The Mods: Sex, Feminism, and Appropriation In Post-War Britain

Published November 18, 2014
Updated June 12, 2021

Born out of the late 50s beatnik culture, Mod culture started when teens in the late 1950s began adapting cravats and three-piece suits from the Edwardian era.

1967 Miniskirt Mod
Hastings Mods Riding Scooters
Arcade Mods
Mirrored British Mod Scooter
The Mods: Sex, Feminism, and Appropriation In Post-War Britain
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The Mods were a widespread subculture of fashion-worshipping working class youth. Mods came onto the scene as a direct predecessor to Britain's Teddy Boys and 50s Beatniks. Due to increasing affluence in the wake of the war, the youths of Britain in the early 1960s did not have to contribute their money from after-school jobs to the family budget.

Appropriation has become a media buzzword; regardless of opinions on the matter, it has always been an indicator of upward social change. Today in America, people of different races and orientations are constantly participating with and engaging in each other's culture — whether in genre-defying music, racially provocative comedy, or cross-cultural dress.

And yet, this blending process--accompanied by gains in social equity--is nothing new. It can, in fact, be seen quite easily in 1960s Britain. On a superficial level, we can thank the early British Mods for the current reappearance of unisex high-heels, Vespa scooters, androgyny, butch haircuts, moccasins, and mohair.

But beyond that, the Mods culture was also concurrent with positive changes in gender and racial equality. If the Mod style comes with open-mindedness toward all sexes and cultures, then what's wrong with being Modern?

London's Carnaby Street 1969

National Archives LondonMods on Carnaby Street, London. 1969.

Mod Fashion And Pastimes

Style, freedom and lots of speed were the tenets of Mod culture. Fast-paced, modern jazz and R&B music, amphetamines, and mopeds were ubiquitous in the scene. Middle-class white kids poured into jazz clubs and coffee shops to hear R&B and cool jazz, donning tight, Italian jackets and suits from yesteryear.

Men began adapting cravats and three-piece suits from the Edwardian era into their style repertoire. Not only the clothes made the mod; the hair had to be just right.

According to one former Mod, "Most of us had terrific hair, French style, and you spent a lot of time on it. You had to use sugar water. What you would do was wash your hair, then get a bowl of hot water and put sugar in it. Let the water cool and keep stirring it up and then plaster the water on your head and shape your hair. We used to leave it on all night. The longer you left it on, the better it was".

The suits were tailor-made with narrow lapels and they wore them with crisp, pointed-collar shirts. Coveted shoes were hand-made winkle-pickers; named for the extremely pointed toes which looked like the pins used to pick the meat out of periwinkle snails.)

Now that they're dressed, it's time to hit the town. Coffee shops stayed open later than bars and public transport, so young people would pile into cities from all around the British countryside.

They'd listen to live music and get strung up on amphetamines — dancing and drinking until the wee hours of the morning before riding their Vespas home. (The Vespa didn't have the exposed, greasy machinery of a motorcycle, which is anathema to a clean pair of expensive trousers.)

Mods On Scooters

Terry Fincher/ Stringer/Getty ImagesMods on scooters, 1964.

The Mods Cause Moral Panic

The existence of Mods was not without its conflicts. Britain was said to be in a "moral panic" as short-skirted women and fast-talking men clad in Italian suits and clunky shoes roamed the city streets.

Some Mods would sew razor blades into their lapels to wound would-be attackers. Usually, the "Rocker" crowd would be the Mods' aggressors. The two subcultures frequent clashes contributed greatly to the moral panic amid traditionally-minded Brits.

The rocker subculture was focused on motorcycling, and they donned clothing such as black leather jackets and motorcycle boots. Their overall style was influenced by Marlon Brando's character in The Wild One. The guys wore pompadours, and the group's music of choice was 1950s rock and roll; Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were popular artists.

Rockers considered the Mods to be effeminate because they had an interest in fashion. Therefore, bullying and fighting ensued. However, things calmed down considerably by 1964, as Mods became more widely accepted by all youth as a symbol of a newer society.

Rockers originated in the 50s, so Mod culture was a progressive and modern trend in the 60s and sought to redefine the British cultural standard. In postwar Britain, the women stayed at home or did the shopping while the men worked. A man fussing over his clothing, spending time in record stores, cavorting with the opposite sex in corner cafes: this was blasphemy.

Not surprisingly, Mod culture directly coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. This is a further testament that British youths' open-mindedness extended beyond pure taste. One of the first modern trends was to accept women as their own autonomous beings. The female Mod felt free to make her own stylistic and personal choices.

Modsquad

Byron's MuseMod women in the 1960s.

Female Mods In Control

Like the Flapper girls of the 20s, Mod women were liberated; eager to participate as an individual in the society that had often excluded them.

The arrival of Mod culture in the early 60s saw the first British women "leaving the nest". Though certainly not equally paid, women were beginning to take their own jobs and gain control of their own incomes.

With that, women saw an opportunity to reclaim a bit of their autonomy. The skirts got shorter, the hair became less "feminine". Women would go out dancing alone.

Attitudes of the mod young men were favorable to this new autonomy given to women. They readily accepted the idea that a woman did not need to attach herself to a man.

Today, we continue to be socially conscious in this manner; equal rights issues remain front and center in the media. It seems like in the 21st century, our current attitudes still reflect what was once "progressive" 60s Mod culture.


Next, find out what life was like for kids on the 1960s hippie trail — specifically the mecca of Goa, India. Then, read about what the youth of the 60s were running away from — with a candid look at the anti-civil rights movement in White America.

Chris Altman
Chris Altman is a freelancing writer and artist based out of Brooklyn, NY.