Mod memories

Kirstin Sibley became involved in the Sydney Mod scene from the early 1980s while still in high school, until about 1986. During this time, Sibley photographed her friends, wrote of mod events in her school diary, saved press clippings about Mod fashions and collected fanzines and flyers relating to Mod events and bands. Sibley originally intended to use this material to compile her own magazine. However this did not eventuate and to the Powerhouse Museum’s benefit she donated the collection in 2009. Kirstin Sibley’s collection provides a fascinating view of the lives and lifestyle of a vibrant alternative youth culture of the 1980s in Sydney.

Kirsten writes about being a mod…

Mod girl

Photograph by Kirstin Sibley, from the Powerhouse Museum Collection

Formative Years
My interest in mod, and youth cultures in general, really stemmed from a love of ‘new wave’ music coming out of the UK and the associated fashions. I was never going to be part of Sydney beach culture being pale, freckly, quirky and un-athletic (my idea of torture was lying on a hot, sandy beach!) and I was instinctively drawn to the alternatives. I remember being avidly glued to Countdown in my mid teens, using an old-fashioned cassette player to tape the songs that took my fancy. In 1978 my family visited the UK and we spent a week in London, where I was intrigued and transfixed by the new wave and punk street fashions. After my return to Sydney I began to listen to JJ and buy singles at a number of record shops in the CBD – including Phantom Records and another in Town Hall station. I loved frequenting markets (Paddington and Balmain) and independent shops, including those in the Crystal Palace Arcade on George Street. I was in search of both vintage clothing (shoes and accessories from the 1920s to 1960s) and anything contemporary that was a bit different. I remember purchasing a pair of 1960s winkle-pickers (flat, white and sling-back) from Paddington Market and wore these with a tiny white print mini skirt covered in peppermint green and black scribbles. There were a number of bemused and disapproving looks when I wore the outfit on the Frenchs Forest bus home to Roseville!

I first became aware of the UK mod scene probably back in 1979 and in Sydney certainly from 1981 via articles in the press. Two girls in my year at North Sydney Girls, Sarah and Rebekah, had similar taste in music and it was through them that my interest in the Sydney mod scene developed. I also remember listening to a 2JJ program on mod music and being inspired by both contemporary UK bands and also more obscure 60s soul. While I first became involved in 1982 it was in 1983 that I really took it all much more seriously and as a result my friends at school nicknamed me ‘Kirsty-Mod’.

Outside the Newtown Leagues Club

Outside the Newtown Leagues Club. Photography by Kirstin Sibley, from the Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Mod Life
Life as a mod was a social whirl – gigs, nightclubs, scooter runs and shopping. There was always something on and somewhere to go. Life was fast-paced (fuelled by any number of stimulants – coffee, prescription amphetamines or speed) and terribly exciting, especially in my formative years. The weekend usually started on a Friday night at The Quarryman’s pub in Ultimo and often progressed from there to a gig (bands included The Reasons Why, The Go, The In Crowd and Rescue Squad). Social highlights included the Newtown Leagues Club Dayniter (Sept ’84), a trip to Melbourne (Easter ’85), seeing the Style Council play in August 1985 and watching Quadrophenia for the first time. On Saturday mornings I would frantically scour op shops and markets with the aim of finding a new outfit for that evening. My favourite was a grey silk suit made by Conte’s at 14 Kings Road in Newtown (double-breasted three-button jacket with a short straight skirt, which I wore with black and grey sling-backs). The ‘holy grail’ was a pair of Courreges-style white go-go boots (calf length and flat heeled) – alas it was only a number of years later that I eventually owned a pair, but only in black.

The Quarrymans Hotel

The Quarrymans Hotel. Photography by Kirstin Sibley, from the Powerhouse Museum Collection

Mod Houses
I moved out of home at 19, in 1984, into a rather run-down terrace in Gibbes Street, Newtown with two fellow mods. None of the floors or walls were perpendicular – our lounge sloped down towards the TV, which sat on a milk crate – and my father arranged for a friend to cut some doors to size so they would fit into the lop-sided frames. I remember I held my first mod party there. One of the neighbours was most upset afterwards as his lovingly-tended and mature marijuana plant had been stolen by one of our crowd.

