Ken Russell Street Photography 1955

During the early 50’s a new breed of teenager could be found on the streets of London. When Edwardians/Teddy boys emerged across the capital as the first teen subculture their likes had never been seen before. Whilst the bomb blasted and rubble strewn streets they paraded upon still offered a visual reminder of recent world events their attitude, defiance and optimism spoke of nothing but new futures and possibilities.

This new teenage generation of youngsters set out to create a new world for themselves, one that mocked the austerity of the times with a new vibrant, forward looking attitude that would drive a wedge into perceived adult thinking of the day and create one hell of a generation gap. Near full employment and Rising numbers of adolescents keen to embrace change and eager to force a new chapter in Britains history.

Whilst subsequent youth subcultures have borrowed, stolen and manipulated for there own ends elements of different styles from the most unlikely of places to create something they could call there own, the Edwardians as they were initially known, took there cues from the very latest fashions of their time, the twist being these working class ruffians took their influence from styles specifically aimed at the upper classes.

Towards the end of the 1940’s Londons exclusive fashion houses on Saville Row had begun to push a new style to its customers in an attempt to move away from the casual, laid back influence of American style of the day. Aghast at these new influences these arbiters of taste looked to combat this by looking back to pre-war styles, those of the Edwardian period – incredibly smart tailoring with a fastidious attention to detail and quality and whilst these did hit their intended market, in a bizarre turn of events this upper class look began to find favour and grow with small pockets of working class kids all over London.

All this was taking place in the very early 50’s and pre-dated the arrival of rock n roll in this country by a few years. Though particpants did of course parade their latest looks on local street corners and dances they were making do musically with the big band sound of of jazz and swing. Sure they enjoyed jiving to the latest sounds but that in itself did not make you a Teddy Boy (as the media began to call them) and whilst they did later adopt the new rock n roll sounds from America as there own this early scene was virtually 100% style driven, the clothes, the haircut, the attitude were all that mattered. It’s also a misconception that particpating in this new street style scene was purely a male past time.

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Shot in 1955 ken Russell’s photographs capture much more than the standard version of Londons teddy boy culture in that they star the female counterparts of the early male dominated sceneFemale participation in the history of subcultures is often down played. Their often seems to be little space within these scenes for women but as is often pointed out these histories are often written up by males, obsessed with the changes the new subcultures bought to the eras idea of masculinity and how it dealt with the injection of the concept of style. The times dictated something different from young women.

“Female invisibility in youth subcultures then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, a vicious circle, for a variety of reasons. It may well be that girls/women have not played a vital role in these groupings. On the other hand the emphasis in the documentation of these phenomena, on the make and masculine, reinforce and amplify the conception of the subcultures as predominantly make. Our ‘way in’ to the relationship between girls and subcultures, is not an easy one. Secondary evidence suggests, for example, that there were small groups of girls who saw themselves as Teddy Girls, and who identified with Teddy Boy culture, dancing with the Teds at the elephant and castle, going to the cinema with them and apparently getting some vicarious pleasure from relating to the violent nature of the incidents instigated by the Teddy Boys. But there were were good reasons why this could not have been an option open to many working class girls.

Though girls participated in in the general rise in the disposable income available to youth in the 1950s, girls wages we relatively, not as high as boys. More important, patterns of spending would have been powerfully structured in a different direction for girls from that of boys. the working class girl, though temporarily at work, remained more focuses e on home, mum and marriage than her brother or his male peers. More time was spent in the home. Teddy boy culture was an escape from the family into the street and the cafe, as well as evening and weekend trips ‘into town’. Girls would certainly dress up and go out, either with boyfriends or, as a group of girls, with a group of boys. But there would be much less ‘hanging about’ and street corner involvement. In the working class parental value system, boys were expected to ‘have fun while they could (though many working class parents regarded teddy boy kinds of fun as pretty peculiar): but girls suffered the double injunction of ‘having fun’ while not ‘getting yourself into trouble’. The sexual taboo, and the moral framework and rules in which it was embodied continued to work more heavily against girls more than against boys. While boys could spend a lot of time hanging about in the territory, the pattern for girls was probably more firmly structured between being at home, preparing (often with other girls) to go out on a date , and going out..”

From ‘Girls and Subcultures’ – Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber

(Essay in ‘Resistance Through Rituals’)

Inspired by the teddy boys style they took to wearing tailored, single breasted jackets customised with velvet collars but claimed there own look diluting the masculine air of these smart suits with the addition of pencil skirts, clutch bags, small broaches and other more feminine details. Like their male counterparts the look often featured small details specific to the areas they lived in with gangs from different areas of the city adding accessories and details that set them apart from rival gangs from elsewhere in the capital. Russells pictures do a fine job of praising the home grown style of these revolutionary and way out dressers.