Teenage fashion: Where did all the crazy looks of past and present come from? Who made growing your hair long or greasing it back fashionable? Who ever said that leather jackets were cool? And for God’s sake, who gave Elvis that freakin’ haircut? Well, believe it or not, the majority of the fashions circulating in today’s youth culture begin in Britain following many years of economic hardship brought on by both World Wars. From the sagged out bell bottoms of the hippy generation to the pumped up pompadours of bands like the Clash and the Cramps, youth fashion screams Britain, and one group in particular really made the mark: the Teddy Boys.
During the World War II years in Britain, many of the working class adult men had gone off to fight; this left jobs open for their sons to fill. This is really one of the first times in history that the youth occupied paying positions away from home. (During World War I, industrialism hadn’t fully taken hold yet to provide many jobs away from home.) The lean war years provided the opportunity for these boys to save quite a bit of cash, and when the war ended and the adults took over the job market again, this gave the boys the time to spend all this cash they had earned. This was something that was not seen before, youths with money to burn, which gave them the ability to live a carefree lifestyle away from home (this, in turn, goes hand in hand with the ability to think for oneself, buy what you want to buy, etc.). The modern-style teenager was born.
Among these early teenagers on the streets of London in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s were a growing number of working class youths striving for an identity. These youths took to wearing romantic Edwardian clothes, velvet jackets and ruffled shirts mixed with the very popular western cowboy look of the American west (sounds crazy doesn’t it?). This style was in direct conflict with the gray and drab post-war look and lifestyle of their parents, whom were raised on Victorian ethics. The fashion of these youths was dubbed “the Ted look” (Ted being short for Edward, from the Edwardian style of dress). The first newspaper to use the term “Teddy Boy” was the Daily Express, on September 23rd, 1953. (At that time, Elvis Presley was still just a truck driver.) This smart and dapper style of dress was really the beginning of teen- fashion-conscious culture in the 20th century.
The Teddy Boys liked to hang out at local dance halls in England, and listen to the new sounds that were coming from America, as well as early British soul. They often engaged in street warfare with other gangs of Teddy Boys, using straight razors as their preferred weapon of choice. The groups’ numbers seemed to grow and grow, and the Teds earned a great reputation for fighting and vandalism. As their reputation bloomed, it wasn’t long before American youths were on the Teddy Boy bandwagon.
As in Britain, American youth were ready for something new as well. These teens also for the first time had expendable cash, and plenty of time on their hands (any parent will tell you, complacency breeds delinquency). The American youth took to the Teddy Boy look with their own form and vigor. They took the early long coats of Zoot Suiters and coupled them with thin, stovepipe pants and slim ties. American Teds often wore suede creeper-type shoes with crazy patterned socks; this look in America was partially pulled from the heavy country western influence in music at the time. In Britain and in America, the only thing that could top these crazy looks (and it was quite crazy at the time) was a new, outrageous, grease-ridden hairdo called the pompadour.
The coming of rock ‘n’ roll was almost too perfect for the Teds in both countries. They immediately adopted it as their own music, as did millions of other teenagers of the time. In Britain, the Ted Boy look was still basically the same, but in America it was changing. The long coats and pipe pants had progressed into Levis, white T-shirts and black leather jackets; this was the new bad boy look. Of course, nothing could kill the pompadour: this was still the pride of any Ted.
The movements continued and flourished on both sides of the sea, but the once wild-and-crazy looks had become generally accepted, although probably still frowned upon by conservative adults. The Teds of the 60-70s show that the movements had taken different paths in America and in Britain. American Teds had turned into rockers. Long hair replaced grease, and leather jackets and motorcycles were still popular, but the music was straight hard rock (many of these long-haired rockers later evolved into hippies). In Britain, the Teds had discovered their roots: early rockabilly and country, as well as early rock ‘n’ roll bands that their older Ted comrades had enjoyed. This revival movement in Britain turned the Teds into what was called “rockabilly rebels’” (there was even a small offshoot of this movement that were white power, wearing confederate flags and such; it was short-lived). These rockabilly rebels became the new tradition of British Teddy Boys. (The Teddy Boy term was pushed to the wayside, although the styles and music were the same)
Rockabilly and the rockabilly rebels have flourished in Britain since the ‘70s. The movement, while not exactly huge, has always maintained quite a following. In America, the Teds who became rockers soon became heavy metal heads. The originally Teddy Boy ideals were pushed out, not really maintaining any following. The styles of the original Teds, however, flourished in the rockabilly scene (which was, and is, quite small in the U.S.) and live on almost unchanged.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (once again in Britain) a new movement started from earlier ska and Oi-type music: it was called punk. This too was a flamboyant style of dress: mohawks, leather, bondage gear … and it had its own style of hard-driving, anti-authoritarian music and bands. In the pubs of South London, it wasn’t long before Teds and punks started to mingle (they all shared the same pub space for bands to play) and this mingling turned the scene into something entirely different: psychobilly. The amalgamation of punk, Goth and rockabilly, it is said psychobilly was wholly influenced by the Cramps, but the Meteors were really the first 100% psychobilly band.
Now it’s the ‘90s: psychobilly is really starting to take off all over the country as disenchanted youths and middle-age punks look for an outlet in a music scene dominated by rap and pop. This psychobilly trend is bringing back many of the fashions of the early Teds. You can see it even at popular import stores, such as target, where flame-covered bowling-style shirts dominate the spring and winter fashions. Large, heavy-soled shoes are very popular as well, along with chained wallets, sideburns and tattoos. These are all marks of the Teds, brought to us from late ‘40s and ‘50s Britain. Back stronger than ever.