VELVET JACKETS AND BRYLCREEM. BUT ALSO BOLO TIES, CREEPERS AND SWITCHBLADES. TEDDY BOYS WERE THE DANDY GANGSTERS WHO DIDN'T STOP FASCINATING FASHION SINCE THE 50S. WITH HIS PHOTOS, CHRIS STEELE-PERKINS EXPLORED THE 70S REVIVAL OF THIS CONTROVERSIAL SUBCULTURE.
It was the 50s, and Brylcreem and rock’n’roll were life-essentials when, in England, Teddy Boys forged the first youth subculture to have its own proper stylistic code. A sort of brand new dandy, the Teddy Boy gave birth to a unique style through a striking mix & match of elements grabbed from earlier cultures: Edwardian inspirations were translated into velvet jackets with a classic and elegant cut and combined with unusual accessories, such as the american westerns’ bolo ties, and with an iconic hairstyle that saw hair gathered at the front to form a “V” and a large use of Brylcreem.
The attention to detail was meticulous so that often the jackets were bespoke tailored. The shoes were Eaton Clubman or creepers and the cigarette trousers’ cut often revealed the socks. In short, it shouldn’t be hard to understand how the style of this subculture has influenced fashion over the following decades – and still does. Difficult to label, in the popular imagination the figure of Teddy Boy was standing right between the delinquent and the eccentric. The extreme care for the look and the adoption of elegant references represented, in fact, a contrast to the strong subversive spirit that animated this subculture, whose vision was rooted in the unstable climate of the post-war period and fed on rock music and a deep desire for challenging the old generation.
The Teds were organised into gangs and sowed dissent looks and concern, engaging in fights, vandalism and raids, armed with switchblades. Crushed lamps on trains’ coaches, stabbing in the parks, gang fights, arrests: the Teddy Boys worried the authorities and the press began to paint them as criminals. Some clubs even introduced signs that read “no Edwardian clothes and shoes with rubber soles are allowed” The Teddy Boy culture began to go down relatively early, around the early 60’s, but it wasn’t meant to be just a flash in the pan. A little later, in fact, ‘original’ Teddy Boys’ children began to look at their parents’ past with admiration and wanted to replicate it. Thus, the Teds returned so widely in vogue in the ’70s, in a glorious revival. It was during this period that photographer Chris Steele-Perkins decided to make this subculture the subject of one of his most famous projects.
Everything began when a magazine commissioned him a series of shots captured in the smoky bars commonly frequented by Teddy Boys in order to document their comeback. This work intrigued Perkins so much he was pushed to continue and make it a personal project, which resulted in a photo book, The Teds, published for the first time in 1979, a charming documentary collection of black and white photographs. In various interviews, the photographer said that although it didn’t start from a spontaneous idea, the figure of the Teddy Boy had always populated his vision. During the first generation of Teds fact, in the 50s, Perkins was still a child and his father used to “threaten” him by saying he would call the Teds to scold him.
When he embarked on this project and portrayed the new generation, those who the original Teds used to call ‘Plastics’, the style had already improved and new elements were added, especially inspired by glam rock and by the punk scene. The colours thus became brighter, studs and leather accessories more and more frequent, and hair spray took the place of Brylcreem. The new Teds’ punk spirit called the attention of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, who proposed this style in their London boutique “Let it Rock”, in King’s Road. Despite the renewed style and some reservations by the first generation of Teds, the 70s’ wave managed to revive the original energy, and through his photographs Perkins was able to capture the true essence of this subculture, making it known to the world and helping to create the myth.