I’ve been learning about the Teddy Boys. Most interestingly, about how they were the first working-class movement to alter the course of men’s style. And gave formal tailoring a much-needed kick up the arse.
After the second-world war a generation of youngsters in Britain wanted to cut free and express themselves – and by the fifties, had the money to do it. Their look was taken from a failed trend that was launched by Savile Row: the Edwardian look. The Row had aimed the look at upper-class gentlemen; but the youngsters subverted it, keeping the long jacket and waistcoat but exaggerating the proportions of the collar and narrowing the trousers.
They added short, cutaway collars, bootlace ties and chunky shoes. Their hair was greased and coiffed – most importantly, they were neat. They were smart and took real pride in their appearance. When one set appeared in court, the judge remarked almost with indignation that “this working class group would wear suits and show off”.
It was just such a court case that gave the group its name. When a gang was caught up in a murder, one newspaper cut the headline describing the event from Edward to Teddy, and the name was born.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’ve been listening to ‘Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen’s Men of Fashion’ again on Radio 4, as I mentioned in a previous post. We’ve skipped four centuries since then, from the 1600s to the 1900s.
What was so incredible about the Teddy Boys was that they were such a small, underground group to start with and yet so original and influential. They were the first fashion group to identify with a trend in music (American rock and roll); the first youth group in England to identify themselves as teenagers; the first working-class style trend; and the first time youth took hold of the suit and made it their own. One tailor comments on the programme that the Teds “put more life and energy into tailoring than it had had for 100 years”.
Today, the influence of the Teds is in every youth trend that emphasises the dapper, the neat and the smart. It is in the fun, colourful and adventurous approach to suiting in modern tailors like Ozwald Boateng and Richard James.
And for me it is very English in its restrained style. It is unlike the revival Teds of the seventies, with outlandish proportions and gaudy colours, or the Zoot suit crowd in California, which was much more about ostentation and excess. (The influence of the Zoot’s style is the ego-driven rappers of today, for it was the Zoots that first started wearing oversized hats, big-shouldered suits and jewellery).