Figure 2: “Cyclist’s Holiday”

 



















































































































































































































Figure 3: Harvey Lembeck
as Eric Von Zipper











































































Figure 4: Peter Fonda as
Captain America




Welcome to our Inaugural Issue!
March 2005

Blue Jeans, Black Leather Jackets,
and a Sneer:  The Iconography of the 1950s Biker and its Translation Abroad

Lily Phillips, Ph.D.
John Carroll University

Figure 1:  Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler
in The Wild One (1954).

In 2004, The Wild One turned fifty.  In 1954, Brando and his band of outlaw motorcycle riders stormed across the screen and into the popular imagination.  The anniversary marked fifty years of “What have you got?” quotes, fifty years of parental fear, and fifty years of adolescent longing for Brando’s particular brand of cool (see Figure 1).  The image of the biker that the film popularized has since become one of the classic representations of American youthful rebellion, both within the United States and abroad.   How did such a dangerous figure become so embraced?   Emerging in an era charged with political and social suspicion, and showcasing rebellion and nonconformity, the biker seems an odd choice to represent the United States in any way.  Yet, the blue-jeaned, black-leather clad biker that is the movie’s hero is undeniably an American icon.  Johnny Strabler would likely have been appalled.

So, how did it happen?  I will explore the question by looking at popular representations of bikers in the initial period of the Cold War, that is, from 1947 to 1969.  During that period, the transformation of biker from villain to hero began.   This transformation is significant because it directly mirrors the change in overall attitudes toward juvenile delinquency during this period, a change that itself characterizes the seismic shift in the cultural status of youthful rebellion. The biker as iconic figure provides us with a focal point for studying this larger cultural process, which was key to the development of the Counterculture so central to the next decade. 

It is my contention that what we can see in the representations of bikers, and responses to them, is a consequence of the Cold War.  As against traditional formulations of this process that stress the role of domestic subversion and generational conflict, I will show the importance of international politics and the United States’ global position to the cultural response to bikers and juvenile delinquents.  That importance, I argue, is based on the way the international functioned, on both a concrete and symbolic level, as a foil and complement to American national identity.  I will trace that influence as it appeared both directly, in the perceived interest of other countries in American juvenile delinquency and the “foreignness” of JDs (juvenile delinquents) themselves, and indirectly, in its role as a symbolic other by which the U.S. was able to distance itself from the social critique implicit in juvenile delinquency and enable its transition to pure commodity.  The final part of my essay will look at what happened thereafter, when the biker moved overseas. 

One of the first popular representations of the biker appeared in 1947.   It was a photograph of a man on a motorcycle during a Fourth of July celebration in Hollister, California.   First appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, then reprinted in Life, the photograph was titled “Cyclist’s Holiday” and appeared opposite another photograph titled “Barber’s Holiday” which showed a mannequin in an ape mask in a barber’s chair (see Figure 2).   Considering that it was the events in Hollister that inspired The Wild One, and that Hollister occupies a mythical place in biker lore, the event and this photo deserve study.

Hollister is a farming community in northern California, a few hours south of San Francisco.  Before the 1947 incident, it had a long association with motorcyclists, having hosted gypsy tours since 1936, as well as motorcycle races and hill climbs at a nearby racetrack (Reynolds 46).  The Hollister incident started as a gypsy tour sponsored by the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association).  What exactly happened there, however, depends on whom you ask.  As journalist Tom Reynolds, who gives the most comprehensive account in his book Wild Ride:  How Outlaw Motorcycle Myth Conquered America wrote, “Descriptions run the gamut from just a wild party to a rural version of the Rape of Nanking” (46).  Anywhere from several thousand to a hundred thousand bikers reportedly rode to town, overwhelming the six-member police force, and began to carouse.  The sanctioned races continued, even as drag races took over the main thoroughfare.  The local police called the California highway patrol, which sent 40 officers to help.  These patrolmen, armed with gas guns, herded the bikers to a section of the city and ordered the bars closed two hours early.    There were 50 arrests as well as property damage.  The event shocked the local area, but did not attain widespread media attention.  

