Why Is Casual Culture Still Relevant In Football and Fashion?
Whether on social media, fan forums or niche online clothing outlets, the look and lifestyle of the football casual still appeals to many people. So why is this decades-old phenomenon still relevant?
Spend any length of time on football Twitter, and one comes across whole accounts dedicated to casual culture. Whether the focus is on photography, history and nostalgia, fashion, music and tifos or scuffling fans and hooligan iconography, there is a considerable following out there for all things casual. Considering that the casual scene in Britain had its heyday in the seventies and eighties, the ongoing fascination with a movement often associated with violence – and long ago subjected to a suffocating mass of fictional biopics, critically excoriated sequels, pastiches, parodies and cynical memoirs – will be a source of bemusement to many outsiders. For those still invested in casual culture, however, it is as relevant now as it was in the days of derelict terracing, Adidas originals, The Jam and meticulously tracksuited firms.
The casual subculture began to emerge in the late seventies, and was considered by many to be a spiritual heir to the Mod movement of the previous decade. Both afforded working-class youngsters in Britain a social space to engage with fashion, this at a time when there was still much stigma born of the tension between traditional masculinity and having an interest in new styles and designer clothes. The casual aesthetic was a rebellion against the staid fashion of an older generation in this sense, but there was a degree of conformity to casuals which was lacking in the sartorial creativity of the Mods. Casual fashion was a uniform of sorts, and a way of identifying oneself with the tribalism and camaraderie of football.
Often linked to the success of English clubs – especially Liverpool – in Europe during the seventies, the growing popularity of designer European labels saw football casuals become a recognisable group on the streets. Most often wearing overseas brands like CP Company, L'Alpina and Lacoste, not to mention their customary Adidas trainers, sporting certain logos on matchday was a way for young men to make a statement and attract attention to their status as football fans. This was not always a good thing, of course, with casual culture often going hand in hand with violent clashes between supporters. The word 'casual' is now semi-synonymous with 'football hooligan' in this country, and no sooner did brands like Stone Island, Fila and Diadora come to prevalence in the eighties than they gained an air of notoriety.
As with eighties hooliganism itself, elements of casual culture have been exaggerated and glorified retrospectively, with mid-noughties films like Green Street and The Football Factory especially culpable. While it was no doubt a minority of casuals who were habitually engaged in violence on matchday, there are many outsiders who now view the entire subculture through that particular lens. While this might be expedient for those who have adopted the casual style for the sake of reflected machismo, the majority of those who identify as casuals today seem far more concerned with football, fashion and music than street fighting, as well as the social side of the casual phenomenon. Just as the original casuals had links to the Mods, their successors are often devotees to some form of Mod revivalism, whether it be the various musical guises of Paul Weller or the casual stylings of Oasis and Cool Britannia, which helped to sustain the scene well into the nineties.
Though there was a brief revival in the aftermath of Green Street and its box office rivals, casual culture began to wane around the turn of the millennium. Whether owing to the spate of absurd and derivative hooligan flicks which followed Elijah Wood's unlikely outing as a West Ham diehard (see: Rise of the Footsoldier, Green Street Hooligans 2, and so on) or the shifting zeitgeist of British youth culture, the casual look lost even more cachet during the late noughties and faded further. That said, it persists in some regions of the country more than others, while there is still a specialist casual community on the fringes of both football and fashion. Much of this community seems to have migrated on to the internet, where fan forums, online clothing stores and social media allow casuals to share anecdotes, style tips and differing perspectives on the casual way of life.
One of the most interesting aspects of the casual scene on social media is that many accounts are run by football fans overseas, either in North America or Europe. The veneration of casuals on the continent is a textbook example of cultural exchange, with the young Brits who once admired European fashion now admired by young Europeans in turn. Take the Casual Ultra for instance, a Twitter account run by a supporter of Dutch Eerste Divisie side SC Cambuur. Based in the Netherlands, he agreed to talk anonymously to VICE Sports via email about his interest in casual culture, and why he spends a considerable amount of time promoting his take on the scene in 140 characters or less.
"Being a casual is a way to separate yourself from regular supporters through your clothing and lifestyle," he says. "The casual style is getting more popular every day in Europe. I'm a casual myself and and the club I support, SC Cambuur, has many casuals as well. In my opinion, there are many casuals in the Dutch scene. After England we're for sure in second place." While the Casual Ultra account mainly tweets photos of pyro displays, away days and the usual fashion brands, there are also videos of pitchside brawls and menacing group shots of masked supporters. The spectre of genuine hooliganism haunts many of the casual accounts on Twitter and Facebook, and there's no avoiding the fact that the thrill of violence appeals to some of their following.
The man behind the Casual Ultra account admits that he's interested in "the hooligans, casuals and ultras scenes" and that his Twitter and Facebook accounts have previously been suspended for posting material deemed to be inappropriate. One wonders whether the availability of hooligan videos on social media has not contributed to the marginalisation of the casual scene, with the feeling that casual culture is a niche interest only furthered by the conspicuous link to matchday violence. This link is arguably overemphasised on social media, with accounts often generating engagement with violence which is unrepresentative of the scene more generally. Certainly in Britain, CCTV and the liberal use of banning orders have made football hooliganism much more difficult, while logic dictates that modern hooligans ought to avoid casual brands in order to make themselves less obvious to the police.
Casual culture means different things to different people, evidently, and may well have maintained more of an edge outside of Britain. What casuals across the world have in common is their continued dedication to the brands of the seventies and eighties, which the man behind the Casual Ultra account says can lead to "a very expensive lifestyle." Someone who would know all about the cost of the casual aesthetic is Daniel Wilson, who runs an independent clothing store called Casual Cultures in Derby. Dan is a lifelong Derby County fan, and credits both his club and his family with getting him into the casual scene.
