skinhead n : a young person who belongs to a British or American group that shave their heads and gather at rock concerts or engage in white supremacist demonstrations
Skinheads, named for their close-cropped or shaven heads, began life as a working-class subculture that originated in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, and then spread to other parts of the world. The first skinheads were greatly influenced by West Indian (specifically Jamaican) rude boys and British mods, in terms of fashion, music and lifestyle. Originally, the skinhead subculture was primarily based on those elements, not politics or race. Since then, however, attitudes toward race and politics have become factors in which some skinheads align themselves. The political spectrum within the skinhead scene ranges from the far right to the far left, although many skinheads are apolitical. Fashion-wise, skinheads range from a clean-cut 1960s mod-influenced style to less-strict punk- and hardcore-influenced styles.
HistoryIn the late 1950s, the United Kingdom's entrenched class system limited most working class people's educational, housing, and economic opportunities. However, Britain's post-war economic boom led to an increase in disposable income among many young people. Some of those youths spent that income on new fashions popularised by American soul groups, British R&B bands, certain movie actors, and Carnaby Street clothing merchants.
These youths became known as the mods, a youth subculture noted for its consumerism—and devotion to fashion, music, and scooters. Mods of lesser means made do with practical styles that suited their lifestyle and employment circumstances: steel-toe boots, straight-leg jeans or Sta-Prest trousers, button-down shirts, and braces (called suspenders in the USA). When possible, these working-class mods spent their money on suits and other sharp outfits to wear at dancehalls, where they enjoyed soul, ska, bluebeat and rocksteady music.
Around 1965, a schism developed between the peacock mods (also known as smooth mods), who were less violent and always wore the latest expensive clothes, and the hard mods (also known as gang mods), who were identified by their shorter hair and more working-class image. Also known as lemonheads and peanuts, these hard mods became commonly known as skinheads by about 1968. Their shorter hair may have come about for practical reasons, since long hair can be a liability in industrial jobs and a disadvantage in streetfights. Skinheads may also have cut their hair short in defiance of the more bourgeois hippie culture popular at the time.
In addition to retaining many mod influences, early skinheads were very interested in Jamaican rude boy styles and culture, especially the music: ska, rocksteady, and early reggae (before the tempo slowed down and lyrics became focused on topics like black nationalism and the Rastafari movement). Skinhead culture became so popular by 1969 that even the rock band Slade temporarily adopted the look, as a marketing strategy. The subculture gained wider notice because of a series of violent and sexually explicit novels by Richard Allen, notably Skinhead and Skinhead Escapes. Due to largescale British migration to Perth, Western Australia, many British youths in that city joined skinhead/sharpies gangs in the 1960s and formed their own Australian style.
By the 1970s, the skinhead subculture started to fade from popular culture, and some of the original skins dropped into new categories, such as the suedeheads (defined by the ability to manipulate one's hair with a comb), smoothies (often with shoulder-length hairstyles), and bootboys (with mod-length hair; associated with gangs and football hooliganism).
Some fashion trends returned to mod roots, reintroducing brogues, loafers, suits, and the slacks-and-sweater look.
In 1977, the skinhead subculture was revived to a notable extent after the introduction of punk rock. Most of these revival skinheads were a reaction to the commercialism of punk and adopted a sharp, smart look in line with the original look of the 1969 skinheads and included Gary Hodges and Hoxton Tom McCourt (both later of the band the 4-Skins) and Suggs, later of the band Madness. From 1979 onwards, skinheads with even shorter hair and less emphasis on traditional styles grew in numbers and grabbed media attention, mostly as a result of their involvement with football hooliganism. These skinheads wore punk-influenced styles, like higher boots than before (14-20 eyelets) and tighter jeans (sometimes splattered with bleach). However, there was still a group of skinheads who preferred the original mod-inspired styles. Eventually different interpretations of the skinhead subculture expanded beyond The UK and Europe. One major example is that in the United States, certain segments of the hardcore punk scene embraced skinhead style and developed its own version of the subculture.
Racism, anti-racism and politicsIn the late 1960s, some skinheads (including black skinheads) had engaged in violence against random Pakistanis and other South Asian immigrants (an act known as Paki bashing in common slang). Although these early skinheads were not part of an organized racist movement, by the early 1970s there were skinheads who aligned themselves with the white nationalist National Front. However, there had also been anti-racist and leftist skinheads from the beginning, especially in areas such as Scotland and northern England. As the 1970s progressed, the racially-motivated skinhead violence in the UK became more partisan, and groups such as the National Front and the British Movement saw a rise in skinheads among their ranks. Although many skinheads rejected political labels being applied to their subculture, some working class skinheads blamed non-white immigrants for economic and social problems, and agreed with far right organizations' positions against blacks and Asians.
