A documentary takes an insider’s look at how a football-driven fashion and social movement swept Europe in the 1980s.
Once a leader of the violent Inter City Firm supporter group, Cass Pennant brings an authentic look at the world’s soccer culture.
As a leader of the West Ham supporter group The Inter City Firm (ICF), Cass Pennant saw more than his share of football-related violence. The ICF were known internationally as one of the most notorious English football hooligan groups of the 1970s and 1980s. Pennant has long since left his violent past behind to become a respected author and filmmaker and even a fashion designer (He has collaborated on a personal line of clothing with Hawkins and Joseph. With his documentary, Casuals, Pennant brings an insider’s view when he revisits the football-driven fashion and social movement that swept Europe in the early 1980s.
For those who may be too young to remember it, can you explain what the Casual subculture was?
England has always given the world youth culture and subculture, from the Teddy Boys to the Mods, the Skinheads, etc. In the late 1970s, they had what was called the Casual movement. You saw it with the Liverpool fans and the Man United fans around 1977. Fans who traveled throughout Europe for the European Cup started bringing back sportswear from their travels. It was the kind of clothing that you would see the top tennis players like Björn Borg or John McEnroe wear. That started the whole craze. Back then, there weren’t any mass chains of sportswear or brands. London was very much like the swinging London of the 1960s with small boutiques, so you didn’t have chain stores selling their wares in different parts of the country. The idea of sportswear as fashion traveled through word of mouth from other kids copying each other. It developed into a massive thing that even affected social change.
You would only see these high-end brands on professional tennis players and golfers. When you began to see the middle classes wearing it, the welfare society, that casual look kind of changed everything in the 70s. At the time, football violence was the scourge of the sport. It had been since the late sixties. It was making headlines across Europe and into South America. The stereotype of the media was that this had been part of skinhead culture. Now it was totally different because the young guys that were fighting were dressed like boy bands. They looked like the kind of lads that girls would take home to meet mom. They didn’t look like the aggressive skinheads with the boots and jeans. In fact, they didn’t look working class at all. But the mainstream media didn’t pick up on it at all.
“They looked like the kind of lads that girls would take home to meet mom,” says Pennant. “They didn’t look working class at all.”
Before the Casual movement, the youth culture fashions had been started by music. Without the music, there wouldn’t have been the fashion trend. For example, there were a lot of kids that were into reggae of the late 60s and 70s. The music had come over from Jamaica and crossed over into England with Island Records and Trojan Records. The Mods were into Harlem jazz and soul from America that crossed over into England. The Teddy Boys picked up rock and roll and rockabilly. Punk is another classic example. If there’s no music, there are no punks. The youth fashion would basically start in England and cross over to various parts of the world. The casual fashion trend didn’t come from music. It came from the football territories. It came from the terraces, largely driven by the young lads themselves. And It became big business for brands like Stone Island and Burberry. It was noticeable to see lads wearing Stone Island at a football match.
As many of these fashion trends were based in music, do you think that the reason why the Casual movement wasn’t popular in the U.S. was because it was so closely tied to European football?
No, I think it was because the youth in the States weren’t as fashion conscious back in the 70s and 80s. I think America has caught up now because of the Internet. The world has caught up. I still travel to various places in Europe, and it’s always interesting. I still look for the fashions that we could bring back that maybe have not been picked up in England. There’s very little because everyone has immediate access on the Internet. Everything is on Instagram and Facebook instantly. Back then, it grew town by town and city by city, because it happened at football matches or holiday resorts. People picked up what other people were wearing from London to Liverpool. The media didn’t pick it up, but the kids in the street always knew. It’s like the music scene. We call music “underground,” because the clubs have picked up on it long before mainstream radio stations do. And that’s also true with the fashion culture. Britain is a small country, and it’s quite creative on that side. Even if you look back to the Beatles, American fashion was coming from music. Punk was very fashion driven and that came from England. Youth culture, music and fashion, has always been here, and young people love football because it’s the national sport. Most fashion subcultures tend to come from working class cultures. As a national sport, football originated as a sport for the working class. There’s a complete social history there.
