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Teddy Girls: The Tailored Subculture

Updated: Dec 13, 2022


The 'Teds' ~ Photo by Ken Russell

"No one paid much attention to the Teddy Girls before I did, though there was plenty on Teddy Boys. They were tough, these kids, they’d been born in the war years… they knew their worth. They just wore what they wore.”

- Ken Russell (photographer)







“They knew their worth."


The above remark by photographer Ken Russell about the Teddy Girls, (also known as the Judies or as the Teds collectively), is a critical observation of this gender-defying teenage subculture from the working-class areas of East and West London in the 1940s and 50s. What is particularly telling about this comment is that it references a group who - in the wake of a cataclysmic war that saw the eradication of many societal norms - was operating in a state of defiance, expressing that defiance via fashion and music.

Displaying a specific persona and sense of identity was something that the Teddy Girls and Teddy Boys did very well. As they grappled with postwar life, their style allowed them to assert themselves in a world no longer sure of itself, to declare that they were not to be confused with naive children nor with jaded adults, but were to be recognized as occupying a betwixt and between niche that they filled with their own style and aplomb.


But Teddy Girls went a step further. In the adoption of male dress - albeit with a feminine edge - Teddy Girls were upholding a World War II ethos that the female form was not weak, but hard working. She had no need for delicacy, unless desired.


In contemporary culture, ‘teenager’ is part of the daily lexicon, but there was a time when it was primarily an intimidating and enigmatic buzzword, often in the same Venn diagram as such negative labels as delinquent and hooligan. The idea that those between the ages of roughly twelve to eighteen deserved a specific place in society - one with their own finesse, identity and satirical embrace of sophisticated rebellion - was contrary to Victorian-era thinking.


Teenagers at once did and did not exist. The “term teen-ager dates back to the early 1900s, but the word didn’t stick. Even until World War II, there are hardly any instances of teenagers in the popular press”. And yet, despite living in this seemingly No Man’s Land of being both grown and nameless, the Teddy Girls approached their iconic looks with the kind of introspection and bombastic sense of self that is flaunted across modern social media, again demonstrating how this subgroup both rocked and ignored gender stereotyping in the way we think of as contemporary.


In the aftermath of World War II, teenagers were, for the most part, establishing an unequivocal sense of character, one they were ready to announce. In 1945, the New York Times Magazine published “A Teen-age Bill of Rights”, as proposed by Elliot E. Cohen, who stated that “in the current debate about ‘teen-agers’, the pendulum has swung between 'What is wrong with our children?’ and ‘What is wrong with us?’”. To respond to this bewilderment, Cohen crafted a ten-point charter that, mimicking the American Constitution, set forth such rights as ‘The Right to Have a Say’ About His Own Life’, ‘The Right to Question Ideas’ and ‘The Right to Struggle Toward His Own Philosophy in Life’. While this manifesto was particular to the United States, its philosophies and mantras could be applied to the world of Teddy Boys and Girls, a decidedly British phenomenon that predated the rockabilly days of 1950s America.

To understand the style and particular panache of the Teddy Girls and Boys, it is imperative to understand the world from which they evolved, that their ‘teenagehood’ was parallel to the aftermath of World War II. The war might have been over, but their world was still asunder, with gutted roads and bombed-out buildings. That meant that, to live fully, they had to embrace fashion liberation with confidence, a contrary notion given the landscape and economic reality.



"It was our fashion and we made it up.”


Deviating from the ‘norm’, Teddy Boys and Girls adopted a style that was both second-hand and posh, making them a paradoxical subculture. They were forward-thinking nostalgics who also recognized the elegant flare of yesteryear’s trends. It was in channeling yesterday’s trends that their defiance emerged. War might have modernized machinery and industry, but, the Teds preferred nonchalant elegance to grotesque modernization.

In essence, the Teds “had a put-together smartness that at first feels at odds with the idea of a rebellious teenager, but they were, in fact, ripping up the rulebook (or ration book, as it were) by rejecting the austere approach of a post-war economy”. The Neo-Edwardian look allowed the Teds to cut a cool figure against a landscape of rubble and recovery, choosing for inspiration styles that were in vogue from roughly 1901-1910.

The original icon of the Edwardian style was Bertie, the Prince of Wales and eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, He inspired the look that set a rubric for men in the upper echelons of society. The uniform varied throughout the day, starting with morning coats, waistcoats and striped trousers made of wool serge. But it always promoted elegance. The ensemble included cravats and silk hats, frock coats and lounge jackets; black dress coats and dinner jackets. Because Bertie himself was fond of sports jackets, the Norfolk shooting jacket became the rage with its pleats and boisterous tweeds, thus prompting equally stylish uniforms to be worn when playing polo, tennis, golf and cricket. In an era of industry as well as catalogs and mass market advertising, it was not difficult for those outside high society to mimic these styles, bringing a sense of effortless charisma to the everyday look.

