Before the mods and rockers, and long before the hippies, skinheads and punks, came the Teddy boys. This sub-class of disaffected youth was associated, throughout the 1950s, with all manner of social evil. Even in the following decade, my sheltered suburban childhood was haunted by dark rumours about them, creatures perceived to be the embodiment of juvenile delinquency and the decline in the nation’s moral fibre.
In his genial and entertaining Teddy Boys, rock journalist Max Décharné takes a calm look at the phenomenon and strips away the myths that coloured it. He pooh-poohs the idea that the Teds were egregiously criminal or violent – albeit some might feel that he is too ready to interpret them as “normal, fun-loving teenagers” rather than public nuisances, which they clearly often were.
Décharné is much more persuasive, however, in tracing their origins through a tradition of dandyism stretching back to the Georgian era and the Wide Boys of the 1930s. What distinguished the “Teds”, beyond their working-class male identity, was a meticulous dress code, which became possible with the lifting of wartime rations on clothing in 1949. The uniform they developed was a reaction against austerity, Edwardian in inspiration (hence the sobriquet of “Teddy”, first noted by the Daily Express) and based on long drape jackets and stovepipe trousers: to these, they added “Slim Jim” string ties and crepe-soled suede “brothel creeper” shoes (the latter also reportedly favoured by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh), and crowned the lot with hair slicked back in a quiff and shaped with Brylcreem. None of this came cheap: Teds spent as much as 40 guineas, Décharné writes, on their bespoke outfits. There was nothing improvised or shabby about their style.
But mannerly behaviour did not accompany the elegant tailoring, and by the mid-1950s, the tabloids were daily running lurid stories about hooliganism in cinemas and dance halls, fomented by gangs of feral Teds armed with coshes or bicycle chains. In 1958, a group of them played a culpable part in the Notting Hill race riots, but there’s no doubt that they were often unfairly stigmatised. Alcohol isn’t mentioned in the reports Décharné cites as a major issue, and drugs had yet to become widely available: their fisticuffs and vandalism were seen as the result of attitude rather than intoxication. Letter columns, then as now, proposed the remedies of corporal punishment or tougher National Service, and deplored the closure of youth clubs and the abdication of parental responsibility.
What did provide the focus, however, was the advent of American rock ’n’ roll – propagated by extended-play records played on the 5,000 juke boxes that sprang up in pubs and coffee bars nationwide. Bill Haley and His Comets’ Rock Around the Clock showed the way, before the messianic arrival of Elvis in 1956 with his first game-changing hit Heartbreak Hotel. Homegrown imitators included Tony Crombie and the Rockets, Billy Fury and Tommy Steele. Jazz aficionados were appalled; big bands went out of fashion and business. But rock had staying power.
Although Décharné’s text is sadly short on interviews with survivors of the era, he has certainly done much digging in the archives. His research reveals how the Teddy boy stereotype became a commonplace cultural trope, journalistically applied to any “angry young man” such as John Osborne’s anti-hero Jimmy Porter, and making appearances in unlikely novels by Muriel Spark and Nancy Mitford. And one is intrigued to know what the “Teddy Boy Song and Dance”, performed by Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye at a charity ball, could have looked like.
Then it was all over. In 1962, two potent new role models for the young male emerged: the super-sophisticated Sean Connery in Dr No, the first of the James Bond films, and the cheerful, cheeky mop-top Beatles in their cool black suits and rollnecks. The Teddy boy style soon came to seem stiff, jejune and unattractively aggressive. Yet something of its sartorial dash lingered into all the subsequent youth-culture trends, and today its signature garments still occupy a niche in the vintage market – a well-preserved drape jacket with velvet trim can fetch £200 on eBay – as a new generation has learnt to relish that swaggering flamboyance.
Teddy Boys is published by Profile at £25. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books