As a major new book on Teddy Boys is published, Peter York looks back on the surprising history of the first youth culture to pose a menace to society
In a time gone by – what we intellectuals call the 1980s – I made a television pilot in which we put a Teddy Boy in a sort of museum glass case. An exhibit. Primeval teen. Some people at the broadcaster thought this was a bit cruel – or at least rather snobby. We – the little London gang making the programme in the hope and expectation of a series from a Northern broadcaster – were already only there on sufferance. And by the eighties the Teds had already been the subject of an affectionate revival in the seventies – Mud and Showaddywaddy – and had the constant presence of Shakin’ Stevens in the early eighties charts. This meant middle-class, middle-aged televisionists talked about them as practically national treasures, the first youth culture, rebels without a cause and so forth.
We by contrast – as poncy Londoners – were rather more judgemental. We knew that revival Teds attacked punks wherever they saw them, starting in the Kings Road (our director was deep Londonist Julien Temple, who’d made films about the Sex Pistols while still a student). And we sort of knew that Teds were implicated in the Notting Hill race riots of the 1950s. By this reckoning Teds were a bit reactionary and the opposite of subversive, which was then required in advanced circles – it was what everybody said about Bowie’s androgyny and punk’s apparent nihilism. Teds didn’t have any big ideas to parade and they weren’t remotely ironic.
The popular “narrative” (as people say now) by then had conflated the fifties emergence of the Teds and their distinctive dress code with the arrival of rock ’n’ roll from America (Elvis, Bill Hayley). It was actually more muddled than that. The look came first.
That dress code – it was mainly a boy thing, though Teddy girls weren’t unheard of – was the first post-war teenage look. It had surprising origins in post-war Edwardian revivalism, an attempt by smart tailors to create a New Look to drum up new trade among the gentry. At that level it featured narrow trousers, longer jackets, fancy waistcoats and velvet collars. It was a bit Dirk Bogarde and Dennis Price – ie, actorish – and very much Up West.
But the army officers returning to Civvy Street found it a bit much, while boys from, say, Elephant and Castle, proved less inhibited. So it migrated in the early fifties – downwardly mobile from Savile Row to British South London. There the subtleties were ditched for sexy show-off exaggeration – velvet bits all over – and a number of imported American features (the long jackets became super-long, influenced by the Zoot Suit look). Bootlace ties and brothel creepers – shoes with massive crepe soles – were added. Paul Gorman describes the whole hybrid look in his definitive biography The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren. The first iteration of Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood’s World End shop was called Let It Rock, and sold bankrupt stock of fifties-ish clothing.
The thing that made the style utterly viral in the UK was extravagant hair, influenced by American film stars like Tony Curtis, but exaggerated into massive quiffs, constantly combed, a bit of preening narcissism that made branded hairstyles the key to decades of defiance.
Such Teddy history and more is the subject of Max Décharné’s latest book,Teddy Boys: Post-War Britain and the First Youth Revolution (Profile, £25). There’s plenty of context given here, the author conjuring the world of bomb sites, rationing and the impending end of Empire and British confidence, and depicting the rise of a series of moral panics about a newly identified group: teenagers (an American coinage of the 1940s). Successive waves of juvenile delinquents featured on tabloid front pages and provoked letters to the broadsheets (many suggested corporal punishment and the re-instatement of National Service).
Décharné, a musician and writer, doesn’t concentrate on providing meta-analysis of the material, though he acknowledges the later-thirties and wartime deprivation that this pre-Boomer group of original fifties Teds came from – the world of industrial cannon-fodder and low expectations. It was a decade before the university boom and the Beatles’ fancy talk.
It’s an ambitious title but the big picture gets somewhat lost in an overload of court reports of disorderly conduct. And the publishers should have included many more and better illustrations than there are here. How could you possibly tell Gen Z how extraordinary Teds looked in the fifties world without juxtaposing them with pictures of working class 1949-ers?
Max Décharné’s Teddy Boys: Post-War Britain and the First Youth Revolution (Profile, £25) is out now.
This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2024 edition of the Idler – out now.
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