18 May was the 104th birthday of Fred Perry. As someone who’d generally rather poorly play any sport than watch others, no matter how good, this occasion in and of itself didn’t mean much to me. Fred Perry was, I’ve read, a great tennis player but I reckon his name conjures up images of tennis shirts rather than tennis players. And for anyone remotely aware of youth subcultures, Fred Perry shirts have been part of many style tribes’ uniforms. In fact, Fred Perry was so popular with a Mancunian tribe that arose in the late 1970s that they came to be known as “Perry Boys.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TENNIS SHIRTS
The tennis shirt was invented in 1929 by French tennis star Jean René Lacoste but Fred Perry introduced several innovations to the article of clothing. As with Lacoste, Fred Perry shirts only came in white when they were introduced in 1952. The now-signature twin-tipping was reportedly introduced to placate the demands of West Ham United football fans. When members of the Mod subculture adopted the shirt, more colors were added to cater to their tastes. (Fred Perry also invented the modern wrist sweatband although there’s no excuse for wearing those off the court).
In the latter half of the 20th century, changing attitudes toward casualwear turned men’s formal codes upside down. Fifty years earlier, the sight of a man in his shirtsleeves had been seen as borderline pornographic (see Partie de campagne) and vests were worn to hide the sight of suspenders — since they’re properly worn as undergarments. Then, after World War II, wearing blue jeans and an undershirt in public became accessible. In the 1950s, Casual Fridays regrettably became a thing where bosses attempted to create a false sense of freedom amongst their wage slaves. The period also saw an explosion of youth subcultures.
Whereas middle-class subcultures like beatniks and trads often seemed to dress down, working-class subcultures have historically favored dressing up. The smart Fred Perry shirt was thus favored by working-class subcultures like skinheads (and suedeheads) in the 1960s; (northern) soul boys, punks and rude boys in the 1970s; casuals in the 1980s; Britpoppers in the 1990s; and chavs in the 2000s. The brand’s importance to various British youth subcultures was highlighted in filmmaker Don Letts’s documentary series, Subculture (2012).
As written earlier, there was also the Perry Boy subculture. With roots in the Soul Boy subculture, Perry Boys emerged as something distinct around 1977 and ’78. This is probably sacrilegious to say for some Mancunians but Perry Boys were seemingly almost certainly influenced by their peers and rival subculture — the Scallies of Liverpool. For most of the 1970s, Liverpool FC placed at or near the top of the First Division. Scallies followed their team to the continent and would graft and shoplift so that they could wear expensive and exclusive labels. Meanwhile, back in the North, Manchester United, spent most of the decade trying not to get relegated. Though Perry Boys came to be primarily associated with football hooliganism, when they first appeared it was naturally away from the terrace in nightclubs such as Manchester’s legendary Pips.
As with all the best youth subcultures, music played a central role for Perries. The Perry soundtrack included Disco, Soul, Roxy Music, David Bowie, and neo-psychedelic post-punk bands. Favored American neo-psychedelic bands included Athens‘s R.E.M., Milwaukee‘s Plasticland, Rhode Island‘s Plan 9, St. Paul‘s Hüsker Dü and Los Angeles‘s Paisley Underground (The Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, Rain Parade, and The Three O’Clock) as well as Liverpool’s Echo & the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. Local post-punk bands with Perry Boy elements in their audience included Joy Division, The Chameleons, Crispy Ambulance, Magazine, and Vibrant Thigh. And they liked The Cramps. Tellingly, few if any bands from London made the grade.
PERRY BOY BANDS
Relatively few Perry Boys seem to have made stabs at making music although nearly all that did so formed around 1980 and in several cases included members who went on to achieve considerable success later on in other bands. One of the few bands to be sometimes actually be described as made up of Perry Boys (and a Perry Girl) was Stockholm Monsters, who formed in Burnage in 1980.
That same year Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets both formed and their members and fans were drawn from the tribe. Also in 1980 future members of the Stone Roses formed The Patrol — although Ian Brown has made clear that he and John Squire were, properly speaking, Scooter Boys and not really Perries.
In 1981, The Patrol’s Si Wolstencraft joined pre-Smiths Andy Rourke and Johnny Marr in Freak Party, who made one demo, “Crak Therapy.” It’s generally agreed upon that Oldham-based The Hungry Sox‘s singer, Dave “Kaiser” Cartey, was a Perry Boy. Further tangling the web — Hungry Sox’s bassist, Gary “Mani” Mounfield (also a Perry Boy) had played with Inspiral Carpets’ Clint Boon in The Mill and later went on to join The Stone Roses and Cartey went on to sing in John Squire’s short-lived pre-Stone Roses band, The Waterfront.
PIPS AND NUDE
The aforementioned Pips was a multi-story nightclub with different floors catering to different scenes including, at some points, Roxy Music fans, Bowie Boys, Gays, and at one point and on one floor, Perry Boys. They came from neighborhoods like Collyhurst, Failsworth, Moston, Prestwich, and Salford.
