A Life In Threads

Robert Elm’s The Way We Wore is brilliant, entertaining and educational.

This book, besides being an amusing autobiography which focuses on his obsession with changing fashion trends and getting the right clothes; also serves as an engrossing history and etymology of London’s Youth Subcultures from the 50’s to the 90’s. He’s got everything covered here in glorious detail – Teddy Boys, Rude Boys, Mods, Skinheads, Northern/Southern Soul Boys, Bowie/Glam types, Punk and its offshoots (Goth, Two-Tone, Rockabilly etc), New Romantics & Blitz Kids… there’s even an amusing mention of what he calls "Bedsit-Depression chic"… (that 80’s trend of looking as ordinary and glum as possible (eg, Joy Division, The Smiths)


It took me a while to understand the mechanics of youth fashion, that it is a perpetual-motion machine powered by some collective psychological engine, which runs off vast reserves of pure, high-grade adolescent desire. There is always a kid somewhere who’s not content with the current dress code, who wants to play the game, but by his own rules, wants to fit in and yet shine out.

England was an untamed, dysfunctinal, yet fiercely creative place. The French could do cuisine, the Italians could do furniture, we could do football violence and punk rock. (….) This sickness was also our saving grace. The two great creative engines of youth culture, music and fashion, have always been black America and working-class England, both siphoned off and segregated from the mainstream of their respective societies. And as the 1980’s, a time of perpetual revolution, arrived, that’s all we were good at – creating and exporting exciting, tribal youth cultures, good and bad, In 1980 this sickly land had three things to call its own; fighting at football, street fashion and The Face.

Elms seems like the perfect person to chronicle this stuff. He grew up in Notting Dale in the 50’s. His old man was a Ted. One brother was one of the original Mods; the other brother was an original Skinhead… Elms had plenty of inspiration. First as a nine-year old Skinhead; then from teenage Soul Boy to Punk to Blitz Kid. What a life! Not only did this guy write for The Face magazine (which as I understand it, never took off in the USA as it had in the UK and Australia); he came up with the name for Spandau Ballet and dated Sade!

Pity (but natural) that his enthusiasm stops in the mid 80s with Acid House/"Dance culture" – which he hates.

Anyway, someone needs to make a movie of The Way We Wore.

Related links:

Photographs by Roger Mayne

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Review on Camden New Journal (with photos)


2 Responses to “A Life In Threads”

  1. I’m glad you liked it so much 🙂
    You may be interested to know Robert has a show on BBC London, weekdays 12.00-15.00 which is really entertaining, discussing the oddities and vagaries of London life (plus architecture, design, film) past and present. You can use the ‘Listen Again’ feature on the BBC London website if UK time is a problem for you.

  2. Are you aware of Tony Parsons, the guy who brought punk to the NME back in the mid 70’s and someone who heavily influenced Robert Elms to become a writer?
    He has a new book out that is part fiction, part semi-autobiographical that sounds like it’s good. I ordered my copy today 🙂

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