The Teddy Boys’ two-fingered salute

  • Themes: Books, Culture, Youth

The postwar revival of Edwardian fashion among the British youth was a rebellion against a world of rationing and restriction.

Teddy Boys on a street in Sheffield.
Teddy Boys on a street in Sheffield. Create: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Teddy Boys: Post-War Britain and the First Youth Revolution, Max Décharné, Profile Books, £25

On Barnes Common in West London, one midnight in the early days of 1955, a policeman approached four men sitting in a parked car. They were wearing velvet-collared jackets, stovepipe trousers, bootlace ties and crepe-soled shoes. ‘Teddy Boys’, he thought to himself. ‘Now then you lot,’ he told them. ‘Get weaving before I pinch you.’ From the back seat of the car came a gruff voice: ‘Shove off fathead. We’re CID.’ A prisoner had escaped and they were laying in wait.

From the beginning, as Max Décharné reveals in his enjoyable new book on the Teddy Boy phenomenon, the ‘Teds’ were associated in the public’s mind with lawlessness and violence. In fact, the name itself first appeared in a high-profile court case in the summer of 1953. On 2 July that year, 17-year-old John Beckley was stabbed to death on Clapham Common in a gang fight with some other teenage boys. The fight started after one of the latter, 15-year-old Ronald Coleman, thought he heard someone disparaging his clothes: he and his friends dressed in Edwardian suits, from which their gang name, ‘The Edwardians’, derived. The girls who hung around with them used another term though: they called them ‘Teddy Boys’.

Kept in the headlines for six months by a series of court cases, what one paper called ‘the exaggerated Edwardian cult’ spread rapidly among the nation’s youth. By the turn of the year, Edinburgh dancehalls were banning ‘all persons dressed in pipe-stem trousers, draped jackets and crêpe rubber soles… as such garb usually distinguishes a troublemaker’.

As Décharné notes, the style wasn’t the problem. The return of fashions from the first decade or so of the century began almost as soon as the war ended: one British paper was highlighting ‘the revival of Edwardian ease and elegance’ in the Paris collections as early as May 1946. Clothes rationing was still in place in Britain – it didn’t end until March 1949 – and most families had to pool their ration books just to buy enough cloth for the bride’s wedding dress. The postwar Edwardian revival, then, Décharné writes, was ‘aimed specifically at the few people rich enough to be able to ignore rationing restrictions’.

What defined the problem was the class of the young men and women who adopted the style. Corduroy trousers were the accepted uniform of the working-class man. Yet here were these teenagers spending most of their disposable income on expensive suits which, one journalist noted with apparent horror, couldn’t even ‘be used for work when they become second-best’.

Disposable income was key. A Picture Post reporter found Teds who earned up to £12 a week; they lived at home and had £4 a week to spend on what they liked. A good suit – Teds’ suits were usually bespoke – cost between £17 and £20. One Ted, who refused to cut his hair when he was called up for National Service – long hair greased into a DA (‘duck’s arse’) quiff was a key part of the Teddy Boy look – said he had spent two years and £70 cultivating it.

Though the Teds were something new – teenagers with both attitude and buying power – they were something old, too. The Manchester Guardian called their attitude ‘the purposeless slouch of the corner boy throughout the ages’, although the purpose was surely clear: an unspoken insolence towards those higher up the ladder. As Décharné argues, their roots can be traced to the working-class flash clothes of wide boys, touts and spivs going back at least as far as the late-19th century.

As for juvenile delinquency, the postwar moral panic about gangs of lawless young men echoes other such panics through history. Décharné sees parallels with the post-Napoleonic period in Regency England, for example. Territorial gangs of teenagers like the Edwardians were nothing new either: in South London alone, the press reported, there were the Walworth Road Team and the Brixton Mob, among others. And then there were the so-called ‘cosh boys’ in the years after the war – young men, often flashily dressed in zoot suits, who brutally coshed their victims before robbing them.

The social problems with which the Teds became associated, then, didn’t begin with them; Teds merely became a recognisable shorthand for them. The solutions proposed revealed little more than society’s bafflement. ‘A new national sport of gravel-pit climbing,’ suggested the Daily Mirror. Birching. Hard labour. More birching. Other ideas were more outré: ‘well-chosen poetry well read at youth clubs’, suggested a Lancashire education official; knobbly-knees contests were proposed by a dancehall owner in Luton.

Where are the Teds themselves in all this? Teddy Boys is diligently researched and Décharné has evidently had fun in the newspaper archives piecing together a vivid social history of the postwar years. Precisely because so much of the material in the book is from the often hyper-ventilating press coverage, Teddy Boys is in places as much a history of bourgeois fear of working-class youth as it is about the youths themselves. Even the arrival of rock ’n’ roll in Britain, the visceral shock and wonder of which is well articulated here, in some ways serves to obscure them. After all, they predated it by several years.

It is a shame there isn’t more here about the texture of the Teds’ lives – the coffee shops, the milk bars, the dancehalls – and if and how it differed from their contemporaries. This reader would also have welcomed more about wider working-class youth culture both in the period and the preceding decades. There is nevertheless a powerful, almost poignant, story here about what Décharné characterises as ‘Blitz-era children raised among the bomb-sites… [giving] a two-fingered salute’ to a society that offered little by way of a future, but which nonetheless expected gratitude, acquiescence and conformity in return.

For most Teddy Boys, the style represented a brief swaggering moment in which they could live a life of their own making between the strictures of school and National Service, between childhood and marriage. ‘They’re lovely suits, really,’ a 19-year-old coalminer told the Picture Post. ‘In a year or two I suppose we’ll be married and that will be the end of jiving. We’ll be too busy getting our homes together.’

Cecil Beaton, of all people, seemed to get it. ‘These peacocks are only trying to do what you and I would like to do – make a creative splash,’ he told a literary lunch in 1954. In some ways, perhaps, it really was all about the clothes: working-class youths discovering for themselves how empowering and emancipatory style itself could be. Décharné quotes from Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, in which the lead character Arthur Seaton is a Ted. After a day’s work in a factory, Seaton comes home and proudly strokes his carefully protected clothes on their hangers. ‘They were his riches,’ Sillitoe writes, ‘and he told himself that money paid-out on clothes was a sensible investment because it made him feel good as well as look good.’

In this, as in many things, the Teds were the forerunners of every rebellious British youth subculture since. And, as Décharné points out, unlike most of their successors, they have never been co-opted by the middle class or the establishment: they have always stood to one side, young men in their pomp, always their own people, always proudly and defiantly themselves.


Mathew Lyons