THE FINAL YOUTH CULTURE FASHION CLASH
NORTH WEST ENGLAND, EARLY 2000S
Nowadays when we discuss the “culture war”, we think of inane, overpaid columnists drumming up tension on Twitter with breathless rants about snowflake millennials, wokeness, or the importance of instilling British values in service stations, or whatever dreadful polemic is floating through their heads at any given moment. In thinking about these stale conflicts that play out on our feeds and in the papers, thoughts about when “culture war” could have meant something different, what the last subculture battle was to play out offline, and how it was defined by what we wore.
At the turn of the millennium in the North West of England, aesthetics and style tribes for teenagers were split into two key camps, and clearly divided. Lacoste shell suits and Rockport boots were a ubiquitous uniform for teenagers on Merseyside in the early 2000s, with Kappa, Sergio Tacchini and Reebok Classics similarly popular, and these kids more likely to be into Scouse house or Oasis than imported American nu-metal acts.
Liverpool’s love affair with Lacoste started in the 80s, particularly amongst its fashionable football supporters, and retained a stronghold during the Wade Smith era, but the brand became canon in 2004 when Michel Lacoste picked the city to house the brand’s largest store in the UK. Speaking to the Liverpool ECHO at the time, Lacoste said: “the crocodile has been very happy in Liverpool for a long time. I believe the Lacoste name is already a success in the city and we now hope to go on to further successes.” At the time, the brand’s biggest seller in Liverpool was the men’s two-tone tracksuit in mid-blue, navy and white. This look, often with trousers tucked into socks, complete with short-back-and-sides, defined “the scally” of the 2000s, a term that Aaron Daniels, editor of Liverpool’s Scally Magazine, says was used condescendingly by people outside of the city. “To be a scally is to be both worldly and a home bird; experiencing cultures across Europe through following your football team, or through the inherent sense of exploration passed on through our forefathers who worked the docks at the height of the city’s port being a gateway to the rest of the world,” he says. “The values and characteristics attached to being a scally – roguish, considerate, having a sense of camaraderie, an air of moral socialism, and being tough and resilient – tend not to change over time. The scally of 2021 and the scally of 2000 are similar in this sense. Where they differ is the clothes and the hairstyles, yet they are similar in the sense that a scally will forever be interested in the ‘latest’ material and aesthetic attire.”
“I think Liverpool has always done its own thing and ignored the status quo in the rest of the country,” says Mundial’s Head of Brand, Skem-born Dan Sandison. “I think this was most prominently apparent in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, while the rest of the country went Gucci belt and leather jacket crazy, Liverpool pinned luxury sportswear to its mast. ‘Chav’ is seen as a derogatory term, but Scousers had the scally, something that I don't think was seen to be putting someone down. It was about celebrating your background and showing that being from a working-class community didn't mean you had to be looked down on, you could own expensive clothes, you could go to far-flung places to get them. The rest of the country might have thought the look was "chavvy", but that was an irrelevance to those who were wearing it.”
Merseyside’s other dominant look amongst its adolescents was “the mosher”, a catchall phrase for alternative kids that arrived in the UK by way of the hardcore punk scenes in Washington D.C and the legendary band Bad Brains, whose Jamaican lead singer would encourage crowds to “mash it up”, which was misheard by audiences and the term travelled round the world as “mosh”, still used today.
In the early 2000s, “mosher” was a generic phrase for a style that amalgamated the goth, the skater, and the punk. Fashion brands were unimportant, even rejected, but huge, baggy jeans were de rigueur, accompanied by enormous, metal wallet chains. Gothic font band t-shirts have since been adopted by behemoths such as Balenciaga and Justin Bieber, but in a way that feels expensive and distant. In the early 2000s moshers wore merchandise by Pantera, Amen, Cradle Of Filth and Marilyn Manson, and didn’t really care that it was bootlegged, an outlook that separated the two tribes – fake adidas would have got you laughed out of school. In direct contrast, it was common to leave a metal show to be greeted with a crowd of blokes cheerfully ripping off the band inside, with fake hoodies and long-sleeved shirts laid out on the pavement, being snapped up by punters on their way out.
