Football casuals: An Eighties study on ‘Dressers’

THE HEADLINES focused on post-match violence, but a new archive reveals the real goal for casuals was to look the part

It was a Thursday night in 1984, the height of the Thatcher era. An apprentice welder and his steelworker pal, both from Motherwell, finished a late shift. “Quick wash in the toilets, changed into our Fila tracksuits and jeans, and away we went into Glasgow,” Matt Johnstone recalls. “Eighty pounds I spent on a brand-new Fila jacket that night. I just had to have it. A lovely jacket.”

Johnstone, the apprentice welder, earned £16 a week (he supported his sportswear habit with an Austin Reed storecard). Yet he had no qualms about marching into a suit shop on Gordon Street and chatting to the other customers, who included an airline pilot and a guy whose face he thought he recognised from Motherwell. It turned out he recognised him from Reporting Scotland – he was a BBC news reporter. “I said to my mate, ‘This is surreal, we shouldn’t be here, we don’t belong here,’ but that’s the kind of places we had to go to get what we wanted. We were the only ones who spent any money that night. The BBC news guy walked out and went away. The pilot had a flight to catch.”

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The Austin Reed manager, who had already experienced Aberdeen football fans clearing him out of high-end sports kit, took them for a drink to thank them for their custom. “As soon as we went in, he asked us who we were with. When we told him Motherwell, there was a knowing glance. He knew it was only us and Aberdeen lads would spend that kind of money.”

Johnstone and his crew were football casuals, the immaculately turned-out folk devils of the early 1980s. They preferred to call themselves ‘dressers’ – the Aberdeen lads had already appropriated the casuals tag, having been first off the Scottish block to follow the sharp blokes supporting English teams.

Dressing arrived in Motherwell in the shape of Stef, whose family moved from Leeds at the beginning of the decade. At that time, young men might have been skinheads (as Johnstone was), new romantics (although Motherwell was not the kind of place where many blokes wore frilly blouses) or just regular guys whose mothers bought their clothes from the clubby book. Stef’s golf sweaters, bleached jeans and white trainers made an immediate impact at Dalziel High School, and on the terraces at Fir Park.

Johnstone, a couple of years older, in his Crombie coat and DMs, clocked the new look straight away. “I’d already seen Aberdeen lads dressing, so I noticed Motherwell lads dressing. As a skinhead, I had a similar mindset – I wanted to look the business. Everything had to be just right, the jeans so far down, the right size of boots, so we could tell a different style was coming in.”

The first half-dozen, he recalls, were Stef’s immediate circle from school. “They loved what Stef was showing them. He would go back down to Leeds to see his pals and come up with something new to wear. He would pass on his old stuff to his mates and they would go searching for Pringle jumpers and what have you.”

Observed from the outside, the casual culture as practised by Leeds United and other English supporters in the early 1980s, and picked up by Aberdeen and then Motherwell fans, was about violence. The style was initially adopted as a kind of disguise, a way of behaving like a football hooligan without looking like one.

This was borne out on the Motherwell terraces, where Johnstone the skinhead realised the boys in their colourful cords and diamond-patterned knitwear were invisible to the authorities. “I was getting so much hassle from the police because of the way I looked. These guys were getting away with murder. They could do what they liked because they were your favourite nephew, wee guys in golf jumpers and polo shirts, just walking past with their flick haircuts. The police didn’t even look at them.”

In the steel town, the style grew arms and legs. The crew gave themselves a name, the Saturday Service. It’s a pun on Sunday service, as offered by public transport on the quietest day of the week. No fascist undertones, although it is very close to the notorious Leeds United Service Crew.

Johnstone was, he reckons, the 11th dresser in Motherwell. Soon other skinheads grew out their number-one crops and developed a taste for Diadora. On the supporters’ bus to an away game one Saturday, the SS were sitting together at the back. At one stop, they spotted a boy running from a block of flats. “He had a Benetton rugby shirt, pulling on a Patrick cagoule, bleached jeans ...” Johnstone can recall the brands, a tick-box of that moment’s dresser must-wears, as if it was yesterday. “Who’s that? We didn’t know this guy. We had never seen him before.”

It turns out they had. “He’d been on the bus all the time, going to Motherwell games. He was just a normal lad who sat down the front wearing a scarf.” He liked the style, bought into it and joined the crew.

Johnstone has gathered tales, press clippings and photographs of the era in a new book, Dressers, guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of anyone who skipped lunch to pay for Sergio Tacchini. The headlines are all about violence, hooliganism and thuggery, “Things just happened,” says Johnstone.

The reports of the era would beg to differ, with endless yellowing cuttings decrying “Fir Park riot”, “Shame game”, “Chants of terror” and “Gangs clash”. And the lads who recall the glory days in Dressers are happy to detail the “game boys” and their shows of strength, especially against long-time rivals Aberdeen. But Johnstone is adamant that the battles were incidental to the football and the fashion, not the primary motivation.

Dressers were, he insists, in the best tradition of working-class dandy cults. “We were just working-class lads who liked to dress just so, go for a pint, go to football, go to the dancing, enjoy our music, enjoy our lives.”

Unlike in every other subculture, there was no musical code. Johnstone retained his fondness for reggae and ska, other lads listened to everything from chart music to heavy metal. When the Housemartins came on at the local disco, they would clear the floor and all jump about together.

Some took dressing more seriously than others. The better-off lads would archive their favourite pieces when some new colour, or label, or trainer shape caught their eye. Others would sell on old jackets or jumpers to buy newer ones. Trading was brisker than on Wall Street: elder statesmen such as Johnstone would offer their pass-ons to the young faces coming up (the SS had an official youth wing, the Tufty Club).

When they tired of the clothes, they would sell on to the arriviste dressers from the big Glasgow and Edinburgh clubs. As soon as an item hit the mainstream – and that is the football terracing mainstream – it was time to move on to something else.

When it all got nasty, around 1986, Johnstone and many of the original SS bowed out. The police had learned to tell their Burberry check from their Daks, and casuals were as unpopular as skinheads had once been. What was once an invisible uniform was now as recognisable as a Harrington jacket and number-one crop, and the police were watching their every move.

Then weapons started appearing on the terraces. Some of the SS moved seamlessly into the nascent rave scene and became successful club promoters. Others got on with regular lives. Many of the faces in Dressers are blanked out – it is fine in the dance music industry but not everyone wants to have ‘football casual’ on their CV.

Johnstone still goes to Motherwell games and is delighted to see a new generation rediscovering the joy of the freshly pressed polo shirt. His own son, now 12, has been through his father’s archive and identified a few choice items for his own use.

Once a dresser, always a dresser: in the under-13s football team Johnstone coaches, he has forbidden the parents from buying their sons the lurid yellow and purple football boots currently in vogue. “I want them all in black boots for next season. I have told them all to get them £25 Diadoras. I think it looks so much smarter. And it can’t make them play any worse.”

For further information visit; to order the book