All is Groovy

In her first blog post our fabulous volunteer Jenna has scoured the archives for films showing mid-century youth fads and fashions. This first instalment explores the baby boomers of the post-war years and their coming of age in the early 1960s, embracing everything from beehives to bouffants and kinky boots to Italian suits.

This 3-part blog will use NEFA film to trace the evolving fashion trends of young north-easterners from the early to late 1960s. Although spanning just 5 years in scope, the films in this series reflect a rapidly changing melting pot of subcultural style and fashion fads which the youngsters of the time both adopted and discarded with equal ardour.

For Part One, I have scoured the fashion and subcultural styles on display in films THE JAZZ BAND BALL (1963) and VAUX COMMERCIAL: THE QUEEN HARTLEPOOL (1965). In The Jazz Band Ball, we see students of the College of Further Education having fun at their Christmas jazz party at the Majestic Ballroom in Newcastle upon Tyne on Wednesday 18 December 1963. This film was shot during the height of the American R&B-influenced beat and blues explosion, with its working class and art school roots personified by Walker lad Eric Burdon and his band the Animals. In Vaux Commercial: The Queen Hartlepool, we see sharply-dressed local Hartlepool beat band The Hartbeats performing at the Queen pub to an audience of equally stylish lads and lasses who enthusiastically clap their hands and nod their heads in time to the 4/4 backbeat.

The young hip cats in these films make up the Baby Boomers, a generation born between 1946 and 1964. Returning soldiers after World War Two rekindled postponed relationships, resulting in a ‘boom’ in births during the post war period, peaking at almost 900,000 in the late 1940s. The first baby boomers - those born immediately after the war - are widely associated with privilege and affluence in comparison to their parents’ generation; enjoying a new welfare state, housing and education subsidiaries, more diverse job opportunities, increased disposable income, greater access to cheaper consumer goods and, of course, new styles of pop music. The first boomers came of age in the 1960s and would have a significant impact on the cultural landscape of the decade, rebelling against conservative pre-war attitudes and living a more permissive and liberal lifestyle.

The scrimping and saving of the parental generation during the war years seemed at odds with the consumerism and disposability of this new and fickle boomer generation, causing an ‘us and them’ divide between parents and their children. This disconnect and alienation may explain the rapid increase in subcultural activity in the immediate post-war decades, of which we can see an eclectic mix in these films.

Perhaps the most iconic post-war youth subculture is the Teddy Boys or Teds. The name was coined in 1954 and derives from ‘Edward,’ itself a reference to the neo-Edwardian style that was appropriated by the subculture. Originally the neo-Edwardian style was a reaction by the upper classes to post-war austerity measures and the egalitarian principles of Clement Attlee’s Labour government; a nostalgic longing for the Edwardian era and the golden age of English aristocracy. A small section of this society reflected this nostalgia by adopting the dress of their more privileged ancestors, wearing long jackets; brocade, double-breasted waistcoats; velvet collars and narrow trousers. 

By 1952, British designer Cecil Gee had merged the neo-Edwardian suit with elements of the American zoot suit, popular among young jazz enthusiasts, to form a unique hybrid which became more like the typical working class Teddy Boy style.  This new style, characterised by a long, loose drape jacket and cowboy bootlace tie, was worn with tight tapered drainpipe jeans, bright yellow socks and large crepe-soled shoes known as creepers.

The Teddy Boy subculture peaked around 1956, but we can see in Jazz Band Ball that the style is still alive and kicking in the North East in 1963. While not decked out in the full drape coat and bootlace tie regalia, we see a more subtle version of the style, teamed with the iconic quiffs, pompadours and duck’s arse hair do, so synonymous with the teds and rockers.

If the Teddy Boys epitomise 1950s subculture, it is the Mods which epitomise it of the 1960s. With its roots in the modernist 'mod' jazz scene, the mod subculture would not become a named youth cult until the early 1960s. The mod style of dress is characterised by the short Italian, or ‘Roman’ jackets, nicknamed ‘bum-freezers’ due to their length; narrow trousers and pointed shoes. Also popularised by Cecil Gee, Italian style, as it came to be known, was cool, modern and sharp, with a strong philosophy of ‘less is more’.

