The term ‘Mod’ is shortened from ‘Modernist’ which referred to modern jazz music during the 1950s. The smooth and expressive style, common in 50s modern jazz, was reflected in the sleek fashion choices of Mod culture in the West through the 1960s.
Within the Mod movement there were conflicting ideas about what was classic Mod and what was a less authentic, commercialised version. Eddie Piller, a Londoner whose early life was surrounded by Mod culture, describes this well as he reminisces that Mod was a “broad church” which had different denominations. Nonetheless, there were defining themes throughout the movement.
After decades of war, young Modernist Westerners began to embrace their new found freedoms by tuning into their senses – listening to relaxing, innovative and expressionist music and wearing more visually striking patterns and colours.
Technology was at the very centre of the Mod movement: the musical recordings loved by Mods were increasingly digitally complex and, once recorded, the music was transmitted across oceans via radio. Young people sporting the Mod look often travelled on scooters and played music through transistor radios and stereo systems. Themes of futurism and crossing boundaries are clear in Mod style.
For women, Mod fashion was defined by bold patterns and colours, mini skirts, short Sassoon-style haircuts (worn by popular models of the time like Peggy Moffitt and designers like Mary Quant) and distinctive make-up. This was a shift from the comparatively conservative and muted women’s fashion of the 1950s.
The early 50s were characterised by domestic femininity, pastel colours, French fashion influences and, in terms of politics and society, economic depression and conscription under The National Service Act of 1947 (which conscripted 2,301,000 British youths altogether and sent approximately 100,000 men to fight in the Korean War).
The Mod movement, which peaked in the 60s, represented a vivacious generation of young people who were determined to embrace a future of freedom and new possibilities. Most teenagers of the 1960s, unlike those of the 50s, were not bound by legal responsibilities to defend their country (as the last call-ups, for people aged 18+, happened in 1960) and they had more disposable income at their fingertips as the economy improved post-war. This made new fashions and products accessible to people from all kinds of different backgrounds.
“I think it’s quite subversive for kids who haven’t got a lot of money to dress up in a suit and look twice as good as someone who’s got three times as much money. It’s a social comment”Ian Page, Secret Affair
Modern ideas like breaking class barriers and challenging how women should dress can both be seen in Mod.
Because of this, Mod will always be so much more than just another trend. The style symbolises reinvigoration after a period of adversity and represents an excitement for the new and undiscovered which I believe we should keep close to our hearts.
Mod and Feminism
– Mary Quant, Quant by Quant
“City gents in bowler hats beat on our shop window with their umbrellas shouting ‘immoral!’ and ‘disgusting!’ at the sight of our mini-skirts over the tights, but customers poured in to buy,”
The bold and unapologetic styles of Mod were key as women continued to take ownership of their bodies.
Not only did women begin to wear shorter skirts and more dramatic make-up during the 60s, but they were also introduced to birth-control. This was an era of empowerment for women – the second wave of feminism – where women were choosing to defy the rules society placed on them. Instead, with hindsight we can see a generation of women who were determined to have fun and not solely to have families.
– Mary Quant
“arrogant, aggressive and sexy”
Mod women dressed to be noticed. Looking at Mod icons of the day: Veruschka, Edie Sedgewick and Wilhelmina Cooper, we can see that the women of this era liked to emphasise their power, their attractiveness and their individuality. From sporting bleached hair and false eye-lashes to showing off their skin and/or figure, it is clear that if Mod women wanted to feel feminine they were going to do so on their own terms.
In contrast, the popular boy-ish, but futuristic short hairstyles, flat shoes, Peter Pan collars and Twiggy’s popularisation of a less curvaceous ‘boyish’ figure can all be seen as evidence of Mod continuing the feminist tradition of subverting gendered fashion boundaries.
“I had to go to Sunday School with white gloves, hat and a handbag, just like a miniature mum, in a dress made by her – and exactly the same as hers! I mean, who wanted to do that?! We just wanted to kick against it all.”– Marion Foale
Mod women wore what they wanted, despite some disapproval and, in doing so, they paved the way for fashion as we know it.
Challenging Class Divisions
A defining feature of some of the most iconic Mod designers was that their clothes were affordable.
Once the domain of the social elite, the latest fashions were increasingly available to everyone. Notably, the Ginger Group Line by Mary Quant brought the latest styles to the masses at reasonable prices. Not only were Quant’s designs daring and chic, but they were also typically practical (for example, her creation of hot pants and also the skinny ribbed jumper which was supposedly inspired by trying on a child’s jumper).
And in 1963, Quant was praised by the Sunday Times for “jolting England out of a conventional attitude towards clothes”. This was truly a revolution whereby almost anyone could dress in the most modern styles. Which is important because the contemporary British divides of social class and income were becoming slightly more blurred.
“Fashion is a tool to compete in life outside the home.”– Mary Quant
Eddie Piller, a man who grew up around Mod culture, commented on how Mod led to a blurring of economic and social class divisions in an interview with Christine Jacqueline Feldman:
– p43, “We are the Mods: A Transnational History of a Youth Culture”
“The first thing was the Jazz thing in London, where these guys were living the life all night long—wearing great clothes—into be-bop. Then kids…15, 14 years old saw them and thought, ‘Fuck me, they’re cool. I aspire to that.’ These kids were the first to be influenced by things like advertising, right. American concepts in advertising sales or in the concepts of advertising development were affecting these kids. These kids saw Mod as a way out of their boring, hum-drum working-class lives, and they grasped the elements of Mod that [were] attractive… so they looked at the old Jazzers, or the youngish Jazzers. They got into that and they looked at the boss at work and thought, ‘You know, I don’t want to work in a factory. I want to work in an advertising agency and places like that.’”
It was likely a combination of: people wanting to move on from the adversity of war-time Britain, an increase in disposable income, the commodification of youth culture, the popularity of John Stephen’s, Barbara Hulanicki’s and Mary Quant’s modern and distinct designs and their often affordable prices that led Mod culture to become a standout part of history.
Along with other iconic waves of culture and style, we have Mod to thank for saying no to boundaries and yes to self-determination.
Because of this, Mod fashion will always be iconic.
Words and images by Anjula Nathan.