Northern Monkeys: Tracing The Evolution of Northern Working Class Fashion

William Routledge's new book chronicles the development of Northern working class fashion, centring around football and music but so much more besides...
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William Routledge's new book chronicles the development of Northern working class fashion, centring around football and music but so much more besides...


Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. When we were young lads back in the austere 80s, life seemed quite bleak. We’d just missed punk. The Mod revival of 1979 went as quickly as it arrived and was swiftly dismissed as not being as good as the proper 1960s version.

We were somewhat in awe of everything that went before. For its urbane and forward thinking influences, but also from a strong quest for something of our own to be as proud of as the hardened nostalgics that kept their own particular flame burning brightly and for keeping the faith of Northern Soul, scootering, or even the teds and hardcore punks.

The reason the casual football look exploded as big as it did, and why it has endured longer than many of us ever expected, was because it was so authentic and so rooted in everyday life.

It seems funny to hear the whole scene described as casuals now – it certainly wasn’t called that then. In Lancashire we were just ‘football lads’ – Liverpool were scallies, Manchester’s take was the Perry Boys. And yes, before you ask, it was a peculiarly uniquely male thing. There were and are rare girls who adopt bits of the casual style, but their look is decidedly boyish.

We look back to the 1980s now – all of us who were there – and we see it much differently to how it probably was. Yes, it was sometimes violent and frightening. But dressing at the match was a bigger ritual than messing about and getting into scrapes.


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Our new book – Northern Monkeys – spans a few generations of male working class fashions in the North of England. The author, the driver of this epic, William Routledge, is himself an obsessive, a lover of great clothes, books about youth cultures, music, places and stories.

The starting point of Northern Monkeys is the casually acceptable 80s. But how that look evolved, why that look evolved and how the particular Northern take on it took the direction it did required a series of aural accounts from nostalgics for various other epochs and eras.

Dave Hewitson has written about the Liverpool lads adopting a look as they robbed their way round Europe on the Transalpino trains, following the reds on their footballing dominance, but even he had his forebears.

Hewitson’s father, a merchant seaman, was one of the Cunard Yanks in Liverpool in the 1950s, taking cultural and musical influences from his travels.

“They worked for the Cunard shipping line and became affectionately known as the Cunard Yanks due to the ships’ main ports of call being New York, Boston, and further up the North coast, Halifax and Montréal.


“The prime focus of any culture is its fashion, style and music. These guys had all three ingredients in abundance. Comparisons with the Liverpool fans travelling around Europe collecting exciting European sportswear and designer wear run parallel with the Cunard Yanks’ trips to New York. They became pioneers, just like we did a generation later. In the early Fifties Liverpool was scarred from war and the fashions were drab to say the least.

The fashion of the 80s was massively about one-upmanship and about the emergence of new and often short-lived ideas. You not only had to work hard on the right look, the right type of trainers and labels – but you had to adapt to keep the look fresh.

While Chelsea, Spurs and QPR ‘casuals’ would have dropped into Lilywhites or Stuarts of Shepherd Bush for the latest Fila, Pringle Lacoste, having devoured the ins and outs of High Street Fashion in July 1983’s The Face, Bill was scouring the sale racks of golf shops and traditional sports stores. You had to work so much harder on the look.

We’re not getting involved in a petty North – South thing either – Cass Penant has contributed some tales of trips to the North with West Ham and looking for soul music, and the Portsmouth experience is laid bare too with a cracking chapter from one of the 6:57 lads.

The point we are making though is how dynamic things were. We forget now that the particular looks that have been freeze framed in a time and a place called the early 80s only last a season – that’s a football season, not a fashion one.

But what has marked it out as a fascinating piece of social history is how the unexpected twist and turns came about.

Liverpool adopted a retro scal look – as author Phil Thornton explains in a piece in the book about those strange days: “Liverpool at that time was almost a separate country, a city that prided itself on its isolationist stance to the rest of ‘woolsville.’ Liverpool turned its back on the world, in a climate of self-preservation against all odds, what became known as ‘retro-scal’ first developed from the chong ashes of a disenfranchised young population. The clothes obviously first symbolized this strangely perverse scene; a sloppy scally-hippy hybrid of loose change and broken biscuit conversations.”


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Yes, drugs played a part. Reefer and smack in the retro hippy scene, then Ecstasy took hold. Says one contributor, Cyril, of a night at Konspiracy in Manchester in 1989: “I’ll never forget seeing lads from the match tripping their tits off dancing while others shook every fucker’s hand then hugged them.”

Then there was the Blackburn rave scene, another totally authentic and surprising turn.

But the fashion at the heart of what we know as casual still persists. In fact it has influenced every wardrobe and every fashion buyers’ wet dream ever since.

A strong and sometimes fierce cadre of devotees have kept the look alive, adapting to new trends that quite quickly become mainstream, hunting out retro pieces, and crying into their beer for the discarded items with a huge resale value now, but also seeking new labels, innovative designers and adaptations on the theme.

In some ways it’s made the appropriation of the look easy – much easier than it was back in the day, but it’s also rekindled a meshing of modern and old and a quest for authenticity.

As Mark Smith, one of the founders of cult fanzine Proper, explains: “As the consumer has become more sophisticated so did the retailers, and simply selling a nice jacket wasn’t enough anymore. It needed to have a story, an ethos, a hook. This is where the heritage trend took hold, and brands would fine tune their history books and convince people to buy into what they were about. Contemporary brands would counter this by getting their clothing made in the US or UK.


“What will probably go down in history as the heritage era was what dominated the Noughties. Checked shirts, selvedge denims, the understandably ubiquitous mountain parka and mostly suede shoes were what I rounded off the decade in and yet the signal to move on has come in the shape of high street appropriations of that same look.”

The last word should lie with Routledge, the social historian who has made all of this happen.

“Yes, the casual/dresser baton has been taken up by today’s youth. The longest, ongoing evolving ‘fad’ has been adopted in some guise by each and every generation. But, with films connected to the rise and early origins of the casual/dresser hitting the big screen of late like Awaydays, and the woeful remake of The Firm, has the movement continued to make strides or stagnated? Some of the clobber the younger element I’ve seen wearing look massively inauthentic (reissues of the last reissued trainers in a different colourway and baseball caps galore), it leads me to think that the youth haven’t got their own mindset. Spending just for the sake of spending on some designers’ pieces ain’t what it has been about, ever.”

Northern Monkeys is published by Think More Book and is available for £11.99 on Amazon and selected outlets.

A new exhibition, Strike A Pose, 50 years of football and fashion, runs at the National Football Museum in Manchester until August 2013.