David Honigmann

Thugs in drape jackets: when the Teddy Boys ruled the roost

Bleak 1950s Britain saw the birth of the first working-class youth counterculture, but the Teds were a surprisingly short-lived – if violent – phenomenon

Teddy Boys on a street in Sheffield. [Getty Images]

In the wake of wars, youth cults spring up, those too young to have fought behaving in a way to scandalise those who did. The Bright Young People were the younger siblings of those who perished, battalion by battalion, on the Western Front. (Come to that, it was after the end of the Peloponnesian War that Socrates’s corruption of the youth became intolerable to Athens.) So when Max Décharné describes the Teddy Boys as Britain’s first youth counterculture, what he means is that they were Britain’s first working-class youth counterculture.

The Notting Hill riots of 1958 were largely blamed on Teddy Boys, possibly incited by Oswald Mosley’s sons 

Décharné sketches in the elements that made the Teddy Boys a phenomenon. First was their distinctive dress: long drape jackets that recalled the Edwardian period, hence their sobriquet. The ‘New Look’ essentially harked back half a century, and as it worked its way down the social hierarchy it was adopted in adulterated or parodic form by teenagers. (Décharné has fun – perhaps a little too much fun – pointing out repeatedly that one dedicated wearer of crepe-soled creepers was Prince Philip.)

This breach of unwritten sumptuary codes was enabled by the sudden rise in youth purchasing power after the war. (Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming zeroes in on this.) Then there was the hair – the quiff at the front, the DA (‘duck’s arse’) at the back, guaranteed to enrage retired colonels and serving sergeant majors at a time when men were still undertaking National Service. As one lieutenant colonel garrison commander reported: ‘We’ve looked into it very carefully, and eight times out of ten the man who dresses like that is the chief troublemaker.’ Teddy Girls apparently often wore their hair pulled into a ponytail, though the book’s pictures tell another story. Third was the moral panic: the book is rich with contemporary newspaper reports, editorials and letters condemning, or occasionally defending, the Teds, with the author providing derisive and occasionally heavy-handed commentary.

The final element slotted into place with rock and roll, invented just in the nick of time.

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