By 1969 the skinhead culture was widespread and thriving. The scene then experienced a drought during the 1970s only to be revived in the 1980s. During its lull, the skinhead culture underwent a massive identity struggle because of growing pressures of xenophobia and violence which was crucial in making the culture synonymous with racism, violence and neo-Nazis. Racial turf battles over skinhead clubs were becoming more and commonplace, and the music itself was reclaiming a new identity which spoke of black liberation and Afro-centrism (Hebdige, 1979, pg 58). Struggling with all these factors, the skinhead culture found itself divided. Confusion about who the skinheads were at this time is understandable because of the hybrid-cultures that were being created as well as division over politics within the group. The division over politics was between skinheads who identified with the white nationalist movement and those who wanted the skinhead image to represent apparel and music tastes (Brown, 2004). These trads, who referred to racist skinheads as “boneheads,” were becoming increasingly intolerant of skinheads who were fence walkers; skinheads that were on neither side of the debate (rudeboy.org).
By the late 1970s, some openly neo-Nazi groups were largely composed of skinheads, and by this point, the mass media, and subsequently the general public, had largely come to view skinheads exclusively as a subculture promoting white power. However, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, many skinheads, suedeheads, ex-skinheads and football casuals in the UK rejected the dogma of both the left and right. This anti-extremist attitude was musically typified by Oi! bands such as Cockney Rejects, The 4-Skins and The Business.
According to Skinheadnation.uk, the mainstream media has been largest player in skewing what most people think the skinhead culture is about. The media looking to sensationalize stories only favours profiling extremists. It was the media that first started using the term skinhead in reports of violence, and has played the largest role in skewing public perception of the culture (Osgerby, 1998, 65). Geoff Pearson describes this simply as society using the skinheads as scapegoats for the latent societal problems of those times:
''Paki-bashing has become associated with skinheads...Liberal consciences might ask: “why on earth do kids beat up immigrants?’ But liberal consciences had seen nothing on earth like the Skinhead: the senselessness of his football hooliganism, his violence, and his clothing forced a neat closure to any critical thought. Anyone dressed like that would do anything: it stood to reason. Thus we are left with one of those self-evident truths of a media-induced hypnosis, and there is no longer any reason left to search for the reason why people attack immigrants.''
Bill Osgerby further supports the claim that it is the skinhead fashion which makes them an easy target. Osgerby says that, “the skinheads’ defiant proletariat posture (work boots, braces, prison ‘crop’ hairstyle)” was what ensured that the media would present skinheads as “public enemy number one” . Television shows like Oprah and Geraldo make skinheads the theme of their shows and further perpetuate the stereotype. “New York TV chat shows regularly flew racist skinheads in from other States to appear on their programmes, while non-racist Skinheads in their own backyard were conveniently ignored,” says Skinheadnation.com. The site also references an HBO program called “Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War,” which portrays skinheads as white supremacists. Media outlets take little care to disambiguate racists skinheads from non-racists ones. The media has also linked skinheads to football hooliganism, while it seems clear that hooliganism was a sort of subculture of its own . However, the pervasive image of skinheads is inevitably tied to mentions of violence, racism and neo-Nazism.
Some skinheads countered the neo-Nazi stereotype by forming anti-racist organizations, such as The Minneapolis Baldies, who started in 1986, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP), which was founded in New York City in 1987 and spread to several other countries; and Anti-Racist Action (ARA), which was founded in the late 1980s by members of the Minneapolis Baldies and other activists. Other less-political skinheads also spoke out against neo-Nazis and in support of traditional skinhead culture. Two examples of this were the Glasgow Spy Kids in Scotland (who coined the phrase Spirit of 69), and the publishers of the Hard As Nails zine in England.
Political categoriesThere are several different political categories of skinheads. However, many skinheads don't fit into any of these categories. The usefulness of these terms is to explain the dominant forces of skinhead political groupings. There are no reliable statistics documenting how many skinheads have belonged to each category.
