Teddy Girls: The rebellious, nearly forgotten style subculture of the 1950s

7. September 2017

They are lounging around in the ruins of the British Empire. Easy-going, a cigarette stub in their mouths, their collars put up: The Teddy Girls.

After they were published in a small magazine in 1955, Ken Russell’s photographs remained unseen for over half a century. In 2005, his archive was rediscovered, and so were these young women.

Die deutsche Version des Beitrags findest du hier: Teddy Girls und Teddy Boys – die fast vergessene Subkultur der 50er Jahre.

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Teddy Girls Industrial

The man who discovered the Teddy Girls

“No one paid much attention to the Teddy Girls before I did, though there was plenty on Teddy Boys,” Ken Russell (1927 – 2011) once said. In 1955, the photographer and film director decided to document London’s Teddy Girl gangs. He was attracted to these women’s sense of style and independence. So he captured their attitudes through a series of photographs, standing on East End bombsites.

The way these teenage girls expressed themselves was completely inappropriate for young women in society these days. Russel’s pictures show strong, stylish, androgynous young women wearing pants and suits, living life by their own rules.

“They were tough, these kids, they’d been born in the war years and food rationing only ended in about 1954 – a year before I took these pictures. They were proud. They knew their worth. They just wore what they wore.” Ken Russell.

One day Ken Russell met Josie Buchan, a Teddy Girl who introduced him to some of her friends. He photographed them in Notting Hill. After these pictures were published in a small magazine in 1955, they vanished for over half a century – until they were rediscovered in 2005.

Among his most famous work produced during this era is “The Last of the Teddy Girls”. This is a series of photos showing characters from London’s girl gang subculture.  In terms of copy right I cannot post Russell’s photos on my site, but you can see the amazing series via this link.

Russell died in 2011 at the age of 84, but his works are clearly important contemporary witnesses of British youth culture in this era.

Teddy Girls Gracy Q
Leipzig-based Designer Anne Kämpfe by Gracy Q was inspired by Teddy Girl fashion for her upcoming autumn / winter collection, coming online on September 25th. In these photos I am wearing the Herringbone Judies Dress (which I wear as a coat), the Rosie Blouse and Notting Hill Trousers. UK ladies get this fashion also in London at Revival Retro. You can find my shoes here*.

I will tell you more about the Teddy Girl looks and this collection in my upcoming October post. A big thanks goes to Robert Strehler, who took those wonderful photos.

Teddy Girls Gracy Q

Where it began: The Teddy Boys

At first sight it seems like a paradox pairing: The combination of aristocratic flamboyancy of an Edwardian gent with the rebellious attitude of American Rock ’n‘ Roll. But it worked. It was a a decade where youth culture was finally shaping an aesthetic of its own, setting the groups apart from their contemporaries.

It was September 23rd in 1953 when the Daily Express published an article entitled as “Teddy Boy”. This is how the new English subculture found its name. “Teddy” is the abbreviation for “Edward”  the Monarch, whose century’s fashion became the example for the girl and boy gangs. Young men and women rediscovered Edwardian suits as their fashion statement – the same garments that their grandparents used to wear half a century and two World Wars before.

This generation of youth rebelled against their parents while standing on the ruins of the old Empire. The Teddy Boys and Girls originated from working-class areas in East or West London. These places were still bearing the wounds of the war with still-to-be rebuilt bombsites all over their areas.

Teddy Girls

Teddy Girls Zigarette

Robert Strehler took the photos with me in Leipzigs Kunstkraftwerk. This old industrial building used to be a heat power station to supply the industry around in Plagwitz and Lindenau with hot water. It was closed in 1992 and nowadays this place is open for modern art exhibitions. 

Teddy Girls Zigarette
Working class teenagers were able to afford good clothes, so they began to adopt the upper class revival of dandy Edwardian fashion. The “Teds” wore long drape jackets, velvet collars and slim ties. Furthermore they paired their looks with thick rubber-soled shoes and the greaser hairstyles of their American Rock ’n’ Roll icons.

The Teddy Boy is a uniquely British phenomenon, but when Rock ’n‘ Roll hit Britain in 1955, the music quickly became adopted by Britain’s Teddy Boys. From that point onwards, the style and the music became inseparable.

Perhaps more significant than the boy’s subversion of upper-class clothing was the girls’ following interpretation of masculine styles. The characteristics of Teddy Girl fashion and how to create this look easily yourself will be the theme of the second part of this blogpost next month.

Teddy Girls, also known as „Judies“, were mostly working class teens or Irish immigrant children as well. While Teddy Boy culture was more focussed on the streets and cafes, the leisure time of the girlgangs was more structured around home.

Unfortunately they were considered less interesting by the media. These were more interested in sensationalizing a violent working class youth culture. While Teddy boys were known for hanging around on street corners, looking for trouble, a young working class woman’s role in the 1950s was still focussed around the home.

Teddy Boys
Teddy Girls

Teddy Girls
Edwardian frills against aristocracy

The ostentatious decadence in times of austerity after the war was also a pointer towards the ruling class. In 1950s, second-hand Edwardian suits were available on sale in markets. The Teds took ownership of the Edwardian Drape jacket, so they soon became unwearable by the upper-class.

This fascinating video shows an interview with a group of Teds in the 1950s, questioned by a reporter about an attack on a Vicar. It seems Teddy Boys all disappear in summer and go fishing! (see min. 2.45)

Despite their smart, gentlemanly style the Teds looked intimidating to the public, in the same way that Al Capone in his fine suits could easily induce panic with a tip of his straw boater. They quickly became associated with trouble by the media.

Only Ken Russell knew exactly who he was dealing with, it seems.

“I never thought of those kids as anything but innocent. Even the Teddy Girls, all dressed up, were quite edgy, and that interested me. They were more relevant and rebellious — but good as gold. They thought it was fun getting into their clobber, and I thought so too.” Ken Russell.

More focus on the Teddy Girls, please!

The Teds were the first group in Britain whose style was self-created.

Though there had been a few youth groups before with their own dress codes, the Teddy Girls and Boys were the first youth group in England to differentiate themselves as teenagers, helping to create a youth market. They went to the cinema in groups, attended dances and concerts, collected Rock ’n’ Roll records or magazines.

Thanks to Ken Russell not only the male members of the Teds have been captured on photographs, but also the long-time hidden figures – the Teddy Girls. Though the Judies were the first British female youth subculture, Teddy Girls as a group remain historically almost invisible.

Not many photos were taken and only one article was published in 1955 in the Picture Post Magazine – using Russell’s portraits – about the Judies. They were considered less interesting than the Teddy Boys.

One of the girls in Russell’s series was Rose Shine, 15 years old when the photos were taken.
“We prinked ourselves because only the Teddy Boys received all the attention. They did not even notice us”, she told the “Times” 50 years later.

Teddy Girls Kunstkraftwerk

Even better that now – with the release of the new Gracy Q Collection – we focus on this subculture again!

The stylish and rebellious girls, whose fashion and look – including a hair tutorial – I will show you in the second part of this post in October.

Teddy Girls Run
A big thanks to photographer Robert Strehler and Leipzigs Kunstkraftwerk for supporting me with these photos.

More posts about vintage styles and fashion: 

1970s summer – Feel the free spirits of nature
An interview with Angelique from Topvintage Boutique – About being a business woman in retro fashion
1940s fashion and how to wear it today

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