The A – Z Guide Of Teenage Fashion History

The clothing styles adopted by young people have been a powerful influence on fashion in North America and Europe since World War II. Since young people’s spending power grew postwar, the youth market became a crucial sector of the fashion industry. 

Fashion trends have also been influenced by the styles adopted by young people. By the 1990s, the “youth” market included not only teenagers, but also consumers in their twenties, thirties, and older.

“B’Hoys” and “Scuttlers”

The twentieth century was not the only century to see distinctive fashions for young people. During the Victorian era, young workers’ leisure time and disposable income gradually increased, resulting in the emergence of mass-produced goods, entertainments, and fashions targeted at young people.

Fashion was also used by young people to mark out their individual and collective identities. During the 1890s, many working girls in urban America rejected conservative modes of feminine dress in favor of gaudy colors, fancy accessories, and skirts and dresses that accentuated their hips and thighs. 

There was also a distinct style adopted by young working men. 

During the mid-nineteenth century, the Bowery neighborhood of New York City was home to dandified street toughs known as “B’hoys.” According to Abraham Dayton, “These ‘B’hoys’ ? were the most consummate dandies of their time.”

As they paraded the streets, they wore extravagantly greased front locks, broad-brimmed hats, turned-down shirt collars, black frock coats with skirts below the knee, embroidered shirts, and “a profusion of jewelry as varied and costly as the b’hoy could procure” (Dayton, pp. 217-218).

Fashions similar to these appeared in Europe as well. For instance, in his autobiographical account of life in the British town of Salford, Robert Roberts described gangs of young toughs known as “scuttlers” who, around the turn of the century, would wear union shirts, bell-bottomed pants, a heavy leather belt with a large steel buckle, and thick, iron-shod clogs.

Flappers and Campus Culture

Youth markets expanded further in the 1920s and 1930s. A growing range of consumer industries courted young workers in Britain, despite a general economic downturn. A budding youth market was also created by the economic boom of the 1920s in the United States, while distinctive styles became increasingly associated with the young. 

In particular, the image of the young, female “flapper” was prominent. As the embodiment of chic modernity, the archetypal flapper featured in many advertising campaigns with her sleek fashions, short bobbed hair, and energetic leisure pursuits.

Young men’s clothing styles also became more distinctive. Casual clothing became popular in the 1890s due to sportswear. In young men’s fashion, former sports shirt styles gave way to a more leisure-oriented aesthetic. 

From 1905 onward, the “Arrow Man” appeared in advertisements for Arrow shirts. An archetype of well-groomed, chisel-jawed masculinity, the “Arrow Man” was a young, stylish, and virile archetype whose muscularity assured a fashionability untainted by effeminacy suspicions. American colleges and universities expanded during the 1920s, creating an identifiable “collegiate” or “Ivy League” style of dress. 

Together with the movie, magazine, and advertising industries, Campus Leisure-wear (founded in 1922) created a smart-but-casual combination of button-down shirts, chino slacks, letter sweaters, and cardigans.

Bobby Soxers and Teenagers

As a result of wartime economic pressures, many young Americans entered the workforce during the 1940s. Due to this, U.S. youth had a spending power of around $750 million by 1944 due to a greater measure of disposable income. As a result of this economic muscle, youth-targeted consumer industries expanded further. 

As a result of the growing importance of young women, the term “bobby-soxer” became a defining characteristic of adolescent girls who wore sweaters, full skirts, and saddle shoes, jiggling to big-band swing and swooning over showbiz stars like Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra during the 1940s.

Also created in the 1940s was the “teenager.” Adolescents have been referred to as teenagers since the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that the term “teenager” entered the popular lexicon. It was the U.S. advertising and marketing industries that popularized the concept. Marketers saw teenagers as a new market of affluent, young consumers associated with leisure-oriented lifestyles. 

A notable contribution was made by Eugene Gilbert. In 1945, Gilbert began his career as a specialist in youth marketing, and his company, Youth Marketing Co., was booming by 1947. In the 1950s, Gilbert’s book Advertising and Marketing to Young People (1957) became a manual for teen merchandisers.

The success of Seventeen magazine also demonstrates the growth of the American “teen” market. Seventeen was launched in 1944 as a magazine for college girls. The magazine’s advertising and features helped disseminate “teenage” tastes throughout America by 1949.

The Teenage Market Explodes

There was a further expansion of the U.S. youth market in the 1950s. Demographic trends contributed to this. By 1970, the American teen population reached a peak of 20 million as a result of an increase in births during World War II and a postwar “baby boom.” As education expanded postwar, the notion of youth as a distinct social group was further reinforced, with nearly 100 percent of American teenagers attending high school during the 1960s, up from 60 percent in the 1930s. 

Economic factors, however, were the driving force behind the growth of the youth market. In Peacetime, there was a decline in full-time youth employment, but a rise in youth spending was sustained by both part-time work and parental allowances. 

Some estimates suggest that teenage Americans’ average weekly income increased from just over $2 in 1944 to around $10 by 1958 (Macdonald, p.).

During the 1950s, teens spent most of their money in affluent, white suburbs. Meanwhile, embedded racism and economic inequality made African American and working-class youth relatively marginal to the commercial youth market. African American, Mexican American, and working-class youths, however, created their own styles that influenced wider youth culture. 