Anti-racist skinheads, sometimes known as SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), are aggressively opposed to neo-Nazism and racism, although not always political in terms of other issues. The label SHARP is sometimes used to describe all anti-racist skinheads, even if they aren't members of a SHARP organization. Some anti-racist skinheads have been involved with political groups such as Anti-Fascist Action or Anti-Racist Action. White power and traditional skinheads (especially in the U.S.) sometimes refer to them as baldies, potentially reflecting the development of Anti-Racist Action from a St. Paul Minnesota crew that termed themselves the Baldies.
Apolitical skinheads either oppose all politics in general, are politically moderate, or keep their personal political views out of the skinhead subculture. Skinheads on either extreme of the political spectrum sometimes refer to this type as a fencesitter or fencewalker.
Left wing skinheads are anti-racist and anti-fascist, taking a militant pro-working class stance. This category includes redskins and anarchist skinheads. The most well-known organization in this category is Red and Anarchist Skinheads.
Right wing skinheads are conservative and patriotic, but not necessarily extreme or fascist. This type of skinhead seems to be common in the United States.
White power skinheads or neo-Nazi skinheads are racist, extremely nationalist and highly political. Many Nazi skinheads have no connection to the original 1960s skinhead culture in terms of style or interests. SHARPs and traditional skinheads often refer to them as boneheads.
Style and clothingIn addition to short hair, skinheads are identified by their specific clothing styles. Skinhead fashions have evolved somewhat since the formation of the subculture in the 1960s, and certain clothing styles have been more prevalent in specific geographic locations and time periods. The following list includes many of the clothing articles that have been worn by skinheads.
- Men: Originally, between a 2 and 3 grade clip-guard (short, but not bald); beginning in the late 1970s, typically shaved closer, with no greater than a number 2 guard. Now some skinheads clip their hair with no guard, and some even shave it with a razor. This started with the introduction of the Oi! scene. Some skinheads sport sideburns of various styles, usually neatly trimmed.
- Women: In the 1960s, many female skinheads had mod-style haircuts. During the 1980s skinhead revival, many female skinheads had feathercuts (known as a Chelsea in North America). A feathercut is short on the crown, with fringes at the front, back and sides. Some female skinheads have a shorter punk-style version of the hairstyle; almost entirely shaved, leaving only bangs and fringes at the front.
- Men: Long Sleeve fitted Ben Sherman or Jaytex shirts with bracers or fitted Ben Sherman, Fred Perry, Brutus, Jaytex, and other brands of button-up or polo shirts; Lonsdale or Everlast shirts or sweatshirts; grandad shirts (collarless shirts); V-neck sweaters; tank tops (known as sweater vests in North America); cardigan sweaters; T-shirts (plain white or with text and/or images related to bands or the skinhead subculture); fitted blazers. Traditional skinheads sometimes wear suits, usually including a three-button waisted jacket, and often made out of two-tone tonic fabric, by Dormieul, (shiny mohair-like material that changes colour in different light and angles), or in a Prince of Wales or houndstooth check pattern. Some Oi!! and hardcore-oriented skinheads wear plain white wifebeater undershirts, especially in North America.
- Women: Same as men, with addition of dress suits—composed of a ¾-length jacket and matching short skirt.
Coats: MA-1 type flight jackets (popular brands: Alpha and Warrior), usually black or green; blue-denim jackets (Levi's or Wrangler); Harrington jackets; donkey jackets; monkey jackets; Crombie-style overcoats; short macs; sheepskin 3/4-length coats; donkey jackets; parkas.
- Men: Sta-Prest flat-fronted slacks and other dress trousers; Jeans (normally Levi's, Lee or Wrangler), parallel leg, with rolled cuffs (turn-ups) to show off boots, or with hem cut off and re-sewn; usually blue; sometimes splattered with bleach to resemble camouflage trousers, popular among Oi! skinheads; combat trousers (plain or camouflage), popular among Oi! skins and scooterboys. Jeans and slacks are worn deliberately short in order to show off boots (or to show off socks when wearing loafers or brogues).
- Women: Same jeans and trousers as men, or skirts and stockings. Some skingirls wear fishnet stockings and mini-skirts, a style introduced during the punk-influenced skinhead revival.
- Men: boots, originally army-surplus or generic workboots, then Dr. Martens (AKA Docs, DMs or Doc Martens) boots and shoes, and later brogues, loafers, fringed and buckled stompers, and slats (especially among suedeheads). Other brands of boots have become popular, such as Solovair, partly because Dr. Martens and Grinders are no longer made in England. During the 1960s, steel-toe boots were called bovver boots derived from the Cockney pronunciation of bother (in this context, meaning violence). Suedeheads sometimes wore coloured socks, such as in red, orange or green. Adidas Samba and Dragon trainer sneakers have been becoming more and more popular in skinhead culture, primarily on the east coast of the United States.
