See how teen fashions changed from the ’30s through the ’70s

1970s teen fashions (1971)

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By their fads, ye shall know them (1975)

By Carol Kramer – The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) December 6, 1975

Can you find your look?

1. Pleated skirt, cashmere sweater, circle pin, penny loafers, Bonnie Doon knee sox, ponytail.
2. Super-tight skirt, pointy bra, Orlon cardigan worn backwards, Doris Day kerchief, ankle bracelet.
3. Rolled-up-jeans, baggy sweater, handsewn loafers (run down), bobby sox, saddle shoes, fraternity pin on bosom.
4. Ducktail haircut, James Dean jacket T-shirt with sleeves rolled up, pegged chinos or jeans, Thom McAn Romas with pointed toes and Cuban heels.
5. Villager cardigan with ribbons, McMullen blouse, pleated skirt, Bass Weejuns, plastic clothespin at throat, bubble hairdo.
6. Jeans, work shirt, construction boots, long, messy hair.
7. Jeans, Huk-a-Poo blouse, earth shoes, Cinandre haircut.
8. White bucks, argyles, chinos, plaid sports coat.
9. Circular felt skirt with pink poodle, angora sweater, angora collar with pom-poms, pink capezios to match sweater.

Chances are you found yourself and your high school classmates in one of the above descriptions. The chances are even better that, excepting for regional quirks, a student of teenage habits could pinpoint your age (within five years), social status in high school and academic achievement, just from what you wore at high school.

Teens at a soda shop 1955

Rite of passage

High school, in the last 35 years, has become a rite of passage from innocent and relatively fad-free childhood into the American class system. It’s when kids begin to declare their allegiances to college and upward mobility, to blue-collar lifestyle and occupation, or to the artistic (substitute hippie or bohemian, depending on the period) lifestyle. And the way they do it is by their clothes.

In the last 30 years, one could often separate students, by their dress, into one of three cliques — preppies (also known as collegiates or squares); hoods (also known as greasers, rinkrats or rockers) or bohemians (also known as artsy craftsy, hippie or avant-garde).

Girls learning poise with books on their heads in the late 50s

What distinguishes each group is its belief it is superior to the others.

“I was disgusting,” says a 29-year-old preppie dropout who exchanged her wardrobe of villager cardigans for revolutionary jeans. Not surprisingly, every year her wardrobe reverts a little more to preppie.

“Fitting in” is what it’s all about in high school. Once you decide which group you want to belong to, it’s assumed you will dress accordingly. Some preppies, however, masquerade as greasers — if you’re going to an all-greaser high school, it might be disastrous not to fit in.

Others change their affiliation when they move up the social ladder. College has made preppies out of greasers, and a steady job has been known to make preppies out of hippies.

Fashion for teen girls in 1964 (4)

A generation ago, the transition between adulthood and adolescence was abrupt and clearly marked. Girls put their hair up, boys stepped into long pants when they got their first job. Gradually, the age at which one started wearing adult clothes grew younger.

But the transition age was prolonged as more and more people went to high school and college. By the 1930s, it was difficult to tell the men from the boys. And it bothered the boys more than the men. Adolescents do not usually want to be identified with their “square” parents.

When knickers went out as transition clothing, it was time for teenagers to come up with identifying characteristics. And it happened in the late 1930s.

Tone was hysterical

The first reports of jitterbugs had that hysterical “what-it-the-world-coming-to” tone that other generations observed when Elvis Presley shook his pelvis, Bill Haley rocked us around the clock, Chubby Checker twisted his derriere, and the Beatles tossed their long locks at us.

Early newspaper headlines referred to bobby soxers and jitterbuggers as ne’er-do-wells who patronized jive joints and hepcat centers. Bishops denounced the jitterbug and newspapers ran stories saying medical experts warned against the effects of the new flat shoe styles on adolescent feet.

Those moccasins (penny loafers) and ballerina slippers (capezios) were going to result in fallen arches for all, they predicted.

But the bobby soxer look was permanently established during World War II, and even “nice” kids started dressing in bobby sox, dirty saddle shoes, sloppy joe sweaters and, for after school wear, faded denims.

The Lennon Sisters in 1959

The money that hadn’t been available in the Depression was coming out of defense factories and going straight into middle-class adolescent clothing budgets.

Europeans, who discovered the concept of “teenager” much later than we did, were shocked.

In 1946, when a group of British teachers set off for the new land, their minister of education warned them, “Dress and cosmetics occupy a much greater place in the life of the American schoolgirl. After all, cosmetics and frills are great American industries, and the sooner you realize that the better.”

The “sloppy” look was refined by the Eastern girls’ colleges. Rich girls took to looking so scruffy on their well-manicured campuses magazines ran articles about “Why College Girls Dress that Way.” One conclusion — they wanted to appear bohemian during their last fling before a husband, babies, and the suburbs.

