Sharpies and ’70s fashion

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.

Subbaculture from Top Fellas
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 shoes

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.

Punk Journey Sharpie clothing - Peter BRookes cropped

Photo source: Facebook

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.

Perfect Sound Forever
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:

circa_vintage_webshop_196_0_0
Striped woolen jumper by the House of Merivale, mid ’70s.

Original Connie short sleeved cardigan
Sharps n Skins 1

Photo source: “Skins n Sharps”

The same colours have been used used in this House of Merivale jumper. I love how the stripes only go around the front.

circa_vintage_webshop_198_0a

Striped woolen jumper by the House of Merivale, mid ’70s.

32 comments

  1. Im absolutely fascinated by the Sharps, ever since Julie from my old work gave me a copy of the book she wrote, RAGE.
    Not having grown up here, the sub-culture was completely new to me and revealed a whole section of Melbournian history that is so unique.
    Thanks for the great post – very informative! 😀

  2. What a wonderful read after a long day at work. Thank you for the marvellous Sharpie education. I particularly love the impact of migrants and local fashion-producers on youth culture. Fabbo.

  3. Kids would dress in sharpie clothes – connies (blue and brown), treads and lumber jackets at my high school, but there was only one full on Sharpie (with haircut) I remember from my year, who is now a semi-respecatable Mum 🙂 There was co-mingling with other 70s fashions too, like Hawaiian surf shirts and Miller lurex plaid shirts, and even the Sharpie girl had surfie beads.

  4. That clip is fantastic! I loved that the dancers were “dancing like no-one was watching” and looked like they were having the most fun!

    I have seen the dance demonstrated in real life by a couple that we met through our local footy club, now very respectable middle class (and middle aged!) parents.

  5. I love that video! I grew up in NZ around that time and Eagle Rock was huge but I’ve never seen the vid before. The dance doesn’t look unfamiliar though. We had similar clothes but I’ve never heard of sharpies or connies either.

  6. Great article – any chance of Circa Vintage making 1970’s cardigans? Checkout the Sharpies facebook group and includes the 6 sharpies shown in the b&w photo with the lumber jacket

  7. I stumbled across your site when looking up references to the Sharpies of the 1960s in Sydney. I just wanted to alert you to the fact that the Sydney Sharpies were not only of migrant descent. A distinct, and totally separate subculture of Sharpies developed amongst Anglo Saxon working class teenagers, focussed on fashion, music and a unique language style. The boys had their trousers custom made at Zinks in Darlinghurst and Syd Green’s in Glebe. For more details you should read a book by Kim Hewett- Out With The Boys: the Sharpie Days. Aside from being a fascinating and well-written book, it documents, in detail, the clothing styles of the Sydney Sharpies of the time. Few if any photos exist of the 1960s Sydney Sharpies as unlike the Sharpies in Melbourne in the 1970s, these earlier Sharpies were usually too poor to own cameras, and record their lifestyle and fashions visually.

  8. You are right the Original Sharpies started in 1963 but you are wrong about who we were influenced by it was not by the English Mods or any one else we the Original Sharpies created our own look. We called our self depending which suburb you came from Richmond Boys, Collingwood Boys, ect others called us Sharpies because we dressed “sharp”.

  9. I’m an ex 1970s Sydney Leichhardt Sharpie you can find my Sydney Sharpie page on Facebook you will get to see what the fashion was in our Sharpie era among other Interesting stories .

    I agree with David Gay who as the 60s Melbourne Sharpies page on Facebook and there also a 70s Melbourne Sharpie page on Facebook as well.

    If anyone is Interested in the 60s and 70s Sharpies please join our Groups on Facebook
    ~ cheers ~

  10. I’ve been making replica Conny’s as they are very hard to find. I have a few left of the west side sharp design & currently working on a new one. I also collect Australian vintage fashion & love the sharpie clothing.

  11. Hi for the life of me I cant remember what the hoodie was named back then. I know it was common for sharpies to wear them. They had hoods and pockets. Would you remember?

