In mid 1950s Britain the impact of the Second World War was still pervasive. The entire country had been in peril. Evacuations, conscription and death in conflict saw families torn apart. Food, fuel and clothes were all rationed. Even those at home were at risk of being killed by bombs or rockets. The rigid British class structure melted as men in fox-holes huddled together regardless of class, and women at home queued in the same way. Women left the kitchen for the factory or field and learnt to support themselves and their families alone.
When peace came, little changed for quite some time. Husbands and fathers stayed in the army, often still in far-flung parts of the world for many years. Conscription remained in force, with all young males serving two years in National Service from the age of 18. Rationing was more prevalent than at the beginning of actual conflict. Clothes and material were rationed until 1949. Food rationing only began to be relaxed in 1948 and was not fully ended until 1954. Cities lay in ruins and the country was in no condition to begin rebuilding. The girls in these photographs are aged between 14 and 19. They would have grown up knowing nothing but war, evacuation and privation.
Britain was in a state of flux. Labour, the party of the working classes, won the 1945 election by a landslide; its first truly significant victory. The place of women in society was being hotly debated after they had proved during the war that they could handle traditionally male jobs. And generational conflict, exacerbated by visions of the affluent, glamorous US, threw up ‘The Youth Question.’ From this turbulence a distinct Youth Culture began to emerge. When these photos were published the girls were amongst the very first to be dubbed ‘teenagers.’ Before them, a child was a child until they began working, married and left home. Instantly they then became an adult. But life was still very much geared towards children or adults. The newly introduced novelty of television had children’s hour and family entertainment. The much more widespread media of radio and cinema catered similarly.
Teenagers enjoyed dancing to live music in ballrooms, but the music played was not just for them. Orchestras played big band versions of the popular music of the day, and maybe some swing and jazz. No connection had yet been made between a style of dress and a style of music. The Ted Heath Orchestra had a hit with, The Creep, which was taken up by early Teddy Boys. The record and the accompanying dance were so associated with Teddy Boys that for some time the term Creeper became interchangeable with Teddy Boy. Another bandleader, Ken Mackintosh, who wrote ‘The Creep’, recorded numbers such as Edwardian, Silver Dollar and Crew Cut, which were also favourites amongst the pioneer Teds. The Squadronaires and The Kirchins, were amongst other favoured groups. But all these bands needed to please the whole audience and so the repertoire would always include show tunes, ballads, mambo and cha cha. It was a year and three months after publication of these pictures that the Record Mirror announced the formation of “The first Rock n roll Combo in this country.”
These photos were taken in January 1955 in Walthamstow, Poplar and North Kensington: solidly working class areas of London. The girls photographed embody three of the great issues of the time; class, gender and youth. They are rejecting the drab costumes of class conformity and post-war austerity. They are pioneers for women looking beyond home for a place to be valued. They are young girls blazing a trail that will be followed by youth cultures for decades to come. But somehow Teddy Girls as a group remain historically almost invisible. The June 4th 1955 Picture Post article, which featured some of these shots, is the only one specifically about Teddy Girls published in the 1950s.
Teddy Girls have been dismissed even in the most scholarly work on Teddy Boys, The Insecure Offenders, T.R Fyvel (Chatto and Windus, 1961). Of Teddy Girls he says – “…a few of these can be encountered…rather dumb, passive teenage girls. In my glimpses of them they seemed crudely painted up, pathetically young, appallingly under-educated, some of them in danger of drifting into prostitution – in any case as I looked at their expressionless faces, I felt sorry for their future families.” The view that Teddy Girls were no more than an adjunct to Teddy Boys is perfectly understandable at the time he was writing, but was it true? These pictures cry – No!
