I recently came across some black and white photos of tomboys with rockabilly hairstyles, posed among the rubble of a traumatized city. After a bit more research I learned that they were “Teddy Girls,” photographed in working class neighborhoods of London (Walthamstow, Poplar, North Kensington) by future film director and then photography student Kenneth Russell.
Part of a post-war London subculture—some argue, the Teddies were the first UK youth subculture—Teddy Boys were better documented and more sensationalized than the girls. Known for a love of American music, they fused Edwardian-styles (early 1900’s) of high-waisted drainpipe trousers, vests, long coats, pocket flaps and slim ties with then-current American rockabilly trends such as sideburns, ducktails and pompadours. Mainstream society considered these working class kids, who spent so much on their tailored duds that they often paid in installments, to be aggressive and uncouth, under-educated teens who came of age during wartime and were living among post-war rubble. The subculture was further imbued with gang-mystique in 1953, after a group of Teddy Boys stabbed a 17-year-old to death near London’s Clapham Common and The Daily Mail published the headline “Flick Knives, Dance Music and Edwardian Suits.” Teddy Boys were also implicated in attacks on the West Indian community during the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.
According to The Times, rather than honing a reputation for violence, Teddy Girls were simply working class. Often they had traded in high school for factory assembly lines or low-wage office jobs. The Teddy Girls in these photographs were friends of Shirley Ann Kingdon, Russell’s first wife, then a fashion student who would go on to become a famous costume designer.
Teddy girls carried closed umbrellas and flat clutches, wore velvet blazers, knotted scarves, rolled trousers, high-necked blouses, cameo brooches, mannish waistcoats, flat shoes and coolie hats. Their outfits were statements of identity and independence and rebellion against the proper, feminine attire of the 50’s homemaker.
These long-lost photos were discovered and exhibited in a London gallery four years ago, and few of the subjects—now women in their 70’s and 80’s—attended the opening. One of them, Rose Shine, who posed for Russell at 15, told The Times: “We weren’t bad girls. We were all right. We got slung out of the picture house for jiving up the aisles once, but we never broke the law. We weren’t drinkers. We’d go to milk bars, have a peach melba and nod to the music, but you weren’t allowed to dance. It was just showing off: ‘Look at us!’ We called the police ‘the bluebottles’ – you’d see them come round in a Black Maria to catch people playing dice on the corner. But we’d just sit on each other’s doorsteps and play music.”
The article is fascinating. Read more here.