This is an excerpt from Richard Weight’s Mod: A Very British Style. It originally appeared in Issue nine of Umbrella
The origins of Mod lay in two countries whose political revolutions in the 18th Century the British had violently rejected: America and France. And the midwife that slapped it into life was not rock ’n’ roll but jazz. The movement got its name from a nucleus of around two hundred founding ‘faces’ who emerged in Soho around the summer of 1958, calling themselves ‘Modernists’ after their love of modern jazz, or bebop. Led by saxophonist Charlie Parker, bebop fizzed in New York just after the war then exploded at the same time that Elvis Presley took to the stage, with the release of Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool in 1957.
The term ‘cool’, now so often a lazy expression of approval, originally meant a taught state of mind in which you harnessed your anger against injustice. It sprang from the earlier Jazz Age – coined, it is thought, by the Harlem Renaissance author Langston Hughes in the 1930s. ‘I play it cool’, Hughes wrote, ’and dig all jive / That’s the
reason / I stay alive.’
Modern jazz was not just a musical reaction to the easier, more tuneful, sounds of traditional (‘trad’) jazz that had originated in New Orleans; it was also a political reaction to a segregated America in which black musicians were harassed by the police,
exploited by the music industry and seen as entertainers rather than artists. “Beboppers refused to accept racism, poverty or economic exploitation,” explained drummer Kenny Clarke. “If America wouldn’t honour its constitution and respect us as men, we couldn’t give a shit about the American way.”
Beboppers embraced Europe, performing and sojourning in Continental cities where they were feted and found sanctuary from segregation. Paris was a favoured destination, as it had been for Americans in the 1920s and ’30s. But whereas performers of that era like Josephine Baker had often perpetuated stereotypes of black people in shows like the Revue Nègre, the stars of modern jazz rejected caricature in favour of a creative dialogue with Europe.
The French Existentialist movement influenced some. Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous dictum that ‘one must act to be free’ appealed to the more educated and politicised generation of black musicians that emerged after the Second World War – a generation personified by Miles Davis, who met Sartre when he and Charlie Parker played the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949.
At that time, Davis also fell in love with the singer Juliette Greco, beginning a passionate three-year relationship that has been called “the marriage of bebop and existentialism”.
Greco was the epitome of Left Bank cool: tall, with straight black hair, she wore a black beret and raincoat with the collar turned up, singing the songs of her husband, the poet Boris Vian, in Paris jazz clubs with studied ennui.
Bebop stars soon adopted elements of Left Bank style. Pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie took to wearing berets, goatee beards, horn-rimmed glasses and plenty of black, while Davis made sharp Italian suits one of his early trademarks.
His favoured make, adopted by jazz fans on both continents, was Brioni, founded in Rome in 1945 then launched in Britain and America in 1954. The first retailer to import Brioni to the UK was Cecil Gee’s shop in the Charing Cross Road, which became an early Mod haunt.
Modernists fused this look with American style, especially the so-called Ivy League look, which was popular with middle- and upper class American youth from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, and which later enjoyed a revival thanks to the TV drama Mad Men about the advertising world in that period. The style is epitomised by the suits and shirts of the Brooks Brothers clothing company. Founded in New York in 1896, it had invented the button-down collar on dress shirts, after its owner had noticed English polo players using buttons to stop collars flapping in their faces.
Brooks Brothers’ controversial use of colours like turquoise and mauve had livened up the urban American man’s wardrobe. To these were added Bass Weejun loafers, introduced by the Bass company of Maine in 1934 and based on moccasins worn by Norwegian farmers (hence the name ‘weejun’).
A more casual version of the Ivy look included Sta-Prest trousers and desert boots, introduced by Clarks in 1949 and based on the comfortable suede boot worn by off-duty British army officers in the Second World War. This was complemented by the Baracuta G9 jacket with its distinctive tartan lining, popularly known as the ‘Harrington’ after the clothes retailer John Simons (the main importer of Ivy clothes in Britain) noticed the character Rodney Harrington wearing it in the TV series Peyton Place.
The look was completed by the neatly cropped ‘college boy’ hairstyle made famous by John F. Kennedy. It all became known as ‘Jivy Ivy’ when jazz artists adapted the style, notably Miles Davis on the cover of Milestones and his 1959 release Kind of Blue, still the best-selling jazz album of all time.
Like a number of black figureheads of the time, Miles Davis came from a middle-class background – he was a dentist’s son educated at the elite Juilliard School of Music – but that didn’t stop him getting almost beaten to death by police outside New York’s Birdland jazz club just after the release of Kind of Blue. At that time, fashion was not just a form of conspicuous consumption driven by vanity and a desire to conform; it could be a subtle political statement, designed to unnerve the powerful, and sometimes it succeeded with violent effect.
