You Should Be Watching: Teen-Age Fashion

While researching topics for an Museum Theory class project last Spring, I stumbled upon a 1944 Life article profiling a group of teen girls in suburban Missouri who, according the the magazine, “liv[ed] in a wonderful world all their own.” Much of the story focuses on fashion, and I was struck by the accompanying photographs of 15-17 year-old girls wearing baggy jeans and oversized mens’ shirts, clothing they borrowed from their brothers and fathers and wore as an “after-school uniform”–they could have been expelled for wearing “dungarees” to school, as the girls below purportedly were.

The concept of the Fifties-era rebellious teen girl always evoked, for me, images of teddy girls and pink ladies, but other than Ken Russell’s 1955 photographs of the British “girl gangs,” early documentation of authentic teen style is scarce. That’s why the documentary Teenage, now available streaming on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes, is so remarkable. The film, directed by Matt Wolf and based on the book Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875-1945 by punk historian Jon Savage, sourced diaries and home movies. It includes never-before-seen archival footage that depicts real teens and their voices: from Swing Kids, Subdebs and Bobby-Soxers and other subcultures.

Future historians should have no trouble locating video diaries of Gen Z-ers thanks to innumerable vlogs, but it was in the 1930s and 40s when the concept of the teenager itself was emerging. Seventeen magazine was founded in 1944 and promoted to advertisers as a golden opportunity to tap into a new market. At the same time, young women and men sought to take part in shaping their identities, telling a different story than in glossy newsreels like the one below.

Do your parents or grandparents have photos or stories of their teen style? I hope Teenage inspires more people to share their personal collections.

Image credit: Calumet412

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  • Barbara Troeller January 05, 2015 02.03 pm


    My mom wore similar outfits to the young women in that photo, and she was also from Missouri, although she lived in city, not on a farm. However, she told me she was certainly not a rebel, and wearing jeans was for her friends not really a sub culture, it was just an adopted style that girls her age were wearing as a fad or trend that made sense as it was so comfortable and they could be tom boys and not worry about modesty in their leisure time, etc. Girls were not allowed to wear any pants to school, not just dungarees. My mom, and her friends did not attempt to wear them in school but did wear them on the school grounds after class. Even as late as 1969, girls were not allowed to wear pants to our New Jersey public high school. When I was a freshman it was the first years girls could wear pants, although few chose to wear jeans even then. After 1970, jeans showed up on many of us!

  • Michelle January 05, 2015 02.26 pm

    Barbara, thanks for sharing! That’s really interesting that she didn’t see it as rebellious and that it was just about comfort. I also found an old press photo from a 1946 issue of the Chicago Tribune, showing teens protesting various things, including girls demanding the right to wear slacks to school. Did your mother continue to wear jeans for casual dress into her adult years, or was it just a short fad?

  • Gib Ennis January 06, 2015 08.30 am

    Michelle, Thanks for the well written article, it was inspiring and powerful.


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