Shocking for fun

First came the teddy boys, terrorising the staid society of post-war Britain, then the punks, vampire goths, fetishists and piercers – all making statements by the way they dressed. Now they all get together for parties. Chris Arnot meets the revellers and the man who takes their photographs.

Catherine stood with her hands on her hips. She was wearing a rubber corset and thigh-length boots with six-inch heels. “You look great!” said the card which Richard Battye flashed at her in a club in Whitby. “Can I shoot you?” Thankfully, he was carrying a camera rather than a gun. He had to stand on a chair to get the picture he wanted. From the bottom of those heels to the top of her feather boa head-dress was a distance of over seven feet.

“She was a good six feet to start with but quite shy,” Battye recalls. “That’s true of a lot of these cult members. They’re either completely extrovert or looking for something to hide behind.” As a commercial photographer, he is used to photographing managing directors and chartered accountants – men, for the most part, who face the world over collars and ties. But for the past year, he has spent much of his spare time travelling the land to capture on film those whose dress code is the very antithesis of the outwardly respectable professional. From over 1,500 shots, he has selected 24 for an exhibition at the cafe-bar of the Custard Factory, a colony of artists and photographers in Birmingham.

He’s called the exhibition This England. It’s a very different England, needless to say, from the tweedy, warm-beery England of “old maids cycling to evensong” first envisaged by George Orwell and yearned for by John Major.

Here are goths and fetishists, like Catherine, and old teddy boys and young punks. There’s a former head chef called Spud with no fewer than 64 metal studs, many of them embedded in his face. There’s a “vampire goth” called Paul who likes to dress up in PVC and pig-skin when he’s not working as a teacher.

Double identities are not uncommon among Battye’s subjects. One of the organisers of Whitby’s annual gothic weekend is also a prominent member of the Cats Protection League…

Around 3,000 goths descend every year on the small North Yorkshire seaside town which so fired the imagination of Dracula-creator Bram Stoker.

Some travel across the Irish Sea or the Channel, but the majority are home-grown. If you want to dress up to stand out from the crowd, then Britain is the place.

“Black American music has been so influential on youth culture on both sides of the Atlantic, but in terms of style Britain has been far more open minded than the States,” says Dr Chris Griffin, senior lecturer in social psychology at Birmingham University and author of Representations Of Youth. “Outside New York and LA , those who look a bit different get a hard time from other young people.”

Black American music, British style: the combination has been around since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the arrest of the first teddy boys for wrecking a railway carriage somewhere east of Barking in 1954.

In the same year, a 16-year-old ted was convicted of robbing a woman in Dartford “by putting her in fear”. The chairman of the local magistrates told him: “You tried to get hold of money to pay for ridiculous things like Edwardian suits. They are ridiculous in the eyes of ordinary people. They are flashy, cheap and nasty, and they stamp the wearer as a particularly undesirable type.”

As the 50s wore on, these “undesirable types” moved “from the back streets to the housing estates and headlines,” as Chris Steele-Perkins and Richard Smith wrote in their 1979 book The Teds. “Then they settled down, did their national service and hung up their drapes.” Well, some of them did. Old teds – well into late middle-age now – still gather at regular intervals in pubs and working men’s clubs like the one at Shepwell Green, near Willenhall in the Black Country. It was there that Richard Battye photographed Rocky and his wife, “Luscious Lulu”, once a member of Screaming Lord Sutch’s backing group. Rocky has 50 pairs of “beatle-crusher” shoes and 25 Edwardian suits.

“Their house is a shrine to the 50s,” says Battye, who seems pleasantly surprised by the warmth and hospitality he has received from the outwardly forbidding cult-members he has met in the course of his project. “It’s not a freak show,” he insists, “but a celebration of individuality.”

Well, up to a point. One of the contradictions of the wilder extremes of fashion is that practitioners tend to gravitate towards like-minded people and form a sub-culture.

Battye is 35 and a former drummer with a Pontefract-based punk band called the Thrust. He’s evidently at home with people who like to make a bold statement through the way they dress, and he’s justifiably proud of his exhibition. But he’s at a loss to explain why England, once the home of sartorial understatement, should also have a worldwide reputation for outrageous fashion.

For someone of Battye’s punk generation, it’s difficult to imagine the shocking impact that teddy boys made in the 50s on a grey and exhausted society still recovering from six years of war. Most of the teds had fathers who had been in the armed forces. They were used to conforming, obeying orders. Their hair was short and, when they went out for an evening, their shirts were white and their suits dark. “In this context, teds seemed incredibly narcisistic,” says Dr Ruth Cherrington, lecturer in communication, culture and media at Coventry University. “It wasn’t considered ‘normal’ for men to fuss over their appearance.”

The Edwardian suit which so outraged the chairman of Dartford magistrates had its origins in homosexual circles. The velvet collars on long jackets were briefly adopted by young Guards officers as a nostalgic gesture towards the era of Edward VII. But they soon dropped the fad when, after some press coverage, it moved downmarket. By the beginning of 1954, teds were almost exclusively working class.

“I still think a lot of Britain’s reputation for stylish youth culture has its roots in the class system,” says Dr Cherrington. “Politics has always been boring for most young people, but they can still make a statement and express their rebelliousness through their appearance. Mods and rockers in the 60s mostly had low-grade jobs, but the way they dressed and behaved outside work was a way of saying ‘up yours’ to the system.”

How much styles evolve from the streets and how much they are planted from above by clever marketing is another matter, she says. “Even punk wasn’t just a street movement. I think Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood had something to do with it.” On the same theme, she ponders how far the recent craze for girls to decorate the back of their hands with henna came from Asian friends and how much from the influence of Madonna.

But she does concede that Britain’s multi-culturalism has brought about cross-fertilisation in music and style that would be difficult to imagine in other European countries, let alone the US.

“The gay scene has also had a big impact,” she says. “The fact that they can come out and be themselves is having a wider influence. Things are more open, particularly in London. I recently went with some friends to a fetishist night at a former church in Brixton (purely for research purposes, you understand!).

“It had been advertised on the internet and it was packed. We had to dress up to get in, me in a nice little PVC number. Nobody took a blind bit of notice on the tube.”

Nearly half a century after the first teds squeezed into their drainpipe trousers, England has become virtually unshockable. In its capital city, at least.

• This England, an exhibition by Richard Battye, is at the Custard Factory, Birmingham (0121-624 4777) and on the web at

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