Ruby Harrop explores how Northern Soul created its own fashion trends, the influence of which can still be seen today.
When Northern soul arose in 1970s England, a new kind of fashion aesthetic developed. In the midst of a soul and dance music resurgence, fashion moulded from mod attire to a more functional, dance-centred fashion.
The emergence of Northern soul is one the most bizarre music phenomena in recent history. In a strange cultural twist, Northern England saw a popularisation of Black American soul from 1962 to 1971. Young people in industrial Northern England cities flocked to nightclubs every weekend to dance to the upbeat tempo of Motown soul music. Any aging American soul artist would think it outlandish to imagine pasty white kids dancing wildly to their rarest, discarded records. Yet a new generation of kids revived lost records, selecting only the fastest, most dance-worthy tracks and formed a new genre and subculture.
Northern soul represented a shift in music and fashion culture that was wholly working class in origin. As some mods moved towards psychedelic rock, others, particularly in Northern England, stuck to the dance and soul nostalgia of 1960s Motown. The factory workers of northern cities didn’t want to spend their hardearned cash on flashy records. They sought the cheaper, forgotten gems of American soul.
The tailored suits, polished brogues and slick Italian style that characterised the mod fashion of working-class youth quickly dissolved as the tempo got faster and dance moves more erratic. Wider than wide high-waisted trousers and skimpy knitted vests became the ultimate soul boy uniform. Whereas the mods were preoccupied by their smooth aesthetic, Northern soul kids saw the clothes they wore primarily as a matter of practicality. Dancing all night in sticky clubs, topped up on amphetamines, required a more flexible, sweat minimising outfit. The exuberance and daring flips and tricks of the dancers meant a soul night, often from 10pm until 8am the next day, was a marathon of energy. Your fashion choice needed to keep up.
Wrapped up in this new subculture was a code of behaviour, an underground celebration of dance that represented social mobility and resistance to the racism and sexism of 1970s Britain. Northern soul nights sparked the beginning of a more inclusive club vibe, every fashion expression welcome. The home of cool for young northerners became the athletic dancers high-kicking, balconydiving and stomping about the likes of infamous clubs such as the Wigan Casino and the Blackpool Mecca.
The other emblem of the scene were the sew-on badges professing allegiance to specific ballrooms and disco halls. Most prominently, the clenched fist design proudly worn by many soulies originated from black power movements in 1960s USA, harking back to Northern soul’s American roots.
Interestingly, the symbol of black activism connecting the black industrial working class of America to the white industrial working class of Britain, captures the emancipatory feeling of Northern soul. Working class British youth used the music of working class black Americans from a decade before to express their own feelings of rebellion, their identity and a distaste for the racism pervasive elsewhere in society.
Sometimes perceived as a maledominated subculture, the majority of women actually
recalled the scene as one of equality. Club-goers were there for the music first and foremost, not to pick up. Hence women’s fashion mirrored men’s with breathability being paramount. Loose, full circle skirts, cropped hairstyles and flat shoes allowed them to keep spinning and shuffling through the night. Perhaps pioneering a new age of club fashion, Northern soul style was the first to be driven by the pragmatics of eccentric dance, with a drug-fuelled energy.
The rave culture that followed in the decades since has seen a heavy influence from Northern soul’s functionality first, when it comes to fashion. Contemporary underground venues attract those who want to dance all night and the accompanying fashion identity accounts for this. Northern soul sparked the beginning of a culture of all-night DJ sets where music is the core attraction and a sense of community is created as a result. The techno scene today draws parallels in its underground nature. Techno clubbers are uninterested in the leeriness of commercialised mainstream clubs. Electronic music and pared-back fashion is a respite to them in the same way that Northern soul kids became bored of the rock and pop in the charts at the time. Fashion became about expression of cultural identity, the adrenaline of youth and above all dance practicality.
Northern soul is one of the most exciting and good-willed subcultures that still permeates through current music and fashion culture. The soul look of 1970s dance may have disappeared from most clubs, but the influence of individuality and a passion for music remains in dance subcultures today. Every fashion trend is a reaction against the era before it, as with Northern Soul and mod culture, yet Northern soul was specifically idiosyncratic in its love for the individual. Working class soul kids chose the clothes they wore to say something unique about their lives, to break away from the bleakness of 1970s Northern Britain and belong to something special.
Images by Pauline Kate