“They Wore What They Wore”: The Timeless Appeal of the Teddy Girls

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Teddy Girls by Ken Russell
Teddy Girls by Ken Russell© Topfoto/Ken Russell

A new book, featuring the photography of Ken Russell, celebrates the rebellious teen girl gangs of 1950s London

In 1950s London, the Teddy Girls ruled the streets. The subculture emerged from the wreckage of a ravaged capital, with teenage girls forming their own fashion-focused gangs in the post-war debris. Also known as the ‘Bombsite Boudiccas’, the Teddy Girls could be found in all corners of the city – from Bethnal Green and Canning Town, to Tottenham and North Kensington.

Like their male counterparts, the Teddy Boys, these young women fused beatnik rebellion with Edwardian opulence. Think ornate bonnets with scuffed denim; silk neckerchiefs with Marlboro Reds; beer bottles with cameo brooches. They were a teenage subculture who – much like London in the years after World War Two – were reimagining their past, while also envisioning a bolder future.

In January 1955, photographer and filmmaker Ken Russell began documenting the Teddy Girls. The result was a series of striking black and white portraits, taken all over London, that capture the subculture at its peak. And fortunately, for the first time ever, these photos have now been collected and published in Teddy Girls; a new release from Happy Dancer, an imprint set up by Conor Donlon of Donlon Books and designer Roland Brauchli in lockdown.

The publication book comes with an afterword from fashion historian Mairi Mackenzie, who dissects the Teddy Girls’ legacy, as well as their enduring appeal. “I am always drawn to the glamour we find in everyday lifethe pleasure that we take in dressing up and going out, and the role that clothing plays in society and culture,” she tells AnOther.

For Mackenzie, the Teddy Girl style remains as compelling today as it did over half a century ago. “They look great,” she says, simply. “I know that’s an obvious and seemingly fatuous thing to say but, even though I am a fashion historian, I have no real interest in quantifying or trying to break down why someone looks good. For me, that kills the joy of their look stone-dead.”

Instead, she believes that much of the magic lies not just in their sartorial choices, but in the attitude that powered them: “I'm going to quote Ken Russell here because he summed up what made the Teddy Girls so great, better than I ever could; ‘ … they were proud. They knew their worth. They just wore what they wore.‘”

Teddy Girls is published by Happy Dancer and available at Donlon Books.