Fifties Fact or Fiction          

Teddy Boys - Rockers or Shockers?

by Anne Moore

In Britain in the 1950s, and stretching through to the early 60s, there arose a phenomenon to which I was drawn in fearful fascination – the Teddy Boys. As a child growing up in Belfast, I was too young to participate in this teen aged, semi rebellion, though I did manage to acquire some fluorescent ankle socks in shocking pink, vibrant orange and lime green. The dye gave me athlete's foot, so sadly, I had to go back to the plain old, boring old white cotton.

But what were these creatures, of whom parents warned us, we should avoid at all costs? They could be dangerous and they were certainly different. In a post-war Britain of bombed out cities, rationing of food and clothing dull de-mob suits, they challenged the austerity and sought to be stand out from the crowd. The name applied to this colourful resurgence is rooted in the Edwardian era, and the style and fashion they adopted were a modernisation of that earlier age. Here are some of the terms which crept into the language, together with an interpretation. Who knows, you may recognise or remember them:

Drapes - A long jacket, down to the knees, often brightly coloured, or even pastel, with velvet lapels.

Drainpipes – Tight matching trousers, thus you have your Teddy Boy suit.

Beetle-crushers/brothel creepers - shoes with very thick crepe soles.

Quiff – A hair-style in which the front of the hair was long and swept up on top, well greased, usually with Brylcreem. Think of Gene Vincent, maybe early Elvis and you have an idea. An extravagant version, where the mighty quiff was so long that it drooped over the forehead right down over the eyes, was called an Elephant's trunk!

D.A. - Duck's Arse, referring to how the back of the hair was combed, resembling the way a duck's tail feathers fold.

Flat Cap – Pretty self explanatory, though these were not the usual tweed or checked affairs commonly worn back then. No, they were striped blue and black or red and black.

So now you have a picture of what the sartorially elegant Teddy Boy was wearing. The Teddy Girl was around too, of course, partner in fashion, and allegedly in crime. Some wore tight, short skirts, those bright ankle socks and flat ballet-pumps, and always chewed gum and got cheeky with their elders. Others might have huge numbers of underskirts (bristling with lace and starch) which lifted their full skirts out and high. All wore very tight jumpers, sweaters or blouses, designed to outline the high, pointed breasts that were so necessary then. Mothers worried that younger daughters would seek to emulate these girls, the reputations of whom were not exactly pure. Fathers threatened all sorts of retribution if older daughters expressed an interest in the fashion of such young ladies!

As with most young people, they tended to go around in groups, often described as gangs and considered to be “ready to rumble”, being well provided with ingenious weaponry. Legend has it that razor blades were hidden in the peaks of the caps, slipped under the stitching. Bicycle chains were draped under the lapels, ready to whip out and injure an opponent. Fish hooks would be concealed inside the velvet lapel tops, so anyone grasping this part of the apparel would find themselves stuck, with the hooks in their hands, enabling the Teddy Boy to deliver a disabling head-butt straight at their enemy!

Possibly, this is all a bit of a myth, the stuff of urban legends. I am happy to state that I never heard of or saw any Teddy Boys employing their ingenious weapons to the detriment of others. This is not to say that they didn't – it just was not the norm in Belfast, and of course I am looking back with my marvelous rose tinted spectacles on. My memories are centered around the music, the style and ebullience of this iconic youth culture.

An abiding image for me, is that of a dark haired, handsome boy, in a cream suit, trimmed with brown velvet, dancing at my cousin's wedding. The music could have been Bill Haley, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, I forget, but it was exciting. His petite partner, pink skirts and starched petticoats flying, was swung, slung, moved and controlled in a brilliant display of musical interpretation – they were Jiving! Not a beat was missed, eyes and hands in contact, feet in synchronization, a vibrant, enthralling declaration in dance. “Here we are, alive and full of hope, despite the ravages of war.”

I think the Teddy Boys were the first real manifestation of a youth culture, where young people dared to be different from their parents. The boys were happy to dance alone, struttin' their stuff in a solo bop. They made rock and roll OK for the rest of us to enjoy, brought colour and style into fashion, paving the way for the even more exciting and diverse 1960s. I have it on reliable authority that they eventually morphed into the Rockers, of Mods and Rockers fame in the 1960s. The music still lives, the boys are grandads now , but hey, Rock On!

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