Mod girls

Photograph by Kirstin Sibley, from the Powerhouse Museum Collection

I later moved to Ferndale Street Newtown where Ben, Michael and Fiona lived – another insalubrious address with green mould growing in the bathroom! I had a tiny bedroom – just a single mattress and a clothes rail. It was a mixed social group: working and middle classes; students (I think Ben was at Sydney College of the Arts at the time) and wage earners. Unfortunately at the time half of my records disappeared down to Melbourne, where one mod, who I now hear had a gambling problem, sold them to fund his habit (including my beloved picture-cover singles by the Purple Hearts and Secret Affair).

My last mod residence was on the corner of Station Street and Rawson Streets in Newtown. It was a large tumble-down Victorian mansion, affectionately known as ‘Mutant Manor’, with a vast number of bedrooms and a ‘secret’ tunnel running under the street. A group of younger mods, including Jane, Fiona and I lived there. It became unofficial ‘mod-central’ after the clubs or pubs had closed and random bodies would sometimes turn up in the small hours of the morning. We held a party there in January 1986 but I know at this point that I had moved on from a strictly mod style. While I still wore some 1960s outfits they were rather more flamboyant in style – embellished cocktail dresses with high-heeled winkle-pickers.

When Involvement Ceased?
My main involvement in the mod scene ended some time in 1986. I was beginning to find the ‘rules’ too restrictive, life too repetitive and had became interested in other music and fashions. I moved to Thomsen Street in Darlinghurst with a couple of friends, who had also moved on, and started dating Christopher who was a number of years older and was into the wider Sydney music scene.

I moved to London in 1990 and ultimately lost contact with most of the scene, although Don Hosie and I remained good friends. We went to a series of Hammond organ gigs at the Jazz Café in London in February 2000, bought John Smedley sweaters at Berk in the Burlington Arcade and visited Sherry’s clothing shop off Carnaby Street. It was great hanging out with someone so enthusiastic about all things ‘60s and I know Don really enjoyed the general resurgence in ‘mod’ style and music in London at the time.

What Sub-Cultures Involved In After Mod?
After moving away from the mod scene I was fleetingly involved with the rockabilly crowd. An ex-mod friend was going out with a Teddy Boy at the time and I went to a few gigs. However, while I did try and dress the part I wasn’t keen on the music, couldn’t jive and my heart wasn’t in it. It wasn’t a natural development for me and it felt too contrived jumping from one group scene to the next. To this end I have still maintained my interest in all things 60s and I guess the old mod scene had and still feels like a good ‘fit’ for my tastes and interests.

Rationale for Taking Photographs?
I recorded the mod scene from March 1984 until January 1986, just under two years. I had become interested in photography in my last couple of years at school and photographed friends for my final HSC art project (sometimes with a spattered paint back-drop a la The Face). Taking photos of the mod scene was partly an extension of this but there were other reasons. I was very shy and it was a way of getting involved without having to have a big personality or being one of the elite crowd. Recording the scene was also very much part of the mod ethos – we were very aware that we were doing something different and were incredibly conscious of how we presented ourselves. My photographs were circulated quite widely within the scene – I printed them myself (albeit awful technically!) and sold them at cost price to others. For a relatively small scene there was a proliferation of mod magazines and flyers which were illustrated with photographs of our group and also vintage images that fitted our style. I had always been an avid reader of magazines (including The Face and i-D) and at the time wanted to produce my own fanzine (I starting collecting mod ephemera and photos for this purpose) but unfortunately never got round to publishing. I had always collected from an early age – stamp, shell and rock collections – but this later developed into a love of magazines, books on pop culture and vintage fashion. Perhaps it was ultimately part of making sense of things – collecting, categorising and documenting my surroundings.

Read more about the Sydney Mod scene in the 80s in the Powerhouse Museum Collection.

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Fashion of the 80s – an introduction

Simon Reptile photo by Robert Rosen 1985

Simon Reptile photo by Robert Rosen 1985

The 80s have been characterised as a period of consumerist excess riding on the back of an economic and industrial boom and expressed in a flaunting of wealth through expensive homes, cars and designer label fashion. outwardly superficial and frivolous this image does not do justice to one of the most diverse and creative decades in 20th century fashion. Designer fashion ranged from the exuberant historical and cross- cultural referencing of Vivienne Westwood and Christian Lacroix, Donna Karan’s pared down wardrobe of separates for working women and Katharine Hamnett’s powerful slogan T-shirts, to the exaggerated shoulders and sexy, figure- hugging styles of Thierry Mugler and Azzedine Alaïa. in contrast to the often theatrical extravagance of the catwalk shows, high street fashion offered ra-ra skirts, high waisted acid washed jeans, sweatshirts and pants, vibrantly printed jumpsuits, strapless taffeta party dresses and draped jersey tops.