- Women: Dr. Martens boots or shoes, monkey boots, loafers, or brogues.
Hats: Trilby hats; pork pie hats; flat caps (AKA Scally cap or driver cap) or winter woolen hats (without bobble, also known as Benny hats). Less common have been bowler hats (mostly among suedeheads and those influenced by the film A Clockwork Orange).
Braces: Various colours, usually no more than ¾ inch in width, clipped to trouser waistband. In some areas, braces much wider than that may identify a skinhead as either unfashionable or white power. Braces are worn up in an X- or Y-shape at the back. Some Oi!-oriented skinheads wear their braces hanging down, so they can be seen when wearing a jacket.
Handkerchiefs: Silk handkerchiefs in the breast pocket of the Crombie or tonic jacket, in some cases fastened with an ornate stud. Later, pocket flashes became popular. These were pieces of silk in contrasting colours, mounted on a piece of cardboard and designed to look like an elaborately folded handkerchief. It was common to choose the colours based on one's favourite football club.
Badges and Scarves: Button badges or sewn-on fabric patches with text and/or images related to bands or the skinhead subculture. Politically-minded skinheads sometimes wear badges related to their ideological views. Striped woollen or printed rayon scarves in football club colours, worn knotted at the neck, wrist, or hanging from a belt loop at the waist.
Umbrellas Some suedeheads carried closed umbrellas with sharpened tips, or a handle with a pull-out blade. This led to the nickname brollie boys.
There are several different types of skinheads in terms of style. Some skinheads don't fit into any of these categories, and many display characteristics of more than one category. The usefulness of these terms is to explain the dominant skinhead styles. There are no reliable statistics documenting how many skinheads have belonged to each category.
Traditional skinheads, also known as trads or Trojan skinheads, identify with the original 1960s skinhead subculture in terms of music, style, culture, and working class pride.
Oi! skinheads appeared after the development of punk rock in the 1970s. They often have shorter hair and more tattoos than 1960s skinheads, and wear items—such as higher boots, tighter jeans, T-shirts, and flight jackets—that differ from those of their traditionalist counterparts.
Hardcore skinheads originated in the United States hardcore punk scene in the late 1970s (with bands such as Iron Cross, Agnostic Front, Cro-mags, Sheer Terror, Warzone, and Murphy's Law). They differ from traditional skinheads by their musical tastes and a style of dress that is less strict.
Colour of laces and bracesSome skinheads, particularly highly political ones, attach significance to the colour of boot laces to indicate beliefs or affiliations (In some cases red laces symbolise the National Front, and yellow laces the Anti-Paki League, or APL for short) braces, and (less commonly) flight jackets may also signify these.. The particular colours used have varied regionally, so only skinheads from the same area are likely to interpret them accurately. The "braces and laces game" has largely fallen into disuse, particularly among traditionalist skinheads, who are more likely to choose their colours for fashion purposes.
TattoosTattoos have been popular among many skinheads since at least the 1970s revival. In 1980s Britain, some skinheads had tattoos on their faces or foreheads, although the practice has since fallen out of favour. Popular skinhead tattoos have included a crucified skinhead (designed by Mick Furbank for the Last Resort skinhead shop in Aldgate); bulldogs; spider webs on outer elbows or elsewhere; Sailor Jerry-style tattoos; sparrows; boots; music-related logos; national or regional flags; images related to A Clockwork Orange; laurel wreaths; roses; crossed riveting hammers (similar to those in the West Ham United logo); weapons (e.g., brass knuckles; bats; switchblades); and slogans such as: Oi!, ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards), SKIN, Skinhead or Bootboy.
Tattoos popular among anti-racist skinheads include a Trojan helmet; anti-Nazi logo; skinhead smashing a racist symbol; crucified skinhead (two-tone black and white), images of black and white skinheads together (e.g., shaking hands); anti-racist slogans (e.g. Smash Fascism, AFA; SHARP; ANTIFA). (Note: redskins and anarchist skins may have political symbols, such as red stars, red flags, hammer and sickles or anarchy symbols.)
