It’s the most obvious symbol of the movement, but the fishtail isn’t that common anymore. So I’m looking at the death of the Mod parka.
Actually, ‘death’ probably takes it too far. There are plenty around and if you look outside the Mod scene, the parka in its various incarnations is all over the place. It just isn’t as popular with Mods.
But as you know, that wasn’t always the case.
No one seems too sure where and when the parka arrived on the Mod scene. But like most things, it was picked up and its popularity spread. Whereas many clothing items came and went in the 1960s – some in a matter of weeks – the parka hung around. And for good reason. Practicality.
They have all but disappeared off the high streets now, but once upon a time, every town and city had a few ‘army and navy’ stores. And back then, they really were army surplus. I still recall the large army and navy in Manchester selling World War two surplus well into the 1980s! Military gear was available at reasonable prices for domestic use. And there were plenty of parkas around.
Primarily, the M51, named as such because of its introduction into the US military back in 1951. It was a hardy coat, designed to keep soldiers warm as temperatures dipped in Korea (the Korean War was at its height then). A good number were produced and the excess ended up on UK high streets. And picked up by Mods.
As I said, it is hard to pick out why it gained popularity, but it did gain traction in the first half of the decade, particularly amongst scooter riders. It was substantial, it kept you warm, it could cover your ‘smart clothing’ when you were on your scooter and its chunky nature likely offered some protection if you had the misfortune of coming off your scoot. It ticked all the boxes, as well as being available for a modest price. It was, quite literally, surplus stock.
It did one other thing too. It marked you down as a Mod. OK, Mod was all about standing out and making your own mark sartorially. But it was also a youth cult that spread quickly and a lot of kids who were interested in Mod weren’t in a position to nip down to Carnaby Street every week for both financial and geographical reasons.
But they did want to be recognised amongst their peers. So the parka became part of the often-criticised Mod ‘uniform’. Mod looks came and went, but the parka stayed around. In fact, it stayed around for decades, becoming a key symbol of a movement, along with the Fred Perry polo and Clark’s desert boots.
That was reinforced when The Who released their classic concept album Quadrophenia in 1973. Yes, a cover of a scooter rider featuring a parka with a logo of The Who on the back. The booklet within only reinforced this look. You could argue that The Who has pretty much kept the parka as a key park of Mod heritage. That album was a bridge between the 1960s and 1970s Mod heyday. Although a number of scooter riders were still wearing parkas between those two eras.
And yes, there is that 1979 movie too. Again, the parka is prominent in all the advertising materials and the film itself. With Quadrophenia still the ‘calling card’ for Mod, it’s unlikely that the parka will ever fade from Mod history.
The arrival of Quadrophenia fuelled a Mod revival already in its infancy and schools throughout the UK exploded with kids in parkas in the playground. Everyone had one! They might have been common in the 1960s, but in the late 1970s, the parka helped to create a sea of green on every high street and schoolyard.
Ok, that didn’t last, but the parka was still a much-seen item as the Mod scene continued into the 1980s. It was the first step into Mod and still that highly practical piece of clothing. But things have gradually dwindled since.
There’s a now-iconic picture of Paul Weller with slicked-back hair, loafers and a chunky overcoat during his Style Council days walking through a gang of parka-wearing Mods.
You can’t ignore the influence Paul Weller has in terms of clothing, When Paul Weller shifted his look to something more continental during the Style Council years, others followed suit. The parka suddenly looked a little tired. Although Paul Weller has done much to keep it going since to be fair. More on that in a moment.
And also, everyone got older.
As the years passed, kids became teenagers and adults. Some might have left Mod behind, but those who stayed dug deeper sartorially, digging into the heritage of Mod more rather than sticking to what Mod seemed to be on the surface. They might well have still had a parka in the wardrobe, but it saw the light of day less and less.
When the Mod scene had a resurgence around the Britpop era, the new incumbents tended to be a little older than schoolkids and the look was more authentically 1960s, with a touch of swinging London thrown in. The parka hadn’t disappeared, but it had shifted more to the background. A throwback to another era.
I’ll never forget two lads walking into the night ‘do’ of the Margate weekender wearing parkas and people turning around and looking. The only parkas in the building. The parka has gone from being ubiquitous to something of a rarity.
And so the trend has continued. Not least because there are so many alternatives out there now. In terms of outerwear, we have never had it so good.
There are classic overcoats for all budgets and there are also timeless raincoats that also cover all the price points. Oh yes, we have also seen the resurgence of a lesser-known item of 1960s clothing too. The scooter smock. The parka has a battle on its hands. Especially with so few army and navy stores around these days.
But it hasn’t gone away.
As I said, variations of the parka can be seen everywhere. Mod’s influence on the wider style scene is still evident. And the parka has crept back onto the Mod scene of late. At least, in some sections of it.
You might not see many parkas in clubs, but you do see them worn out and about and especially on scooters. And if you turn up at a daytime rally or event, there’s a good chance someone will have one on in the streets.
This is perhaps indicative of another reason why parkas are still around – pure nostalgia. All those kids still have fond memories of being the playground Mod and for many, the parka was a key part of the identity. If you are coming back to the Mod scene or just want to relive the past, it makes sense to go back to the item you recall from your youth.
Yes, I’m sure some people will play the ‘comedy Mod’ card when it comes to the parka. If you just see Mod as a parka and a polo shirt then you’re not really making the most of what is a vibrant scene musically and sartorially. But it’s unfair to label everyone who wears a parka as some kind of Mod dinosaur.
Remember Paul Weller? He has been seen wearing a parka in recent years and an increasing number of others too are happy to be seen in one, A parka isn’t a Mod look on its own but there’s no reason why it can’t be part of a Mod look.
And that’s a good thing. It would be a shame to see the parka die away. For all its faults and all the criticism levelled at it, the military parka is still a significant and popular item on the Mod scene.
You don’t have to wear one, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Just think of it as part of a bigger picture rather than a solitary badge of identity.
As I said, the army and navy has died a death, but there are specialist suppliers of the military parka online. The Fishtail Parkas site is probably the first place to look if you are buying online. It stocks most variations including some Quadrophenia-themed fishtails.