History's Mirror Project: Teenage Fashion


Until the early 1950s the term teenager had never been heard of. Children were children and then became adults and wore the same styles of clothing as their parents. With the changes in post-World War II culture, the development of films, TV and music soon created a market group called teenagers. There was an increase in consumer goods created by the post war return to production. This started early in the USA but took longer to establish in war ravaged Europe. However by the mid-50s Britain also had a recognisable 'teenage' population.

Young adults had a disposable income at last as employment boomed. They spent this on fashionable clothes, motorbikes and entertainments such as coffee and milk bars where the latest music could be heard. Cinema and TV helped to bring the latest fashions from America. A 'Generation Gap' began to emerge between parents and their older children, and the parents felt threatened by this as they did not understand or have any control over it.

Even in its infancy, teenage fashion was not a homogenous thing. For the boys some favoured the denim jeans and leather jackets from Marlon Brando's 'The Wild One' (1953) while others wanted the clean 'preppie' look of smart open necked shirts, Varsity jackets, narrow trousers and loafers. Any ties worn were very narrow.

In Britain a particular group, the Teddy Boys, emerged. They were reacting against the austere, dull clothing their parents wore post war. This group wore long 'drape' jackets which were knee length, with contrasting lapels and collar. They had drainpipe trousers, stiff shirts with bootlace ties and crepe soled suede shoes known as 'brothel creepers'. It was a fashion influenced by Edwardian styles and by the arrival of West Indian workers in the late 40s/early 50s who wore smart 'zoot' suits with big shoulders. These Teddy Boys were looked on with suspicion and some fear, most of it totally unfounded.

It has to be recognised that in Britain, from 1945 until 1963, young men were conscripted for two years National Service in late adolescence. This meant that for many the uniform and demure dress culture continued into their adulthood.

For girls full Dirndl or circular skirts were popular, often with a cinched in waist with a large belt. These skirts were supported by layers of bouffant paper, nylon or net petticoats. Spraying these with sugar water enabled them to stand out even more. The hour glass silhouette was completed with scoop necked tops, tight polo necked sweaters, cardigans worn back to front or crisp white open necked blouses worn with cowboy style neckerchiefs. Skirts and dresses often had bright patterns or appliqué on them and were generally below the knee. Girls wore sheer stockings and suspenders, but on an everyday basis wore short white socks and sneakers or flat shoes. Hair was often worn loose or in a ponytail.

Many of these clothes were in cotton or wool but the development of new man made materials, such as Terylene (a polyester), meant that neat pleated skirts which kept their shape became popular, and new ways of producing clothes became possible. Production techniques became cheaper and so, whereas their parents might have a small wardrobe of 'working' and 'Sunday best' clothes, teenagers increasingly developed a bigger wardrobe of mix and match outfits.

In the mid to late 50s there was a small but influential group emerging, these were the Beatniks. They had European influences but also looked to the emerging US counter culture. Many were students. They wore clothing which was generally totally alien to the prevailing culture. Mostly they wore black. Sandals were popular. They wore long, loose sweaters and tight trousers and jeans. The girls wore tight pencil skirts and black stockings or stretch trousers with stirrups made of the emerging polyester fabrics. The look was quite unisex and very dark.

The 1950s was the time when a defined teenage culture emerged which was prepared to spend its money on fast changing fashions, and clothing producers began to gear their designs towards this new market.


Post War Fashion had been dictated by the 'establishment' haute couture designers and cascaded down to the masses. In the 50s teenage fashion had emerged from the teenagers themselves. In the 1960s that teenage influence came to the fore and started to affect how the fashion houses behaved. Young designers came through (Yves St Laurent in France), assisted by talented young photographers, and together they changed the face of fashion. Britain became the centre of emerging 'street fashion' and throughout the 60s there were swift changes in fashion and the emergence of teenage sub groups even more defined than in the 50s. This coincided with an upsurge in the cultural mood of Britain. In the early 1960s The Beatles emerged to huge acclaim, swiftly followed by the Rolling Stones and hundreds of other groups of young men. They became international stars and the western world looked towards Britain for its prevailing culture.

