From Teddy Boys to Punks: New history course explores youth sub-cultures in post WWII Britain

Two black-and-white photos side-by-side. The photos show men dressed in the style of the Teddy Boy youth subculture of Britain in the 1950s

In his new course, Professor Stephen Heathorn explores how youth sub-cultures starting with the Teddy Boys (pictured above) mirrored and influenced the world around them in post WWII Britain. (Images supplied by Stephen Heathorn).

If you think Dr. Martens boots and skinny pants were first made popular by millennials, think again. These fashion choices go back — way back — to the British youth sub-cultures that developed in the years after World War II.  

A new history course being taught this winter semester, History 3YB3: Youth Sub-cultures in Britain 1945-2000, takes a deep dive into the recent past to explore Teddy Boys, Punks, Acid Ravers and other youth movements whose fashion, music and recreational activities might look surprisingly familiar — even in 2024.  

“Up to this point in British history, young people really hadn’t had distinct cultures of their own,” says Stephen Heathorn, the British historian and professor who will be teaching the class. “These sub-cultures that developed are really a 20th century phenomenon that allowed young people to find community in a way they hadn’t before.”  

Not only did youth find new communities to belong to — they also managed to influence contemporary British and international history.  

The birth of youth sub-culture in Britain 

In the years following World War II young people had their own substantial income for the first time in British history, spending it on things like fashion, music and recreational activities like drugs.  

Heavily influenced by American rock ‘n’ roll music, the first of these post-WWII sub-cultures was the Teddy Boys.  

A headshot of Stephen Heathorn
Professor of history Stephen Heathorn

“The Teddy Boys — who were mostly working class — would wear Edwardian dress, which dates back to the first decade of the 20th century,” says Heathorn. “They would wear these drape coats with velvet collars and have these amazing haircuts.” 

This was the first group that sparked a moral panic within British society, as older generations developed concerns about youth delinquency and violence.   

“The youth in these groups were getting into the same kind of trouble that they would have been involved in if they weren’t in these groups,” explains Heathorn. “But as soon as there was a hint of violence, society would place the blame on them.”   

This concept of moral panic continued into the 1960s with the introduction of Mods and Rockers and continued in the subsequent decades with Punks and Skinheads.  

“The idea takes hold that these sub-cultures are somehow perverting our kids and we see this again and again into the 21st century.” 

Rebels with an impact  

Many historians don’t focus on youth in their teaching, which Heathorn believes is a mistake.  

“Youth are going to become the adults that we do end up studying, so understanding their attitudes and what their life experiences are, is really important in understanding how societies develop,” he explains. “Youth cultures are generally not so self-contained that they are not involved with the other issues that adults have to deal with such as politics, race and so on. “ 

Recognizing the impact that youth movements can have on history at large, Heathorn dedicates a large portion of this course to the role youth sub-cultures have played in the relationship between white people and people of colour in Britain.  

After 1945, many people from the West Indies and South Asia migrated to Britain, where they faced racism and economic and social oppression. In the wake of this racist backlash, British youth sub-cultures often provided a space where young people from across races came together.  

“Skinheads started out as a cross-race movement in the 1960s where Black and white youth who found themselves living on council estates found community together,” says Heathorn. “Only later in the 1970s did Skinheads become associated with racism.” 

“The Mods in the 70s embraced American Black music and the Ska revival after the 1970s was very much about cross-race alliances as well,” says Heathorn.  

History you can watch 

Due to its contemporary timeframe, the course includes a lot of visual and audio material.  

“Because a lot of what we discuss happened in the 20th century, a lot of it was filmed,” says Heathorn. “We look at a lot of live music performances, we look at fashion and documentary footage on YouTube to explore how all of these elements are connected and identify the historical continuities between these groups.” 

While the course doesn’t have any prerequisites, it is best suited for students in their second, third or fourth years of study.  

“While some students may be drawn to this class due to a fascination with a particular sub-culture, they are also going to learn the historical context of Britain in the late 20th century and understand the wider context of what was happening at the time.” 

If you are interested in registering for this course, the last day for enrolment and course changes this semester is Tuesday, January 16.   

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