Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Thatcher’s footsoldiers


On his toes from the late 70s, the Casual was well named not just on account of his attire. Here were men forcibly unshackled from the certainties of work, factory, union and class who shifted loyalties to things you could count on, like clothing labels. In the new age of precarity, the casual could well be a casual worker but such mobility was important. They were brothers in arms with their firm but the casual’s biggest love was for himself. In the Thatcherite decade the aspirational individual was king and the casual was of his time, far more representative of the shifts to an atomised post-political subculture than even the smartest among them could have divined.

“I maintain that there are few finer moments in life than when you step into an alien city en masse, all dressed up ruthless, and watch those people stare”
The Ins and Outs of High Street Fashion, Kevin Sampson and Dave Rimmer, The Face, 1983


These cruisers arriviste wasn’t casual in outlook. From Aberdeen to Portsmouth via Wales, the northern cities, midlands and London, these guys were known for an obsessive approach to fashion and a lust for football related violence. Little things like Heysel were not going to get in the way of male hordes ripping up towns and, er, some of them looking pretty sharp with it. Other shit like music, respect for other ethnic groups and the football on the pitch itself (wearing your team’s replica shirt was a no-no) seemed down the list below clothes and street brawls. Why the fuck not live in the buzz of the me-time present when the communal future was being destroyed? For the casual, everything was subordinate to the buzz. The end of Revolt into Style (can’t think of a look less daring and more conformist), the neutering of agitated working classes, the ascent of consumerism, just as ‘The Lady’ (euurggh) would have wanted.


More influenced than they would admit by the Perry Boy, skinhead and mod, these ‘match dudes’ ushered in the era of sports and leisure wear, though none of that Bukta and Dunlop shit from the 70s; only the finest European stuff. For some, casual was nothing more than staying fashionable; for others, like the QPR fans who laughed at the Luton bumpkins attempting to have a go with their unfashionable threads, it was a Way of Life. This was not simply about buying the right labels, but how they were worn – collars up on a coat that needn’t be on, jeans placed just so over the trainer. Most of the hoolie ‘hit and tell’ books invariably offer a chapter on their firm’s look, Harrington, Stone Island, Burberry et al.

Though rave made acid casuals out of some its communal bliss did not suit all the extraordinary boys, who nevertheless came back stronger than ever with Lad Rock and managed to adapt in a skinny-jeaned post-Strokes world. Liam Gallagher, having gone from austerity casual in Oasis’ early days to overtrendy, monied casual with his Pretty Green label, is King Caj for many even if it’s a label he may resist itself. Mid to late 1990s was where roughly I intersected with this post-tribe. Hours were spent in pubs and bars up and down England checking the clothes out of other men, offering mutual compliments if we passed each other in the lav. My piece de resistance that lasted for about 5 years was a light beige plastic-finish Duffer of St George coat, cheap in a sale. Loved that coat, but it died when dyed in the wash and that was that. I was only playing at this shit anyway, not being on-trend or uptight enough, too into music and like many others questioning the grip of football in the Sky age. And certainly not a fighter.

Not immune to influencing and being influenced by other 90s styles, its love of sportswear and general loose fit principles fed into the wider urban and hip-hop cultures, and, united by Fred Perry, etc, Oasisman stood side to side with the middle class dressage of Blur and co before, huh-huh, it all went off. Drink and drugs wise, He could neck all kinds of shit but nothing much would knock the peacock off the perch. Like the scrotes on their phone sorting out the rumble retaining cool poise was all important, however ludicrous it looked.

The casual comes in from some [rather nervy] pisstaking from hipper types who accuse him of being little better than the smart-casual joke of Alan Partridge, but they miss the point. The casual, the type who’ll happily play golf with the boss (the sport provided early sartorial inspiration, as did tennis) was never much more than an avatar for the modern life we were being expected to assume, weekenderism, political apathy, live sports on the TV, other bullshit stimuli. And when the casual gets old, it’s just a short trip to suburbia where talk about the English Defence League is often accepted. You can even wear the same clothes, which couldn’t be said for any other pop-cultural tribe worthy of the name.

We’ve mentioned him throughout as the movement was emblematic of a social retrenchment after egalitarian advances. There is no female equivalent of the casual, ‘the birds’ were still expected to dress up, especially later on in that oversexualised, increasingly pornographic style that was infecting the 90s. Of course, many a casual geez would have been aware of the writings of Loaded and FHM, and it was their subjects who provided the archetype for their other halfs and helped validate the lifestyle: men who should know better but allow themselves to act like [and call themselves] boys.