The decade of 60s fashion started as the 50s had finished. The full skirts of that time gave way to a more tailored look which suited a shorter, knee length skirt. The hourglass shape gradually gave way to a straighter silhouette. New man-made fibres made it possible to forego stockings and suspenders for new semi sheer stretch tights or pantyhose. This freed up designers to consider even shorter skirts.

By the early 60s Mary Quant and Courreges had looked at what was happening in fashion and had taken it one step on, producing dresses which fitted at the top, skimmed the waist and stopped up to six inches above the knee. These dresses were complemented by flat or kitten heeled knee length boots or white calf length boots. Influences from the contemporary art world produced clothes which were geometric black and white or blocks of one bright synthetic colour. As the sixties went on there was influence from the 'psychedelic' culture in the US which produced swirling multi coloured prints and large abstracted florals. Fabrics were synthetic or of a synthetic mix which made them lightweight. Quant used gabardine and PVC in some dresses. As underclothing also became smaller and sheerer because of man-made fibres, it was possible to make dresses with cut out sections or angled shoulders. This style of clothing also needed a different type of hairstyle to complement it, and the short angular bob became popular, promoted by the growing group of celebrity hairdressers.

For men, the sixties enabled them to indulge in far more exuberant styles than previously. Men following high fashion were dandies, the 'peacock generation'. Trousers were either narrow or, by the mid-sixties, were flared or bell bottomed with bright colours, stripes or patterns. There was a huge influx of cheap army surplus clothing released after conscription ended and foreign armies reduced in size post war. Every self-respecting follower of fashion had at least one military shirt or jacket and many wore greatcoats. Most prized were the military dress jackets with braid and epaulettes. Materials such as velvet and suede became popular for men. Men took to wearing hats, but not the trilbies of their dads. Influenced by John Lennon they wore 'Beatle' caps and the more flamboyant wore floppy felt hats with scarves around. Ties gave way to cravats and loose scarves. Polo neck shirts in man-made fibres were popular. Shoes moved from pointed 'winkle pickers', to chisel toes and then almond toes during the early 60s. Men sometimes wore 'Cuban' heeled shoes and boots. Hair for men was long (collar length) and sideburns and moustaches were popular. Cries of “get your hair cut!” from bewildered fathers could be heard across the land.

The trendy stores for girls to shop for clothes were in Carnaby Street boutiques, Biba and Chelsea Girl, but large companies began to see there were profits to be made from teenagers and geared their clothing lines accordingly. Marks and Spencer, Richards, Wallis and Etam made London fashion available across the country. For men there were young tailors coming to the fore who shared the dandy ethos. Paul Smith and Lord John provided what smart young men wanted and gradually the newer shapes and styles: slim lines, long jackets with waistcoats, hipster flared trousers, patterned and floral shirts and wide ties started to appear in provincial shops.

In the early 60s two sub groups evolved; the smart Mods with their crew cuts, Ben Sherman button down shirts and scooters and the Rockers in jeans and leathers and riding motorbikes. In the early sixties young people veered towards one group or the other as far as fashion was involved. The groups listened to different music (Soul and Ska versus Rock and Roll) and could be aggressive towards each other. This culminated in the bank holiday seaside rioting caused by fights between the two groups during 1962-3. As the culture shifted they died away but these groups, in slightly changed forms, continue today.

By the mid to late 60s there was a shift in the prevailing teen culture. 'Hippie' music and drug based culture had increased from across the Atlantic, coupled with a political awareness spurred on by the Vietnam War. This was the 'Counterculture' and it changed fashion. The smart, angled lines of dressing gave way to a more flowing' anything goes' approach. Jeans had been everywhere throughout the 60s for both sexes, but the look now was more unisex with t-shirts and loose shirts and smocks. There was a huge influence from India and the East with the import of fabrics and clothing made into skirts, shirts, dresses and scarves. These were thin and floating and highly coloured and patterned. Both sexes took to these. In Britain, Zandra Rhodes channelled this style into high fashion.

1968 was a particularly turbulent year with youth protest throughout the western world. This was illustrated in the fashion at that time with jeans, army surplus wear and very casual styles which were almost anti fashion. Hair for both sexes got even longer and beards were de rigueur for young men. This style lasted well into the seventies.

