The dashing teenage rebels time forgot
When I say “British youth subculture,” any number of images might come to mind, from the beatnik hippies of the 1960s to the DIY punk scene of the 1970s – a direct response to the former.
But I’m pretty sure that what doesn’t come to mind is a generation of teenage girls dressing like Edwardian dandies and enamored with rock and roll.
These were the Teddy Girls. Also called the “Judies,” they were the oft-overlooked female counterpart to the “Teddy Boys” of 1950s London. The Teddy boys, or Teds, are considered by many to be the first discernable British subculture.
After World War II, there was an economic boom and a move away from the necessary frugality of wartime. Rationing ended and everyone breathed a little easier, returning to frivolous comforts that were frowned upon during the war.
Music, fashion, and media were popular pastimes again, and the British fashion industry wanted to capitalize on this.
The result, for several manufacturers, was the production of posh, Edwardian-inspired clothes marketed toward the young men of the upper classes. Drape jackets, velvet, and crisp button-downs with skinny ties were back in fashion, reminiscent of the Edwardian dandy.
At least, they wanted to be back in fashion. Whoever in the fashion industry green-lit this plan obviously must not have consulted any actual upper-class rich kids because it was an incredible flop.
As a result, most of these clothes quickly made their way to discount racks and thrift stores, unwittingly opening the door for a whole new trend to emerge.
Teen boys from the bombed-out working-class neighborhoods of East and West London latched onto this style and made it their own, combining the sleek, boxy clothes with quiffed hair in the style of American greasers and chunky “creeper” shoes.
And thus the Teddy Boys were born. “Teddy” obviously derived from the Edwardian aspects of their style; these young men quickly made their way to the top of a lot of people’s least-favorite lists.
Upper-class kids were upset that they had taken on a more expensive-appearing style, because what would society come to if you couldn’t distinguish the poor from the rich with a glance? Treating people all the same regardless of class? Insane.
Adults were also wary of the Teds, as they quickly gained a reputation in the media for violence and rowdiness.
Although reports of the Teds actually engaging in fights and riots being pretty few and far between, “Weird Punks Mind Their Own Business,” isn’t much of a headline compared to “The Feral Youth.”
They were soon infamous despite the majority of Teddy Boys focusing their energies on things like concerts and dancing rather than upsetting the delicate balance of London society.
However, all this is just to set the scene for the real focus of this piece. The Teddy Girls were overlooked by media and society and were mostly a mystery to us until Ken Russell’s series of photographs of them was unearthed in 2005.
Teddy Girls were distinctly different from the Teds, but again, reporters were much more interested in brawls than groups of teenage girls going to the movies. So here’s what we do know.
The Teddy Girls were mostly made up of 14-16-year-old girls who also hailed from London’s war-torn working-class neighborhoods. These were girls who had dropped out of school to work, usually at offices or factories, despite their pay being significantly less than the boys’ at only two pounds per week.
Their lives were also much less public, with “feminine” activities primarily centered around the home while the boys had time to lounge on street corners and wander the city.
If the Teddy Boys’ opulent style and gleeful engagement with music was a response to the austerity of wartime, the Teddy Girls were all this and more, raising a direct middle finger to gender norms of the time.
When the war ended, most women were relieved to trade their trousers and masculine clothing in for the skirts and feminine silhouettes considered appropriate for women. Wartime was over, and deviance from the modest norm was no longer necessary, but the Teddy Girls thought differently.
Their style of dress was very similar to the Teds’ with the classic drape jacket, an absolute necessity. In an interview with Eve Dawoud, Teddy Girl Mary Toovey lists the essentials of a Teddy Girl’s wardrobe as “turn-up jeans, a coat, and something to tie around your neck.”
From this base, the sky was the limit, and the girls wasted no time bringing their feminine additions to the table. Tiny clutch bags, all the more striking for their impracticality, were extremely popular, along with brooches, jewelry, and lace-up espadrille shoes.
An umbrella was also an essential accessory, never opened, even when it was raining – or so says word on the street.
Grace Living, also in conversation with Eve Dawoud, recalls “painting earrings with nail varnish to have them match your outfit,” which was unsurprising given the fact that a lot of Teddy Girls made their own clothes.
Money was scarce even without the lowered wages for women, so in the time-honored tradition of punks everywhere, the Teddy Girls filled out their wardrobes with DIY, secondhand clothes, and even garments shared between friends.
They were unapologetically working-class women, and their style of dress alone set them apart from the crowd, but that didn’t bother the Teddy Girls at all. They didn’t shy away from the brash and sensational, also evidenced by the fact that most Teddy Girls had short hair.
They wore their hair in quiffs like the boys, and when skirts and hair lengthened at the end of the war, they pointedly did not follow suit. Mary Toovey even remembers having her friend Rosie Price(pictured) dye her hair blonde.
“I was frightened,” she reminisces, “because my dad would have killed me, so I wore a turban around him to cover that up!”
Personally, it makes me happy that this quintessential hallmark of teenage rebellion – complete with sneaking behind your parents’ backs – dates back so far. I don’t usually feel a lot of connection with women born so long before me, but even in the 1950s, teen girls were teen girls– just like me.
The Teddy Girls were self-assured and pursued the things they liked in a way that was highly unpopular at the time. They accompanied their male friends to concerts and dance halls, collecting records and magazines with the rest of them and heading to the cinema in smartly-dressed crowds.
They congregated at diners to listen to jukeboxes and talk to boys and had a tight-knit community with each other. Us girls do have to stick together.
When Ken Russell photographed several Teddy Girls, he was fascinated by this whole group of youth that everyone else seemed to be overlooking.
Afterward, he summed them up like this: “They were proud. They knew their worth. They just wore what they wore.” This is possibly the coolest description of all time.
What I would give to have had someone say that about me at fifteen.
But unfortunately, the Teddy Girls weren’t remembered by many people other than Ken Russell, whose photos weren’t even found until 2005 – over fifty years later.
The photos have now been published in a book by Donlon Books, available online; even in black and white the self-assured confidence of these girls shines through.
But, as the Teddy Boys fell into obscurity, they took the girls down with them. In a particularly depressing turn of events for a counterculture group, the thing Teddy Boys ended up being most known for was their violence and participation in racist riots like those at Notting Hill, although this was not in any way indicative of the actions of most Teds.
Journalists didn’t exactly have anything to gain from avoiding sweeping generalizations, and by the 1960s, Teddy Boys were a thing of the past and the Teddy Girls were swept away before they even had the chance to be noticed.
Nonetheless, thanks to Ken Russell’s single decision to photograph a group of girls and the few interviews available, like the one with Eve Dawoud, we have a glimpse into the world of this brief, electrifying moment in history.
The idea of a girl gang made up of rock and roll enthusiasts dedicated to going against the grain and smashing gender norms isn’t something we typically associate with the 1950s, but there they were.
Overlooked and belittled, like so many women before and after them, the Teddy Girls were nonetheless there – living boldly defiant in pursuing the things they wanted – and good riddance to anyone who said they were doing it wrong.