Their uniform, though sloppy, was carefully assembled. Jeans were rolled up to the knees. Sox met them. With skirts, there was another rule. If you wore penny loafers, you wore sox straight up. If with saddle shoes and sox were folded down. Once. (Except in hopelessly provincial Midwestern towns, where one rolled one’s sox way down, like rubber tubing.)

Fashions for girls from 1952

The look spread to the Midwest, where teenage girls wore their fathers’ shirts over jeans. But, except for Eastern girls’ schools, jeans were never accepted in the classroom. Even at that, at Wellesley, it took the sight of alumna, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, in mink coat and slacks, to make them acceptable.

Classroom styles in the mid-forties included skirts — pleated or tailored and straight (Lauren Bacall had “the look”). Pearls were short during the day, long for evening. Sweaters could be cashmere, lambswool or angora, but “nice” girls (translate that: preppie) wore dickeys under their sweaters.

Some girls wore dyed-to-match angora sox and pearls with their pastel sweaters. Eastern girls considered that outrageously provincial. However, they all shared the “in” hairdo — a page boy that evolved into a peek-a-boo which fell over one eye, a la Veronica Lake. Bobby pins were “out.”

High school boy and girl doing homework in the 50s

More casual looks

More casual looks included the peasant blouse with the broomstick skirt, a simple cotton dirndl soaked and wrapped around a broomstick for a rumpled look. For summer, tube tops and halters, like the ones worn today, were popular.

Regional fads included white muslin beer jackets, designed to be autographed by one’s friends. And nail polish was a great decorating aid. Some girls used it to paint a boyfriend’s tooth (removed by nature or the dentist) blood red — to be worn on a chain.

Other girls dipped safety pins into nail polish and fashioned bracelets and necklaces. In New York, for a time, it was fashionable to steal a spoon from the Automat and twist it into a bracelet.

“Hoods” developed subtle accessory variations, like wearing their cardigan sweaters backwards. Their bras, of course, were pointier and their make-up heavier. In the Midwest, “hoods” wore their lipstick drawn above the lip and tied their babushkas high on their chins. In some areas, hoods were called rink-rats because they hung out in roller rinks.

Teenage girls having a pajama party in 1957

By the late Forties, the next big look had started. First among hoods. Dungarees were bleached and soaked on the body. They got so “hoodie” looking they soon were banned from schools. “I have noted a terrific improvement in what happens in the school since we outlawed dungarees,” said a Queens high school principal in 1953.

Preppy boys, on the other hand, were copying the 1940s Ivy League look with white bucks, chinos, button-down collars, knit ties and plaid sports coats. That look didn’t loosen up until the Beatles revolutionized the early Sixties.

Educators firmly believed behavior followed dress and making everyone dress preppie would change their personalities. Apparently, it occurred to few of them that the clothing followed the behavior pattern and “tough” guys wanted to distinguish themselves from “square” preppies.

Jitterbugging at an Elk's Club

Hairdos became the best way to distinguish yourself. Tough guys used so much Brilliantine to hold down their elaborate ducktail hairdos they became known as greasers.

Male hairdos reached new zeniths with the Detroit, the Tarzan and the flattop. A Chicago Juvenile officer noted “9 out of 10 times when a boy is arrested, he has one of those heads.”

Today, of course, Broadway and television shows have legitimized the greasers as they have been ground up in the mills of nostalgia.


The Fifties were especially faddy because middle-class kids had so much money to spend. By 1961, David Reisman had categorized them as “consumer trainees.”

It was true that manufacturers delighted in providing the latest gimmick — from poppit beads to hula hoops, Teenage girls, at one time or another, were convinced they had to have circle pins, charm bracelets, ID bracelets, ankle bracelets, ladybug pins and plastic clothespins.

Clothes were never so conspicuously “cute” or conspicuously ugly. They were cut big and wide and droopy. Crinoline skirts added bulk to already circular skirts. Pink poodles, rhinestones and seashells were used as appliques.

Teen girl in her bedroom getting ready for school in 1953

Angora collars were made even fuzzier with the addition of seed pearls and stringed pompons. Ballerina slippers had to match your outfit, which was usually icky pink or icky blue.

Greaser girls set themselves apart with tighter skirts and sweaters, tighter toreador pants and circle pins they wore on whichever side it was — nobody remembers now — that indicated you were sexually experienced.

Greaser girls also dyed their forelocks platinum blond, and sometimes their blond “dip” was matched by one on their boyfriend’s forehead. Preppie girls wore ponytails and their boyfriends liked short hair, sometimes even a Haldeman crewcut.

The central cinematic image of the decade was the chicken race in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Later, Elvis Presley confirmed the greasers’ satisfaction with his clothing and behavior.

But preppies just got preppier with twin sweater sets and matching skirts. Cashmere labels were so highly valued, some girls considered stealing labels to sew into their lambswool sweaters. McMullen blouses and Villager cardigans were also valued labels.

