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SUBCULTURE

Folk Tail

SEPTEMBER 2020
Words by Ben Perdue

The story of the fishtail parka is woven into Fred Perry lore. As part of the subculture uniform, synonymous with the polo shirt, it holds a special place in brand canon.

Heavy with meaning, this accidental hero - army surplus adopted for its functionality, it kept your suit clean on a scooter and you warm waiting for the first train home - is loved as much for being a living document of its owners’ lives, as it is for a swagger entrenched in our national psyche.

Seen through the lens of Britain’s modern folk movement, the badged-up parka’s symbolism fits an ancient belief that clothing and ritual are intertwined. “It originates with the pilgrim badges of the Middle Ages,” explains visual artist Ben Edge, whose upcoming Frontline Folklore show explores contemporary British customs. “They returned from the Holy Land with relics in the form of badges; proof of their exploits that also expressed an allegiance to saints and cults.” What are scooter rallies and underground gigs if not pilgrimages, immortalised by Paddy Smith patches and pin badges.

Owen Tromans, co-founder of Weird Walk, a zine dedicated to wandering our mysterious landscape in search of stone circles and flat-roof estate pubs, draws a parallel with the rambling badges seen on old boys’ walking sticks. “Hiking patches on backpacks are similar,” he says. “And like band tees or football shirts, it can get really subtle. There’s a difference between wearing the new Ideal Boilers West Brom kit, and the famous No Smoking strip. Different fans. It’s the same with walking patches and badges.”

The idea that this badge fetish functions as both a collective and individual identity comes through in Edge’s paintings full of ritual symbols, and the folk iconography decorating his own clothes. “In my teens it was a form of self-expression - a combination of things you love that connected like-minded people. Brought together, this collection of objects becomes folk art in its own right.” Not only is the fishtail a blank canvas for telling its wearer’s story, the story itself can transform this coat into a socially engaged art form.

 

Such iconic pieces are relevant to future modes of storytelling too. With overproduction no longer an option and people looking to virtual spaces to express themselves, items built to last - like our latest parka - are more important than ever. But as digital and real environments blur, how does this impact subculture’s personalised mainstays?

“Bespoke or digital updates to a garment are things we are building ATM,” explain Catty Tay and Leanne Elliott Young, co-founders of the Institute of Digital Fashion, a platform driving 3D and VR innovation to create a more inclusive industry beyond the constraints of seasons and physics. In their world the parka spans dimensions. “With AR and VR you can build a physical product that weaves IRL and URL realities, that holds digital info and assets for sharing narratives. So, you’ll have the potential to update your look remotely.”

Central to the collective history of subculture folklore but with the ability to tell individual stories all on its own, both in this reality and the virtual environments of the digital age, the fishtail parka has a mythical power that transcends its physical importance. Clothing and ritual are intertwined, but sometimes the ritual is the clothing.