“In my school having “blag” clothes was a catalyst for ridicule,” says the online editor of 10 Magazine Paul Toner, born and raised in Liverpool. “I remember there was a phase when everyone was wearing American Apparel hoodies, and it was costing everyone’s parents £50 a pop for these basic hoodies with nothing on them. If you were wearing one in school, people would literally peel the back of your hoodie down to check your label to see if it was authentic or not. Fashion is about being part of a club, and teens were going out their way to make sure they ‘bought’ their way into that club. Even though it’s totally obscene for kids to be going around wearing rig outs which cost hundreds of pounds.”
Battles between factions of Britain’s youth are a storied part of its subculture history – see Mods vs Rockers on Brighton beaches, Teddy Boys vs Punks on London roads – but a less romanticised or archived face-off is Y2K’s Scallies vs Moshers, a war of attitudes that’s possibly too recent for nostalgia, and too late to be documented with film photography. It was a time when you could be laughed at or chased out of the park for wearing the wrong t-shirt, having the wrong haircut, listening to the wrong tunes. In an accelerated age where the internet has flattened subcultures, multiplied the amount of style tribes into the thousands, and taken a lot of feuding online, this was the final British youth culture clash, an ideological battle that played out on the streets, in city centres, and in local parks, places that are now increasingly surveilled or slowly privatised. It was a simpler time, when you could garner a rough idea of people’s taste and attitude when you walked past them on the street, unlike today when people’s dress sense won’t necessarily help you decode what they’re about.
Quiggins was Liverpool city centre’s hotbed of counterculture, a sprawling, rickety, four storey building that was the essential marketplace for Merseyside metalheads. A network of small underground businesses selling punk gear, bric-a-brac, hair dye, and jewellery, its Brook Cafe in the heart of the building was the go-to meeting place for any mosher, and a safe space for kids experimenting with alternative fashion, or the way they presented their gender. The walls of Quiggins were a place where scallies and moshers existed in relative harmony, united by the shops peddling bongs, Rizlas, bootleg CDs, legal magic mushrooms and dodgy herbal weed. “While scallies wore Lacoste tracksuits, Quiggins and the city's alternative scene thrived,” says Sandison. “I think it's natural that Liverpool gets a reputation for sportswear as, in the main, that is the look. It's a port city though, and it's always been a melting pot of conflicting cultures. I wouldn't say growing up that these youth tribes lived peacefully side by side, but I would say Merseyside sees them co-exist more naturally than other parts of the world.”
In 2006, Quiggins was knocked down, despite a protracted campaign to save it and 100,000 people signing a petition demanding that it stayed. As part of Liverpool City Council’s Capital of Culture bid, it drew up plans to acquire Quiggins and knock it down to create the shopping and leisure complex that’s now known as Liverpool One. The plan was approved by John Prescott and Quiggins was gone, a ships-in-the-night moment when it came to what culture meant to the people who were running the city.
“Liverpool city centre has seen a lot of the life sucked out of it the sense that groups like scallies, goths or moshers have no place to interact as groups of friends – or opposition in the case of the old Chavasse Park – due to commercialisation, privatisation, and increased policing and criminalisation of young people in public spaces,” says Aaron Daniels. “It is more and more difficult for young people to make their mark in central areas because of this, and this has seen a decline in counterculture and a move to a more mainstream and non-independent culture.”
Robi Morris grew up in Toxteth and gained notoriety playing the spoof Scouse rapper Riuven, a character who used the Nike tick as part of his logo and wrote boisterous, hilarious raps about his home city like “What Lad” or “Tha LIV”, a local internet hit that was Bluetoothed all over the city. Morris was also an early YouTuber, uploading videos of him freestyling in the park, aimlessly kicking traffic cones around, or overdubbing cartoons to make hits like “Scouse Pingu”. In 2008 he opened the Liverpool ECHO Arena alongside Ringo Starr to mixed reactions – those who were in on Riuven loved it, others were bemused by something they thought painted Liverpool in a bad light.
