Sinn Féin: the polyester years

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RSF commemorations are rum affairs. Largely I think that’s due to the age profile of the crowd, who are usually about 50% old age pensioners and 50% teenagers, with very little in between. But you also get a taste of the old-style republican oratory that is by now nearly extinct, having been elbowed out by Gerryspeak, and the odd glimpse of old-style republican fashion.

Back in the 1970s, the observer at Provisional Ard Fheiseanna would have noticed that the tie reigned supreme. Occasionally there would be a suit, but not too many, as in those days you only had the one suit. Rather you would find corduroy slacks in abundance, and tweed sports coats with leather patches on the elbows. It fit in with the sociology of the movement, with its strong representation of schoolteachers and small farmers, but wasn’t something specific to the Provos. You would see similar dress sense prevailing at Official Ard Fheiseanna, which were a lot more urban and proletarian in their makeup, and at Communist Party Congresses, where most of those in attendance were Belfast Prods with a background in the engineering industry. If there was a sociological element, it was in the broad sense that these movements all had their base among the respectable working class, shading into the lower middle class.

Anyway, a lot of the southern cadre got the shock of their lives around about ’76 or ’77 when the Gerryites started coming down from Belfast in force. There was scarcely a sports coat to be seen amongst them. Gerry himself, and his close acolytes like Morrison and Gibney, affected both the dress and the speech of trendy OU lecturers, while the Belfast rank and file for many years preferred leather jackets and Mexican moustaches. But, wondrous to relate, the jeans and jumpers of the new leaders were supposed to be an index of radicalism. These days, of course, suits are de rigueur for your PSF elected representative, although the humble councillor is more likely to wear Primark than Armani. But, like the late Frankie Howerd, there are a lot of folks who can wear suits but don’t wear them well.

The casual dress craze probably bore some relation to the British far left. My own early memories of going to Britlandia to see the left are hazy on ideology – I didn’t know anything about Stalinism or Trotskyism – but I can clearly recall that Monty Johnstone wore a suit, while Chris Harman wore the unspeakable combination of sheepskin coat and sandals. (Monty was also a much more engaging conversationalist than Chris; I did once own a sheepskin coat, but never combined it with sandals.) Monty, of course, was far from typical of the CPGB membership, but even so, your working-class radical was usually much more respectable in dress than your downwardly-mobile petty bourgeois.

These days, what with dress becoming more casual all round, the idea that political radicals would wear ties seems almost to come from a bygone age. Go into a lefty shindig like the SWP’s Marxism and you’ll find that the men, at least, are dressed like normal working-class men, if a little scruffier and a little less inclined to sportswear and chav jewellery. These days it’s the women who stand out, as leftist women have a tendency to dress like 1983-vintage feminists, while your average working-class woman wouldn’t consider going out without her fake tan, heels and push-up bra. It’s a little strange that, while male fashions have converged with time, female ones tend to have diverged.

28 Comments

  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 15, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    There’s at least one thesis to be written about fashion chic on the left and further left. I love the photograph. Genius selection and strangely similar to the style of clothing that I remember certain party meetings…actually that makes sense because by the time I became politically active in 83-84 those were the styles the guys in their 30s and 40s had been into and stuck with through the 1970s. Nostalgia…

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 16, 2007 at 7:34 am

    And there could be at least a thesis chapter done on beards and moustaches, most of them sadly decommissioned by now.

    I vaguely remember an old Marxism Today skit on left fashion chic… or lack thereof. Kieran Allen’s green jumper with no elbows leaps to mind.