Is how the Casual movement began generally agreed upon or are there a lot of different people who claim that they started it?
Well, social history is always unrecorded history, isn’t it? That’s the great thing about youth subcultures— fashion and music—it’s always unrecorded. The people making history at the time never write anything down. Most fashion started in London, simply because London was the place to be. The fashion boutiques were always in London. This was one of the first fashions not to start from London. All of the record companies were in London. When The Beatles came out, and all the other emerging groups came out, it broke that monopoly as well. You always have that swing from music to fashion to the subcultures. There was huge debate looking back to when it started. Did it start in the north of England or in the south? That was a big inspiration for the film. What makes it interesting is the debate where people can get involved in this and try to figure out where do these things start? Look at the football culture and the clubs taking shape in America and Canada. There’s a fan culture that’s taking shape on the terraces in the States that’s mimicking the English hooligan culture and the ultras, right? The Internet makes it spread even faster.
In the grand scheme of things, professional football culture here in the U.S. is so relatively new, that it does tend to look to more established cultures, I believe, because the fans here are trying to find an identity. We don’t have a sport like it here in the United States with running time. It’s going to be interesting to see how American soccer culture develops, whether it continues to be an extension of other countries’ football cultures or if it splinters off into something entirely different. Do you have any thoughts on how that might evolve?
Yeah, I think it will copy and evolve. What youth subcultures do is they take something that came before them and put their own original twist on it. They won’t copy it to a T. They will take the parts that they like most. So in America, they will likely take what they like from Europe and put their own stamp on it until it becomes an American way.
You can tell this movie was a labor of love for you—the amount of people you tracked down, the rare clothing you found. I’m not sure anyone else could have made this movie the way you did.
It was fun and a big challenge. When you do a documentary, you might have six talking heads. We ended up interviewing 53 people, and most of them were rivals. The barriers of the rivalries came down, because it was important to me. Those rivalries were overlooked. Admittedly, a lot of the guys like myself who are looking back, we’ve moved on quite a bit, because were older, and we are looking back to the days of our youth. But it still means something. Before this, the films that were about football were concentrating on the violence like Green Street Hooligans and The Football Factory. But there was a much bigger story out there, one that involved all of the fans. It was the fashion. As a fan, you could be involved in the fashion without being involved in the violence. It’s a story that hadn’t been done. So I decided to do it as a documentary and put the definitive story out there on how the casual culture came about. You’ll see the history of the casual subculture and how it developed from London to Liverpool to Rome and even to Moscow.
In reading your book, I got a sense that long before you became known for being a leader in the Inter City Firm, you had a penchant for being an artist. Now as a filmmaker, it must be exciting for you not only to help those barriers come down and be able to take an introspective look at all these different clubs as part of the movement, but your credibility in the movement probably got a lot of people to talk to you that may not have cooperated if someone else made the movie.
I’ll never forget the first documentary on football violence that was made with any weight was Hooligan. They spent a year with us, and they got a real inside look. They actually exposed the whole football culture, so it became a seminal documentary. Every documentary made since uses clips from it. The most important relationship to me is my partner in my film company. Back in 1984, I was 28 years old, and he told me, “It’s important to understand that there are two paths in life.” At the time we were mostly the scourge of the country. We were portrayed as scum and worthless people. He said, “No, you have talent. The Inter City Firm is a gang. If only you guys realize that it works the same way in real life.” I just thought, “Well, you’ll go back to your world; you got what you want for your film. We’ll go back to our world which is pure violence.” But he said, “You do have talent; you do have a worth. The leaders in the gang can be directors of businesses, the soldiers in the gang can be the workers, and the young lads can be the lookouts.”
