The Teddy Boys: England's First Distinct Youth Subculture
A youth subculture (or 'sub-cult') has distinctive behaviours and fashions, particularly with reference to clothing, music, and other identifications adopted by its members. Why sub-cults form is a question that exercises sociologists and political theorists. It is often said that they are a symbolic attempt by those in a subordinate position to resist the power of the Establishment, by adopting behaviour that threatens it. Until recently, the appearance of the Teddy Boys in London in the early 1950s was not really explained, but simply accepted - they mysteriously emerged out of the ether. However, due to a growing interest in English sub-cults, particularly those of the post-war period, there is a new and plausible theory about their origin and development.
This theory is related to the post-war austerity of an England still trapped in the straitjacket of rationing until 1954. There had been small pockets of youth cults in England before, such as the Flappers and Bright Young Things of the roaring twenties, but they were not working class. For the most part, once a child became a teenager, the clothing styles and habits of the adult population were usually adopted. The Teddy Boys were the first group to adopt a highly distinctive style of dress, the main indicator of belonging to the sub-cult, though not all young men joined them. Like certain sub-cults of today (such as Hoodies) the Teds were demonised to a degree, not only by a sensationalist media hungry for startling headlines, but also by an older generation that had only just begun to emerge from the sobriety and strictures of total war.
Their immediate ancestral sub-cults were the Spivs and the Cosh Boys. However, another group from a different class may have been a decisive influence. The current view is that the origins of the Teddy Boys were in Savile Row, the home of fine English tailoring for those of means. Before the emergence of the working class Teds - those popularly defined in the collective English psyche as the real Teddy Boys -there seems to have been a very small but possibly influential rebellion by Savile Row tailors in 1950, possibly in response to demands from demobilising officers who disliked the continuing postwar drabness. The argument runs that the tailors wanted to jump-start trade again, so they deliberately set about designing suits based on Edwardian designs (from the period 1901-1910). These clothes inevitably used more cloth than was permitted during the war and had a romantic cut, giving an overall impression of elegance. The style involved conspicuous consumption and ostentation, albeit in an understated way. Tailor & Cutter magazine featured a piece, reprinted in the Daily Sketch of the 14th of November 1953, with a photograph of a stylishly-posed, aristocratic Edwardian revivalist wearing a close-fitting three-piece Savile Row suit with bowler, holding a furled umbrella and looking more like John Steed from The Avengers than the archetypal image of a Teddy Boy, with, in the background, two guardsmen in bearskins on duty in sentry boxes. This costume was clearly described as 'Edwardian'. It featured a long jacket with a waist and narrow lapels, a waistcoat, trousers which, while narrow, were not the drainpipes adopted by the Teddy Boys, and ordinary black shoes with toe-caps. A white shirt with a cut-away collar and a tie in Windsor knot were part of the look, while a bowler or a trilby might also be worn. This was a more accurate revival of the 1901-1910 styles than the subsequent Teddy Boy style.
The Daily Express of the 23rd of September 1953 is credited with printing the first reference to a 'Teddy Boy', but the term was already being used by the teenagers' girlfriends before that date, no doubt because of its vaguely sentimental-sounding connection to the teddy bear. The blunt Anglo-Saxon short version 'Teds' was also being used, instead of the lengthy and haughty 'Edwardians'. The Daily Mirror of the 23rd of October 1953 ran a photograph of working class Teddy Boys. This and subsequent photographs reveal an exaggerated look, with adornments appropriated from American films which made them look more like mid-nineteenth century American riverboat gamblers than English aristocrats from the Golden Summer before the First World War.
How did working class young men encounter this upper class style said to originate from Savile Row, then as now the premier men's tailoring quarter of London? Some websites suggest that 'The Elephant Mob', a criminal gang from Elephant and Castle, were on a reconnoitring expedition in the West End in 1950 or 1951, noticed the expensive-looking new Edwardian style sported by a few individuals, and decided to imitate it. An alternative theory is simply that the look was admired and emulated by working class lads at work in the West End. It was not a straight copy, though. The Teds wore no hats, and instead their hair was greased, often formed into a quiff with a 'duck's arse' back. The Teds embellished and customised, developing a street style in a manner typical of London: the capital is a hub of diversity, with trends that constantly evolve. So, two completely distinct sub-cults existed, one from the top drawer, one from the bottom, both with a common heritage.
