Although I’m actually a fan of men’s fashions of the early 1960s (think Bob Mortimer, Vic Reeves’s comedy partner), I don’t have much regard for mod fashions even though I can accept bum-freezer jackets when accompanied by a quiff.
But despite my non-interest in mod fashions I’ve just have to recommend you a book by Paul Anderson called Mods: The New Religion (2014) which you can get for about £15. Unless you’re a mod it really is all you need to know about the mods and all within the compass of one book. I can’t praise our own Ray Ferris & Julian Lord’s Teddy Boys (2012) enough but it is, as they say in the subtitle, A Concise History, whereas Mods: The New Religion is much more expansive and colorfully illustrated. It’s the kind of book we will one day have on the teds and other rock’n’rollers hopefully.
It’s not all just pretty pictures though, Paul Anderson is obviously well informed and enthusiastic about his subject having been a revival mod since 1979. His text is copiously supplemented by testimonies from mods from all periods of the 1960s all of which is pretty interesting stuff. But what should be of most interest to us is the earlier testimonies in chapter 2 ‘Sartorial matters ‘Dressin’ fine, makin’ time’ where there are many references to … teds!
Indeed, one of the most interesting testimonies (p.11) is that of Ken the Beard (born about 1936), by 1962 a mod and a friend of the saxophonist Mick Eve of the Blue Flames (Georgie Fame’s group).
Now, it so happens that last year I met a man who was a great fan of Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers as well as … So-shoddy-shoddy (can’t get myself to write their name down properly!); that was one of the biggest shocks to date of my understanding of what teddy boys are about as I still can’t imagine someone who’s as broad-minded as that being a ted! (Can’t be 100% sure he was a ted, however). Well, the following piece is the second biggest psychological shock I received of late concerning what teddy boys are all about: an early ’50s Edwardian who hated rock’n’roll and who despised the 50s teddy boys.
Ken ‘the Beard’ (probably not nicknamed that at the time) had also been one of London’s first Edwardians in 1952 as well as – territorially – being a member of the Hackney Boys.
“I was one of the first in London to adopt that style in 1952. I went to my tailors in Dalston, fed up with the full drape suit. He got books out with Victorian and Edwardian patterns. I told him that I liked the trousers but I wanted drainpipes with three-inch turn-ups on them. Then I got the jacket made with velvet cuffs and collar. My tailor said ‘Are you sure about this?’ I also had a double-breasted waistcoat made. I wore a shirt that had a Billy Eckstine collar that I’d bought in Cecil Gee’s in Charing Cross Road. Everybody used to look at me like ‘What the fuck’s that?’ Even my mates said ‘Kenny boy, you’ve done it wrong man!’ I knew I was right, and they soon followed. I was an Edwardian, not a Teddy Boy. The average Teddy Boy had a pink jacket with a blue collar, and a bit of a shoestring for a fuckin’ tie. We all had ties, we were smarter. We wore nice brogue shoes while they wore big ‘brothel creepers’. The Edwardian was the smarter dressed one.”
“The early big gangs in London of the Fifties were the Islington Boys with Ronnie and Joey Diamond, the Hoxton Boys, the Hackney Boys and the Clapton Boys. I was in the Hackney Boys.”
“Most adherents to the fashion came from the young unskilled wage earners such as van drivers, labourers or porters.”
“A lot of villains had fruit and veg stalls, you’d be surprised. One day [during the week] you’ve got a cheese-cutter hat, a scarf and a little brown coat on, and then at weekends it would be a big Stetson hat and a Crombie overcoat. We all fought in suits. The Teddy Boys were wankers, they never did anything. When we went and had a fight you’d think we were going to Sunday school. You’d have your suit on, your shoes all polished, cut-throat razor in one pocket, bicycle chain in the other. A bag with a big cosh, a piece of rubber hosepipe with lead in it. That’s how you went out, but you’d come back with your jacket all torn, and your mum would go mad. The gangs were terrible.”
“The movement spread out, westwards to Shepherd’s Bush and Fulham, southwards to Purley and Streatham, Other suburbs gained gangs in places such as Finchley, Kingston and Croydon, eventually reaching cities such as Liverpool and Birmingham. Dance halls began to ban the clothing, but the ideal hang-out for these brylcreemed dandies was the local café. Throughout the Fifties many of the old greasy cafés were transformed into modern, continental-style espresso bars by Italians, Greeks or Turkish Cypriots. Warm contemporary décor, gleaming formica tables, gaggia coffee machines and orange Suncrush fountains drew in teenagers like a magnet, but the ultimate attraction was the jukebox. For the price of sixpence you could play that catchy primitive beat that conjured up images of the Promised Land – America – a fantasy silver screen world of cowboys, glamourous women and gangsters, and a million miles away from the rubble and grime of the street where you lived.”
“I always remember I had a mate called Gordon Fawney. At the Tottenham Royal they had a Mr Teddy Boy contest. Now Gordon was a tall, good-looking boy with nice hair. He’s got a dogtooth check jacket with a velvet collar, tight black trousers, nice shoes and a waistcoat with a watch on a chain. We used to call him ‘What’s the time Gordon’. As for the contest, he pissed it. He just stood there, got his watch out, and we all shouted ‘What’s the time Gordon?’ He won Mr Teddy Boy, but he wasn’t like the others, he was one of us because he was smarter.”
[I very much suspect that Gordon ‘Fawney’ is none other than Gordon Thirley, then a driver by profession, shown standing on the left in this picture showing the finalists of the best-dressed Edwardian competition, held in Tottenham in 1954. Why ‘Fawney’ instead of ‘Thirley’? Fink Cockney and ya’ll see that it ain’t so different as sounds go and the years may have eroded memory of the exact facts. As if by coincidence, it does look like Thirley is responding to the calls of his mates as described by Ken.]
