“I Don’t Wanna Be the Same as Everybody Else”: Fashion Tips from Quadrophenia

It’s incredible to see how some movies keep intact the spirit of a historical and cultural period. Years pass, the world changes, trends come and go, but they are there, perfect in their out-of-time condition, telling human stories and expressing distinct atmospheres. When I first watched This Is England by Shane Meadows (the film and the tv series), I immediately fell in love with it, but I felt there was more to know about its sources of reference. This weekend I had the chance to watch Quadrophenia (1979) by Franc Roddam, based on the 1973 album by the Who, and all the puzzle fell into place. The movie is set in England (London and Brighton) in 1964: the historical “frame” of the narration are the Mods vs Rockers riots which took place in Southern beaches that year, but the story focuses on Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), an “angry young” Mod whose only reference is his circle of friends. A strong sense of belonging to the Mod culture is what shapes Jimmy’s life – the way he looks like, his style, the music he listens to, the scooter he drives (a beautiful customized Lambretta), even the drugs he takes. Fashion had a key function for the Mod culture [1] and this shows in the film. Lots has been written and said about the work of the wardrobe supervisor Joyce Stoneman and of Roger Burton and Jack English, two ex-Mods who provided most of the clothes, but here I’d like to focus on four key items which are still contemporary and stylish, at least in my book of style.

#1: M51 fishtail parka. This is quite an obvious choice, because this garment is the quintessence of the Mod culture. Originally a military garment (it was first used by the American army in 1951 during the Korean war), it was used by Mods to protect their Italian-style tailored suits while driving their scooters; parkas were cheap, practical and wind-proof, hence extremely popular. That “fishtail” in its name is a reference to the asymmetric hemline, longer in the back. Jimmy and his friends wear parkas on different outfits – elegant suits and casual looks alike.

In the opening scene, which ends when he gets to the Goldhawk to meet his friends, Jimmy wears a classic army green parka (front zip and foldable hood) and he’ll keep on wearing it all through the film. I can totally get its charm: I bought one in 2003 in Berlin, I’ve worn it for years (I still do!) and I can’t even explain how comfortable and stylish it is.

#2: Fred Perry polo shirts. This is probably the first element which connects Quadrophenia to This Is England [2]: in the films by Shane Meadows these polo shirts are worn by some female characters (Trev and Lol), while in the film by Roddam it is worn by the protagonist [3]. He wears a white one with black and grey trims on the collar and black wreath in the scenes where he’s looking for drugs before the week-end in Brighton.

He apparently wears another one – sky blue with red trims – under a v-neck blue sweater earlier in the film. In this case, he pairs it to Levi’s skinny jeans (in a scene he wears them wet to give them the perfect shape) and squared sunglasses. His friend Dave (Mark Wingett) sports a similar outfit, which includes a white polo shirt with black trims on the collar, jeans, the same v-neck blue sweater and a felt hat (his trademark accessory). I can only assume they are wearing Fred Perry polo shirts because of the collars trimmed in contrasting colours. Besides this detail, this similarity is important: Jimmy and Dave share the same attitude to Mod culture almost until the end of the movie; they completely identify with it. Dave’s departure from it after the Brighton riots and after criticizing Jimmy for quitting his job is a turning point of the narration.

#3: Peter Pan collar dresses. These are seen twice on one of the female protagonists, the peroxide blonde Monkey (Toyah Willcox). Shift dresses, A-line skirts and boxy clothes were a must for Mod girls, and Monkey follows the trend. The first Peter Pan collar dress spotted on her has a floral printed short-sleeved bodice and aubergine (or dark brown) skirt; the white collar is interesting because it’s pointed on the front and bow-tied on the back. She wears it with a star-shaped wood pendant on a string around her neck and nothing more. Monkey is not the it girl of the movie (that role goes to Steph) but this doesn’t mean she’s not stylish.

She wears another Peter Pan collar dress at a party: this is really iconic, because the collar is rounded, just like the ones on black dresses seen thousands of times on Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love, the queens of kinderwhore style. Even in this case she only wears the star pendant.

#4: leather (trench) coats. In the movie all Mods wear parkas; the only one who doesn’t conform to the rule is Ace Face (Sting), a Mod leader from Brighton, seen as an icon and role model from the London gang. Ace doesn’t speak much but does symbolic acts in the riots (like crashing shop windows); he distinguishes himself from the rest of the Mods with his peculiar style.

The trench is another military garment: used by British soldiers during the World War I, it was invented by Thomas Burberry (the inventor of gabardine and founder of the British fashion house). In the 90s it was used by skinheads (the British police even named a campaign against anti-social behaviour “Operation Burberry”), but in the 1960s it was probably considered a posh garment for businessmen. This is the reason why Ace wears it – to appear different from his mates and to get a dapper look.

Steph (Leslie Ash) is Jimmy’s object of desire for most of the movie, but she ends up with Dave instead. She doesn’t have a very original style, in the sense that she dresses like an average Mod girl (Monkey is more stylish than Steph), but she’s independent and good-looking, enough to turn her into the central female character. The screencaps above are taken from the last time she meets Jimmy (he will have an accident soon after this scene): she explains she doesn’t care about him, thus crushing the boy’s hopes and feelings once and for all. Here she wears a black pencil skirt, a beige cardigan, a shoulder bag and a long black leather coat. It has a small collar, two front pockets and four buttons; it’s not as trendy as Ace’s trench coat, but it has a minimal allure which reminds me of the 1990s.

There are other interesting style elements in the movie: for example, analyzing Jimmy’s tailored suits would be great, but I don’t have enough knowledge of men’s fashion to do it. In any case, the parka, Fred Perry polo shirts, the Peter Pan collar dress and leather coats seen in the movie show you the circular structure of fashion, where nothing is created, nothing is wasted, but everything keeps on coming back, as a wheel endlessly spinning.

[1] This was true for the first Mod generation (from the late 1950s to mid 1960s, and even more for the Mod revival in the late 1970s.

[2] Another link is the parka: Woody (Joe Gilgun) wears one in This Is England ’86.

[3] I’m partial to Fred Perry polo shirts because I just love them, especially since I cut my hair short.

2 comments

  1. There’s a shop, in Brighton, called Jump the Gun (one of the first idiomatic expression I ever learned in english. the power of travelling!🙂 ) in where you can find actual Quadrophenia memorabilia as well as all the mods clothing. Paradise!

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