“People often refer to what I did as ‘truly Scouse’,” says Morris. “That was never supposed to be it at all, and I kind of find this offensive. I was honing in on a type of individual that existed all over the world. It was only ever ‘Scouse’ because that was what I experienced growing up in Toxteth.” Morris grew up hanging around at Quiggins and the also now-closed rock club The Krazy House, and describes his look as “the baggiest trousers you could get, usually made by Dickies. A heavy metal band t-shirt or hoodie, long and sometimes dyed, dreaded or braided hair and piercings. We would have a key chain hanging from our trousers that was sometimes an actual motorbike gear chain. A chunky pair of DC Shoes trainers and a beanie hat.”
He says the internet has changed the concept of teenage fashion rivalries. “I think the internet has changed people's mentality a lot,” he says. “Back then we didn't have this. These days it's all about being different and standing out from the crowd via the web. We have groups and forums for people to express themselves and the support of the whole world to back us up.”
When you’re too young to get into pubs and clubs, it’s inevitable that teenagers have a destination, and it was especially important in the Pay As U Go, pre-smartphone era – you needed a place where you could rely on people to be. In Liverpool, outside the magistrates’ courts was the hangout spot, a funny location given that it was a hotbed of petty crime. It was also a relatively harmonious concrete savannah for scallies and moshers, bonded by bumming cigarettes, looking to score weed, or finding someone who looked old enough to get served at an off-license. Despite occasional disagreements and skirmishes, it was largely a place where ceasefire made sense. “Without goths or scallies, Liverpool city centre would be a desolate place,” says Toner. “When I was growing up, the goths always hung about on the courts, or Quiggins, but every time I head into town now, there’s a real mix of style tribes. Never did I think that one day goths and scallies could be part of the same friendship groups, but today you see New Rocks and 110s walking side by side.”
In the early 2000s, before technology made being at home more fun, every British town had its magnetic hangouts for teenagers, where the rivers overflowed with White Lightning and MD2020. “In Milton Keynes, all the alternative kids gathered around 'the tree' – a big oak tree that grew in the middle of the shopping centre, in a kind of semi-enclosed courtyard,” says fashion writer Emma Hope Allwood. “Very MK. It was also where the Virgin Megastore was, if memory serves, where I probably got my System of a Down posters. I never felt cool enough to hang out at the tree, which unfortunately died and was removed at some point in the last decade.”
Allwood, who would have described herself as an emo growing up, clearly remembers a nervousness about her and her friends expressing themselves through what they wore. “When I was 13, the sense that someone could have a problem with you because of how you dressed was a very real one, especially in a small town: that's why emos travelled in packs,” says Allwood. “I remember hanging out with some other alternative kids and being aware that we were vulnerable in that sense – though maybe the most that happened other than comments was having rocks thrown at us. For my gay male friends who very clearly transgressed ideas of gender and sexuality, the threat of actual harm was much more real. I think it was a really formative period in that sense: I learned that style and clothing and gender and self-presentation have the power to change how you move through the world.”
Technology has changed this type of targeting over fashion in many ways – it’s taken a lot of rivalry into the digital world, but it’s also vastly increased the available archive and influences that young people have for clothing and self-expression. “I don’t think we see these types of culture now because young people today have grown up with access to every reference point at their fingertips,” says Allwood. “Plus, it’s much easier to access cheap clothing in any style under the sun, so they can indulge in a subcultural and stylistic bricolage and flit between looks rather than having to commit to one aesthetic. I think this generation also realised they have bigger issues to fight.”
It feels unlikely that we’ll ever see battles like this again – the line between on and offline no longer exists – and the idea that there are just a few aesthetics or tribes available to people growing up feels completely ancient. Enough time has passed for the signifiers to be adopted into the palatable mainstream – luxury houses have long drawn on the looks sported by young, working-class people who were simultaneously being demonised in the media, and the gothic fonts that once cause moral panic amongst parents are now sported by some of the world’s biggest pop stars. Crucially though, city centres aren’t for people to hang out in anymore. The early 2000s were a simple time for teenagers in the North West to assume a uniform that marked out what type of person they wanted to be (and be perceived as), and the last counterculture battle, the final youth culture fashion clash.
Artwork by Jacob Chabeaux
Words by Thomas Gorton