  3. Ed Hayes said,

    July 16, 2007 at 8:41 am

    Anybody remember the slight suspicion that if you dressed too well you shouldn’t be on the left? For anyone who had been a Mod or the like the contrived scruffiness of most of the left was a bit of a shock. Most people’s suspicions about Derek Hatton seemed to centre on his tan and suits in an era when Militant all wore snorkel parkas. There was a strong flight jacket, docs, fred perry/sweatshirt fashion in the junior SWM for a while. A mixture of skinhead, rude boy, punk and rockabilly, as all those fashions had come and gone by that time. Never remember any casuals, though the SWP did recruit the odd former football hooligan. The Smiths were big so there was a lot of Mozza lookalikes. Mr. K. Allen (I remember the jumper!) also wore a black leather jacket and faded jeans, topped off by that village people moustache. I haven’t been near Marxism in a long time but I would be surprised if the men dressed like most working class men do. If Rory Hearne and co are anything to go by then its sort of surfer chic with anti-coca cola t-shirt, Che t-shirts and baggy jeans. very few football shirts, not all an Ogra SF do where they all wear the regulation Celtic strip (or used to anyway). I do remember that if a young women turned up at an SWM event dressing as most young women do when they are going out, she would have stuck out like a sore thumb. All the blokes would have faniced her of course. Theres another thesis for you, politically correct men trying hard to sound more right-on in order to cop off. BTW did the fellas in the WP all fancy Liz McManus, or am I really lowering the tone now?
    You should illustrate this article with another Girls Aloud photo.

  4. ejh said,

    July 16, 2007 at 8:58 am

    I do remember that if a young women turned up at an SWM event dressing as most young women do when they are going out, she would have stuck out like a sore thumb

    It’s not terribly surprising that when they are not going out, people do not dress like people do when they’re going out…

  5. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 16, 2007 at 9:00 am

    Better Liz McManus than Liz O’Donnell.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 16, 2007 at 9:10 am

    I haven’t been near Marxism in a long time but I would be surprised if the men dressed like most working class men do.

    Well, the older men more so. Rory and co do have the surfer dude thing going on… good point though about Degsy’s suits. I heard somebody say a while back that he got suspicious of Adams when Gerry’s hair stopped moving.

    Then again, I think of Brian Hanley, when he was the Rich Boy’s predecessor as Kieran’s sidekick. I find it amazing that Brian could have gone on to be an academic. Not that I didn’t think he had the brains, but when I knew Brian he used to dress like a football hooligan.

  7. ejh said,

    July 16, 2007 at 9:13 am

    How do (or did) football hooligans dress though? In my experience that’s a fashion that’s changed dramatically and often.

  8. Ed Hayes said,

    July 16, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Re Hooligans; I think bomber jacket, fred perry and docs in the 1980s, ralph lauren, lacoste and paul and shark in the 1990s. There is thriving league of Ireland hooli sub-culture but it has very little to do with the left (perhaps that won’t surprise you!). However both the Shamrock Rovers and Bohs casuals would be broadly republican and some of them do actually canvass/work for SF. Not that SF would like that publicity…the untold story of the ‘love Ulster’ riots was not that RSF could actually have organised such a thing but that the loose network of Celtic/Rovers/ Bohs could and did.
    Re going out; well you see sometimes people did dress as if they were going out when they were going to marxism because you stayed out all day and night if it was any good. But I suppose my more cynical point is that left wing women sometimes look down on women who dress up; high heels etc.
    Re academia; is there a neccesary corelation between brains and being an academic?

  9. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 16, 2007 at 10:19 am

    10-4 good buddy, that’s a negatory.

    Remember Terry Eagleton’s comment on one of his uni tutors, ‘no more ideas in his head than a hamster’.

  10. Ed Hayes said,

    July 16, 2007 at 11:01 am

    I only asked about Liz McManus because having had the dubious pleasure of reading wee Henry McDonald’s fantastic tales of Market’s derring-do ‘Colours’ he almost ejaculates when describing Liz’s cheekbones. But perhaps Henry is not the typical 1980s WP member.

  11. ejh said,

    July 16, 2007 at 11:40 am

    I like Terry Eagleton and I liked his memoir (Trotskyism, Oxford, Catholic Church, story of my life) but occasionally his “no more than” lines are a little laboured, don’t you think?

