The Surprisingly Diverse History of Skinhead Culture, in All Its Controversial Forms

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From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

“You don’t have, like, Coldplay claiming they were skinheads,” tireless punk archivist, curator, and artist Toby Mott explains, “but everyone says they were punk. Everyone. Bono, whoever. Punk was very fashionable — and huge. That’s what’s intriguing about it.”

By the looks of Mott’s new book, skinhead culture is just as intriguing, albeit for different reasons. Released last December, Ditto Press and The Mott Collection’s Skinhead: An Archive explores the sociopolitical ideologies that made England’s skinhead subculture polarizing even internally.

“Once you had got the skinhead uniform, then you have this vast array of different ideas from straight to gay, right wing to left wing, communist to fascist to socialist to anarchist, all converging under the same heading,” Mott tells Flavorwire. “The thing that keeps it all together is a strict adherence to a rigid set of cultural rules, from the cropped haircuts to the boots you wear [Dr. Martens] to the width of your braces [suspenders] to the brand of shirt [oftentimes Ben Sherman or Fred Perry]. Punk was much more loose and creative, and you didn’t really buy stuff — you made it.”

Skinheads, of course, made stuff: fanzines, fliers, and other physical media were circulated as a way to spread specific messages within the subculture. It’s this paraphernalia Mott turns his eye to within Skinhead: An Archive, in the process highlighting the hidden corners of the most radical and misunderstood youth movement the world’s ever known. (Click through below to preview the archived materials.)

“The collection has been built over the years, and the germ at first was when I was a teenager,” says Mott, who came of age in London during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “It was very hard to find the material. It’s scarce because skinheads weren’t art-school literate. Punks were much more knowing in their referencing of Dada and John Heartfield. Skinheads were actually what they said they were, which is a working class culture. You don’t really have middle class skinheads. They objected and didn’t attend art schools or universities. They were blue collar, and they did manual kinds of jobs.”

Skinhead is a term mired in racism and Neo-Nazism, though that wasn’t always the case. By the late 1960s, skinhead had become a term for what was known around London as a “hard mod,” or a working-class mod. Jamaican music like early reggae, rocksteady, and ska — once a cornerstone of skinhead culture — became less crucial as the movement reemerged and grew alongside (and in the case of Oi! music, overlapped with) punk in the latter half of the 1970s. Soon skinhead’s ties to specific musical genres became as widely varied as its political views, but classism and militancy remained at skinhead’s core.

“When viewing the skinhead historically, a lot of people will minimize the racist aspect, but that wasn’t my experience,” Mott says. “I would say the majority of skinheads that I encountered were white, working class, alienated, and had racist views.”

By showing the ways in which minority subgroups — gay skinheads, black skinheads, female skinheads, even SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) — communicated their messages, Skinhead: An Archive achieves something entirely different than Nick Knight’s Skinhead or George Marshall’s Spirit of ’69: A Skinhead Bible. The chapter on gay skinheads is especially fascinating (and porn-y); in one of several new essays that appear alongside the archives, Canadian filmmaker and writer Bruce LaBruce writes about using skinhead as a public disguise for his homosexuality, to avoid violence.

“There’s lack of knowledge about the size of the gay community that adopted the skinhead facade,” Mott says. “We didn’t know there were queer skinheads. Even though it was big, it was secretive. It really was a subculture. When skinhead culture did hit the media, it was always for the violent perspective. It’s the one thing people know about skinheads, but there’s definitely more to it.”

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press

From “Skinhead: An Archive,” courtesy of The Mott Collection and Ditto Press