For most people the sixties provided a seismic shift in all aspects of culture. It was difficult for the generation living through the war to take on board quite what was happening and fashion is reflected in this. They often felt alienated from the music and fashion of their teenage children, of which there were many, as they were the 'baby boom' generation of post war births. Britain was recovering at last from the dull post war period. There was high employment, and therefore increasing disposable income. More young people were going into higher education, which prolonged their carefree youth culture. Of those who did not take that route, getting work at age 15 allowed them a few years to spend on fripperies before settling down. More women went out to work which enabled them to purchase more, including buying ready to wear, cheap clothing instead of making their own. Even the adult generation began to take on a watered down version of high fashion with knee length or shorter straight 'shift' dresses, pantihose and bright floral or paisley prints. Adults began to wear jeans as leisure wear and women wore more trousers. These were often in newer synthetic stretch fabrics and so were practical. The trouser suit became popular for women, but there were still many workplaces that would not allow women to wear trousers.


At the beginning of the 1970s the fashion was much as it was at the end of the 1960s, but gradually distinctive styles emerged. Skirt lengths varied from mini, to midi (calf length) and maxi (ankle length). Those who wore miniskirts would also choose hot pants, but these were more popular as evening dance wear. Trousers for women were increasingly popular; jeans, tailored trousers or glamorous loose evening trousers. The trouser suit was also being developed further, made from lightweight jersey and polyester knits with a long tunic or jacket. People were travelling further afield for holidays and the 'gap year' was beginning to be a way to spend time before university. The 'ethnic' styles travellers found, influenced by the middle and Far East, were very popular and designers were including these flowing and colourful styles. Kaftans, Nehru jackets, kimonos and djellabas were influential on the shapes worn. Chinese quilted jackets and Afghan coats were imported along with cotton lawn and cheesecloth from India. Embroidered cotton gypsy tops and dirndl skirts with an ethnic European influence were popular too. The common factor for all these was a bold use of colour and pattern.

The romantic country style, with long floating dresses on an empire line bodice, was very popular. The small floral patterns printed on cotton developed by Laura Ashley suited this style very well. Blouses were made from lightweight man made fabrics which enabled them to have loose long sleeves and big collars. These were worn with a zig zag patterned or 'Fair Isle' tank top. The growth of the machine knitting industry allowed complex patterns to be incorporated in knitwear. Long sweaters and cardigans were worn.

Men wore ethnic clothing too, especially loose cheesecloth shirts (often collarless). They also wore brightly coloured and floral shirts with large rounded collars. These went with broad kipper ties, often brightly coloured and patterned. Men also wore tank tops with their shirts. Trousers were generally tight at the body and with flared hems. Smart suits had a similar style with single breasted jackets with wide lapels. These all looked best with shoes or boots with a heel. Gradually platform shoes became popular. During the 70s various groups emerged and their clothing influenced what young men wore. Elton John, Slade, The Bay City Rollers and Rod Stewart were just a few of these. Hair was worn collar length or longer, with sideburns and often beards and moustaches.

In the second half of the 70s disco became a major influence on fashion. To dance all night young people needed comfortable clothing, shiny and stretch fabrics started to be used. Disco clothing was often skimpy, with the girls wearing hot pants and sequinned bandeau tops. Lame, lurex, satin and animal skin designs were 'in', as were any clothes which glowed in the disco's ultra violet lights and mirror balls. In 1977 the film' Saturday Night Fever' showed that disco dancing was as popular with boys as girls. The fabrics used for disco clothing were also used in the leotards and footless tights worn in the burgeoning keep fit rage. Legwarmers were worn outside, not only in the gym, along with stretch leggings in a range of colours.

Politics were important in the 70s. There were many political troubles, both domestic and international, and young people were very much part of these. The growth of Feminism and Anti-Racism began to influence some aspects of fashion. A unisex look developed where girls and boys wore boiler suits, dungarees, jeans and t-shirts. Industrial wear boots were popular. Some sported hairstyles traditional in other cultures, for example dreadlocks and cornrow hairstyles in Caucasian hair.

