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6 February 2024

The invention of the Teddy boy

How the subculture emerged from postwar London’s tribal landscape of fashion, class and violence.

By Jon Savage

Just over 40 years ago, in October 1983, Time magazine’s European edition led with a cover depicting a feral Mohican punk, there to embody “The Tribes of Britain”. The story inside defined various youth subcultures – punks, skinheads, mods, rockabillies and Teddy boys – as “a symbolic throwback to the original tribes of Britain”, warring factions defined by costume and class that could explode into violence at any point. For decades in British life, as Max Décharné correctly states, “Clothing was a serious business, and could have consequences.”

The progress of the Teddy boy can be marked by diminutives. Initially referred to as Edwardians in the early Fifties, they became typified as Teddy boys and finally reduced to Teds. There had been previous youth groupings marked by dress and behaviour, such as the late-19th-century scuttlers and hooligans, but the Teddy boys were the first postwar British youth culture to arise out of the people – initially the inner London working class – and to be marked by their detailed and precise clothing style.

The classic Teddy boy era is bookmarked by two violent events: the Clapham Common murder of July 1953 – a cause célèbre recorded in The Plough Boy by Tony Parker – and the Notting Hill Gate race riots of late August and early September 1958. Throughout his survey, Décharné seeks to challenge the Edwardians’ notoriety for violence and is largely successful in redressing the popular view of the Ted, handed down over decades, as a thuggish brute. But the evidence of violent behaviour is there and the association remains.

The subculture’s origin, like that of the mods, is – befitting its organic nature – cloaked in mystery. Décharné traces the first Edwardians as a confluence of existing bad-boy wear adopted by wide boys, spivs, and cosh boys – usually flashy, with exaggerated shoulders and loud ties – and a ration-busting upper-class style for men promoted by Britain’s tailors from 1948, marked, inter alia, by velvet collars and stovepipe trousers. Throw in the drape shape worn by Forties jivers and boppers, and you have a distinctive look that challenged postwar social norms.

Teddy Boys is excellent on the social conditions within which the style evolved. The postwar period in Britain was grim, particularly from a youth perspective: no wonder that a significant proportion wanted to emigrate. National service still loomed as an enforced obligation. Rationing was still in force in the early Fifties, and the urban environment was still blasted by the Blitz. All of the Teddy boy cohort – born in the mid to late Thirties – had lived out their childhoods during six years of war, with God knows what psychological impact. 

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However, as Décharné notes, jobs were “increasingly easy to come by, not least because the population was depleted by wartime casualties”. Filching what was an upper-class style – and, there is evidence to suggest, a look taken up by some of London’s gay population – and adapting it to the needs and desires of working-class teenagers was an inspired act of defiance, assertion and, indeed, mocking revenge. It was a product of comparative affluence, and seen as extravagance: not the way that the young were supposed to act in an age of austerity.

Although the Edwardian subculture existed prior to 1953, the Clapham Common murder was the type’s “origin story”. This teenage tragedy – with its gang behaviour and insults about clothing escalating to violence and murder – was explicitly connected, in the press, with the new youth manifestation. As the Daily Express reported, “It was what was described as an ‘Edwardian’ suit that led to death of Beckley and to Coleman’s appearance on a murder charge… The suit consisted of tight, peg-top trousers and a closely fitting jacket with a high neckline buttoned right to the top.”

The “blizzard of publicity” that surrounded the trial of the Edwardian gang – known as the Plough Boys after the pub they frequented – cemented the linkage of strange clothes with serious violence that the sociologist Stanley Cohen later defined in the book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. By spring 1954, press reports about Edwardians – or as they had been diminished in familiarity, Teddy boys – were common, as newspaper columnists, cartoonists and radio comedians got in on the act. This helped spread the look among young people around the country.

Negative associations such as the unpalatable annexation of public space, mockery of authority and even effeminacy were all dumped on the Teds’ well-padded shoulders during 1954. In the midst of this moral panic, the experienced reporter Hilde Marchant wrote a Picture Post piece headlined “The Truth About Teddy boys”. Instead of brutish thugs, she found a group of stylish young people enjoying themselves at a Tottenham dance hall: “There is a vast majority of young men who merely wish to wear Edwardian clothes as a change from boiler suits and factory overalls.”

The accompanying photos, by Joseph McKeown, give a very different picture to the lairy stereotype. The Teddy boys and their female counterparts look fantastic: pin-sharp, dandyish, proud. Add the extraordinary Ken Russell photos of Teddy girls from a Picture Post article a year later, where a group of 14- to 19-year-old women were pictured in bomb sites around north and east London, and it’s clear this was a style marked not just with menace but with what David Mitchell in the Picture Post called “mass elegance”.

The arrival of rock ’n’ roll in the UK with the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle and its accompanying Bill Haley soundtrack hit, “Rock Around the Clock”, brought a fresh level of attention to the subculture. Before the onset of rock ’n’ roll, Teddy boys listened to blowsy big-band jazz: most famously, “The Creep” by Ken Mackintosh and His Orchestra. Hearing “Rock Around the Clock” on huge cinema speakers demanded a physical and enthusiastic response, and young audiences reacted with behaviour castigated as unseemly by the authorities.

Already yoked to youth consumerism, the Teds were linked to this new music, with its fresh opportunities and double-edged media exposure. In the popular press, Teddy boys and rock ’n’ roll were indivisible: both raucous, loud, animalistic – a proper youth Armageddon amplified even further when the film Rock Around the Clock opened the next year to rowdy scenes. As one columnist wrote: “What is the peculiar quality of Rock Around the Clock that it should provoke our young people to such a frenzy that they behave like savages?”

Indeed, in 1956 the term Teddy boy became ubiquitous in the media and the culture: on TV, in the newspapers, in children’s comics, in novels. By 1957 everybody had an opinion about Teds, which was the moment when the style – already five years old – began to become obsolete, the province of Johnny Come Latelys and diehards. By 1958, its successor was being promoted: the neat, precise Italian look – the precursor of the modernists, later mods.

By that time, the Teds had become associated with brutish violence, most obviously in Colin MacInnes’s picaresque 1959 novel of British youth types and the Notting Hill Gate riots, Absolute Beginners. Lines were being drawn, and the Teds appeared to be on the wrong side. Décharné is careful to note that Teds were not the only people taking part in the racist violence, but gives evidence that they were involved. In pop-culture terms, this association with the riots proved the Teds’ death knell.

The Teds persisted as a rump throughout the Sixties and had a revival in the Seventies, with leading pop stars revisiting Fifties styles in songs such as Wizzard’s “See My Baby Jive” and films such as That’ll Be the Day. This increased visibility led the Ted revivalists into conflict with the newly emergent punks, whom they hated for appropriating elements of their precious costume and despised for their effeminacy and weirdness: epithets that had been thrown at the original Teddy boys 20 years earlier.

Forty years on from Time’s “Tribes of Britain” article, the style wars have been replaced by culture wars. Décharné’s book is a loving reclamation of an important youth type – now seen as reactionaries, but who were groundbreakers, in their early phase at least. Most of all, in focusing on the late Forties and early Fifties, Teddy boys illuminates a fascinating and still under-explored period in British youth culture and social history.

Jon Savage’s books include “Teenage: The Creation of Youth, 1875-1945” (Faber & Faber) and “The Secret Public: How LGBTQ Performers Shaped Popular Culture (1955-1979)”, forthcoming from Faber & Faber in June

Teddy Boys: Post-War Britain and the First Youth Revolution
Max Décharné
Profile Books, 336pp, £25

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[See also: The darker side of Bob Dylan]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?