One of the least discussed matters with respect to the Teddy Boys – both in terms of their origin and the controversy surrounding them – is the question of class. In a sense, it was outrage of the upper classes in having their fashions hijacked by middle and working-class lads. The look’s origins actually go back to the late 1940's when Saville Row tailors attempted to revive Edwardian styles into men's fashions, as a kind of upper class protest to Clement Atlee’s Labour government’s attempts to cut into their heretofore unassailable privilege. Wealthy young men, especially off duty Guards officers and “Oxbridge” students, adopted the style of the Edwardian era. At this time, the Edwardian era had ended only 40 years earlier, and their grandfathers, even their fathers, had worn the style the first time around.
But the look was soon appropriated, first by the middle class, then the working class. It wasn’t apishly copied, as we shall see, but it was enough so that as one toff lamented to the press over a champagne cocktail, “It means that absolutely the whole of one's wardrobe immediately becomes unwearable."
Meanwhile the working class parents weren’t any happier. Their children seemed to be class traitors, emulating the upper classes and thumbing their noses at Clement Atleee’s austerity programs. The flamboyant – and expensive – outfits of the Teddy Boys (and Girls) flew in the face of the efforts of the war generation to “make do,” “get by,” “pull together,” and “keep calm and carry on.” Their individuality seemed to thumb its nose at the idea of everyone uniting – to the point of being carbon copies of one another – for the common good.
As a result of their flamboyant dress, their masculinity was also brought into question. It should be remembered that only a few years before the emergence of the Teddy Boys, military uniform and shorn hair of the British soldier had been the index of “norm” of masculinity, and many still considered the lantern-jawed, short-haired, rough hewn man, preferably with a beefy muscularity and a heavy dose of machismo, to be the exclusive prototype of “manliness.”
mode of dress, fussy, longhaired, dandified, was very consciously effete, contrary to the elders’ emphasis on “manliness,” and raised the question of whether their sons might be – horrors! – “poofters.” They weren’t, generally speaking; they were, however, challenging their parents’ parochial ideas about “manhood.”
But how did this style managed to cross the River Thames? It certainly didn’t come directly from Saville Row. The likeliest explanation is that it spread out from Soho. Many young men of all classes, particularly those who were, or had been, in the military (such as Uncle Roddy) went far more readily than their predecessors to "the other side", i.e., the West end – one square mile of vast cinemas, tiny clubs, jazz haunts and juke box cafes – for an evening’s entertainment, invariably ending up in Soho.
Through meetings, either with toff Edwardians from Mayfair, or imitators from Soho,
newcomers picked up and adopted the fashion, partially because they liked the flamboyant look, but also because its aggrandizement related to something in their own outlook, a frustration and discontent that forever nagged at them, that they were trying to compensate for – coupled, of course, with a compelling need to draw attention to themselves. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Uncle Roddy and his fellow squaddies had done a tour of duty in Korea or Malaysia during their military service, though given the number of troops deployed to each area, the odds are good that they saw action in one place or the other, possibly both.
They likely narrowly missed being deployed to Kenya to quell the Mau Mau
uprising. If Uncle Roddy and his mates were amongst those sent into combat, it would follow that they would – at the very least – feel a substantial level of restlessness and discontent once they returned (leaving aside, for the sake of argument, the very real possibility of PTSD for someone like Uncle Roddy, who’d been exposed as a child to bombing raids during the Second World War).
And they needed to cut loose – a way to deal with the demons nagging at them, as well as the malaise that lay before them upon their return. To expect – as much of mainstream British society apparently did – that people who’d lived through something like this would simply throw a switch in their heads and instantly (or nearly instantly) return to normal was unrealistic to the point of being delusional. But delusional was what they were. Many squaddies gravitated to the Edwardian style, holding onto the adage, “What’s outside the beret is the Army’s, what under the
beret is mine.”
But several Army and Air Force units did everything they could to knock the Teddy Boy style (like any other form of non-conformity) out of squaddies and airmen – generally, with very limited success.
With mentalities like the ones expressed (to say nothing of the fact that no one seemed to find any irony in a military commanding officer with the surname “Pine-Coffin”) one might not be faulted for thinking the article was from the Onion (or perhaps Punch, back in the day): Just a put-on intended for laughs, not a straight news item to be taken seriously. But so it was – and the media was just getting started. But first, let’s take a moment to see how the Teddy Boys themselves defined their look.