  12. Grew up in Melbournes Western suburbs. In the 70s (i was 15 in 73) we called hoodies track suit tops. With or without hoods. Never ever put the hood on though as it would ruin the spikey “Rod Stewart” style hair. Shopping was something we did on Saturday in the city. Usually it was The In Shoppe, Merivale, Melbourne Surf Shop or Surf Dive n Ski for my many treads, Myer of course and Mr Figgins shoe shop in Swanston St later in the decade as my income increased.

  13. Thanks for your comment Sharyn: loved those Rod Stewart hairstyles! I’m a little younger and found you all so intimidating, especially the ones with Bowie Aladdin Sane/Carol Brady hairstyles. I couldn’t go shopping for jeans because of all the groovy, older teenagers. I cherish those memories now and wish I had been a little older to have better style icons than the ones I had in the late ’70s.

  14. I have a Conte (Connie) for sale but wouldn’t know what the price would be … would love to know what they’re worth.
    It’s one the stock ones he made – Light/Dark Brown … and it still has the label on it and is in near perfect condition !!

    ps Yes I “lived” in the Seventies

  15. I’m not sure your dates are right, I came to Perth in 1970, used to hang in Hay street mall since ‘72, full of skins and suede’s the odd smoothie, rock-outs were the pre bogan crew mostly euro descent and Aussie’s, the old mods and rockets were wel gone! By ‘79 we we had grown our hair but were still called skins by the locals, and the scene morphed into many different styles but it was still on right into my ‘30s loved it! And then there is the fights at the WACA ground where the original Barny Army started
    John

  16. Thanks for your comment John: your perspective is clearer than mine on this as I was younger, and not in with the crowd.

  17. Great article Nicole. My cousin Dave and I went to Op Pop Disco downstairs in Castlereagh Street in 1967/68 and I have a problem finding photos of the Sydney sharpies of the late 60’s. Like the Melbourne sharpies of the seventies we wore jumpers (usually Crestknit) that had three stripes across the chest – one thin either side of a thicker stripe. They were usually blue or maroon with white stripes and were worn by both males and females. We used to wear them with either blue jeans (Levis or Lee) or high waisted buttoned and back buckled tight trousers. Someone must have a photograph somewhere. Cheers John.

  18. Thanks for your comment, John and great visual! I can see the late ’60s Sharpies so well.

    John, if you’re in Melbourne, Sharpies are featured in a current exhibition at the Royal Historical Society. Details here. Thanks to your comment, I’ve just discovered that there’s a curator talk on tomorrow.

  19. I loved the Connies and treads! I still have a lovely lumber jacket…. like a leather biker jacket style but made of tartan style tick wool with zips and studs. I remember the Camberwell boys. I was younger though and my older brother wore the Connie…. my sister the treads. We were in Melbourne. Regards Carolyn

  20. I remember the Melbourne Sharps and the Bayside Sharps. They were not very friendly people. I remember the treads and the Connies. I also remember the black suede, Cuban heeled, square toed, brogue style school shoes many wore in the mid
    70’s. Does anyone know what these black suede school shoes were called?

  21. Hi, I’m from Melbourne and I recall this fashion with much fondness. Males typically wore Crest knit brand tops which today we would call Polo shirts. Basically a light knitted to with a collar and three buttons to the neck with a thick white stripe (30m) across the chest with 1 or two thinner white stripes on either side. Colour was most important. You should only wear these tops in maroon, dark green,pale blue or pale yellow. The further combination was Amco straight leg jeans with matching Amco jacket both in pale washed denim. To complete the outfit a pair of hand made leather shoes with a chisel toe and a small Cuban heel preferably in tan. I would love to be able to buy those tops these days.
    Cheers, Noel.