Tattoos common among white-power skinheads include Swastika or other World War II Nazi symbols (such as SS symbols or the iron cross); three 7s (Afrikaner Resistance Movement logo); flags (e.g., of the wearer's home country, of Nazi Germany or of the American Confederacy); crossed claw hammers or other Hammerskins symbols,; Ku Klux Klan symbols; white nationalist slogans such as: White Pride, White Power, WP, 88 (Heil Hitler), 1488 (Fourteen Words/Heil Hitler), HFFH (Hammerskin Forever, Forever Hammerskin), Blood & Honour (or B&H or 28), C18 (Combat 18); Celtic cross or other Celtic symbols; Runes, Vikings, or other Nordic symbols (which white power skins use to symbolize white culture.)
MusicThe skinhead subculture was originally associated with music genres such as soul, ska, rocksteady and early reggae. The link between skinheads and Jamaican music led to the development of the skinhead reggae genre; performed by artists such as Desmond Dekker, Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitken, Symarip and The Pioneers. In the early 1970s, some Suedeheads also listened to British glam rock bands such as The Sweet, Slade and Mott the Hoople.
The most popular music style for late-1970s skinheads was 2 Tone (also called Two Tone), which was a musical fusion of ska, rocksteady, reggae, pop and punk rock. The 2 Tone genre was named after a Coventry, England record label that featured bands such as The Specials, Madness and The Selecter. The record label scored many top 20 hits, and eventually a number one.
During this same time however, reggae music started expressing thoughts of black liberation and awareness, something that white Skinheads could not relate to (Brown, 2004). These shifts in the music was threatening to exclude white youths which created tension between the black and white Skinheads that otherwise got along fairly well (Hebdige, 1979, pg 58). This also means that the music itself started evolving into forms with fewer and fewer reggae components.
Some late 1970s skinheads also liked certain punk rock bands, such as The Clash, Sham 69 and Menace; and by the late 1970s, the Oi! subgenre was embraced by many skinheads and punks. Musically, Oi! combines elements of punk, football chants, pub rock and British glam rock. The Oi! scene was partly a response to a sense that many participants in the early punk scene were, in the words of The Business guitarist Steve Kent, "trendy university people using long words, trying to be artistic...and losing touch". Some forefathers of Oi! were Sham 69, Cock Sparrer, and Menace. The term Oi! as a musical genre is said to come from the band Cockney Rejects and journalist Garry Bushell, who championed the genre in Sounds magazine. Notable Oi! bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s include Angelic Upstarts, Blitz, The Business, Last Resort, The Burial, Combat 84 and The 4-Skins. Not exclusively a skinhead genre, many Oi! bands included skins, punks and people who fit into neither category (sometimes called herberts).
American Oi! began in the 1980s with bands such as The Press, Iron Cross, The Bruisers, Anti-Heros and Forced Reality. American skinheads created a link between their subculture and hardcore punk music, with bands such as Warzone, Agnostic Front, and Cro-Mags. The Oi! style has also spread to other parts of the world, and remains popular with many skinheads. Many later Oi! bands have combined influences from early American hardcore and 1970s British streetpunk.
Although many white power skinheads listened to Oi! music, they also developed a separate genre known as Rock Against Communism (RAC). The most notable RAC band was Skrewdriver, which started out as a non-political punk band but evolved into a neo-Nazi band after the first lineup broke up and a new lineup was formed. RAC started out musically similar to Oi! and punk rock, and has adopted some elements from heavy metal and other types of rock music.
- Davis, John. Youth and the Condition of Britain: Images of Adolescent Conflict. Athlone Press, NJ. 1990
- Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Fletcher & Son ltd, 1979.
- Osgerby, Bill. Youth in Britain since 1945. Blackwell Publishers: Malden, Massachusetts, 1998.
- Osgerby, Bill. Youth Media London: Routledge, 2004.
- Pearson,Geoff. “’Paki-Bashing’ in a North East Lancashire Cotton Town: A case study and its history” Working Class Youth Culture. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.1976. 50.
- Smiling Smash Chas Smash of Madness discusses skinhead culture
- Reggae, Reggae, Reggae The skinhead movement and reggae music
- Skinhead Nation Stories from skinhead history in Europe and the US
- Skinhead Moonstomp Oi! and reggae MP3 site
- Oi! the Truth History of Oi! according to Garry Bushell
- Skinhead Style Traditional skinhead fashions
- Trojan Records Site with information about ska and skinheads
- 2 Tone Info Information about the 2 Tone scene
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