Words Ian Hough
Illustrations Kelly Angood
Of the many designer logos adorning the breast of the man-beasts of the Two-Breasted Hill, Fred Perry was the earliest and most violent. The laurel wreath of Manchester’s Perry Boys said, “Look at us again and you’re gettin’ filled in, sunshine.” I’m talking now about the prehistory of Casual, a volcanized world, cratered deeply by cataclysmic changes in fashion; blow-dried centre-partings, feather-cuts and punk spikes were usurped by a strange, girly flick haircut with an even stranger layered wedge at the back. Flares, semi-flares and – gasp – “straightleg jeans” coexisted in an unstable dynamic, enacted in nightclubs and on football terraces. Glam teds and “look at me” punks were exposed for the dinosaurs and politicking pillocks they’d always been, and anyone with a clue became a Perry. Like a virus we multiplied…
Those of us of a certain age remember Fred Perry polo shirts as much for the secret language they represented as for the actual shirts themselves. It sometimes seemed like Perries had colour-coded threat levels: White, with ice and navy piping = The Mod Purist; Brown, with sky blue piping = The Laid-Back Rum ‘Un; Navy, with sky blue piping = The Psychopathic Lurker; Black, with yellow piping = Warning – Venomous; Red, with navy piping = I Don’t Give a Fuck I Just Wanna Batter People; and so on… All totally subjective, of course. Back then, I owned a green, with sky blue and red piping, an all-black, no piping, and a white with ice and navy piping. I initially didn’t like the black one, as I desired the yellow piping version. I obsessed over the different colour combos like a lunatic compulsive. It was a shock to learn recently that the piping, or “tipping”, was originally requested by West Ham supporters and added in 1957. So there you have it; the cockernees really did start Casual decades before the northwest. Not.
This new thrill came with a whopping £7 tag for that prized polo shirt alone (in today’s money that’s like eight grand) plus the cost of a pair of Lois jeans. Clarks Polyveldt, suedies and Pod shoes were the order of the day, or else you jumped on the Kick-Mamba-Bamba-Samba bandwagon, a monochromatic array of adidas trainers that crawled out of a tepid rockpool and evolved before our very eyes, adapting rapidly to Manchester’s climate.
Adapt was something the Perry never had to do; it was a native animal, endorsed by a Stockport lad who happened to be one of the world’s greatest tennis players and playboys; Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich were notches on his heavily-serrated Hollywood bedstead. Son of a cotton weaver, who also lived for a time in Wallasey, Perry was subjected to the class prejudices of his time. But what did he make of the adoption of his t-shirt by the barracuda of Manchester’s ecosystem?
Perries exuded uniqueness and danger. This was the end of the 1970s; shirts with small collars were a huge novelty. Fastening the top button was a cool way to broadcast your membership in the “bad lads” club. Meanwhile, Old Bill toiled oblivious, as masses of boys piled off football trains, not a scarf in sight.
Perry must have been aware of the violent associations with his famous shirt; after all, mods, skinheads and others had championed it long before the Perry Boys themselves. Perhaps he secretly enjoyed a brandy and cigar, while perusing casual websites and books like Perry Boys on the sly. He died in 1995, so probably not.
The brand preceded adidas et al in its “street” associations; adidas trainers were worn in 1978 to broadcast one’s status as a budding athlete, at least in the beginning. The Perry Boys’ application of the tennis shirt came from another direction entirely; they couldn’t give a shite about playing for the school football team because town on weeknights or Saturday mornings held a new thrill, one that the other kids wouldn’t discover for at least a year. Shit got real in real time and it was ace. Ludicrous scouse claims about the 1977 Charity Shield and the mythical “train to Middlesbrough” aside, 1979 was the year Stan Smiths, flicks and pegs, Perries, chunky jumpers, adidas cagoules and Peter Werth polos assumed their cardinal places in the proto-casual pantheon. Straightleg jeans were a subtle-yet-obvious message to anyone in the know: We had arrived and this was the way things would be done from now on. And, as you know, we weren’t effing wrong.