Fast forward to the mid-1940s and such decadence was no longer status quo. For adults, it seemed absurd for young people to aspire to pre-war elegance and for females to channel an elegance that was marked as masculine. But these teenagers were hardened and resilient, with a streak of independence that went beyond music and fashion. Many had dropped out of school and begun working by age fourteen; just as many were also first-generation decedents of Irish immigrants and lived in the poorer areas such as North Kensington and Poplar. Reaching for the flamboyant was an act of optimism. Oh sure, some Teds earned a bad rap from fights that would break out in pubs and dance halls, causing some establishments to carry a ‘No Edwardian Dress’ policy, but, for the most part, it was less about delinquency and more about stylish aspirations that saturated the mentality of its youth as well.


– Maria Grazia Chiuri (Italian fashion designer)


Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls were working class, laboring in factories as shop assistants and secretaries. They acquired second-hand essentials at shops on the Portabello Road, a street that was home to stores owned by ‘rag and bone’ men, (old clothespin and junk dealers), selling a variety of wares. Photographer Ken Russell learned about them through a friend who attended the South Essex Polytechnic and School of Art. After being told about girls who had seized the Teddy Boy silhouette, he set out to photograph this emerging clique of rough-around-the-edges fashionistas. His photos - rediscovered in 2005 - have continued to bring a surge of interest back to this real-world cast of teenagers who not only embraced style at a time when adults cautioned for prudence but who defied gender norms. It is because of Russell that we have names and ages for some of the photos.


There is the iconic image of fourteen-year-old Jean Rayner (below) who is captured casually holding a cigarette off to one side (think titular Bette Davis sass) and staring straight at the camera.

Then there is the image of seventeen-year-old Iris Thornton and Pat Wiles in 1955, wearing the telltale coolie hats, hats that were a take on the paddy or rice hats that originated from Southeast Asia.

Jean Raynor makes a subsequent cameo in another of Russell's photos alongside fellow Teds Elsie and Rosie Hendon. Their setting is a bombsite in Southam Street in North Kensington, West London, a stark reminder that the wartime landscape was part of the teen world long after peace was declared.


While the uniform for Teddy Boys remained fairly standard - drainpipe trousers and long jackets - for girls, the style pushed boundaries of acceptability as they sometimes played around with androgynous looks via boyish haircuts and slacks. Some eschewed felinity while others double-downed on it, relying on such accouterments as clutch handbags and Victorian cameos. While some wore pencil skirts, jeans and ballet flats were a standard uniform. For girls living on the East End, tailored jackets with velvet collars were the norm when available.


So what does this fashion - this wearable art - tell us about this era…about this time and this place? Should students study it at all? The answer is yes, especially because time and place and those visceral reactions cannot be replicated. The fashion captures teens as they wanted to be seen, as individuals determined to defy the omnipresent bleakness and jagged edges of the war’s aftershocks. But the girls especially did so looking nothing like the previous generation of progressive era Gibson Girls and Zelda-esq flappers. Still, it is simplistic to label them as tomboysBut it was also more than being a tomboy in a superficial way. It was about using dress as a tool of disobedience and insubordination. One need only gaze at Teddy Girl gal pals posing for photos in their tailored outfits amid the rubble to feel their cheerful, albeit ballsy, defiance, to revel in it as much as they did.


Their defiance also proves that fashion is not reliant upon a runway debut to establish relevancy. Those snapshots not only immortalized those young adults, they remind history that the vivid character of the rebel teenager should never be dismissed and that challenging social norms and gender rules is much bigger than wardrobe. As Italian fashion designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri, said, “The Teddy Girls were the punks of their time, impertinent characters with wild quiffs who wore Edwardian-style men’s jackets with ample skirts, jeans and black leather jackets.”


In essence, the Teddy Girls were defiant and gutsy, refusing to let the horrors and malnutritions of war force them to prolong a lackluster existence.


They flaunted their survival. And they always did so fashionably.


"Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”

- Bill Cunningham (American Fashion Photographer)



GENERAL SOURCES:

“Teddy Girls: The Style Subculture that Time Forgot”

“Enjoy Your Style ~ Teddy Girls”


“Ken Russell Photographs”

“History of the Teddy Boy & Culture”

“A Brief History of the Teddy Boys”


“The Edwardian Teddy Boy” / “Bombsite Boudiccas”

“Teddy Girls”

“Ken Russell and his Photographs”

“London’s Girl Gangs”

“Ken Russell’s Postwar London”

“The Forgotten 1950s Girl Gang”


“Iconic Style”

EDWARDIAN DRESS SOURCES:




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