Initially, however, the rise of mod culture was primarily a fashion phenomenon, deriving from the taste amongst modernist jazz fans for continental style. More specifically, it was a male fashion phenomenon: ‘One didn’t only dress up for girls,’ reflected the hero of Gillian Freeman’s 1961 novel, The Leather Boys. ‘One didn’t only have clean shoes and a brushed suit because one wanted girls to admire one. His appearance mattered to himself. The time he spent on it was entirely for his own satisfaction. Well, perhaps not entirely. Some was for the other boys, in peacock competition.’
It wasn’t just in fiction that peer approval became more important than courtship rituals: ‘Girls were out of fashion, almost, and the guys wore the suits to impress the other guys,’ commented one mod. ‘It was almost as if the roles had been reversed. The boys were getting prettier and the girls were getting plainer.’ Pete Townshend, who became a mod hero with the Who, had a similar recollection: ‘The whole mod thing was a blending of sexes, the girls looked like boys and the boys looked a bit like girls: even though they wore suits, they wore make-up.’
In short, as George Melly was to point out: ‘They were true dandies, interested in creating works of art – themselves. There had of course been dandies before but they’d always been upper-class dandies. Now Macmillan’s affluence had helped create working-class dandies.’
The class issue was important. Mod evolved in the East End of London and in Shepherd’s Bush, amongst working-class youths who found themselves in a position where employment was relatively easy to find, certainly compared with their parents’ experience, and who were determined to stake their claim in an upwardly mobile society, preferably in the most conspicuous manner possible. The means to this end was fashion, following Mark Twain’s dictum that clothes make the man, and for some at least, this was not simply a youth cult, but a new attitude to life: ‘We hope to stay smart for ever,’ commented one, ‘not shoddy like our parents.’
The heart of the action was Carnaby Street, which had become increasingly associated with boutiques since John Stephen opened the shop His Clothes there in 1959 (at one point Stephen had eight shops on the street). By April 1966, when a celebrated Time magazine cover-story anointed London as the city of the decade – ‘It swings; it is the scene’ – Carnaby Street had become a tourist attraction for the world, to such an extent that a police officer was put on duty to keep the crowds moving so that everyone might exercise their democratic right to window-shop.
But by then it was long past its peak; the Kinks had already mocked the ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, and as early as summer 1964 there were those who knew that the glory years had passed: ‘There’s quite a crisis in the real mod world about all these fashions and dances leaking out so quickly,’ regretted one trendsetter. ‘The pace of change has been hotted up so much – a clothes fashion and a dance fashion could last for about three months before, but now they’re being imitated by all these little “Chods” from the countryside.’