African Americans, for example, gradually adopted the zoot suit style of broad, draped jackets and pegged trousers during the 1930s. African American rhythm and blues records gained popularity among young, white audiences in the 1950s. 

A major record company repackaged the music as “rock ‘n’ roll” for a mainstream market, and it became the soundtrack to 1950s youth culture.

Work wear was also incorporated into youth style during the 1950s. Denim jeans, in particular, became a staple of teen fashion. The idea of riveting waist-high overalls commonly known as “jeans” was patented by Levi Strauss during the 1860s. 

In the 1940s, jeans were considered leisurewear, but during the 1950s they became associated with youth culture as they were worn by young film stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando, as well as pop stars like Elvis Presley. Although Levi Strauss remained a leading jeans manufacturer, Lee Cooper and Wrangler also became well known for their distinctive styles.

Global Circulation of Teenage Fashion

In the dissemination of teenage fashion, the mass media played a crucial role. Teen magazines, films, and TV shows like American Bandstand (syndicated on ABC from 1957) ensured that teen styles spread quickly across the country. As a result of the global circulation of U.S. media, teenage fashions also spread internationally. 

For example, London youths adopted the zoot suit during the 1940s, which evolved into the long, draped jackets that were the badge of toughs known as “Teddy boys” during the 1950s. American fashion was also influencing youngsters behind the “iron curtain.” The Soviet Union, for example, developed its own interpretation of American teenage fashion in the 1950s called “stil.”

Demographic shifts fueled the European teen market’s growth, just as they did in the U.S. The number of people under twenty in Britain increased from three million in 1951 to more than four million by 1966 as a result of a postwar baby boom. 

The expansion of education also reinforced the notion that young people are a discrete social group. In America, economic trends were also crucial. Market researchers such as Mark Abrams have identified the rise of “distinctive teenage spending for distinctive teenage ends in a distinctive teenage world” in Britain, for example. Unlike its American counterpart, the teen market in postwar Britain was more working-class in nature. “Not far short of 90 percent of all teenage spending in Britain is conditioned by working class taste and values,” Abrams estimated (Abrams, p. 13).

U.S. youth culture was influenced by European youth style. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones spearheaded a British pop music invasion in the mid-1960s, for example. In contrast, British exports such as the miniskirt and Mary Quant’s chic modernist designs transformed American women’s fashion. The British menswear industry was also influential. 

When Time magazine surveyed the fashion scene in “Swinging London,” for example, it was impressed by the “new, way-out fashion in young men’s clothes” (15 April 1966). The arrival of British “Mod” style in America in autumn 1966 was also accompanied by media excitement, as it combined fitted shirts, sharply cut jackets, and tapered trousers, which were themselves inspired by Italian fashion’s smoothly tailored lines.

Counterculture, Race and Teenage Style

International youth style was greatly influenced by the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Young bohemians, students, and political radicals formed the counterculture, which emphasized self-exploration, creativity, and alternative lifestyles. 

It was the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco that was the counterculture’s spiritual home, but films, magazines, and television, as well as rock bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, spread counterculture styles worldwide. 

Hip boutiques were filled with ethnic designs, psychedelic patterns, faded denim, and tie-dye as a result of the counterculture’s nonconformity and exoticism.

African American youngsters also became more prominent consumers during the 1960s and 1970s. As a result of civil rights activism and increased employment opportunities, black teenagers gradually became a significant market. In the 1960s, this was reflected in the boom in soul music and the success of record labels such as Berry Gordy’s Tamala-Motown empire. 

Soul also picked up a significant white audience, and African-American style continued to have a significant impact on wider youth culture throughout the 1970s – first with the funk sounds pioneered by James Brown and George Clinton, and then with the vibrant disco scene that emerged.

In the late 1970s, rap music and hip-hop culture (which combined graffiti, dance, and fashion) emerged. New York’s South Bronx is where hip-hop first came into being, where performers such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash combined pulsating soundscapes with deft wordplay. 

The style of hip-hop was characterized by a passion for brand-name sportswear, including trainers, tracksuits, and accessories from Adidas, Reebok, and Nike. Run-DMC even paid homage to their favorite sports brand in their anthem “My Adidas.” During the 1990s, rap impresarios launched their own hip-hop fashion labels. Russell Simmons (head of Def Jam) launched Phat Farm sportswear in 1992, while Sean “Puffy” Combs (head of Bad Boy Records) launched Sean John in 1998.

The 1990s and Beyond

During the 1980s and 1990s, youth unemployment and a declining Western youth population threatened to undermine teen spending growth. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, demographic shifts and economic trends indicated that youth would continue to be a lucrative market. 

The “echo” of the “baby boom” worked its way through the demographic profiles of America and Europe during the new millennium, despite long-term declines in Western birth rates. Market research also indicates that teenagers’ spending power is still growing on both sides of the Atlantic.

Increasingly, teens’ fashions appealed to other age groups as well. Increasingly, manufacturers, retailers, and advertisers targeted teenage fashion at preteens (especially girls), encouraging them to purchase products aimed at older consumers. 

Fashions for teenagers are also making their way up the age scale. It was common for consumers in their twenties to their forties and above to favor tastes and lifestyles associated with youth culture by the end of the 1990s. Hence, “teenage fashion” was no longer the preserve of teenagers, but had gained a broader cultural appeal.

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