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  • The Great British Teddy GirlsKen Russell's Forgotten Photographs
  • Curio Cabinet

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Ken Russell, The Last of the Teddy Girls, Iris Thornton, 1955, © 2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell

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When the Second World War ended in 1945 after six years of conflict, it quickly became evident that Britain had paid a high price for victory. The nation's wealth was severely depleted. The German blitz had destroyed large swaths of English countryside and many cities were reduced to ash and rubble, resulting in a dire housing shortage and a reduction in the number of functioning factories and stores. Postwar London resembled the city of Charles Dickens's novels, with overcrowding, rubbish-filled alleys, poor sanitation, and only intermittent running water and electricity. Social services struggled to serve the physically and mentally scarred people who grappled with loneliness, illness, and bereavement. It was also clear that the responsibilities of a large empire were handicapping the home economy. During the Age of Austerity, as it came to be known, meat and petrol were in short supply and sold at high prices, while basic household necessities such as milk, butter, and sugar, as well as clothing and shoes, were rationed. After almost ten years of impoverishment, austerity finally began to recede. Unemployment decreased, and the working and middle classes were able to participate in consumer culture for the first time in decades.

In 1953, from this new era of affluence grew an interesting social phenomenon, a New Edwardian cult of working-class aristocrats nicknamed "the Teds" by the Daily Express. The rise of the Teds youth culture closely tracked the dramatic improvements in Britain's standard of living. Disenchanted with the drabness of postwar Britain, the country's working-class teenagers, who lived amid still-to-be rebuilt bomb sites, created a new culture for themselves with a stylish look, shared interests, and a unifying worldview. With well-paying blue-collar jobs and lodging provided by their parents, they had disposable income for leisure and even luxuries. A significant percentage of their pay went toward clothes, cosmetics, and entertainment.

Television gave the Teds a window into a new, fast-paced world, and they wanted to be included. Rather than tying themselves to work and family as their parents had done, they threw off the shackles of the past and lived at a furious pace. They cultivated an antibourgeois attitude with "Bullocks to the system" as their mantra. Television introduced them to their teenaged American counterparts, whom they identified with particularly in music. The soundtrack of the Teds' new lifestyle was the rock and roll of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley. [End Page 70]

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Ken Russell, The Last of the Teddy Girls, 14-year-old Jean Rayner in the Exploratory Stage of Teddyism, 1955, © 2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell

The Teds became trendsetters, with a fashion aesthetic inspired by the Edwardian look of the upper-class elite mixed with a relaxed American attitude. They also incorporated accessories—watch chains, chunky belt buckles, and bolo ties—inspired by Westerns, which dominated British television in the 1950s. Several tailors had wrongly assumed that after the war, officers returning to their white-collar jobs would adopt an Edwardian style of dress. When the trend did not catch on, they were left with a surplus of suits, which they sold at deep discounts. Fashion-crazy Teds bought them up and had their mothers alter the garments to meet their needs. Men's dress featured the Edwardian drape jacket in somber colors, the hem hitting lower on the thigh than a standard suit coat. Button-down shirts were worn with high-waisted trousers or peglegged [End Page 71] jeans hemmed at the ankle, exposing white socks and thick-soled Oxfords.

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Ken Russell, The Last of the Teddy Girls, Iris Thornton, 1955, © 2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell

The older generation criticized the young men for looking too effeminate, while the women were condemned for being too masculine. The Teds' feisty female counterparts, known as Judies, cultivated an androgynous look with their modified...


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