“You have to get all this right, you have to!” says model and musician Roy Brown when I ask about clones – the queer subculture so prominent in the 1970s and 80s, but oddly missing from Channel 4 mega hit, It’s A Sin.
Clones were such a fixture of the club and bar scene of the period that artist Mark Wardel – who was also partying at the time – reckons “maybe 90% of the people in Heaven nightclub around 1979/1980 had that clone look.”
The fact they are largely absent from It’s A Sin’s many party scenes has not gone unnoticed by older viewers of the Russell T Davies show.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of friends who were around on that scene at the time and pretty much everybody said: ‘where were all the clones in this programme?’” Wardel tells HuffPost UK.
“It was a jarring note for people who were around. We didn’t recognise it as a scene we knew,” he says of the nightlife beyond the gang’s Pink Palace.
While it’s hard to pin down the exact origin story of the clone look and outlook, most trace it back to the US West Coast in the late 1970s, with some claim for its rapid growth also laid by New York’s Village scene of the same period.
“Don’t ask me why it started, but by the beginning of the 80’s ‘the clone’ was beginning to become a universal phenomenon,” writes Colin Clews on his Gay In The 80s blog. “And I don’t mean Dolly the Sheep!”
The original clones, sometimes known as ‘Castro Clones’ after the San Francisco neighbourhood where the style was heavily flaunted, characterised by a hyper-masculine combination of rugged denim, checked shirt, moustache and heavy-duty worker boots.
It was a prescriptive, consciously macho look, so much so that, at times, Clone-crowded spaces could feel exclusionary, especially of more femme-leaning men. “If you turned up in a yellow kimono with yellow foundation and two-foot-high hair as [Boy] George used to do, you’d get turned away for not being butch enough,” remembers Wardel of some London nightspots he frequented.
“London was awash with clones, which was why the youngsters formed their own clubs.”
Heaven, under London’s Charing Cross station, was a bit more inclusive, he adds. But arts PR Anna Goodman, who worked at the club in the 1980s, says that It’s A Sin scenes filmed in Heaven fail to capture the true flavour of the time.
“What was missing stylistically were clones,” she notes. “London was awash with them, which was why the youngsters formed their own clubs. They didn’t fit in without a checked shirt and moustache. Usually a cap, too, and leathers.”
Of watching the show, she says: “We loved the writing a lot. [But] on a level of hair and clothes styling and, of course, language, it was sometimes way off.”
“Crew cuts, moustaches, plaid shirts, that very macho look which had actually come across from America – it was the first time gay men were actually dressing to imitate the same people they wanted to have sex with,” says Wardel, who links the aesthetic to that of the working class American man.
“Brad Davis was a big clone hero, Richard Gere kind of was. The lumberjack look, an invented hyper-masculinity.”
The nearest It’s A Sin gets to a clone, arguably, is Henry Coltrane, says Brown. “What I’ll say about Neil Patrick Harris’s performance of a ‘Suited Clone’ is that he portrayed a type of clone in a working environment who had to pass as masculine. The wonderful thing about his character was his caring and protection as a father figure towards the newly gay on the London scene.”
Brown himself was first schooled in clone culture by older gay men in the early 80s. “We just thought it was a look!” he says. “You had to start wearing exactly what they were wearing for them to even look at you.”
And that look started with Levi 501s. “That was the number one thing, never wear anything outside of that,” he says. “Then either the Timberland boots or the Docker boots, which were either dark or tanned. The jeans fitted skin tight, arse tight, and the clones used to get a wooden block, cover it with sandpaper, and paper round the crotch area to give that effect of shape. It was like a 3D effect – bizarre. And they used to do it slightly around the arse cheeks as well.”
Some guys used to wear Wranglers instead of Levis, he qualifies, but the rule was “buttons, never zips, always buttons”. As for shirts, they were either lumberjack (“if you were lucky enough to go to America you’d get them really cheap”) or plain (white, blue, Levi denim) with different grades of styling.
“You’d wear the shirt by itself or you had a long-sleeved shirt underneath it, brown neck, long sleeves, and you’ll roll the shirt up your arm, either to your elbow or to the top of your arm and show the long sleeves,” says Brown. Any T-shirt would be white – “crisp, white, ironed” – and if you smoked, it was a Marlboro pack of 20, “on the left side of your elbow under the T-shirt sleeve.”
Some adapted clone style to include leather, says Goodman, with chaps and a biker jacket, and a wallet or key on a chain. She recalls the Coleherne pub in Earl’s Court and being “the only woman in a sea of clones, mostly in leather”.
Queer coding was a big part of the look. Anything in the back-left pocket on your bum meant you were a top and more dominant; anything in the right-back pocket, more of a passive bottom,” says Brown. “This is where people are cruising you from. Your back pockets are filled with coding,” he explains.
“If it’s on the left hand side, you don’t get fucked, you do all the fucking, or you apply pressure to whatever your desire is. If anything is on the right hand side, it means you’re the receptacle, you receive... that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re weaker, you’re the bottom, but you can also be a power bottom.”
Brown still sees some diehard clones around today. “You’ll get guys in their 50, 60s and 70s with that aesthetic. Just like seeing someone in full leather attire, as distinctive as someone in an army uniform, you’d stop and look.”
But there is tragedy to their story. “AIDS really obliterated that scene of the clones,” says Brown, with sadness.
Wardel agrees. Once so dominant on the scene, “they were the first people to be affected by AIDS, the subculture most affected by the disease,” he says.
“A lot of them actually spent time in America and a lot of them had sex with air stewards, so the suspicion [whether evidenced or not] was that the clones were the people who originally sparked off the AIDS epidemic in Britain because of that contact with America,” Wardel says – noting that it was 1979 when transatlantic flights became affordable thanks to the Freddie Laker airline.
“It was one of the reasons that whole look became associated with the disease, in a way,” he goes on. “This is conjecture, I don’t know this, but I’m imagining some of the clones thought, ‘Oh hang on, people are going to think we’ve got AIDS if we’ve got this look’, so it morphed into something else.”
One of the benefits of queer shows like It’s A Sin is their immortalisation of subcultures and attitudes, introducing cultural touch points such as the grim AIDS: Don’t Die Of Ignorance campaign to new, younger audiences and allowing future generations to learn about – and honour – their elders.
What’s surprising to me, as a 31-year-old queer man, is how such a pervasive scene, a label banded around as widely at the time as ‘twink’ ‘bear’ or ‘otter’ are today, could vanish in a generation.
That’s not to say the culture of hyper-masculinity has died out completely. As Brown sees it, “there’s still sadly trails left of that era of guys being guys. The new clones today are the muscle queens, pumped up on steroids, who don’t want anything to do with anyone who does drag, or is feminine, or is trans.”
But for those who want to connect with their forefathers, the Clone Zone store in Soho stands proudly as it did back then – a lasting homage to the scene.