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FRAGMENTS IN TIME: 50’S AND THE DAWN OF THE TEEN

Written by Brian James @brianjamesstyling and Leigh Maynard @leighmaynard

As show producers grapple with social distancing at future fashion weeks, home-working wardrobes switch to relaxed silhouettes and the changing retail experience is accelerated by our new normal, we look at how pivotal events transform style history. In the coming weeks, we will explore four critical periods of the 20th and 21st century, that have inspired us and our wardrobes. Fragments in time that shaped the face of fashion. And we ask, where will the new normal take us next.

Standing at the bridge between child and adult, each new generation moves forward into a world of exploration, obstacles and sometimes tantalising possibilities. And though all carry with them, a level of their culture and heritage, young people can also be the ambassadors of transformation, of their future and often of innovation and style, moving towards their future in the recurring social pattern of grow up, sleep, seek change, repeat. 

Teenager, the term synonymous with youth, entered popular vocabulary after it was noted in a 1945 edition of the New York Times. It was a label that became more prominent in the ’50s, where adolescents embraced their new social class and their shiny new moniker. To say that youth style was shaped by this one social distinction would be to over-simplify; post-war affluence, demographics and modernisation were also crucial. Of course, there had been inklings of a new style subclass earlier than this, from Bowery’s dandified B’Hoys in the mid 19th century, to Salford’s ‘Scuttlers’ and the ’20’s Bright Young Things. Across oceans and social classes, there were elements of an adolescent wardrobe. The economic boom of the ’20s seeded the youth market. Still, it was the teens of the ’50s that set the precedence for ‘youth style’ subcultures and their intersection with music, dance and film. And crucially, many more young people had the disposable income to drive a new wave of consumerism explicitly tailored to them. After a childhood steeped in austerity, they threw off the oppressive shackles of war and their parents’ sartorial confines. While, concurrently, heavy materials gave way to synthetics like rayon, new fabrics inspired modern shapes, and advanced manufacturing systems opened up a world of style possibilities to the masses. 50’s wardrobes represented an era of new social standing and youth spending power, and retailers and advertisers were ready to exploit it.

In the early ’50s, women discarded workwear, rediscovering their femininity in Dior’s New Look, and more affordable stores emulated it. The former editor of Harper’s declared it a revolution as Dior rejected the shapeless looks of the preceding decades in favour of the radical femininity that celebrated women’s shape. Though many aspired to the look and attained it in more affordable forms, not all women were in favour. Coco herself exclaimed, “Dior doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them!” But what Dior’s vision did reflect was the end of restrictions on materials. It’s worth noting that still, only 1.2 per cent of American females made it to university in the ’50s. So, with the narrow expectations of their parents (who viewed work as an interim to marriage), it was no surprise that teen life and all that it encompassed was an alluring chance to discover themselves and ignore the oppressive confines of life from child to Stepford wife! 

Each advanced comms medium enables rebellion against oppressive elders. Today, Gen Z’s insta-world baffles their parents, simultaneously affording freedom of expression, identity and entrepreneurial powers amongst the capitalist feed. The widespread adoption of T.V.’s in the ’50s became an insta-platform for aspiration, inspiration and consumerism. And through this medium, U.S. marketing and advertising played a crucial part in popularising the concept of the teen. Through ads, newspapers and magazines, the idea of youth style rapidly spread across the globe.

Meanwhile, on the big screen, 1953’s pouting and posturing Wild One, ’55s Rebel without a Cause and Elvis and his snake-hips fed the desires of the young blood, taking fashion on a new trajectory. The ‘sharp’ but mainstream suits of the masses were cast aside by experimental teens aching to adopt leather, denim and a rebel yell. And this wasn’t just the boys; girls embraced Rockabilly’s rolled up denim just as readily as nipped prom dresses and full circle skirts. The likes of Doris Day promoted wholesome looks, Marylin served up sexuality and Bettie Page exuded rockabilly style. Still, it was James Dean and Brando’s black leather jacket and its connotations with rebellion, that ran far and wide, from the Ducktails of South Africa to the Blouson Noirs of Paris. The city, often regarded as the epicentre of fashion, was in an uproar when the Blousons became notorious after their clash in square Saint-Lambert in 1959. Though this was the Paris of the late ’50s. Before then Edith Piaf and Yves Montand were still the soundtracks of the city and Elvis was mostly greeted with disdain or played on illegal radio stations. 

Still, the U.S. and U.K.’s massive demographic shift continued to drive the teen market, but the style adopted by young people across the Atlantic was in contrast. Youth style in the U.K. was motivated and endorsed mostly by working-class kids. Though the leather jacket was adopted to a degree in the ’50s, London’s disaffected youth of ’53 embraced a more tailored look, taking style-spiration from Edwardian romanticism and early American gangsters. Ted was a clear-cut subculture with music and dance at its nucleus. Teddy Boys in their velvet-trimmed ‘Drapes’ and bootlace ties and Teddy Girls in pencil skirts and rolled-up jeans, adorned London’s streets, sometimes inciting fear and encouraging violence in their self-imposed ‘uniform’. Cinema also inspired them; with the release of MGM’s controversial Blackboard Jungle and Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock. It’s rebel protagonists, and Rock ‘n Roll soundtrack galvanising Teds to dance in the aisles and propel furniture, shaping their music tastes and further enhancing the notion of rebellious youth. That’s not to say that all kids were ‘feral’; the majority just wanted to embrace the wardrobe and dance! 

It seems pertinent to add that spending power experienced by 50’s teens was still mostly the preserve of affluent white kids. Embedded racism and inequality rendered African American/English kids comparatively marginal in both markets. And yet, there lies the irony, in that many ’50s style subcultures have African American music and fashion at their heart. Swing was one of the first of these music genres to cross into the teen mass market. The precursor to Rock ‘n Roll, its Lindy Hop dance style was also a significant influence of Jive and the poodle skirts adorned by those who spun to it. Elvis, and his widely emulated look, also took his sound from Jump Blues. Music and dance played a crucial part in fashion and the lives of teens from Soho’s smoke-filled coffee bars to American Dance Halls and beyond, and with it, pop stars emerged as the driving force behind many successive style subcultures. The ‘stars’, the derivative Rockabilly and Ted style also went on to influence the mods, the rockers and The Beatles after them. 

By the late ’50s, everything was changing; the war felt distant, Elvis was enlisted, Marlon wasn’t just a Wild One, and the Teds and the Rockabillies were old news. The ground-breaking garb of Dior’s New Look was superseded by sleeker, more androgynous styles in an era now defined as much by youth rebellion as bourgeois hauteur. Though French existentialism may have influenced the poet-loving Beatniks with their goatees and berets à la Dizzy Gillespie! Where once large fashion houses like Givenchy and Balenciaga dictated, musicians, screen stars and the wardrobes of working-class kids drove youth style. And whether affluent or not, each look could be adopted, adapted, and ultimately accessible to all. In one decade, the baby boomers would go from rations to rayon, decimated streets to sax-filled basement bars, from the kids of fighters to lovers. And they left an indelible mark. As a new decade dawned, youth consumerism contributed significantly to the economy, and European music and style were about to blast back into American youth culture. Tanks gave way to rockets that became the weapons of political wars, and the vessels for new frontiers. And the teenager, by now an established social class, was primed to embrace this new era and the style innovations that resulted from it. 

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