There are differing accounts of where in London the Teddy Boy style first appeared and the ensuing pattern of geographical expansion, but wherever it began, by 1956 there were Teds all over Britain. Teddy Boy clothing consisted of long 'drape jackets' (similar to frock coats but usually in darker colours, though as the fifties progressed lighter colours became fashionable). These sometimes featured black velvet accents on the collar, pocket flaps and cuffs, and were worn with high-waisted trousers, often short enough to show the socks. Footwear included highly-polished black toe-capped shoes, heavy brogues, and 'brothel creepers', crepe-soled shoes, often made of suede (originally from Eaton Clubman). Bootlace ties and fancy waistcoats were also incorporated, almost certainly from American Western films. The look evolved throughout the decade, until the Mods and Rockers became the next wave of youth sub-cults in the early 1960s. The Ted uniform was not widely adopted by all teenage boys -however, Teddy gangs would wear the entire regalia. Teddy Girls did not wear a distinctive style of clothing akin to that of the Boys, neither were they influenced by the Edwardian era. Instead, they continued to wear the general styles of the forties and fifties, often with individual modifications according to personal taste.
Although Teddy Boys are associated with rock 'n' roll music today, their style predated it: the early Ted music was not rock 'n' roll, which did not arrive from America until the mid fifties, but skiffle and jazz. For example, The Creep, a big band record by Ken Mackintosh which came out in 1953, was immensely popular with Teds, who invented a shuffle dance to go with it. When rock 'n' roll made its appearance, it was enthusiastically adopted by the younger generation, and Teds in particular, who would flock to dancehalls. My mother recalls the Teddy Boys who appeared at the Hammersmith Palais when she and my father used to go dancing there. My Dad wore a dark two-piece suit, collar and tie, and flat shoes, but the Teds flaunted their distinctive garb. They had a reputation for starting trouble, so my parents used to quit the dance floor once they appeared.
Towards the end of the decade the new Italian suits became increasingly popular, and as the Teds correspondingly dwindled in number, their outfits became more extreme. Colours were brighter, lapels narrower, velvet accents became more common, and trouser turn-ups grew very wide, up to 14". This set the tone for the second generation of Teddy Boys who appeared during the rock 'n' roll revival, with loud outfits betraying a glam rock influence. Teds flocked to the London Rock and Roll Show on the 5th of August 1972, and later 5000 of them converged from all over the country to march on the BBC on 15th May 1976 as part of an (ultimately successful) campaign for more rock 'n' roll airtime. Teddy Boy Weekenders began in 1979, with a debut event in Caister, Norfolk, followed by regular events at the White Hart pub's Tennessee Club in Tottenham, and Teddy Boy associations (The Edwardian Drape Society and the Manchester Peacock Society) were formed.
As a teenager in the seventies, I witnessed the revival first hand. I bought a K-Tel rock 'n' roll compilation double album and learned the basic dance steps. Thick-soled beige crepe brogues were readily available from high street shoe shops then, and I had a bootlace tie, an old black dinner suit, and swept my hair back -the core look also worn by the other young Teds whom I saw at school and on the street. Just after my Ted phase I was a Saturday boy at Marks & Spencer in the Edgware Road, and one of the supervisors had a son about two years younger than me. One day in 1978 she came in and told me about his encounter with punks on the Tube, who surrounded him and cut up his drape coat.
Today in England there are vast numbers of diverse youth sub-cults, absorbing influences from everywhere. Back in the early fifties there were films and radio, magazines and newspapers, but virtually no television and, of course, no internet. However, English youth still managed to devise a totally unique and striking look, illustrating the point that many English people are not in fact conservative, but flamboyant. Teddy Boys were flash, especially on their home turf - the streets. The cycle of Edwardian-influenced fashion has recently turned again, for in the first decade of the new century frock or drape style coats appeared on the streets once more, this time with zip-neck cardigans, not the dressed-up look of the Teddy Boys. In summary, there are three distinct groups of Edwardian styles: the original Edwardian costume from the reign of Edward VII; the Edwardian Revivalist of Savile Row, possibly better called Neo-Edwardian; and the Teddy Boy of the working class.
The sub-cult today has some young adherents, but many are the older Teds of the seventies. The weekend festivals that take place all over Europe (for there are now Teds beyond the shores of England) resemble re-enactment gatherings, manifestations of English eccentricity. Society first saw the Teddy Boys as a threat or menace to order, like punk rockers in the mid to late seventies, with their shocking appearance and behaviour. Now, we tend to look back and see them as rebellious pioneers, making a potent fashion statement which could very well have been the first time that teenage boys consciously developed a style of clothing that differed from that of their fathers.--Alexander J. Betts
Sources include conversations with those who lived through the various Ted eras, personal recollections, and http://www.edwardianteddyboyassociation.com/page2.htm, which also contains some of the photographs referenced in this article.
Copyright © Alexander J. Betts 2012.
Copyright © Alexander J. Betts 2012.