CULTURE / December 15, 2018
Teddy Girls: are Teddy Girls Really Part of Subculture
Teddy Girls also known as Judies, a little-known aspect of the more well-known Teddy Boys subculture, were working class Londoners, some of them Irish immigrants, who dressed in neo-Edwardian fashions. The Teddy Girls were the first British female youth subculture. Teddy Girls as a group remain historically almost invisible, not many photos were taken, only one article was published in the 1950s about Teddy Girls, as they were considered less interesting than the Teddy Boys.
TEDDY GIRLS: ARE TEDDY GIRLS REALLY PART OF SUBCULTURE
Back in 1950s, 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 the violent nature of the incidents instigated by the Teddy Boys. But there are good reasons why this could not have been an option open to many working-class girls.
Though girls participated in the general rise in the disposable income available to youth in the 1950’s, girls’ wages were, 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 focussed on home. 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’. Teddy Girl would certainly dress up and go out, either with boy-friends or, as a group of girls, with a group of boys. But there would be much less ‘hanging about’ and street-corner involvement. While Teddy Boys could spend a lot of time ‘hanging about’ in the territory, the pattern for Teddy Girls was probably more firmly structured between being at home.
In 1950s there was certainly more attention than in pre-war youth culture to the teenage leisure market and its accompanying manifestations (concerts, records, pin-ups, magazines), and girls as well as boys would have shared in this. But many of these activities would have been easily appropriated into the traditionally defined cultural space of a home or peer-centred girls’ ‘culture’ -operated mainly within the home, or visiting a girl-friend’s home, or at parties, without involving the riskier and more frowned-on path of hanging about the streets or cafes.
This would lead us to suggest that Teddy Girls were present, but in marginal or at least highly patterned ways, in Teddy boy subculture: but that – following the position outlined above -Teddy Girls ‘involvement’ was sustained by a complementary, but different subcultural pattern. The response of many Teddy Boys to the rise of rock-and-roll in this period was themselves to become active if highly amateur performers (the rise of the skiffle groups), Teddy Girls participants in this culture became either fans
or record collectors and readers of the ‘teenage-hero’ magazines.
WHO WERE TEDDY GIRLS
Like Teddy Boys, these young women were primarily, maybe entirely, working class. Many Teddy Girls dropped out of school at 14 or 15 to work as shop assistants, secretaries or assembly line workers. For that reason there was a public notion of the Teddy Girls being dumb, illiterate and passive.
Their choice of clothes wasn’t only for aesthetic effect: these girls were collectively rejecting post-war austerity. Teddy girls wore drape jackets, pencil skirts, hobble skirts, long plaits, rolled-up jeans, flat shoes, tailored jackets with velvet collars, straw boater hats, cameo brooches, espadrilles, coolie hats and long, elegant clutch bags. Later they adopted the American fashions of toreador pants, voluminous circle skirts, and hair in ponytails. Teddy Girls were rarely seen without and umbrella which was rumored they never open even in pouring rain.
But they were not always as easily defined as the more famous Teddy Boys. Some Teddy Girls wore trousers, some had skirts and others would wear quite ordinary clothes, but with Teddy accessories. Teddy fashions were inspired by the Edwardian period during the early years of the 20th century, so loosefitting, velvet-collared jackets and narrow trousers, with 1950s variations, were hip.
KEN RUSSELL’S PORTRAITS OF 1950S UK TEDDY GIRLS
Famous for directing movies such as Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy, tried several professions, before choosing to become a film director. He was a still photographer, a dancer and even served in the army.
In 1955 Ken Russell was introduced to a Teddy Girl, Josie Buchan, she in turn introduced Russell to some of her friends. Russell photographed them, and also photographed another group of Teddy Girls near his home in Notting Hill. In June 1955 the photos were published in Picture Post magazine.
At college Ken met his first wife Shirley. She was studying fashion design, and went on to become one of the country’s most famous costume designers. It was her student friends that Ken photographed in Walthamstow High Street and the market area. As a budding fashion photographer, Ken was in his element photographing the clothes-conscious Teddy Girls.