The history of Teddy Boys in its simplest form is well known. Following the war, nostalgia for a simpler time arose. One aspect of this was a vogue amongst upper class young blades to dress in a fashion recalling the Edwardian era; a period which in retrospect seemed idyllic, a time before the horrors of two World Wars and the Great Depression. In April 1950 Vogue noted – “There is a new almost Edwardian formality in men’s London clothes.” The fashion for elaborate suits with decorative trims, patterned waistcoats and ostentatious cravats was applauded as a new flowering of gentlemanly elegance. These fashionable young men were described as wearing the neo-Edwardian style. In keeping with the fluxive state of society, this fashion jumped the class barrier and was adopted by young men around the Elephant and Castle, young men with connections to spivs and criminal gangs. All of this would have been of interest to very few people until the murder of 17 year old John Beckley near Clapham Common on 2nd July, 1953. The Daily Mirror, September 15th , 1953 reported the opening day of the trial under the front-page headline ‘Flick Knives, Dance Music and Edwardian Suits.’ The connection between violent thugs and Edwardian clothes and was set in the public mind. In the Daily Express, September 23rd , 1953 a new phrase was used to describe violent thugs in Edwardian clothes, ‘Teddy Boys’. The term became shorthand for rebellious or simply boisterous youth. In January, 1955, Rock ‘n’ Roll hit Britain with Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’, via the film ‘The Blackboard Jungle’, and Teddy Boys (or Teddies) became the focus of an even more intense media glare.
As mentioned, in this popular history the Teddy girl is all but absent. Teddy Boys could be identified by what they wore – long, drape jackets and drainpipe trousers – whilst style of shoes, shirts, waistcoats, etc. changed within the subculture. Teddy Girls had no equivalent to the jacket and drainpipes, no simple defining item of clothing. There were, by most accounts, Teddy Boys and their girlfriends. In fact, the girlfriends were usually seen as inimical to the Teddy Boy life. If a Teddy boy became serious about a girl it was expected that he would quit the gang, hang up his drape and settle down. Yet, just as much as the boys, the Teddy Girl was creating a new world for herself. It may be that the Teddy Girl was difficult to see because fashion was naturally considered a female sphere. Working class boys suddenly wearing their own distinctive but rapidly changing fashions were noticeable, but girls changing styles was simply taken for granted. The Teddy Girl, however, is clearly not simply following a male fashion for Edwardian garb. Instead, she wore a variety of personal styles. Cameo brooches and other accessories hark back, but the fact that these girls wear trousers is very interesting. Most surprisingly the younger girls even wear jeans. As the boys look back for inspiration to a bygone era, the girls seem to be looking forward to modernity, out towards the future.
The Photographer In January, 1955, Ken Russell was a photography student at the South-West Essex Technical College and School of Art in Walthamstow, East London. He took the trolley-bus there every day from his digs in Notting Hill Gate. His future wife, Shirley, was studying in the fashion department. A friend of hers, Josie Buchan, was a Teddy Girl and introduced Russell to several of her fellow neo-Edwardians. Russell recalls. “They were great. They were quite flattered to do the shoot, but they weren’t a pushover. They were proud, they knew their worth. They just wore what they wore, and I thought up these little scenes. I’d always hoped to get into films, and thought about photography in a rather cinematic way. I’d done some fashion shoots but I’d always think of the backgrounds, and ultimately the scenes became more important than the fashions.”
Russell also took photos around the area where he was living in West London. These shots feature the younger Teddy Girls on show in the exhibition. At the time, Ken was with an agency called Pictorial Press. They liked his Teddy Girl portfolio, and sold them to Picture Post magazine. They were published in the June 4th, 1955 issue. Up until 1959, he continued to work as a freelance photographer; but by then he had managed to get a foothold in the film world via his own ‘picture stories’ (series of photos with a narrative) and his own self-produced shorts. These led to work for the BBC. In the following years he made some of the most innovative and controversial films of the era, including, The Devils, Women In Love, The Music Lovers, Tommy and Altered States. He still makes films at his ‘Gorsewood’ home studio in the New Forest. But ultimately, the luminous, gustily elegant portraits and their subjects on show here, deserve to be remembered alongside his more famous work.
We named the exhibition, ‘Bombsite Boudiccas’, as a nod to a quote from a prosecuting magistrate during the Mods and Rockers confrontations of the 1960s. He called the young men he was sentencing, ‘Sawdust Caesars’. The title is particularly appropriate as the Ancient Briton queen, Boudicca, fought the Romans in what is now Essex and East London.
Curators: Judy Westacott and Joe Cushley
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