Ken Russell’s Brilliant Photos of Teddy Girls from 1955
Jean Rayner – “A fourteen year old, with her jeans and old jacket, still in the probationary stage of Teddyism. Later, she may smarten up to senior standards.” Picture Post, June 1955. “She had attitude by the truckload”, remembered Ken Russell. “No one paid much attention to the teddy girls before I did them, though there was plenty on teddy boys. They were tough, these kids, they’d been born in the war years and food rationing only ended in about 1954 – a year before I took these pictures. They were proud. They knew their worth. They just wore what they wore.” ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell.
“Teddy Clothes”, began a Picture Post article in June 1955, and illustrated by the 27 year old photographer Ken Russell, “can cover a multitude of sins – or juvenile delinquencies…”. However this wasn’t just another moral panic article about the hooligans and juvenile gangsters known as the Teddy Boys – a term first noticed in the British press only eighteen months previously. This time Picture Post were concentrating on the female angle and described Teddy Girls as “hard-working with a fashion sense which has brought a welcome flash of mass-elegance onto the British scene.”
The first mention of Teddy Girls in the press, and almost exactly a year before the Picture Post article, was in the Daily Express in June 1954. They were reporting, with a heavy emphasis on her appearance and her clothes, about a girl who had recently been arrested in Southsea: “She was auburn-haired and fifteen. She wore tight-fitting trousers, a sweater, and brightly coloured socks. And she carried a small dagger.” The Express continued, “she appeared at Portsmouth Children’s Court yesterday wearing a “split” skirt, a diaphanous blouse, and high heeled sandals. The policeman said she was in a fight at Southsea with other girls. It began when two girls called her a “Teddy Girl”.”
Iris Thornton “When I was 13 I started going to the Mayflower youth club every day after school. You could take classes in deportment and cookery, there was a hairdressers and sports activities to get involved in. One day, 2 years later, Ken Russell came and asked if there were any Teddy girls there to photograph. There weren’t many Teds in my area, just a few of us so we turned heads. You would walk past people on the street and hear them saying ‘Oh god, look at what they are wearing!’ Which made me chuckle. The photos were taken where I lived in Canning Town, this area was called the Docklands Settlement. I lived at home with my parents and older sister and brother, it was a prosperous working class area because of the docks on the River Thames. In 1955 I left school and went to work with my sister in a factory. At the time I was happy to leave, thought it was marvellous. But then after a little while I wished I has still been in school, work was so boring.” From an interview with Iris by Eve Dawoud. ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell
Pat Wilson posing with umbrella aloft. ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell
Ken Russell, director of Women in Love, The Devils and The Who’s rock-opera Tommy was a young photographer in the mid-fifties working for British newspapers and magazines such as Picture Post. In 1955 he was commissioned to take photographs of working class girls in neo-edwardian clothing who called themselves Teddy Girls. Time magazine once wrote that the series of photos provided, “a rare and unique glimpse of little recognised and under-documented subculture of austere post-war Britain.”
Iris Thornton and Pat Wiles friend standing on some linoleum in front of upright rolls of flooring. ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell
Barbara Wood: “Me and my friends we all used to swap and share clothes. So you looked different every weekend. There wasn’t much money about. Clothing rationing only ended in 1954. I left school a few months after these photos were taken. I did want to continue studying but you had to earn your keep in those days. I got an office job in High Holborn. About £2.25 a week wage then and I gave my mum £1.50 out of that for rent. I was the middle child of six, with 3 elder brothers and two younger sisters. We left the East end when we got married in 1960, I was 20, and moved to Barking and started a greengrocers. We have 3 daughters, four grandchildren and 3 step grandchildren.” From an interview with Eve Dawoud. ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell
Pat Wiles and Iris Thornton, aged 17 from Plaistow, showing off their lace up espadrilles, a favourite with teddy girls. ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell
Elsie (15) and Rose Hendon with Mary Toovey and Jean Rayner (14) in front of the Seven Feathers Club in Edenham Street, North Kensington.
©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell
Elsie and Rose Hendon with Mary Toovey and Jean Rayner on an East End bombsite.
Pat Wiles and Iris Thornton wearing coolie hats. I was lucky my family could afford for me to have tailormade clothes, a lot of Teds couldn’t. All the jackets I had made were a finger tip drape. Two flap pockets on one side, one on the other. Velvet collar, vent up the back. One or two buttons. The long winter coat I am wearing was made from navy blue serge and had a navy blue velvet collar. Ken asked us to wear those lace up sandals. The photos were taken in January and we were absolutely freezing. He also instructed us not to smile, so we look really hard faced. Maybe he wanted to make us appear scary and intimidating. In 1955, we listened to Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray, Tony Bennett, Doris Day. I had a Doris Day haircut, we used sugar water to stick little kiss curls onto our face. On the weekends I went out to the Winter Hall in East Ham on Saturday and on Sunday the Stratford Town Hall, the orchestras and big bands playing songs by Humphrey Lyttleton and Ted Heath. My husband Brian and I have been going out since my sixteenth birthday. I was married at 21 and had my firstborn a year later. We have been married 53 years. All I wanted out of life was kids. We have four, I would have had another two if I had my way.” From an interview with Eve Dawoud ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell
Iris Thornton and Pat Wiles, 17 year olds from Plaistow, showing off their lace-up espadrilles, a favourite with teddy girls. ©2006 TopFoto/Ken Russell
16 year old Eileen from Bethnal Green, with two teddy boys “duelling” over her on an East End bombsite.