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Mod: the Elusive British Dream

'No political or cultural figurehead has ever come up with the phrase "a British dream", so Mod appeals to me politically because it's the closest we've ever come to having an American Dream.' So says Richard Weight, author of Mod: A Very British Style.

'No political or cultural figurehead has ever come up with the phrase "a British dream", so Mod appeals to me politically because it's the closest we've ever come to having an American Dream.'

So says Richard Weight, author of Mod: A Very British Style, a book which re-contextualises a social movement that has beguiled the British public for half a century.

'Mod matters less about where you come from, and more about where you're trying to get,' he says. 'What can you bring to the party? Be you black, white, gay, straight or working class, you can help create a truly meritocratic, dynamic culture.'

A meritocracy remains a pipe dream in 2013, yet Modernism, a very insistent and very British phenomenon, has ratified its position within the country, becoming - as the closing ceremony of the Olympics demonstrated - an integral part of this country's identity.

Way back when, The Who's first manager Pete Meaden described Mod as 'clean living under difficult circumstances', and with a recession biting like a pitbull as this one does, it remains a pertinent statement.

As far as the media is concerned, Modernism is an attitude adopted by those who predominantly express their tastes in the clothes they wear (Italianate), the music they listen to (soul-jazz) and the art they appreciate (pop). But this is a narrow vision of the movement which can - like any ideology - transform one's life, setting a devotee on tracks from which he or she never deviates. In short, it is a self-perpetuating code which can enrich a person.

The clean lines of the Modernist's clothes complement his stripped-down mindset, one that functions unencumbered by Anglo-Saxon prejudice and fear.

But to the uninitiated, it's about looking good, even when you can't afford to eat. 'If Modernism is just about the clothes, then it's about fuck all,' says Weight. 'It's a broad church, yes, and some people say it was, and is, a working class movement, but my response to that is it was always aspirational working class and concerned itself with acquiring aspects of middle class lifestyle without giving in to middle class snobbery. But it was also about being an outsider. Mod is about outsiders wanting to be insiders, but on their own terms. So there were a lot of Jews involved in the early days, like Marc Bolan, and quite a lot of gays. Look at the John Stephen story.'

Stephen, 'The King Of Carnaby Street', was one of the most important fashion figures of the 1960s and designed clothes for The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces and the Rolling Stones. Modernism began in London and the South owing to the affluence and consumer society of the capital. 'In the 1950s you had the beginnings of the decline of the industrial North and the rise of the financial South. Upwardly mobile post-war Britain began in London. So Mod took hold here first.'

Some social commentators believe that Modernism began in 1958 and ended in 1963, but it has survived to this day. In post-war Britain, teenagers with cash and modern aesthetics, informed by European chic and American liberalism, loosened up and breathed easy for the first time. Theirs was a social revolution.

Weight argues that the strictness of today's Modernist code has been a hindrance. 'It's a uniquely British fusion of cultures, but there's an aspect to the movement which insists on it being about class, but by saying that, certain Mods are putting themselves in a pen, from which the original Mods were trying to escape.'

The Ivy League style from the early 1960s is perhaps Modernism's most enduring sartorial look, favoured by the likes of Miles Davis and JFK, and seized upon by the original Mods because of its association with the affluence and freedom of the American Dream.

'The beauty of the Mod movement lies in the way it has regenerated itself,' he says. 'It's a rebuke to the class system, but sadly not a revolution.'

But why has Mod failed as a revolution? 'The Mod taliban are revivalists of the late '70s who are insecure about their own authenticity as Mods. What's held the movement back is this fundamentalism. When in fact Mod can embrace 2Tone and glam rock. For example, David Bowie is pure Mod. He puts the US and Europe together in his own unique way, while musicians like Miles Kane and Jake Bugg riff on the style. I wouldn't call them Mods, but they are examples of the style being perpetuated.'

Modernism's cultural figurehead, Paul Weller, appears a man alone, having pursued his eclectic artistic tastes over the course of four decades, never content to stand still. But it's hard work, this constant and quiet revolution. This fear of staleness might be taken as a neurosis, lacking intellectual rigour, but if it makes for good art, that's what counts.

But a danger lurks close at hand which goes by the name of commercialisation. The 'comedy Mod', all cockatoo feathercut, skintight Fred Perry and RAF target stuck to his parka is a false standard bearer who may well end up like his pearly king and queen of old London town.

'Modernism is ambition made flesh and cloth,' says Weight, 'and has survived because it's a form of consolation when ambitions are thwarted. It is also a rejection of consumerism for its own sake.'

New generations still embrace Modernism in an attempt to reassess what they can do to change their own lives for the better; this is a return to British individualism. And as the Westminster cake rots, so should the human mind soar above the rubble of bourgeois thought as we take to the laptop (or typewriter), the piano, to the theatre and the gallery.

So is this new Modernism a guttering of the English flame or something more powerful? Only time will tell, but with true Modernists looking ever more like republicans teetering on the brink of political awakening (while salivating over the cut of their bespoke suits), it may be that disposable income and pronounced vanity has hamstrung a political revolution. Until the income dries up, that is.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / / @JasonAHolmes

Photographs courtesy of Dean Chalkley / / @nitzerdc

Mod: A Very British Style is available at:

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