THE LONG MAC BRIGADE
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Britain was awash in sharply defined youth cultures that ran the gamut from hardcore punks to casuals, mods, teds, skinheads and the rest. Some were nostalgic, while others were contemporary, like the fashion that Joy Division popularised. In his pictorial cartography of post-youth culture, A Scene in Between: Tripping Through the Fashions of UK Indie Music 1980–’88, Sam Knee calls it “post-punk”, and typifies it with “ill-fitting, dank clobber, largely sourced from army surplus stores”, with hair that was “slick combined with a Hitler Youth side-parting à la Warsaw”.
This was an accessible style for the moment: breadline boho. Unlike the flamboyance
of punk, this dour, practical look aimed for blankness and erasure. In its harking back to the shape and colour palette of post-war Britain, it both reflected the clothes then cheaply available in secondhand shops and made the subtle point that WWII had never quite ended around Britain, where the bomb sites had still not been filled in three decades later.
In 1979, it wasn’t called post-punk: if it had a name at all, it was the long mac brigade. But this tribe was a definite feature of British youth culture, and like others in the second half of the Seventies — punk, the mod revival and 2 Tone — it was principally centred around one group. Although they did not have their own designers nor the money to be boutique-conscious, it was Joy Division’s clothing that set a coherent style for the new austerity sweeping in with Margaret Thatcher’s first government.
Inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols, the core members of Joy Division formed as Warsaw in spring 1977. Their initial stagewear was as unformed and lumpish as their first material: caught somewhere between punk, metal and the post-Bowie/post-Roxy stylists who thronged their then-favourite club, Pips in Manchester. For early shows at Manchester venues the Electric Circus and Rafters, Warsaw wore crude punk clothing and camp militaria: leather trousers, moustaches and tank commanders’ caps.
After drummer Stephen Morris joined in autumn 1977, Warsaw became Joy Division and the clothes changed with the name. Setting the direction was Ian Curtis. As his close friend Iain Grey observed at that time: “Ian always had great fashion sense, he had these really smart tonik pants and he used to wear this RAF greatcoat all the time — it was utilitarian, Berlin 1935, that type of style.”
Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook had been scooter boys and habitués of Pips, Manchester’s Bowie/Roxy/glam club. Sumner exemplified Pips high-style: a wedge haircut with a side parting and long fringe over one eye. You can see this in Joy Division’s first appearance on television, performing “Shadowplay” on Granada TV. Ian Curtis has a short Caesar haircut; Peter Hook’s hair is cropped and dyed blonde, while Sumner sports a short-sleeved polo shirt, skinny tie and a Perry Boy flick. The group are serious, challenging: originating in punk but not at all punk.
“They were very clean-cut for the time,” remembers former Crispy Ambulance singer Alan Hempsall. “There was a lot of short-sleeved shirts and ties, which was quite unusual, I suppose you would think of somebody like Bowie on the front cover of Low. You looked at the shoes which were very much like demobsuit oxfords. It was all very pressed, a clean-cut image which was very unusual. It was very, very striking, and then when you coupled that with the music the whole package set them apart.”
According to Hook, “The look came as a combination from Ian and Bernard. We discovered that Scout shop by the Post Office in [the] back [of] Piccadilly and we used to buy the little shirts for 50p. And then there was a shop in Tib Street where you’d buy military gear ’cos it was dead cheap. We just had no money, it was necessity really, and we just got into it. Bernard latched onto the look, Ian had the look anyway. Stephen had a very individual style which was like a geography teacher.”
“It was Oxfam shops and Army and Navy Stores,” Sumner remembered. “When I was working in Chorlton, there was a little Oxfam there and I remember buying a nice tie with spots on it that you couldn’t get anywhere. You were buying stuff that was from previous generations that people had slung out, and army surplus stores which then had stuff from the Forties and Sixties, so I guess they were vintage clothes, really. And tight jeans. It was just what we wore.”
Joy Division presented an austere but accessible appearance that projected both backwards and forwards. It was also influenced by the blankness of Kraftwerk, whose uniform, primary-coloured look on their 1977 album
Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine from 1978 was an integral part of an electronic future. As they gained traction, Joy Division pulled their fans with them, and unleashed the long mac brigade, effectively a Northern response to the New Romantic emanations from London.
Hence the post-punk look. Because most of the pictures of Joy Division were taken in black and white for publication in the era’s music press — NME, Sounds and Melody Maker — the perception of Joy Division and the clothes they wore is that it was all monochrome and dour. However, fan photos and the rare colour sessions show that, in fact, they could be extremely colourful. In particular, Ian Curtis usually wore bright, single-coloured shirts that both drew attention to him and reflected the group’s underlying dynamic: the tension between the dark and the light.