How does one age within a style tribe? In her latest Dress Sense column, Linda Grant writes that the mods and punks still look good, but pity the poor hippies ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

Watching a friend being interviewed on television recently, I noticed that beneath his urbane exterior—58-year-old advertising executive—lay an early 1960s-era, west-London mod. His hair (worn over the collar), his suit (linen) and his shirt (candy-striped pink) gave the game away. In his youth, my friend roamed Carnaby Street and the King’s Road looking for designer clobber; these days his wardrobe includes Nicole Farhi and Karl Lagerfeld, and he still regrets not buying a drastically reduced, goldfish-print Yohji Yamamoto shirt he saw in the sales last year. Once a mod, always a modern dresser.

Join a style tribe in your teens, and it may well influence you for the rest of your life, though some styles seem to suit the ageing body better than others. The octogenarian trendsetter will probably once have worn a zoot suit. The hippie for whom dressing sloppily was a revolt against bourgeois convention will now be in M&S jeans and T-shirt. The mods—now approaching retirement age—are still shopping for clothes; they will be the best-dressed OAPS in history.

Mods were the original dedicated followers of fashion. An almost exclusively male movement of dandies, they were more interested, frankly, in clothes than music. Often accused of being a bit gay in their obsession with appearance, they didn’t wear a uniform—unlike their rivals, the leather-clad rockers—but were a walking try-on of every trend. And this huge interest in fashion—the mod’s determined belief that menswear need not be dull—went on to influence successive generations of designers.

Meanwhile punk, a decade later than mod, continues to be reinterpreted on the AW09 catwalks: Marc Jacobs toyed with cobweb tops and spike-shouldered Siouxsie Sioux jackets, while Julien Macdonald showed several menacing but beautifully executed studded black dresses. Indeed, whenever fashion runs out of ideas it returns either to an Audrey Hepburn, 1950s version of the New Look, or punk. Perhaps that’s because the latter remains the high-water mark for outrageous, extreme clothes that a real person can actually wear. We wouldn’t have Gareth Pugh’s gothic extremes if Malcolm McLaren hadn’t been there first.

A British ad campaign for Country Life butter shows just how well the punks are carrying off middle age. Besuited in loud tweed checks, with dyed orange hair, John Lydon—Johnny Rotten as was—contains within his appearance the DNA of all punk’s wit, irreverence and playfulness: his generation dressed the way they did because they loved dressing up. At a gallery opening in London earlier this year, the ageing punk tribe that made up most of the party-goers had developed punk’s teenage skinny jeans into narrow-cut suit trousers; they both nattied up their outfits and concealed hair loss with hats ranging from pure pork pie to raspberry beret.

The middle tribe—the hippies, and their prog-rock successors—have aged the worst. Hippie style wasn’t style at all, it was—despite the best efforts of designers such as Bill Gibb to rethink droopy hippy floral sacks as beautiful medieval or Moroccan-influenced dresses—anti-fashion. Hippies lacked glamour because they thought glamour was phoney. Hippies made skirts out of Indian bedspreads, they walked around shoeless and carried handbags made out of bits of old carpet. To put on something made of velvet and lace was the most dressed up you could get, and even those outfits had a forlorn and bedraggled air. Hippies never looked entirely clean. The whole point of their clothes was against structure; hippie style was always about looking a mess. And the furthest extreme of wit was sewing a square of American flag as a patch on your jeans. Hippie style was rural versus urban. These were clothes you wore to go back to the land.

How have those young earth-mothers with their centre partings aged? Occasionally, hippy styles have reappeared (like the ubiquitous tiered gypsy-skirt of 2005), but they always suffered from a lack of any role models you could look back to with respect or awe. Hating the restriction of tight clothing, hippies continued to chase comfort and authenticity, despising what fashion is all about: surface, appearance. So in late middle-age, erstwhile hippie chicks wear mom-jeans.

I fear today’s youth could age just as badly. On the eve of the American elections Barack Obama made a plea to young American males: “Brothers should pull up their pants.” Contemporary youth fashion begins with sportswear and the street cred of having been in jail: hence the baggy, falling-down jeans and huge, ugly, laceless trainers. Urban street-style looks a mess, and it’s easy to imagine its current wearers, in 30 or 40 years’ time, dressed just as shapelessly. Narrow, structured shapes—like that of punk and mod—would provide form and definition as they sagged towards middle age. But loose clothes only work on tight bodies, and a hoodie won’t look good with a drooping jawline. The young of 2009 should think of their future—and tighten their belts.

Illustration: Bill Brown

(Linda Grant is a novelist who appeared on last year's Booker prize shortlist with "The Clothes on Their Backs".)