Words and images Kenn Taylor
Art of the Terraces, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
05 Nov 2022 – 12 Mar 2023
“One of the biggest working class youth cults ever but because its home was the football terraces rather than universities or art schools it went largely unexplored by the media.”
This quote from Paolo Hewitt opens the show. The first thing that hits you though is the ‘gang’ of mannequins decked out in some of the iconic clobber of Casuals culture: polo shirts and sports jackets to cords and drainpipe jeans. And of course, trainers – especially Adidas trainers. It creates a strong first impression. Just as it must have done to see a group of lads dressed like this in the street on a grey day in 1981.
Art of the Terraces roots itself in the Casuals subculture that emerged in the 1970s and is the first major exhibition to explore it in detail. As Hewitt suggests, it has gone far less examined compared to other scenes such as New Romantic or Punk which found themselves canonised far more quickly. This despite the fact that the Casuals certainly had a longer lasting impact on everyday dress than many other subcultures.
The first gallery details the emergence of the subculture. The origin of the Casuals is particularly associated with Liverpool FC fans travelling to Europe in the 1970s and 80s. Those fans brought back sportswear unavailable in the UK, drawing attention on the football terraces. Throughout the 1980s, the scene constantly adapted as adherents competed for the best looks, moving into the ‘retro scally’ style, featuring tweeds and collarless shirts, then onto higher end fashion brands like Fiorucci and Chevignon – sometimes to the confusion (and even unease) of such brands more used to selling their wares to fans of tennis and golf. Apparel aside, the fanzine culture that developed in the same period is also acknowledged by the show, including the influential The End which documented the changing fashions of the Casuals. Copies of the more recent Solezine and Girlfans demonstrate some of the contemporary continuity of cultural expression from that era.
In the second gallery, the exhibition extends beyond the Casuals to a wider exploration of art related to football fan culture from the last few decades. Stephen Dean’s film Volta surrounds your senses on entering. Created from crowd footage taken from across fourteen matches in Rio, it goes someway to encapsulating the feel of being immersed in a fever pitch stadium mass. Frank Green’s detailed watercolours of fans streaming in to Goodison Park and Anfield in the 1989–90 season, meanwhile, capture the period just before changes brought in by the Taylor Report and the Premier League.
Steve Randall’s impressionistic paintings of young Casuals in the Liverpool New Town of Kirkby are particularly evocative. While Ross Muir’s work referencing Vermeer and van Gogh re-appropriates classic art images the way Casuals did with high-end brands. Adidas’s three stripes permeate his paintings as they do in so much of this show, but it’s the penetrating gaze of his faces which stay with you. Muir, like Randall, came to art later in life and the exhibition contains many works by people who might be labelled ‘outsider artists’. Yet, while they may be outsiders to the mainstream art world, they are insiders to the cultures represented.
The exhibition text notes the profound shift in the 1970s in the cities which had given birth to professional football in the nineteenth century, as industry collapsed and with it many of the structures that had defined working class lives. This seismic change saw new working class cultures of expression emerge in the gap created, with the Casuals themselves being a prime example. Jamie Holman’s tapestry Who Are Ya? explores this. The mass workforces of the mills created the audience for professional football. As the mills emptied out, they were re-occupied for warehouse parties by young people. They created a new culture as the working lives their parents had known disappeared.
The ‘Coming of Age’ section places the Causals in the context of the decades of youth subcultures that emerged post-World War II in the great age of popular culture, alongside groups like the Teddy Boys and Mods, precursors in the same lineage. In taking clothing associated with more luxurious lifestyles and giving them new forms of meaning, the Casuals were re-writing what was expected of working class young people. As a new consumerist world boomed in the wider culture, even as their own cities declined, this was the response. The desire to ‘look sharp’ and show off when going out, especially when your working life involves wearing a uniform or overalls, functions as a form of resistance to the economic and social status to which you are prescribed by society. This stands in contrast to those from more privileged backgrounds, including those who dominate the cultural sectors, sometimes ‘dressing down’ – either to mask their status or because their sense of security exceeds their need to demonstrate it visibly.
There are tensions and contradictions here of course, as in all youth cultures, including between the desire to fit in and the desire to stand out. These pressures are perhaps also more extreme in working class communities. As the exhibition documents, the Casuals contributed to the development of the now huge designer ‘athlesuire’ industry. As someone whose family had little money and endured grief for only being able to afford ‘shitty makes’, I’m acutely aware of how young people can be made to feel inferior if they can’t pay for such expensive clobber. This wasn’t invented by the Causals, of course, but the platforming of high-end brands in the subculture has had consequences in working class communities. As the cost of living bites ever harder, some exploration of this in the exhibition would have been good.
What is better acknowledged are the issues of violence and racism on the terraces. While the ‘Kick it Out’ section of the show notes that many Casuals avoided violence and acted against racism, the show as a whole doesn’t shy away from addressing football’s issues with them. This is perhaps most powerfully explored in Marcin Dudek’s video works and paintings, influenced by his own experience of finding identity in a group of Ultras. With him turning away from violence after the death of one of his friends. The orange from the linings of the bomber jackets worn by the group he was part of being a constant motif in his work.
Satch Hoyt’s stark Penalty, a human sculpture in a kicking pose made from the black tongues of Puma football boots, was created in response to the continued racial abuse of players. Quoting former player and BBC presenter Jermaine Jenas, the exhibition text notes, “In the 70s and early 80s, bananas were thrown on the pitch at players feet. Now bananas are thrown in people’s emojis.”
The final gallery is dominated by a mocked-up bedroom of a Causal-affiliated teenager which includes one of the stand-out pieces in the show. Tales of Trains to Far-Flung Places – Ordinary to Chelsea by Pastel Castle (aka Emily Garner) is a work in the style of a 1980s computer game, featuring Casuals high-tailing it on a quest around Europe. It has a self-aware wit that seems appropriate as a homage to the era.The exhibition is bookended by Mark Leckey’s seminal film, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. This work sums up many of the key aspects of the exhibition, as Leckey reaches back into working class cultures using archival material that was almost lost, weaving it together using the language of contemporary art. A central scene of young lads decked out in colour walking through a housing estate as a voiceover dictates a mantra of Casuals related brands is as if the mannequins that opened the exhibition have become animated.
There’s a risk with a show like this of falling into nostalgia for people of a certain age. But Art of the Terraces is not without contemporary relevance, given the long-term impacts of the Casuals. Football zines have largely given way to fan podcasts and you can now keep your trainers on in the office. The context for the Casuals culture emerging is profoundly different from today’s multimedia world. Yet young people are once again being offered little and having to build something themselves. Hopefully the next phase of influential working class cultural expression won’t take as many years as this one to receive some proper acknowledgement.
This piece was published by The Quietus in December 2022.