There are other icons, Danny Dyer through the hoolie/80s films, but the whole point of casual was its accessibility, perpetuated by the retro cottage industry around it, so there’s not too much poncy hero worship, just clues for clothes purchases. Nearly 30 years on casual is still a default look for awakening male youth, but nothing quite says socio-political opt-out and, very often, racist outlook than the blank assemblage of anorak, [polo]shirt, jeans and trainers of the true caj. Thus its full decline could only be welcomed as it would imply a reengagement and a decrease in reliance of the spectacle/moment of a swathe of working and lower-middle male youth. My hopes aren’t high.

9 comments:

William said...

Interesting analysis. I blame the divorce between 'hard' and 'pysc' mod in the late '60s. Once you didn't have buy proper suits and shirts, or real shoes, the effort required to be part of the look was much reduced. And all the interest in French/Italian films, jazz etc fell away. Although skinhead is an extreme look admittedly.

It's hard to see a way out of this style wise. The hipster look is as uninvolved in its way and some of its elements, like Barbour jackets, were actually started by the casuals.

A new futurism? New man-made fibres?

David W. Kasper said...

BTW Sampson's 'Awaydays' was basically middle-class minstrely. He got a lot of mileage from his accent, but his 'experience' was largely from magazine articles. He was an indie-nerd. The publisher saw a chance to sell him as the north-west England's answer to Irvine Welsh. A rather short-lived marketing strategy, but probably playing part in the shelves and shelves of 'thug memoirs' that now fill retailer's shelves with numbing monotony.

Alex Niven said...

I really enjoyed this. But I kept thinking: if casual culture represented the British working class in transition from egalitarian advances to something else, what is the something else? Compared with today, at least the casuals embodied a society in which bourgeois culture wasn't entirely hegemonic; at least, in the '90s, it was cool to like football and Irvine Welsh rather than polo and Downton Abbey.

Also, there were more nuanced strands to casual culture, weren't there? I'm not sure Awaydays was straightforward "middle-class minstrelsy", for instance. It's quite open about class being it's central theme: like Trainspotting, it's a tragedy in which solidarity with the team becomes impossible and the upwardly mobile individual is cut loose as a cynically self-interested "deserter".

On that note, Welsh's Glue is also quite subtle from what I remember (and was there much racism in Scottish hooligan culture? I don't know but my guess is not). Certainly that's another novel about a group of friends from old-left working-class backgrounds being separated and split apart during the course of the '80s and '90s, after an earlier phase in which casual culture is a common bond.

I suppose I agree with the main point that the telos of casual culture was negative, but I think along the way there were some positive things mixed up with it. And at the very least, the art of people like Welsh, Sampson, and Noel Gallagher was worthwhile because it rendered the tragedy of the transition you talk about with pathos and clarity.

Culla said...

Historically the weighting given to clothes (and not very adventurous clothes) and not enough to outlook, music, politics (Hooton would disagree but his End was dealing in micro-scenes dressed up as universal trends) is problematic. That left space: for easy adoption by bourgeois tastemakers who always pilfer from subcultures; to make it look more normal than it was; for some to brandish the price tag as signifier; and for negative aspects such as racism/fascism to flourish among some. It seems only the look was necessary to be a casual. Alex is right to point out the common bonds and value of proletarian sartorial difference, but it became big and in Top Man very quick and from this point any difference was emasculated into the wider leisure society. As a scene it has been parody/rehash since the early/mid 80s which is why it's so interesting it is 'alive and well' now. But its inherently vague/apolitical outlook (a policing pain in the arse but they've deserted Labour) and therefore easy adoption must enable that staying power.

i like William's point about the lineage although you always had some casuals who disowned any link to Mod (early scousers had passed from punk into synth, while in that 1983 face piece there's a line about east london boys beating up a gang of mods in ilford or somewhere)

Lee said...

"Hours were spent [...] checking the clothes out of other men, offering mutual compliments if we passed each other in the lav."

Now there's a [barely] latent homoerotic/metrosexual subtext...or am I stating the bleeding obvious? Mark Simpson is very good on this stuff.

http://www.marksimpson.com/blog/2011/01/27/the-north-east-has-a-situation-geordie-shore/

Thanks for the post.

Culla said...

yes, intended to be obvious, i saw subtext in the whole peacocks checking ouot each other's plumage thing while others accused their mates of calling their pint a poof, or something

Lee said...

Funnily enough the blank assemblage of polo shirt, jeans and trainers has been the default setting on the gay scene for years too. I suppose it ties in with scally porn, rough trade etc etc.

JM said...

Lee: Mark Simpson's kind of misogynist and fetishizes masculinity rather creepily:
http://quietgirlriot.wordpress.com/tag/mark-simpson/

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