  12. Redking said,

    July 16, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Ed-I think Hen MacDonald was definitely not your typical 1980’s Stick-he was after all a Cliftonvile Hooligan himself, a fact he reflects on with irony.
    Re Left scruffineess-a generational thing obviously Gerry and co in Belfast were merely aping he far-leftish mode but also with their own peculiar inflection-i.e flat cap, duffle coat and pipe(!) As for the preponderance for facial hair – I recall that Mitchell McLaughlin shaved off his moustache as unkind comardes ripped the piss out of him for looking like Boycie on Only Fools and horses.
    But what was Ken’s safari suit all about?

  13. Ed Hayes said,

    July 16, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    The safari suit is a bit of a Maoist thing; like Mugabe! Anyone remember Tommy Graham’s young Stalin look of the 1980s? If you were in the wrong Dublin pub of a Friday night you might have been offered AP/RN, Socialist Worker and Marxist-Leninist Weekly in quick succession. The CPI-ML also dressed a bit like they worked on a farm, which I think was a nod towards the peasantry. When I went to seek my fortune in perfidious Albion I noticed that the SWP dressed differently to the SWM, and that fashion in England generally was a few years ahead of home. The first meeting I went to I thought I’d walked into a Big Audio Dynamite concert.
    Young Provos seemed to like combat jackets in the 1980s, while quite a few were skins, especially the Fianna. The WP? I don’t think there was a stereotype. Maybe because they were actually more or less normal people.
    Donkey jackets worn by lefty students is another fashion crime that springs to mind.
    Any left wing bikers or head bangers out there? Or Cureheads? Some Dublin Militant members had been Mods at one stage but I think they soon had that bored out of them.

  14. Liam said,

    July 16, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Standard winter and summer outfit for Peoples Democracy used to be blue nylon parka jacket, slightly flared jeans and black DMs or Oxford brogues. C’est chic.

  15. Dr Paul said,

    July 16, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Re the appearance of leftists, my late friend John Sullivan once wrote about my old organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Party, written when the group seemed to be going somewhere:

    ‘What then gives the RCP’s eclectic mishmash the appeal which made it the fastest growing group of the 1980s, with a dynamism notably absent from both the RCG and the Discussion Group? The answer is style. The group is part of the harder aggressive, post-punk move away from peace and love, and the average RCPer looks very different from the grotty SWPers. They have been described as ‘the SWP with hair gel’, and many a parent, pleased at the improvement in their child’s appearance, have welcomed the move from one to another. Alas! The mind remains just as untidy.’

  16. Mark P said,

    July 16, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    I think you’d have some difficulty in pinpointing the affiliations of the younger members of Irish left groups today by their clothes. There are only three or four left groups with enough young members to even look for a trend amongst – the SP, SWP and WSM, with maybe the ISN thrown in too. The Celtic strip is a dead giveaway for young Provos.

  17. Idris of Dungiven said,

    July 16, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    Aren’t you all thinking in terms of a bygone era, the days when the ‘youth’ were automatically assumed to have an affinity with left-wing causes? These days, it would be a foolish man who drew a correlation between a ‘youth’s’ affiliation to a subculture and his or her political leanings (if any).

  18. Mark P said,

    July 16, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    True enough.

    You do get a fair few of the “fuck you I won’t tidy my bedroom” black clad massive amongst teenage members of all of the groups but it isn’t a majority. That’s probably the only youth subculture with a vaguely, slightly, tenuously politicised edge to it in Ireland at the moment.

  19. sonofstan said,

    July 16, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    Ed, you’re probably right about some of the older Bohs casuals being republican, but within the fanbase at large, all shades of leftist opinion are represented – a poll on the unofficial Bohs message board before the election showed FF and SF at level pegging, followed by the SP, SWP and the Labour – no votes at all for FG or the PDs. My guess is this would be broadly the same for other LOI clubs, with the exception of Cork who seem to have a lot of celtic tiger cubs among their support. As for Hoolie wear these days, its all about Stone Island and Prada

  20. ejh said,

    July 17, 2007 at 9:18 am

    no votes at all for FG or the PDs

    There’s something Orwell wrote about Trotskyism, once, to the effect that it had no appeal at all to anybody making more than five hundred pounds a year. (I may have the amount wrong, but you follow his point.) Isn’t something of the reverse true of the PDs, that they have no appeal at all to anyone earning less than [insert professional-size salary]? Do you think they realise that?

