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