“Football violence was the scourge of Europe… Now it was totally different because the young guys that were fighting were dressed like boy bands.”
What did that mean to you?
With that kind of encouragement, that helped me take the right path in life. We had little education, little skills, but he believed in us. The teamwork that it took on the terraces, instead of putting it into something negative, we could put it into something positive, and it could work out for us. This year, I authored my 10th book, and I’ve published over 50 books. I’m working on some film projects and have produced several films. A lot of guys from my old gang days, they’ll come and say “Cass, we think we’ve got a book. We recognize your story.” Loads of working class kids thought they were worthless. Now they think that if I can do it, they can do it.”
Have you talked to players over the course of the last several years about the movement and what they felt about it?
I interviewed the Scottish international footballer Pat Nevin for the film. He was a big player at the time for Chelsea. At first, he was reluctant because of the past reputation of violence, but it did affect his life, so he agreed to sit for an interview. It was interesting because he loved the fashion and the idea of it. But the football casual nearly cost him his career, because violence was behind a lot of it. If it stops the matches, it stops his career. Violence was damaging the game, and he was on the other side of it, being a pro football player. He got into the music and started to understand the subculture more. Making films is good common ground. A lot of the bands reminisced about the football subculture and the clothes, which makes for good common denominators. We discussed the good and the bad, because it was part of our lives. It was part of growing up. It changed a few things as well. To get into nightclub, you used to need to wear a dress shirt, trousers and shoes. When the fashion started to take hold, you no longer had to dress up to get into a nightclub. You could be dressed smart and casual. Now you’ll even see the words “smart and casual” on an invitation. You can wear it on a job interview. It became part of what you are.
Are there guys who are still obsessed with the casual style?
We’re all older now. We have wives, and we may say to our wives, “Why are you so obsessed with shoes? We can have a pair of shoes for years if we like them, we’ll get them resoled.” Then I go to the pub, and a lot of the guys are gathered around in the corner. I go to see what the commotion is, and there is a guy wearing a pair of Björn Borg trainers that we haven’t seen since Björn Borg wore them in the 80s. He had an original pair on, and everybody’s going, “Wow!” It was like a holy grail from back in the day. There’s a film in there somewhere.
Was there anything throughout this process that surprised you as you were putting the film together?
Yes, back then, there was no internet and no credit. So you couldn’t just click a button and get a $600 Stone Island coat the next day and hope to pay it off over the months. You had to wait for an older brother to pass it down. Now, I’m looking at kids in their 20s, the age we were, and they don’t know the history of where it all came from. Fashion moved from the Teddy Boys to the Mods, the Punks, the Football Casuals. But the sad thing is that nothing followed the Casual culture. Some argue that the rave scene destroyed it. But it was quite clear to me that the Internet destroyed it. You see a photo of what David Beckham wears and you go out and wear the same thing. The shop model in the window is wearing the same thing. So the kids go and wear exactly the same thing that’s on the shop models. There’s no mixing things up or trying things out and setting your own fashion. No youth subculture is coming out of the country. I blame the Internet for that and easy access to credit.
What did you find when you spoke to the kids who are the same age you were back then?
We were interviewing the hairdressers back in the 80s, because we left no stone unturned. The youngsters in the shop were wearing something like a uniform. A normal passer by wouldn’t notice, but a fashion head can see it. I asked them “Where did you get your influence from?” It wasn’t music or the football terraces. The youngsters would say things like, “Well, my mom was a mod, and my dad was a football casual.” It was groundbreaking in itself that they were inspired by their parents. As a dad, I was proud to hear that, but in my day, that was a major no no. You wanted to be 100 miles away from what your parents wear and the music they listened to! After that, we had to delete the subtitle, “The last working class fashion.” I had to delete that after seeing these youngsters. You have to take something and put own twist on it. That’s what will happen in American soccer culture as well. But that’s the beauty of fashion—it’s a very creative thing. No matter what it is, if it’s good, it’s there to stay.