“In 1952, though, Teddy Boys did start to take off, mixing the clothes of an English bygone era with the latest hairstyles sported by the American stars of the day such as Tony Curtis.”
“Anyway, when I was 17 I got called up for National Service in the army in 1953; when I came out in 1956, it was finished.” [Ken’s attendance in the crowd at the best-dressed Edwardian competition must have been during a period of leave.]
“I didn’t like rock’n’roll; I’ve always been a jazz man. Miles Davis was my man, my singer was Billy Eckstine, and I loved Billy Daniels, Ella Fitzgerald and Gloria Lynne. We knew Johnny Dankworth, so we’d go to see him at Ronnie Scott’s [opened in 1959] in Gerrard Street.”
“Fashion changed; I didn’t have a lot of money then, so I had to have my suit altered. I was lucky because of the way the pockets were cut. They cut me suit down, the turn-ups vanished, and I got extended points on my shoes.”
By the early 1960s Ken sported a trendy mod goatee, anorak and a trilby. What a change! [although Joe Goulding, a Manchester teddy boy of the same vintage as Ken remembered that “the Teds used to wear cheese cutters, a flat-sided cap. I used to wear a small Frank Sinatra trilby that you could get for a shilling.” (Ferris & Lord, p.44)]
Comments concerning some details given by Ken:
- Remembering things over a long period of time may lead to the memory being concertinaed which doesn’t help with appreciating the development of styles.
- Teds in pink drapes and blue collars being is not by any way correct a description of the ‘average’ ted of any 1950s period, early or late. A mix up with later 70s teds? Even so, the description would still be far from constituting an average 70s ted. It sounds like disparagement.
- Some of the jazz stars mentioned may have been around in the early 1950s (Billy Eckstine; Billy Daniels who performed at the London Palladium in 1952) but others (Gloria Lynne) seem, rather, to have been late 50s stars.
- ‘Kenny boy, you’ve done it wrong man!’ I may be wrong, but ‘man’ as a term of address doesn’t seem right for Cockneys of the time as much as ‘mate’ or ‘geezer’. Maybe Ken’s subsequent time in the company of the new Londoners has got him to speak here in a more Caribbean style in his remembrances.
- His account of the spread of the Edwardian style among teenage boys may be relatively correct, but if we take him as one of the first Edwardians in inner London 1952 it seems hardly credible from that account of its spread that the style was known in Manchester in the very same year; see Joe Goulding’s testimony below, and point laboured by Ferris & Lord (pp.10–11). Some working-class Edwardian dandies must have pioneered the look even earlier.
All that said, it looks to me for all the world that Ken the Beard’s is an invaluable piece of testimony by one who was an early and original 50s Edwardian, who never progressed into rock’n’roll but stuck to jazz and who favoured the elegant look above the more proletarian look of the ‘teddy boys’ as he calls them. Of course, ‘teddy boy’ and ‘Edwardian’ are terms which overlap to a large degree although one can see at either end of the spectrum sartorial styles which are quite distinctly ‘Edwardian’ and quite distinctly ‘ted’. For Ken, for whom the Edwardian style was “finished” in 1956, we can compare Joe Goulding in the Manchester area, whose testimony is given in Ferris & Lord’s book Teddy Boys (pp.41–45). Goulding, who had been a ted since 1952 also distanced himself from the rock’n’roll era teddy boys; in his own words:
I stopped being a Ted in 1955 because I thought the suits were getting too many accessories, like the velvet, and they started looking cheaper. It was getting commercial looking quick-buck drapes, and not the Edwardian look. Bootlace ties? What the hell have bootlace ties got to do with the Edwardian look? That’s when it got cheap, it didn’t look right.
[The following paragraph gives “about 1955” rather than “1955” precisely and appears to indicate that Goulding’s problem with the velvet was not its existence, but the increased variety of velvet colours being worn from 1955 onwards rather than the black or dark blue familiar to him.]
There’s a lot of insight in Ken the Beard and Joe Goulding’s testimonies on how some of the earliest teddy boys disowned the teddy boys of the rock’n’roll era (1956 – or late 1955 at a pinch – onwards) because the fashion had become less elegant, less Edwardian. Of course, one of the factors which motivated the appearance of the Edwardian look as it became a fashion in 1948 was a nostalgic recreation of the lost glory days of the zenith of the British Empire before the calamities of the two world wars which ushered in the American age. The Edwardian look was in many ways a direct response to the American look which was making inroads in Britain after 1945 and it’s easy to see why many who espoused the Edwardian ideal would have baulked at the gradual americanisation of the look as the fifties wore on. That said, Ken indicates that early teds sometimes wore a Crombie overcoat with a Stetson hat! Impressive, but hardly Edwardian.
The teddy boy style reflected the natural tendencies of individuals to demarcate themselves from the crowd but some, and perhaps many, of the first generation of Edwardian teddy boys abandoned it for becoming too widespread a style as it grew as a societal phenomenon. There was probably also an element of generation gap, with the three or four years encompassing 1952 to 1955–56 constituting the amount of time most restless individual youths in his late teens would settle down to the humdrum realities of work life (as well as family life). The rock’n’roll explosion energised the teddy boy look but the hordes who joined it from 1956 onwards no doubt put some of the first-generation working-class pioneers off the style, in exactly the same way in which they themselves had put the pre-1952 middle-class wearers off the original neo-Edwardian style. And we know that later 50s teds frequently criticised the 1970s teds’ attire … It’s all a lesson in the relativity of values.
POSTED April 2015