Skins at their Zenith 1979 - 1984

August 27, 2014

Tough and true. Serious. Not to be messed with. That’s what a skinhead should look like and that is what characters from Derek Ridgers’ photographs are going for. But as they gaze into the eye of the camera, they reveal much more. An unexpected tide of emotion flows from their young faces, where the whole image is washed away by the innocence in their eyes. Was it the sense of style or belonging, or the feeling there was no other channel for self-expression that made them identify as skinheads? Derek Ridgers’ series raises tons of questions, looking back into the controversial world of skins at their zenith.

Editors’ Tip: Skinheads by Derek Ridgers

This lengthy study by Derek Ridgers exploring the culture of skinheads features 100 photographs including 32 in color. In early ’79, Ridgers was already engaged in a lengthy photographic study of the New Romantics. While Ridgers was documenting a New Romantics scene in the Soho nightclub Billy’s for the study he was already involved with, a group of about half-a-dozen skinheads turned up. When they saw him taking photographs, a guy called Willy has asked him to take some photos of them too. They were friendly and not camera shy. After taking a few snaps, Wally invited him to go with the whole gang on one of their Bank Holiday jaunts to the seaside. This event led to a five-year long project of photographing skinheads. All the photos in the book were taken between 1979 and 1984 in London and nearby coastal towns.

Photographer Meets Skins

Encounter with Skinheads happened back in 1979, when Ridgers set out to document the emergent New Romantics scene in Soho, London. He met a group of skinheads, who invited him to photograph them instead. Thus began a five-year project resulting in the photographic database of an entire generation of skins, portrayed in various moments. Attitudes captured on film in Derek Ridgers’ portfolio span from benign to mean, a testimony to prevailing feelings among the youth in the early Thatcher years.

The photograph above was taken in Soho 1979, showing the first encounter of Derek Ridgers with skinheads. The guy with a fist persuaded the artists to keep photographing them.

Skinheads and Music

Identifying with a group, skinheads always moved around as a group, intimidating with their deliberately minimalist look. Music events they attended usually turned into outbreaks of violence, where the testosterone and the music merged perfectly. Madness was popular, as were Specials, Selecter, and for more extreme bunches Skrewdriver, a white power band.

Extreme, White and Angry

Although they are generally perceived as such, not nearl all skinheads were nationalists or nazis, or extremists of other kind. Still, some groups were openly fascist and racist, blaming immigrants for the troubles of local Brits, in a vastly polarized society. Photos made by Derek Ridgers show skinheads as they were, wearing all the Nazi emblems, swastikas, Christian symbols, saluting with a hand stretched out, being all about White Supremacy [and football].


Tattoos on faces were not a rarity among the ultra-extreme right-wing skinheads. These images communicate on several levels, exemplifying the scary racist skinhead, while the focus is also on his youth, on the look in his eyes, full of hatred or fear or both, deriving from each other. Did they really believe in the National Front dogma, or was it the only choice there working-class kids had, since they could  hardly afford fancy outfits, like the Mods? Who do they hate really? A look like this sends shivers down the spine, and as we try to justify the image in the photo, it would probably be very different encountering a person like this live. My first instinct - do not stare!

Skinhead Girls

Girls were a minority in this ultra-male movement. Still, skinhead ladies did adjust the style to suit them at least a little, although they remained largely similar to their male counterparts. The usual haircut was feather cut, they did wear short, chopped off denim skirts or tight bleached jeans, combat boots, suspenders, the touch of make-up, little jewelry. Some of them cute, some beautiful even, they blended in with the boys, fighting for the same cause. A girl dresses like this today would hardly be perceived as a skinette.

No Future - Just Us

No jobs, no future (Sex Pistols echoing), loitering, wasting time, hoping to get nowhere, wanting something else, undefined - all of this brought the need to belong somewhere. Young people wanted to believe in something, to not fall apart, to be a part of a strong pack, to be safe. Having little funds, working class kids devised a style of their own, a system of their own, which has later dispersed into many subsystems of a subculture.

 Above: Skinheads hanging around outside The Last Resort shop in Goulston Street, 1981

Skins' Sense of Style

Recognizable firstly for their styled appearance, skinheads wear buttoned up shirts, white tanks underneath often, statement T-shirts, blazers, bomber jackets, and the inevitable suspenders (braces). Trousers, tight jeans, combat trousers, sometimes bleached, are worn with combat boots. Steel toed shoes with different color laces that were a display of their pack or football team. Bald heads. Skinheads. And a scowl.

Derek Ridgers Photographs

Over the past three decades, English photographer Derek Ridgers has taken pictures of many people. The most known of his works portray music stars, film stars, beautiful faces from the club and street culture. Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Morrissey, Keith Richards, Dennis Hopper, Michael Stipe, Sinead O’Connor, James Brown, Clint Eastwood, even Ayrton Senna were all immortalized in his photographs, always pointing to the essence of their character. He’s a chronicler of mainstream and underground British scenes, continuously shooting skinheads, fetish, punk and the New Romantics groups of people.

 Above: Two skinhead girls in Brighton - an image that was later used by Morrissey in his Your Arsenal Tour.

Skinheads: The Book

Newly released photography book entitled Skinheads 1979 - 1984 presents a collection of powerful portraits, serving as a singular document of the subculture thriving at the end of the 70’s and the beginning of the 80’s. It features over 100 photographs taken between 1979 and 1984, in London and several typical British seaside resorts. Published by Omnibus Press, it comes at a cost of 14.95 pounds in paperback, also available for Kindle.

All photos courtesy of Derek Ridgers and Omnibus Press.

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