Fashion for teen girls in 1964 (1)

At the end of the decade, the “bubble” hairdo replaced the ponytail, and started a decade of huge brush rollers popping out of the heads of women all over the country.

Meanwhile, “Catcher in the Rye” was a teenage classic with a small percentage of teenagers identifying with Holden Caulfield’s anger at the phony adult world.

Inspired by Kerouac

Some teenagers joined the beatniks, inspired by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They were sloppy in a world of Eisenhower neatniks. But school dress codes kept beatniks and hoods in line. Preppies policed themselves.

Sorority girls wore matching, coordinated costumes one day a week, and everyone followed the crowd. Some even traveled to other towns for the right stores.

Mini dresses from 1969

Around 1960, bobby sox disappeared, first in college, then high school. One wore Bonnie Doon knee sox or hose with one’s Bass Weejuns. Saddle shoes went out and even greasers disappeared for a time. Again, “hoods” took to hairstyles to look different. Their hairdos were teased to the nth degree.

In 1964, the Beatles revolutionized men’s hairstyles, and Mary Quant and the whole Carnaby street craze began to change women’s fashions. Skirts went up and up and became the prime target of school dress codes.

At New Dorp High School in Staten Island, a ruler was used to measure skirt lengths. If a skirt was more than 4 inches above the knee, a white hem was sewn onto it. At another school, girls were asked to kneel. If their skirts didn’t touch the ground, they were sent home.

Minidress fashion from 1968

Make-up got darker and more raccoon-like, and after-school dresses had the Chelsea girl look. Granny dresses flourished for a short time in the mid-Sixties.

Blue eyeshadow: The good, the bad & the ugly vintage makeup

America was swept up in the youth craze. Middle-aged women dressed like Chelsea girls and advertising executives wanted to look like Paul McCartney (the single best example of a middle-aged man looking ridiculously “mod” was sideburned, puffy Pierre Salinger).

Ebony Feb 1968 Mini dresses - beauty fashion

Found a new one

But no sooner had adults robbed teenagers of their look than the kids found a new one. By 1967, SDS chapters had sprung up on college campuses, and some early war protesters were wearing fatigues.

The drug culture was making its mark on fashion — hippies wore jeans, T-shirts, ethnic tops, antique clothes. The streets of Haight-Ashbury and the East Village looked like Halloween as everyone tried to wear his “thing.” The counterculture look was first adopted by the avant-garde and didn’t filter down to most high schools until 1970.

Fashion for teen girls in 1964 (2)

Between 1968 and 1970, preppie kids resisted, but then, “we changed uniforms overnight,” recalls a 22-year-old. “It was the summer of 1970, the summer of Kent State.”

A 24-year-old recalled that in 1968 at the State University in Albany, “People assumed you were voting for Nixon if you wore a skirt. People sized you up immediately by what you wore.”

Of course, teenagers have always done that. By 1970, the uniform seen all over was jeans, work shirts, Frye boots or sandals and hip-length hair. A volley of gunshots had made protesting socially acceptable, even obligatory. It was “them” against “us.”

Fashion for teen girls in 1964 (3)

The recurrent feud between adults and adolescents obliterated social distinctions between teenagers. Even if you weren’t against the war, you felt the social pressure to wear the new uniform.

“Once in a while I wanted to wear something else,” says a 25-year-old girl, “but there was just too much hassle.” For almost every teenager, in every era, that pressure to conform to the standard uniform has been great. Poor kids, who wanted to look like preppies, always had the hardest time.

Today the uniform is jeans, and a “nice” shirt — Huk-a-Poo for middle-class preppies, Ralph Lauren for rich preppies. Earth shoes and Wallabees decorate teenage feet along with “Little Abners” for lower middle-class kids. Boys wear Pro-Keds, in blue and white (suede pumice in preppie schools).

The radical sloppy look of the early Seventies has changed in the last two years. Well-groomed is back, at least for preppies. Hair is styled. instead of flowing in disarray, shirts are tucked in, fewer construction boots are seen on teenage feet.

Sears Junior Bazaar everyday school dresses for teens - Retro clothing from 1973

“You should see it now, says a disgruntled 20-year-old. “Everyone is really dressed expensively. It’s the embracing of the bourgeois all over again.”

But teenagers still think they are dressing distinctively. Told that their tube tops and halters were popular in the forties, they just stare incredulously.

But at Flushing High School and all around Long Island, there are pockets of greasers — guys who mimic the television shows and the Broadway hit “Grease,” with their leather jackets, Brilliantined hair and cigarette packs tucked into their T-shirts. They even drive ’57 Belairs. The blonde dip is coming back, too.

It’s almost as if we’ve gone full circle. So far, no manufacturer has come up with a felt skirt with an appliqued pink poodle. But why not?

MORE: See some far out vintage ’70s fashions for teen girls

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