In the late 70s there was the growth of a youth movement which rejected the received culture. They were known as Punks. They wore black clothes, torn and safety pinned. They had leather trousers and studded belts, and pierced not only ears but tongues and other body parts too, mimicking the styles worn in the underground sado-masochistic subculture. Hairstyles were dramatic; heads shaved, bright colours and strange styles. Their music was loud and had no meaning. Not for the first time in youth culture the powers that be were afraid of their influence. Most young people were not true Punks, but their style influenced fashion in a watered down way for many years after this. For example, body piercings and tattoos were very rare in youth culture before this time, but now are ever-present. The leader of this style was Vivienne Westwood who is now a well regarded haute couture designer. Zandra Rhodes put the ethnic and punk styles together to create a designer collection in the late 70s.


As a contrast to the hardness of the Punks of the late 70s, a new movement in fashion started the 1980s. This was New Romanticism. Young people started to dress in softer clothing using ideas from previous historical periods. Especially popular was the Regency period, with its frills and luxurious fabrics like velvet, silk and brocade. They also tried the pirate look. Popular musicians like Adam Ant, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club adopted these styles and fans dressed similarly. It was a new peacock age for men, much as the mid 60s had been. David Bowie was particularly influential with his genderless looks and makeup. Some young men tried makeup, but usually for the evenings in clubs and discos. All this soft fantasy was a vast contrast to the preceding Punk era.

Smart wear in the 80s was 'power dressing', with both men and women wearing suits with padded shoulders and double breasted. Lengths were to the knee for skirts. Padded shoulders could be found in many women's dresses, tops and coats too. Padding increased in size as the decade progressed. Dresses were straighter and similar to the shift dresses of the sixties, only on the knee not mini. Blocking with bright colours like fuchsia, red and turquoise was seen. Men's suits were loose in both jackets and trousers (for casual wear the sleeves were rolled up). This heralded the 'executive' styles which we still have today as business-wear. These styles were a new departure for the majority of women, who were now working in large numbers in the corporate environment and needed clothes to emulate the conservative dress of their male colleagues.

In 1981 The Prince of Wales married Princess Diana, and the 'Sloane Ranger' look, with longish skirts and high ruffled collared blouses was popular. Diana's wedding dress illustrated this romantic, ruffled style well. Many girls out for the evening would wear a dress with a wide satin skirt and fitted Basque bodice. Some were asymmetrical on the shoulder with ruching. Silk, crepe de chine, lace and chiffon were popular fabrics. Sweaters were worn large, often with shoulder pads. Mohair was popular and, for women, sweaters were often covered in beading or satin appliqué. The batwing shape lent itself to these large sweater styles, as did cowl necks. The keep fit trend of the 70s continued and a whole industry of sportswear boomed. Trainers were the footwear of choice for many. Lightweight sports fabrics were developed and many young people wore tracksuits and sports shirts, including football shirts and polo shirts. Flying suits were worn too. The shell suit, a lightweight shiny tracksuit, became very popular with all generations. Many of those wearing this sports gear never actually exercised. Women's hair needed to be big to balance the broad shouldered silhouette. Hair gel and mousse became essential to create the styles. Likewise large earrings, necklaces and brooches were needed to balance the effect. Bodysuits or teddies were sold to create a slim line shape under the outfits being worn.

Shoes for women were either high stilettos (for the power suit) or low flat pumps. Wedge heels were popular as were gold and silver shoes and sandals. Brightly coloured shoes were everywhere, often co-ordinated with a clutch bag of the same colour. Teenagers of both sexes wore Doc Marten lace up boots and shoes. The number of eyelets on the boots became a mark of show, the more the trendier. The more individual they were the better; often dyed bright colours or with coloured laces. (The Doc Marten Company later cashed by producing their boots made in these bright colours and designs). Jeans were still worn by teenagers but these were now with a much narrower leg and black was a popular alternative to denim. The large t-shirt, especially with a large quasi-political slogan (as designed by Katherine Hamnett) remained popular. Towards the end of the decade the Grunge look came along, and boys and girls started to revert to the US West Coast dress of the sixties. Both boys and girls began to grow their hair very long again and wore loose check shirts over their t-shirts and chose flared jeans again.

The styles of the 80s reflected the growing economic success of Britain at the time and the development of the leisure industry.