"I would probably say I inherited my love for casual culture from my old man and family," Dan says. "He used to take me to the football from an early age and I instantly loved matchdays, and whenever he couldn't make a match my granddad would take me down to the old Baseball Ground. As well as the football, my old man was also into his clothes and music and I developed my own tastes from that. I remember listening to Oasis, Black Grape, The Charlatans and The Verve on the way to matches and also wearing brands like Stone Island, Henri Lloyd and CP Company from a really young age – at the time I didn't really think anything of it, but I was wearing a £100 Stone Island sweatshirt to school and none of my mates really knew what it was.
"I think I got my first season ticket for Derby County when I was about 14, and that's when I really got into the clothing side of things. I saw older lads wearing the Burberry caps and Aquascutum scarves and wanted to be like them. It helped that my old man was a bit of a dresser, as I started nicking his stuff to wear and it snowballed from that really. Whenever you went on an away day you would see different lads wearing different things and start taking influence from them, and that starts to form your identity."
For Dan, casual culture is about camaraderie, fashion and music, though he recognises that it's not the same for everyone. "I've never really been into the violence side of things," he says. "For me it's dressing well, listening to good music, following your team home and away and having good craic, but I know lads who get a buzz from fighting and being in a firm." While banning orders and intensive policing have made it near impossible to scrap regularly at Premier League matches, there is evidence to suggest that football violence still persists below the top flight where the risks are slightly less prohibitive. Nonetheless, as the owner of a clothing store, Dan is more concerned with identifying new brands and labels than matchday bravado. He has even set up his own brand, Lombes, with its gritty, post-industrial logo based on the old Derby Silk Mill.
As well as providing a sphere in which football fans can bond over fashion, it seems there is an element of competition and internecine rivalry to casual culture. This is reflected in Dan's mantra when it comes to selling clothes and pushing certain brands. "Starting off I used to sell some of the bigger brands that were having a mini revival, like Lyle & Scott, Fila et cetera. After a few months I realised that I was on to something, stopped selling the larger brands and decided only to sell independent labels, which goes back to the idea of one-upmanship and selling things which aren't mass produced. I started to stock brands like Casual Connoisseur, Basläger, The Beautiful North, Stand and so on. All these brands are made in the UK by football lads themselves, and I liked the idea of selling stuff which you couldn't get on a high street in Derby, for example."
With Lombes, Dan limits everything he produces to 50 items, meaning that buyers get something exclusive and which, in his words, they can be "dead proud of." This teases out an interesting theme in the world of casual fashion, in that the conformity and kinship of the casual dress code is qualified by touches of exclusivity. There is something innately fraternal about casual culture, which at its heart comprises both the one-for-all and all-for-one spirit of brotherhood and the almost comic competitiveness which comes with it. This no doubt limits the scene's appeal across the gender spectrum – along with the ingrained misogyny of some casuals – while there are many men for whom the all-pervasive Cain and Abel vibe will feel a bit daft in the cold light of day.
As for why he feels that casual culture is worth perpetuating, Dan says: "All youth need an identity to latch on to, and I suppose the casual movement is a type of identity that gets passed down from generation to generation... You've got people like Drake wearing Stone Island now and brands like Supreme and Engineered Garments have a cult following." In general agreement is Vaios, a spokesman for the Casual Factory, an online clothing store which also specialises in casual clothing. He told VICE Sports via email: "The meaning of casual culture is obviously something personal to each person, but I think there is always an element of wanting to be an outlaw, of respecting and emulating those living closer to the edge." The idea of 'respect' for other football fans, not least those with a reputation for violence, is another exaggeratedly macho element of casual culture. Tribalism among young men is something which transcends football, and there is something almost clannish about the casual lifestyle. "It's not just football fans, they style has moved way beyond that at this point," he adds, pointing out that one is as likely to see casual clothing on matchday as at a Stone Roses gig.
Some final perspective on the competitive nature of the casual scene comes from Luke Taylor, editor-in-chief of Real Clobber Magazine. Focused mainly on fashion and set up as a reaction to companies which "live in a fantasy world that has no connection whatsoever to the people who end up buying and wearing the gear," the magazine features big brands as well as independent labels. Speaking about the emergence of the scene, Luke says: "The casual subculture was built around fashion in the beginning, with designer sportswear becoming a big thing to avoid police detection whilst the police were still looking for a Dr. Martens, skinhead type. As time progressed the term 'casual snobbery' evolved, kind of similar to the whole bling thing associated with rap. 'My Stone Island jacket costs more than yours' and such. The look now associated with casuals… I think it's a way out of the weekday rut for everyday, working-class people – to get down the pub with your mates and your £500 jacket is a feelgood factor. It's escapism if you like, to let off some steam. Who looks the best, who's got the best gear on?"
While the idea of 'casual snobbery' might seem ironic in the context of a predominantly working-class movement, there is clearly a hierarchy even within the casual scene. The desire for young men to climb that hierarchy, to strive with each other for approval and dominance, is an aspect of casual culture which long predates Adidas, football, and most likely civilisation itself. One might argue that such machismo is a form of escapism, but there is also a sort of self-expression in casual culture which is about absconding from a mundane reality, something which most of us can relate to on some level. That is why, despite the ongoing association with violence and the more unsavoury elements of the scene, many feel that casual culture is as relevant as ever.
Where necessary, quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.