Friday, 29 April 2016

The Honour of the Drape

My Dad was a Ted, which was why I picked up this slim book from the sales stall at the local library (one of my main sources of books). I have a couple of photos of my Dad from 1956 (when he was 17-18). He didn’t have a great deal of cash and I suspect the longish jacket he’s wearing in the photo with my Mum was his own father’s, or something inherited at any rate. In a little passport-type photo he has a tie and something under his jacket, probably a cardigan rather than a waistcoat – an expedient adopted by less prosperous regional Teds. Incongruously he’s also wearing what seems to be a dufflecoat, which wasn’t part of the style, but there you go. Apparently older chaps would scathingly remark about Teds ‘a spell in the Army’d sort ’em out’ and that seems to be what happened to my Dad as a couple of years later after his National Service his quiff was a bit less obvious and he’d ditched ties for anything but very formal occasions. ‘We were Edwardians, that was where the name came from,’ he told me, so I knew that part of the story.

A couple of things struck me from the book. It’s written in a more committed way than one normally expects, certainly. Mr Ferris, the co-author, is very scathing about anyone who suggests social change in Britain got going in the 1960s rather than during his father’s youth in the ‘50s: ‘listen to their drivel for long enough and you end up believing it’. I recall my boss at the Royal Engineers Museum saying exactly the same thing. He remembered his time at St John’s College Cambridge: ‘some of us had come back from bloody Korea, and we were being told to wear silly little academic gowns and that we had to be back in by 11pm. We weren’t putting up with that.’

Mr Ferris also maintains that being a Ted wasn’t – isn’t, for those who still are Teds - mainly about music or about clothes but about ‘a way of living and thinking’. ‘That’s just the kind of thing a Goth would say’, remarked Ms Formerly Aldgate, echoing my first response exactly. It’s a sentiment that trips easily enough off the tongue or pen, but it strikes me as a fairly empty one. In the Goth context anyone who wanders into a Goth club on more than just a one-off basis – especially if not accompanied by a regular – is expected to join in, and joining in means at least wearing black – and I doubt Teds would be any different; possibly for them it would be all the more true as Goth lacks the aggressive working-class edge that Ted had. Its brand of rebellion is very different. For both, though, insisting outsiders do adopt the style, regardless of any statement that clothes and music aren’t the point, is about maintaining the safe subcultural space where questions don’t need to be asked nor explanations given, and perfectly understandable.

Mr Ferris, son of a Ted, who adopted the style in the mid-1970s, is an adamant champion of latter-day Teds and accordingly contemptuous of anyone who abandoned the style; but if there ever was a subcultural style that had its epochal moment from which the world then moved on, New Edwardianism was surely it. Born out of the marriage of an elitist British reaction against American culture with US zoot fashion, at a moment when media, economics and social change favoured it, the early-to-mid 1950s was its natural soil. Again, Goth differs from other subcultures because of its linkage into an artistic and literary tradition that stretches back centuries (millennia, you could argue), but the way it looks has changed at different moments over the decades: most Goths now, if you can find any at all, don’t look how they did in 1982. They were of their time too, and time moves on because society moves on (one of my favourite books, Robert Elms’s beautiful The Way We Wore, about his own journey through fashion from the 1960s to the 1990s, describes and expresses this truth to perfection). This is what makes essentialist analyses of subculture and narrow defensiveness about what they are and aren’t a bit daft. 

At one point Mr Ferris gives an account of the 1970s Teds who battled Punks on the streets of provincial towns: ‘rightly or wrongly’, he says – and it doesn’t take much insight to guess which side of that dichotomy he falls on – ‘they believed they were fighting for the honour of the drape’, the most ludicrous sentence I’ve read in a good long while. 

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