The author and lifelong Mod, Paolo Hewitt believes that Davis’s “use of the Ivy League look remains one of the great fashion statements of all time. By dressing in the clothing of those who fiercely resent their culture, their music, the colour of their skin, Miles and his peers are playing the enemy beautifully, walking amongst them whilst changing the landscape forever. You think he’s a bank manager, in fact Miles is a revolutionary in silk and mohair.”
Before the mass media and high street retailers noticed their style, Mods had to be devoted enough to seek out the small independent shops that sold their favourite clothes or records. Former Mod Nick Logan, who founded the influential British style magazines The Face and Arena in the 1980s, remembered how much harder it was in the early ’60s: “There were no style sections in newspapers to help you, just the obscure corners of the weekly music press at a time when the music editors were clueless as to what was really going on.”
One of the ways that ‘Jivy Ivy’ was transmitted was by studying the album covers of bebop stars, especially those for the record company Blue Note. A pioneering independent jazz label, Blue Note was set up in 1939 by two Jewish refugees to the United States from Nazi Germany, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. Committed to bebop even when it wasn’t making them much money, Blue Note did more to promote modern jazz than any other label; it also had a huge influence on fashion.
In 1956, Lion and Wolff employed a young Californian called Reid Miles to design their covers and over the next decade his artworks were a style template for fans on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as crisp black and white photographs of artists like Sonny Clark, Lee Morgan and Herbie Hancock, Miles’s work employed the graphic principles of the Bauhaus.
It was that fusion of American and European fashion and design, married to the musical and political dynamism of modern jazz, that captivated young Modernists wanting to escape the cloying traditions of British working-class culture without becoming ersatz Americans. Some studied at Central St Martin’s Art College and others worked in the media in Soho, but whatever their occupation, they gathered there from all over inner London. Other Mods came from suburbs and satellite towns around the city, like Croydon and Woking, where in the early 1960s bars and dance halls began to cater for them.
Still hardly known outside the south of England, Modernism gestated for approximately three years in the capital and its outskirts, where it spread organically from district to district. During this gestation period, its style codes were haphazardly developed through random encounters on streets or in bars and clubs, with no clear figureheads in the world of music or fashion, still less a manifesto, until a national
magazine took notice of it in 1962.
It should also be remembered that in this period the followers of trad jazz far outnumbered the Modernists. At its most commercial, the British trad revival of 1945–65 rivalled rock ’n’ roll for mass appeal. It was epitomised by the Bill Haley of jazz: clarinettist Acker Bilk who, though younger than Miles Davis, appeared to be from another age with his chubby figure, beard, bowler hat and his sanitised version of the Dixieland sound. In 1962 Bilk had a No. 1 hit in the United States with Stranger On The Shore, and that same year he appeared in the film It’s Trad, Dad!, directed by the American Dick Lester, who would later work with the Beatles. More purist than bebop, trad was popular among middle-class youths, especially Left-leaning bohemian types, which the media called beatniks. Many were at the same time followers of the Anglo-American folk revival, and the bastard child it conceived with jazz and blues, skiffle.
None of that appealed to the Modernists. They regarded parent-friendly trad as merely retrograde; and folk music was beyond the pale, since it tended to romanticise rural, pre-industrial society and therefore held little attraction for these self-consciously urban, cosmopolitan teenagers.
Those Mods who grew up in the suburbs looked beyond their parents’ privet hedges to the fast, neon-lit world of the city for their kicks and not to the peripheral fields on which their homes had been built. The British folk revival of the1950s and 60s – led by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – was more politically radical than previous incarnations of the genre, but if it engaged more with urban life it usually did so by celebrating the struggles of the shipbuilder or the miner – traditional working-class worlds that Mods were desperate to escape from.
The other reason why the Modernists of Soho disliked trad and folk music was their followers’ apparent indifference to style. As Graham Hughes, one of the first Mods and a student at St Martin’s, remembered: “We looked different because modern jazz we felt was always a bit more stylish and we responded to that. We would go to the allnighter dressed in these box jackets that Cecil Gee imported… It was to look different from the others in the jazz crowd, which was all very studenty, scruffy. We simply didn’t want to wear long woolly jumpers and jeans covered in paint.”
Terry Rawlings concluded that Mods were “teenage dandies reacting against all that had come before – the ’50s yobbos and, even worse, the scruffy, cider-drinking ex-students who grew beards, wore loose sweaters and liked watered down Trad Jazz.