  22. same melbourne sharps and the jumper with 2 white strips i had one but didnt realize when i put the dryer it shrunk like a little kid i wasnt in a gang those days my brother was there was 28 murrumbeena boys most them martial arts boxing street fighting wow it all happen those days i was young never forget was bayside sharps skin heads from sandy also the seude boots o actually own some my self name i forgot no idea what happen to them but worth a lot money i couldnt walk much i them i kept them only, and moorabbin skin heads was fights galore those days hehe melbourne sharpes he went into bayside also but he was in 2 gangs to keep peace i suppose then after that he went in thr rockers the clother my brother worn he still has today i know some knuckle buster belt with studs,black leather jacket and pants were the same with black rock & roll boots amazing those days were then myself in the 80’s followed but not as much,i knew Scoresby,ferntreegully,lebanse tigers in the city,oakleigh and clayton wogs those days dandenong serbians so those days no colours was just gangs looking for fights most went on trians meet up to see which gangs there and like warriors days it happened mostly flinders street lol the jumper i looking i shrunk which came back was so cool

  23. I’m 62 was a melb sharp hung out at flinders st station &rode the trains all over melb to rumble with mods -skins- anyone that stood tall would still buy a Connie today if l could get one .those were the days man a fuck Agee’s&za fight all in one night

  24. Hi guys I have a original self designed F&Le Conti cardigan in perfect condition with original label that was made at the Northcote shop , it’s grey with yellow stripes.
    Just wondering what the price be on this rare cardigan.
    Any thought would be appreciated.
    Ron

  25. Hi Ron, thanks for your comment. Authentic Contis so rarely come onto the market, and are in hot demand so it’s likely worth a bit, but it’s hard to say more without seeing it.

  26. I have two originals brought at thornbury in the sixties one dark blue with light blue stripes and a light gray with light blue stripes in good condition but have no idea of what they are worth ?