    Incidentally, did you know that in the opinion of Spaniards, you can always recognise Brits over here, without hearing our voices, by the way we dress? Badly.

  21. July 17, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    These days United States far-left fashion is very centered on the straight, boxy electricians jacket with tapered work pants and a single-strapped bike messengers bag. This look is very popular with the International Socialist Organization, but most of the main cadre groups have some slightly post-college members who are working this look. The dock workers cap that has always been popular with lefties has staged a come back, this time it’s a little more Curtis Mayfield and a little less 3rd International.
    I remember a comrade of mine walking into the room before a branch meeting wearing a disheveled denim work shirt and nearly-matching jeans (Double Denim is as central to American Trotskyism as Jim Cannon), and this ensemble was tied together with a brightly-colored woven belt from El Salvador. Through in a Palestinian scarf and you’ve got the 80’s on the American left.

  22. Ciarán said,

    July 18, 2007 at 4:23 am

    Mark: The Celtic strip is a dead giveaway for young Provos.

    There’s plenty of photos on Ógra’s blog but there’s barely a Celtic shirt to be seen. But I suppose I should expect this level of political analysis of republicans from an SP member.

  23. Ciarán said,

    July 18, 2007 at 4:26 am

    Brad: Through in a Palestinian scarf and you’ve got the 80’s on the American left.

    Unfortunately a number of trendy fashion shops have started selling versions of the keffiyeh so even those can’t be used anymore to get an idea of a person’s politics. Probably the way so many teenagers used to wear Che Guevara shirts without much knowledge of the man of his politics.

  24. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 18, 2007 at 7:41 am

    Yeah, it used to be that if you saw somebody in a Motorhead shirt it was a fair bet he was a Motorhead fan. Not an assumption you’d make nowadays.

    Of course you need to factor in what people wear on party work. Back in the 80s it was a standing joke that you could tell Militant Central Committee members because they wore suits on party business. The DHSS clerks would wear suits at work and then change into the snorkel parka.

  25. Ed Hayes said,

    July 20, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    In the 1980s people who had no interest in or knowledge of politics used to wear Keffiyeh and call them PLO scarfs. re Celtic, I’m afraid its not just a lefty stereotype of republicans. There have been commemoration marches where it looked like Parkhead the amount of Hoops being worn. And AP/RN in the mid to late 1990s was transformed into a bit of a Celtic fanzine until moaning from the Gerry McGeough faction got them to tone it down. Then came the success of northern GAA and you’d swear that was the sporting wing of the RA. Note to nordies- if you are from Cork then you won’t wear a Waterford jersey no matter how much you like blue and white. If you are from Dublin you won’t wear a Meath jersey no matter how much you like green and gold. But on the Falls Road there are obviously people who have 32 jerseys in their wardrobe given that you might meet a Carlow, Galway and Limerick strip in quick succession. Thats not what its about folks; in the GAA you hate or resent the other counties!

  26. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 20, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    On the other hand, in the student area of South Belfast every second person you see is wearing a Tyrone jersey. And the locals do indeed resent the farmboys.

  27. Ed Hayes said,

    July 20, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Ah yes, the infamous Holylands culture wars. The The GAA wasn’t always quite the symbol of heroic nationalism that some seem to think. But I presume the jerseys are worn half the time to annoy the Prods or the city folk. It reminds me of a friend of mine who was part of a delegation to the Garvaghy Road in the 1990s. He wore his Offaly jersey one day and this fella came up to him and said ‘are you actually from Offaly or are you just a sectarian bigot like me?’ Green, white and gold you see.

  28. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 20, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Aye, the GAA. Des Fennell was lashing them a little while back for propping up the colonial county structure…


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