The Mod Suit: How a Uniform Defined a Subculture

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The British and the Italians have always done suits better than anybody else, and each of the countries has a style all its own. To understand the differences between the two, you might start by picturing some stately looking British gentleman stepping out of a Savile Row tailor in a suit that makes him looks good because the lines are cut with such classic precision. In contrast, an Italian suit might conjure up a mental image of a sleek-looking gentleman who jumps on his scooter after sipping an espresso with a lemon twist. He’s the definition of modern, and he does it so effortlessly.

Today, what one might refer to generically as the “mod suit” is a perfect combination of those two styles: Italian smooth, with just the right amount of British stiffness. As somebody who tried hard to emulate what I considered the “mod look” as a younger (and thinner) man, taking my cues largely from ’70s mod revivalists like The Jam and 2 Tone ska bands like The Specials and The Madness, I thought it was enough to pick a nice suit off the rack from my local Salvation Army, get it tailored — suddenly I was a mod. It didn’t totally work that way, as I later found out.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the infamous mod vs. rocker battles that took place along the seaside on the south coast of England, what we know and what we think we know about mods is, at best, a composite of Quadrophenia, the ’70s mod revival, and, as with any good subculture, a bunch of myths created by people who will never let you forget that they were there (in this case, there = ’60s England). There are plenty of myths that outweigh the outright truths. Yet the actual mod style, what they wore and how they came to wear it, might be the thing that’s most overlooked.

“I was a Mod. I was one of the original Mods, one of the real Wardour Street Mods. Not one of the post-commercialized Mods, but back then when it was all existentialism and rhythm and blues.” That quote, from self-proclaimed original mod Steve Sparks, is about as perfect a line in the sand as you can draw between the roots of the subculture and what we think of it today. These original mods were modernists, largely working-class British youth in the post-war era, bored with the British way of life. Although it’s up for debate, the roots of sartorial British modernism can be traced back through a few different lineages, including coffee-sipping beatniks and upper-class, East End Jewish kids who had the money and connections to buy the latest modern jazz albums from the States, but most importantly, could get the best-looking suits. Both subsets all dressed sharply.

Wherever the mods truly started, the suit truly did become a focal point right away. “The Italian look went through many modifications,” Richard Barnes wrote in Mods! “Mostly they were just changes of detail and very slight, but a definite direction was emerging.” That direction was just one of the very subversive elements of the mod style at its peak in the early to mid-1960s. Italian suits, not the traditional English ones, were what you wanted. It went along with the Italian scooters and the American R&B. The mod look was a definite uniform, one with plenty of layers and accessories, but the suit was central to the whole thing.

David Bowie, 1965

In his essay “Noonday Underground,” Tom Wolfe noted, “these kids have found a way to drop out almost totally from class-job system into a world they control.” It’s interesting, when you think about it: a group of no future British kids who just want to take pills and listen to American soul records, who don’t want to work but would gladly don a nice suit, the uniform of conformity. They’d also put on surplus army parkas and wear old suede desert boots instead of putting down the money for a pair of Italian loafers, but the original mod suit was influenced by the Italian suit.

By 1965, The Who had put out their first album. Mark Feld, one of first mods profiled by a major magazine, was starting his band John’s Children and had taken on the name Marc Bolan; mod style was reaching the mainstream, so that meant it was on its way out. The Italian suits would make way for psychedelic paisley shirts, and new takes on the traditional English style. Hair would grow out, speed would make way for LSD, and like any good subculture, the mods would go on to help create or improve psychedelic music, and later, Bolan and David Bowie’s glam rock. Even the hard rock of the 1970s can trace its roots back to the mods. Their influence has had an impact on well-dressed men that remains undeniable.

On May 18 and 19, 1964, England’s seaside towns were rocked by historic youth riots that pitted mods against rockers. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of that defining subcultural moment, we’ve declared it Mod Week at Flavorwire. Click here to follow our coverage.