Can there be many things more irritating or embarrassing to its parents, more amusing to its neighbours or more likely to invoke admiration from its peers, than a teenager in the full throes of a craze?
I’m thinking of the shimmy dress of the 20s – to the knees if you please! A whole generation’s crowning glories reduced to a few wisps under the coiffure artiste’s demanding scissors, then kept in place by cloche hats or headbands. Such affectation but, how daring. And who didn’t admire the girl who rouged her knees, smoked coloured cigarettes and black bottomed into the early hours? Jazz was the rage and so were men in bags, blazers and boaters; cocktails with ‘naughty names’ like Between the Sheets, Love’s Desire and Hanky Panky.
The 20s saw the first breakthrough of a youth identity. Teenagers were yet to be invented and, due to economic depression, war, and the understandable resistance of parents to the loss of their authority, it was to be the last until the advent of the 50s.
Post-war Britain saw improved economic standards and especially for the single young. Suddenly youth became a viable commercial proposition, with money of their own. They bought records, clothes of their own choice, went out without the parents or family, and as all these avenues opened up to them, they exploited them to the full.
Rock ‘n’ Roll fanatics – the word was soon reduced to ‘fans’ – needed the uniform: a drape suit with essentially fingertip length jacket or longer was a must, preferably in some unmissable colour: light blue or red with black velvet collar and cuffs. And then the shoes; crepe-sole creepers (brothel creepers!) also in wild colours completed one end of this vision while a bootlace tie held by a skull and crossbones clip completed the other. To top it all, though, was a duck’s arse (DA) blow-wave. With this you were the Elvis of Hull, Harlesden or Haringey.
Your girl had a ponytail or bouffant hairdo, Brigitte Bardot lips, enhanced with scarlet lipstick, wore stiletto heels and chewed gum. You were all set and you jived to Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or The King. You flung your girl around the floor like a bit of sticky substance that wouldn’t come off your fingers, and look unperturbed. You kept your hand just so, in the small of your back while flinging her unless you bring it out to breath gently on your nails before polishing them on your lapel. You are cool.
Cool becomes hot, however, in the 60s. Hot tempers. The mods and rockers, or greasers or Teds, are the two factions. You must be one or the other or you are square. One of the oldies and mouldies that don’t move with the times.
The Mods are ‘in’. Neat, clean, smart and brainless. Pill poppin’, bluebeat dancin’ and scooter ridin’, whose adrenalin got going by needling the rockers, arranging fights on south coast resorts and playing dodge the cops when they got there.
Flower Power followed. Peace after punch-ups, pot after pills, beauty and understanding, love-ins and transcendental meditation. We all wanted to go to San Francisco or Marrakesh. But beauty is only skin deep and you may be a heroin dealer under that beautiful biblical exterior. Sad, sad disillusionment. Parents of the 50s bad lads thanked the Lord they weren’t parents of the 60s sexual revolution. The men looked feminine and the girls adopted male attitudes to casual sex and in the world at large the fashions went from daring to outrageous, from the mini skirt to the topless look.
Also fashionable were student demos and outrage at police violence. Sex was everywhere, the papers, the films, the theatre. We read it, heard it, saw it and did it. And none of it was discreet. This was the new era for honesty. According to the worthies, we were doomed; degenerates. And yet, here we are, large as life and twice as ugly. We haven’t been made yet to pay for our sins as was hoped.
Or have we? Following in our wake are surgical boots called platform soles, mid-calf tartan trousers, skinheads beating up old ladies, and The Rollers. And if having to listen to them isn’t punishment enough, I don’t know what is.
Julia Wassall. Written as a GCE ‘O’ Level English homework in 1977, rediscovered 43 years later!