There was considerable overlap between post-Mod Perry Boys, scooter boys, and soul boys. Some Perries viewed themselves as the true inheritors of Modernism rather than the self-proclaimed Mods who — contrary to the entire ethos of original mods — were in the slavish fetishists of the past rather than the modern. And as with the original Mods (but not so much the revivalists), they also shared an interest in modern (and Classic), black American music.
In 1986, another legendary local club, The Haçienda, launched a night called Nude. DJs Mike Pickering (of Quando Quango and M People), Martin “Little Martin” Pendergast (and later Graeme Park) introduced much of Manchester (including Perry Boys) to Chicago House music which in 1987 finally helped the club become profitable.
PERRY BOY STYLE
As with any healthy subculture, Perry style evolved over the years. In addition to Fred Perry, the Town Boys (as they were also sometimes known) also favored (preferably burgundy-colored) Peter Werth shirts, Fila Borgs, raglan sleeve shirts, Harrington jackets, Sergio Tacchini and later replica football kits. Preferred trousers included Levi’s 501s or Sta-Prest, Lee corduroys, and Lois jeans. Popular shoes included Adidas Stan Smith, docksiders, Kios, and Kickers. Other approved labels included Aitch, French Connection, FU, and Second Image. The most popular hairstyle was the wedge – preferably with one eye covered. By 1982, some like-minded Londoners, known as chaps, began to show similar traits to Perries and Scallies. Eventually, the three subcultures blurred into less-locality-specific casuals.
There was a dark side to Perry Boys too — hooliganism. In the US, youth style tribes (with the notable exception of street gangs) rarely violently clash except in films like The Warriors and S.E. Hinton novels. In England on the other hand, it sounds like they’re all raring to battle and go out of their way to do so.
The Fall seemed to bait them with their song, “City Hobgoblins.” The Chameleons’ Mark Burgess blamed Perries for some of the violence at Joy Division gigs. In a 1986 interview with Melody Maker, Morrissey recounted being terrorized by them, calling them “the most vicious people.” (In an earlier interview with Record Mirror, on the other hand, his Smiths bandmate Johnny Marr sang their praises, claiming “…the Perry Boys in Manchester have got so much more class than anybody else in the world. I stole all my fashion ideas from them.”
ECSTASY, RAVE, AND BAGGIES
In the late 1980s, some Perries and Casuals adopted flares as part of the changing wardrobe. One of the first was Stephen “Cressa” Cresser, an associate of The Stone Roses, The High, and Happy Mondays. He, Al Smith and Little Martin began jokingly referring to themselves as The Baldricks and, promoted by the Roses’ manager Howard Jones, The Baldricks were taken seriously enough by the London media mentioned in an ’87 edition of i-D and then profiled the subsequent year in the same publication. Around the same time, Acid House and the drug ecstasy made their way to the UK resulted in the birth of the so-called Madchester scene.
Photo of “The Baldricks'” flares
By 1988, the London media could no longer ignore the buzz emanating from the north and Madchester and Rave became national phenomena — culminating in the UK’s so-called “Summer of Love.” London, which had spent most of the ’80s focused on itself and its homegrown New Romantic, New Pop, and Sophisti-pop movements was now enthralled with the north and soon London bands like Blur and Flowered Up appeared owning considerable stylistic debts to Manchester. Not sure what to make of the northerners, they wrote of “Acid Casuals,” “Psychedelic Scallies,” “Cosmic Scallies,” “Psychedelic Scoundrels,” and “Baggies.” Though Liverpool had its share of psychedelic-leaning bands (e.g. The Boo Radleys, The La’s, The Farm, The Lightning Seeds, Rain, The Real People, Shack, The Wizards of Twiddly), most of the media attention was shifting to Manchester and soon “Madchester” would be applied to bands regardless of their sometimes non-Mancunian origins.
Fred Perry the tennis star passed away 2 February 1995 – not forgotten as a tennis player but definitely better recognized for the iconic clothing label named after him. By then, so-called Lad culture was the latest echo of Perry Boy’s most trad elements. More recently ripples of Perry Boy culture can be seen in bands like Manchester’s The Quangos but for the most part, Perry Boys remain fairly obscure. Unlike many UK subcultures, I’ve never heard of any American Anglophiles adopting (and invariably cartoonizing) this particular culture.
Even in the UK Perry Boys seem fairly obscure. Whereas Scallies had fanzines like The End and What’s the Score? and have been the subjects of books like Kevin Sampson’s Awaydays (1998), Andy Nicholls’s Scally: Confessions of a Category C Football Hooligan (2002), and Dave Hewitson’s The Liverpool Boys are Back in Town (2008); the Perry Boy legend is almost entirely kept aflame by Ian Hough who wrote Perry Boys: The Casual Gangs of Manchester and Salford (2007), Perry Boys Abroad (2009), and maintains perryboys.com.
In the US, Fred Perry’s exposure has been much more limited although Bill Murray wore it in Broken Flowers, Don Cheadle wore it in Iron Man 3, and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) can be seen wearing it in a video about his and Mannie Fresh‘s OMFGOD project.