The decade began with the fairytale wedding of the blushing and beautiful lady Diana Spencer and the heir to the british throne, prince charles, on 29 july 1981. Copies of Diana’s romantic crinoline inspired dress with its enormous skirt, puffed sleeves and frill trimmed bodice were in bridal stores the next day setting the scene for 80s wedding dress style.

Alongside the royal romance, out of London’s nightclubs emerged the dressed-up glamour of the new romantics. experimenting with dress, hair and makeup they created their own glamorous gender bending fantasy creations inspired by the exotic androgyny of singer Boy George, the innovative character dressing of Leigh Bowery and the baroque excess of Adam Ant.

80s Red Robin active leisure wear, photo: Bruno Benini

80s Red Robin active leisure wear, photo: Bruno Benini

The creative hedonism of the 80s nurtured those pursuing alternative scenes outside the fashion and music mainstream. One of the most popular, diverse and enduring of Australian subcultures, the goths, emerged in the 80s marrying elements from the theatrical sexually ambiguous new romantics and the bleak alienation of punk.

New fashion magazines like The Face and i-D celebrated individual style, creativity and innovation in subcultures and street styles rather than haute couture and acknowledged the important connections between music and fashion. However it was the mass appeal of MTV’s pop videos that inspired and broadcast youth fashion around the world.

Fashion also had a more serious side reflecting women’s increasing economic power. As more women entered the workforce and moved into senior positions they adopted a suitably sober and functional wardrobe based on the male executive’s staple of a well- tailored suit. Jackets featured broad padded shoulders adding an air of authority and power to the female silhouette, which when matched with a slim fitting skirt, reasserted her femininity. Designers like Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan armed women who wanted to ‘dress for success’ with a working wardrobe that carefully negotiated this balance between masculine and feminine style. Women also discovered the slimming effect padded shoulders had on the rest of their body with the result that shoulder pads began to appear in all forms of dress from evening wear to T-shirts.

The image of the powerful woman was underpinned by the popularity of aerobics and working out at the gym. Motivated by Jane Fonda’s exercise videos and Olivia Newton-John’s aerobics anthem ‘Physical’ women were exercising to lose weight and reshape the body into a more toned and muscular physique.

The greatest innovations in fashion were occurring in the work of Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto who were presenting some of the most creative and provocative styles. instead of form fitting clothes, that enhanced and sexualised the body, these designers created oversize, asymmetrical unstructured layers that disguised the body. They purposely included slashes and tears, faded and distressed fabrics and raw edges in their garments, and championed black as a colour for all times of the day. from the outset Kawakubo’s clothes challenged many of the principles of western fashion including traditional notions of fabric, cut, silhouette and image. reaction from the fashion media was initially mocking with some describing it as the ‘Japanese bag lady look’ however her aesthetic proved to be influential and popular.

While most Australian designers were inspired by international trends some, like Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, were forging a unique vision of australian dress which drew inspiration from australia’s cultural and natural landscape. Theirs was not a purist expression of Australian identity but one that melded an eclectic assortment of elements drawn from colour theory, art history, theatre, Chinese opera, Buddhism, European haute couture as well as the dress and textiles of other cultural and indigenous groups. Jenny Kee’s vibrant ‘Opal Oz’ silk print caught the attention of Karl Lagerfeld who used it as the signature textile in his first collection for Chanel in 1983.

Many aspects of 80s fashion drew on the past for inspiration; shoulder pads and peplums had previously been seen in the 1940s on glamorous Hollywood movie stars like Joan Crawford. Today under a cloud of economic anxiety fashion designers are again revisiting the past by offering 80s inspired collections. Haute couture and high street are awash with sculptured shoulders, draped jersey tops and dresses, glittering studded embellishment and acid washed jeans but this time round they have been given a distinct noughties makeover.

Glynis Jones
Curator, Design History & Society

Glynis Jones