in bringing many very different people together.

While these differences have and do cause arguments, it’s only a small part of the whole thing. In the end these are British kids who like doing what other British kids do, but just in their own way. They might be walking around in boots and braces, but they’re far from a menace. They want sharp clothes, to hang out with their mates, go on the piss and listen to music just like all the other kids. The only thing is that they’re doing it how they want and couldn’t care less about what other people think about them.

In the end, anyone who hangs up their boots because of the way they’ve been treated by others just didn’t have their heart in it anyway.

There’s a reason skinheads still exist. They don’t need a movement or popularity- that’s far from the point. They’re just carrying on a culture they feel sums up what they’re all about. They’re willing to stand up for it and they’d be willing to fight over it. In the end, there’s a simple quote that sums up the whole subculture: “These colours don’t run”- skinheads don’t run either.