I’m fascinated by sub-cultures: the ways that a group of people bond, and how they present themselves to the world.
The first sub-culture I became aware of was in 1976. Chocolate brown skivvies were all the rage but the shop wasn’t well lit and mum brought me home a black version. Everyone knew you couldn’t wear black: only Rockers wore black and I was sure to get beaten up for crossing the code.
In my sheltered Perth world there were only two sub-cultures: Mods and Rockers. They hated each other and the rest of us tried to keep out of the way of the carnage that resulted when they met. Think Quadrophenia. I didn’t know any Rockers of course, and never did so I can’t be sure it was true.
In 1979 I moved to Scarborough High School, close to Scarborough Beach where the legendary Snake Pit was home to Bodgies and Widgies. Or rather, it had been in the ’50s. In the ’70s it was all about Surfs and the Snake Pit was a smelly old cafe with pinball machines in the dark backroom. Soon it would be gone, demolished as the strip became upmarket and the beach ruined by a Gold Coast style tower.
I’ve never met a Bodgie or a Widgie but Surfs were so commonplace in Scarborough, I hesitate to call them a sub-culture but Puberty Blues (the original book) was the story of my early teens. Tradition dictated you’d lose your virginity in the back of a panel van in a beach car park. I was very unhappy: it wasn’t my scene. I couldn’t even manage a decent tan despite the daily beach visits. I read that book until the pages all fell out and then I sticky taped them back in.
The Sharpies passed me by – I thought they were a Melbourne only group until Catherine Deveny put up this clip from a Daddy Cool gig in ’75:
If you’re reading this via email, click here to see the clip.
What a dance! I love that this group had their own unique style. Australia generally follows the Northern hemisphere in most things but here was something uniquely our own. It’s an easy to learn dance with plenty of scope for different tempos or levels of enthusiasm. It can be both flirtatious for women and aggressive for men. It’s also rather comical. If you want to see more, just ask youtube for “Sharpie dancing”. There are some great examples.
The Sharpies started off in the ’60s, influenced by English Mods and created by post-War migrants who would bring out European fashions when they arrived in Australia. They had a taste for Italian style, especially in tailoring and knitwear, hence their name: Sharpie came from “sharp” dressers.
Sharpies 1972 – from “Top Fellas” by Tadqh Taylor. Very Mod.
As fashions changed through the ’60s, so did they, and by the time they reach the era of their fame, the ’70s, there was a uniform: fine knit jumpers and cardigans with stripes plus high waisted tight jeans or pinstripe trousers. Sometimes very wide legged and long, covering their clomping big boots or shoes: platforms or clogs.
Sharpie fashion. Photo source: “Skins n Sharps”
The girls (known as “Brushes”) wore jeans, denim mini skirts or pinafores with the highest chunky shoes they could: often with cork bases. Or “treads”, shoes with a sole made of old tyres.
The distinctive fashion item was the striped knitwear called the “Connie”, originally the “Conti” as they were made by Thornbury tailor Mr Conti. Here you could either choose one from the shelf or custom made to the colours and stripes of your choice. They didn’t come cheap – almost a week’s wages for a teenager – but they were very prized.
At Circa, I’m often asked for Connies but sadly, I’ve never seen one to buy. They seem to be kept (hopefully well protected) by their original owners, who still value them. Either that, or perhaps they were worn to shreds, or shrank a little too much in a too hot wash. If I do find one, it will go into the private collection for use in talks etc – the Sharpies are becoming an affectionate part of Australian social history.
The Sharpie style is very similar to the current fashions of the time, incorporating elements of Glam Rock and roller skating culture, but with a harder edge. The ’70s was a very body conscious decade, and they wore the clothes small and tight. The Connies were worn especially small and tight, resembling midriff tops at times, with three quarter length sleeves. The hairstyles were reminiscent of Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust, although when others grew their hair long the Sharpies kept it short.
Music was important to the Sharpies and back then when you couldn’t get band t-shirts, they’d get their favourite artist’s name made up in flocked velvet letters on a t-shirt. Bowie and Slade were favourites (soon to become B wie and Sl de when the letters peeled off in the wash). They loved Aussie rock with Lobby Lloyd and Billy Thorpe amongst their favourites.
The t-shirts also declared the name of their gang based on their suburb or even their street. They congregated in large groups, often at gigs or train stations and were very violent, often scrapping with rival gangs. Apparently even the police were scared of them.
Photo source: “Skins n Sharps” Love the lumber jacket in the front: for when the Connie wasn’t warm enough.
Sharpies have been compared a lot with skinheads and there seems to have been a certain degree of overlap – the best site for Sharpie information is “Skins n Sharps” but for me, there was always a difference. Although I didn’t know any Sharpies, many of my friends dressed similarly and some of the girls even danced in that idiosyncratic way – I’ve never seen a man dance like that though. A pity.
Sharpies seemed to vanish in about ’79 just when punks, mods and skinheads were taking over – those were the groups I knew. The skins were very violent and we all knew to keep away from them in groups. I was once chased through the dark streets of North Perth by a skinhead with a knife after I looked at him the “wrong” way in 1984.
So if you do see any Connies, treat them tenderly and stash them away: you’re looking at a piece of Australian sub-culture history. Here’s some Connie style in this House of Merivale striped jumper:
The same colours have been used used in this House of Merivale jumper. I love how the stripes only go around the front.