The Edwardians

We all sniggered, not long ago, over Uncle Fred’s best suit in the family album; whatever could Aunt Alice have seen in him? Now, perhaps, we know, because what they wore before 1914 is a cult in 1954. Spiv clothes are out and Edwardians are in at the dance halls and on the monkey-parades—dull colours, baggy velvet-collared jackets, drainpipe trousers, straggly ties. Not quite the same as Uncle Fred, though: to-day’s model stands in a crepe-soled plinth and is crowned with an elegant perm.


Something new in the world of fashion is often something old. In the last four or five years, reminiscent styles of one sort and another have recurred persistently, from spectacular waistcoats to the flat caps that were introduced to southern England by north-country football fans in the late nineteenth century. The full Edwardian rig first became news for the picture papers when popular dandies adopted it—a comedian, a politician and a film actor.


Then, in 1953, it jumped to the headlines: a fight among Edwardian-dressed adolescents on Clapham Common. One died of stab wounds and another was hanged for it. People became aware that the costume was no longer merely a sartorial idiosyncrasy. More drab and uneasy-looking as it passed into the too-cheap, too-smart gents’ outfitters, it was multiplying as the dress of truculent youthful gangs. With increasing frequency it was mentioned in court cases of offensive rowdyism. In a few months its wearers were christened “Teddy Boys”; it has become, in fact, the hoodlums’ uniform.


The same ideals and circumstances lead to the same attire often enough. You can usually tell the artists from the visitors at an exhibition; a shorthand-typist is not likely to be taken for a factory girl, nor a Conservative for an anarchist. The most famous example from recent years is the spiv, who established a cartoonists’ golden age with his drape and his shoulder-padding and his fist-sized tie-knot. There is nothing unconventional or new in the assumption of a common, near-uniform dress by suburban larrikins. In the past, when an adolescent’s income was shillings instead of pounds, the same tendency was exhibited from time to time but on a lesser scale; before 1939 there were “trilby-hat gangs” on the corners and round the coffee-stalls.


The public concern about the “Teddy Boys” is concern over the behaviour-patterns that are the grounds for their association. Ideals in uniforms have a more organised, impressive look about them; and by and large it is delinquency that wears the Edwardian uniform. Delinquency, not crime—and there is a considerable difference. A black marketeer or a street bookmaker is not a delinquent; on the other hand, a bunch of young men who make a street intolerable to passer-by may not be criminals but are obviously delinquents—that is, they have a consciously anti-social pattern of behaviour.


What causes delinquency? Everybody knows: the bishops, the leader-writers, the psychologists, the headmasters—they all know. Unhappy homes, insufficient religious teaching, low moral standards, American comics, amusement arcades — the whole modern “anatomie of abuses.” And, as is often the case, the more remedies are proposed the worse the thing becomes. While the Edwardians flourish, the serious, train-their-character youth movements wane; the Boy Scouts, which in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties sent thousands of hairy-kneed sixteen years-olds hiking through the countryside at summer week-ends, now is a little-boys’ affair. The “Teddy Boys” have their own character and their own culture.


Mostly, they are youths between leaving school and being conscripted. That in itself is an obvious important factor: the sense of aimlessness, of having time to kill, must be tremendous. Here are you: kept at school up to fifteen, and at eighteen they want you again. In the meantime, for three years only is your life your own—except that whatever you propose, the State inexorably disposes at the end of the three years. And when you are in “the bleedin’ Kate,” there sis generally one of two things: either fighting or twenty months of organised time-killing. The Edwardians lack purpose in life—and it isn’t surprising.


There is, too, the desire for manliness, which is seen largely in terms of loudness, roughness and “seeking the bubble reputation.” The desire is probably more potent to-day than at any previous time. One reason is that a soldier, even an eighteen-year old one, must be a man, and perhaps a stronger reason is that there is no longer any segregation or much reticence between the sexes. A girl of seventeen has achieved womanhood in appearance and, as often as not, in experience, too; her male counterpart, lacking her natural and circumstantial aids, can only make valiant efforts towards corresponding ends.


Several supposed causes of delinquency have already been mentioned. The most commonly cited—probably because it is the favourite with the clergy and at school prizegivings—is lack of religious teaching. Strangely enough, the Edwardians have had more of that than most people. The 1944 Education Act gave religion a stronger footing in the schools than at any time since compulsory education began—and not every generation is subjected within a decade to pietistic profusions for a victory, a monarch’s death and a coronation. It may be argued that religion teaching is only effective in the home; but no religion is more family-based, and more exacting, than Catholicism, and no cities have more crime and delinquency that those with large Catholic populations, like Liverpool and Glasgow.


Certainly no-one would deny that broken or unhappy homes contribute to delinquency; overcrowded homes, too. The absence of stability and affection can and does give rise to emotional conflicts, frustrations and resentments against society. Plenty of delinquents come from apparently good homes, however. There is a good deal of glib talk about adjustment and maladjustment, psychiatric terms that have passed into popular currency. Adjustment means a condition of harmony with the social environment; what of the person, then, who us adjusted to European civilisation in this present age? A. S. Neill, the high priest of “progressive” education, has written much about his achievements in adjusting recalcitrant or delinquent children from well-to-do homes. What is achieved? They are in harmony with predatoriness, violence, suspicion and power; in harmony—with a diseased society.


Delinquency is a way in which people react to personal or group situations. More important still, the reaction is something learned from society. The whole behaviour-pattern of the “Teddy Boys”—the shiftlessness, the truculence, the irresponsibility—is their reaction to what society has given them and their display of what it has taught them. Behind them is the entire structure of western urban civilisation which, Frankenstein-like, creates its monsters and lives in fear of them.


There is no quick, easy answer to the problem. It is not enough to think of this or that, of broken homes or a sense of frustration, as the cause. You must ask why the family is disintegrating; why so many people in our world are frustrated and unhappy. Social misconduct is no more the result of deliberate personal choice that it is the product of heredity or constitution (and that myth, thank goodness, has long been exploded). Society, through the law and the majority of public opinion, assumes that the delinquent is merely malicious, and deals accordingly with him. “You want a damn good thrashing,” five East London Edwardians were told last week before the magistrate fined them. And even where there is better understanding, the social circumstances to which delinquency is a reaction remain.


The driving force of our society is profit. All its institutions and ideals are shaped by that motive. So, in consequence, are its problems, and while the basis remains they will remain; or, if one apparent problem disappears it does so only to be replaced by another. A few years ago it was the spivs; now it is the Edwardians. The real answer to delinquency can only be found by establishing a social situation which will not set some in conflict and teach them lessons of power and fear. And that means not punitive legislation, not religious teaching, but the abolition of profit-based society.
Robert Barltrop