by Nick Nourse
The Teddy Boy was the first and possibly the most striking feature of British post-war youth culture. Clearly identified from their dress and hair style, Teds as they became known, were frequently associated with territorial and racist violence, and with rock ‘n’ roll. The connection with music, however, is somewhat misplaced, and the origins of the Teddy Boy movement lie in the early 1950s thereby predating rock ‘n’ roll.
The early 1950s in Britain were a time of significant change: after years of wartime rationing and shortages, full employment, personal affluence and the welfare state took over; but so, too, there was the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb and CND. Such contradictions provided the fuel for youth uncertainty and generated a space in which loud, brash and exhibitionistic youths sought assert themselves. Teddy Boys, and later, Mods and Rockers, filled that space.
The term Teddy Boy derives from a Daily Express headline of September 1953 when the newspaper shortened Edward to ‘Teddy’. The article, and the use of ‘Teddy’, was a reference to the supposed (that is, news- and media-generated) increasing moral panic over violent, urban street gangs whose distinctive chosen form of dress drew on the New Edwardian style in men’s fashion that had begun in the late 1940s. Originally aimed at middle and upper class men about town and reviving the tailored jackets of the Edwardian era (1901–1910), the style was taken up and adapted by young, male street gangs in the traditional working class areas of South and East London in the early 1950s. Coupled with the fashion was a now-common attitude of resistance and rebellion to all things establishment and parental: youth culture as we know it was born. In music and dance, swing and the jive still headlined in popular culture in the early 1950s. But Teds and youth culture wanted an alternative music of their own, and when rock ‘n’ roll blasted out of the new transistor radio and cafe jukebox in the mid-50s, the Teddy Boy movement immediately embraced it and its fashions as their own.
The adoption of the American sound of rock ‘n’ roll influenced changes in the movement’s fashion; out went chukka boots and in came crepe soled shoes. Later, and as the dress fashion continued to evolve, the bootlace tie was adopted from images of American westerns at the cinema, and the DA haircut — a stereotypical symbol of rebellion — was adopted after Elvis Presley sported the same style. In men, though, the distinctive drape jackets, usually in dark colours and sometimes with a velvet trim collar and pocket flaps, and high-waist ‘drainpipe’ trousers, remained the principal identifying feature of the Teddy Boy. In women, whose disposable income in the 1950s was less than in men, the fashion dress of Teddy Girls was rather less exuberant, but equally American-inspired: neat pleated skirts in Terylene supported by bouffant paper nylon or net petticoats, and on top, back-to-front cardigans, tight polo necks, scoop neck blouses or three-quarter sleeve fitted shirts were accompanied by a scarf, knotted cowboy-fashion at the side of the neck.