  27. In recent years I’ve been doing research on Sharpies and Sharpie Culture. Being born in between the era of the 2nd wave Sharpie and the 3rd wave I really only remember being told stories of skinheads getting their hair shaven in my uncles Barber Shop in 1970 when we stayed there for a few months awaiting mums pregnancy and my child birth towards the late part of the year. My brother and sister at the time were at North Williamstown Primary for five months and both recounted stories of gang violence at the train station and in the streets with what they called “skinheads” who would literally get a close crop or shaved hair but with no tails except for the odd person with little curls and or tails. These people were in their mid or late teens and often wore braces, jeans, striped trousers and they’d hang out and either fight or show off with being amorous with their attractive partners in public, joy rudjbv stolen old Holdens that were easy to break into, swearing and fighting …On return back to the country after my birth to resume tobacco growing on our farm in Myrtleford, the Sharpie culture wasn’t really observed as we were country Victorians and if anything, numerous hippies were tobacco pickers on the farm around this time and up to 1973, and of those they were either musos, university students and artistic types which were a complete reversal of the Sharpie Culture of the time.
    Local venues did however host bands like The Coloured Balls, AC/DC (Bon Scott lead vocals era), TMG and Billy Thorpe.
    Having had free passes through my late father being employed at the Victorian Railways since the mid fifties, we were often visiting family and friends with free travel to Melbourne where I noticed myself that there were these brawls between Sharpies but for some reason my older siblings referred to them as Skinheads still, or “Toughies” and occasionally the term Sharps was thrown in the conversation as we looked in horror of these teenagers fighting and brawling at Spencer Street with Victorian Police coming in on their Grey Horses breaking up fights with their battens, of hanging out at Flinders St Steps then I remembered seeing them relaxed and acting cool hanging around with plenty of female sharps around the place. This was mainly in 1974-75-76-77 that we were coming most often to Melbourne and as my older siblings were explaining how they were tough, cool or into music and having a good time it was a complete departure from us as we were a Catholic country Victorian family (Italian born parents) and they were obviously a subculture that existed with suburban youth and in noticeably a large following. In addition to to skinhead or closely cropped hair with rats tails and/or side burns, the Dolly Cut for women (like Dora in the early seventies’ Television series from Yorkshire. Peroxide tips were popular at the time aswell.
    The clothing I remember being in style around his wave of Sharpie as a child was Lumber Jacket, Striped Connie Cardigans very tight fitting, high rise Lee Jeans or Staggers if they were lucky plus the tight white T shirt with bands like “Slade”, “Bowie”, Lloyd, Ball Power, “The Hooks”(Skyhooks ofcourse had their smash hit album Living in The’70’s and “Ego Is Not a Dirty Word”), “Sherbet”.From what I remember mostly “Suzi Q” or “Suzi Quatro”or “Can The Can” on T shirts. These were mainly white T shirts with Block Lettering and this was at the time of Countdown’s early years. Sharpie chicks I remember wearing overalls, Connies, T shirt with their favourite band in block lettering and cork Sandles, wedges or platforms I also noticed lots of activities that often having body contact like playing knuckles, piggy backing, arm wrestles, sitting on each others legs or lots of hugging etc Dinking their girlfriends on black fix wheelers with lengthened forks seemed to be a cool thing to do at the time…This is what my recollection of observing them and listening to conversations of my older siblings were in their early teens then (seemingly younger than the regular Sharpie of the time but old enough to either fear them or take notice of their characteristics and most noticeably, their music tastes which seemingly were focused on either local bands (early AC/DC, Hush, and from what we remembered the most, Glam Rock acts including Suzi Quattro, Slade, T Rex and local Glam Rock acts such as Skyhooks which were huge then). By 1978, my brother was sixteen and hanging out with his mates and their girlfriends at milk bars, pool rooms, drive ins, pinball parlours and take away shops. He wore a tartan Red Lumber Jacket with a fawn woolly lapel, or a Ex Army Disposal Jacket, Black and White Striped Connie with the little feature at the back with two buttons at both ends, tight black high rise Staggers and Corfu jeans or Lee Denim Jeans (not flared) although he didn’t have the skinhead or close cropped short hair with tails, although some if his mates may have, it was more like the big hair with the part in the middle. Again, it seemed music was a large part of their subculture and nick names and abbreviations or initials being used often. Cars seemed to be a big thing with these guys as there were no trams up in the country and it seemed the “in thing” was to have a old Holden (FC, EH or HR…..models that were uncool were the EJ and HD etc), old Falcon (XL, XR, XW/XY, again with chromies, Widies, Twelve Slotters, hotwires or wires with whde chromies or hot wire or jelly bean mags, Dragways or Wires. If you were doing really well you may have had a Valiant Charger , Holden Monaro GTS, Torana GTR or GTR XU1 or a Falcon GS Rally Pack or even better a Panel Van with murals, , sunroofs and bubble windows, side pipes and decked out interiors. By this stage Skyhooks were no longer as big as it seemed that after Red Symons had left, they had dropped their Glam Rock theme as did Alice Cooper and Suzi Quattro were releasing ballads and she was a regular on Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero. Status Quo (12 Gold Bars), early Cold Chisel (Breakfast at Sweethearts, East and Swingshift, Rose Tattoo, early Midnight Oil, Dragon (check out the film clip with then wearing Glam Rock outfits in the “This Time” clip and the Sharpie Dancing of the girl infront of the stage at Dragon performing “Get That Jive”…
    I listened, observed and watched as a child only for it to all seem to fizzle out around 1980 after the KISS Tour and a whole new image or look toon place with the Sharpie moving seemingly”Put away” and no longer being a predominant look or culture as disco was also having reached its peak and then a noticeably quick decline as new wave/new romantic bands like Simple Minds, Human League, ABC and Spandau Ballet having a big impact on youth as by this stage, spelling the end of the last of the Sharpies. I’m assuming that the Sharpies (even the younger ones) eventually settling in full time jobs, committed relationships and reaching an age where they may have outgrown their teenage rebellion against society and gang life. This is how it all seemed to me as a child of the seventies and early eighties with older siblings. Countdown was a big thing. You just didn’t ever not watch it and you’d watch the repeat of the previous Sunday’s episode the next Saturday. I could be wrong but this is how it all seemed to me.

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