The other notable Italian influence associated with mod culture is the Vespa scooter. The possession of a scooter in Britain was a sign of sophistication, associated with the grace and worldliness of the Italians. The scooter also complimented the new Italian style of dress, which meant the narrow trousers were easily kept away from the mechanisms and therefore stayed clean, and also the short style of jacket didn’t crease when the wearer sat down. This was the first time post-war popular culture was defined by European rather than American standards, and by as early as 1955, the Italian mode was well on the way to becoming an international symbol of style.

One of the first recorded references to the mod style is featured in Colin MacInnes’ novel Absolute Beginners. Written and set in London in 1958, the novel provides a unique insight into the world of the early mods, noting their obsession to detail when it comes to their sharp gear. In the mod jazz club we hear of a mod wearing “College-boy smooth crop hair with burned-in parting, neat white Italian rounded-collared shirt, short Roman jacket very tailored (two little vents, three buttons), no-turn-up narrow trousers with 17-inch bottoms, absolute maximum, pointed toe shoes, and a white mac lying folded by his side”. In the Jazz Band Ball film we see a young lad with the college boy smooth crop hair and burned-in parting, draped in the epitome of modern, sharp Italian style.

The Vaux Commercial features mods galore in the form of band The Hartbeats and their fans, sporting their sharp suits and ties, cropped hair and Beatles-esque mop top hair dos. Though less visible in this very short film, photographs of the band from the 1960s on local music historian Stan Laudon’s fan page clearly show them wearing the popular bum freezer jackets, tapered trousers and rounded collars, making them the very definition of mid-60s mod cool. By 1963, mods were no longer just a cult group from MacInnes’ Soho jazz clubs, but as we can see, it was a thriving bona fide nationwide subculture.

Just as diverse as the male subcultural styles in these film are the mixture of styles sported by the young college lasses. In Jazz Band Ball, sat with a potential boyfriend who wears a hybrid of the Teddy Boy and mod style (as was quite typical of the time), the blonde-haired girl, pretty in pink, is the height of early 1960s glamour. With her barrel curl up-do complete with hair bow and pale pink lipstick, she oozes style in an ensemble which would not look out of place on model Jean Shrimpton in a mid-1960s issue of Vogue.

Less glamorous, but equally as cool, we see the loose haired and baggy-shirted art school beatnik style girl dancing with a boy in what looks like the exact same loose grey Oxford shirt. Their style is typical of ‘Beat’ clothing inspired by intellectual heroes such as the Parisian existentialists and American writers like Jack Kerouac, author of the 1957 novel On the Road.  Beat clothing was deliberately sloppy and characterised by baggy flannel trousers, loose jumpers and duffle coats, intended to display the wearer’s anti-materialism. This somewhat untidy appearance (in comparison to the sharp mods) was typical of the period’s countercultural dress which would have been worn by those who were politically active and visible at the emerging Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) marches.

In the style of the newly emerging London boutique designers Mary Quant, Foale & Tuffin and Biba, the girls in both Jazz Band Ball and the Vaux Commercial wear the hugely fashionable Peter Pan-collared mini dresses popularised by Marianne Faithful and Pattie Boyd and the knee-high ‘kinky’ boots, as sold at Mary Quant’s Bizarre boutique on London’s Kings Road. Between 1963 and 1965, we see a combination of the beehive hairstyles, more reminiscent of the very early 1960s, and the more modern bobbed haircut, influenced by stylists such as Vidal Sassoon, creator of the iconic Twiggy pixie cut.

In Part Two of this blog, we focus more on women’s fashions of the time, where we hit the second half of the 1960s and embrace the age of pop art, psychedelia and the futuristic fashion designs inspired by the widely exciting global space race.