Neither the photograph in Life nor the events in Hollister seem like the “shocking story” alluded to at the beginning of The Wild One.  Although the subtitle of the photo claims that “He and friends terrorize a town,” the terrors reported include only broken furniture and mirrors, and arrests for “drunkenness and indecent exposure "(Life, July 21, 1947: 31).   Placing the biker across from the ape in the barber’s chair further belies the “terror” of the subtitle.  The juxtaposition of the ape and the biker, of course, show the opinion of Life’s writers on the man.  The implication that bikers are animals led to the outraged letters from motorcycle enthusiasts who felt that their sport was being besmirched.  Secretary of the AMA Lin Kuchler called the miscreants at Hollister “one percent of the total number of motorcyclists" (Garson 58).  This is the origin of the “One-Percenter” label that many bikers thereafter applied to themselves.  Life responded by showing “law-abiding, respectable motorcyclists” in a later issue (Life, August 11, 1947: 112-117).  Despite the mythical status of the event for bikers, neither Hollister nor the Hollister biker created the kind of panic that The Wild One did, except in retrospect.  This particular biker did not catch on.  In the years between 1947 and 1954, when The Wild One appeared, the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature lists only technological developments (“New single-cylinder Czech motorcycle,” “Small rear wheel provides extra traction for new motorcycle”) and racing information (“Handle-bar derby at Daytona Beach”) connected to motorcycling.

Significantly, except for the motorcycle and the boots, the Hollister biker lacks most of the key components of biker iconography.  He wears neither a black leather jacket, nor blue jeans, nor a sneer.  Neither do the friends visible over his shoulder.  Overweight, with his cap askew and clearly intoxicated (with attention drawn to the fact by the staged bottles under the motorcycle’s wheels) (Reynolds 50-51), he appears unkempt rather than menacing.   Most importantly, the Hollister biker looks significantly older than Brando’s Johnny, more like the army veteran that most bikers of the time were. Many bikers got into motorcycling while serving in the army.  Harley-Davidsons were produced for the military in World War II.  These motorcycles, called WLAs, were produced en masse and were sold as surplus following the end of the war (Garson 34-36).   If the Hollister biker does appear in the movie, it is as Lee Marvin’s Chino.  Intoxicated and unkempt, Chino is relegated to being an outlaw of the outlaws, as head of the Beetles, ejectees from the Black Rebels.   Brando, on the other hand, was something different.  Constantly referred to within the movie as “boy,” he was clearly pictured as a youth.   It was this, I would argue, which set the stage for Brando’s biker to attain the status it did.

Teenagers were a preoccupation of the 1950s. Although not as large as the youth culture of the 1960s (this was not the baby boom generation), 1950s teenagers had a new cohesive generational sensibility, spurred by increasingly rapid social change, new economic freedom, and common generational experiences, particularly high school (Palladino; Austen and Willard).  This led to tremendous interest in and criticism of them on the part of parents, cultural leaders, and, elected officials.  As Gereon Zimmerman wrote in Look magazine in 1956, “No other generation has had so much admonition, so many statistics" (52).  Teen delinquency and the teen culture from which it was hardly distinguished became the most examined youth movement in history up to that time, and writings about youth offenders became a cottage industry, including sociology and criminology texts, self-help books for parents, translation texts on gang argot and rituals, JD novels, and JD moviesJuvenile delinquency even began to appear on Gallup polls as one of the most important problems facing the country (Gallup 1228, 1426, 1447).  In 1955, Estes Kefauver, Senator from Tennessee, took over as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency.  Kefauver was riding high off a popular televised set of hearings on organized crime and had presidential ambitions.  That he would energetically pursue an investigation of juvenile delinquency during this crucial time in his career gives some measure of the cultural and political importance of this issue, and of its popularity. Yet, considering the actual evidence of criminality, juvenile delinquency was not as rampant as might appear from its portrayal in the media (Hindelang; Gilbert).  The fears about juvenile delinquency can be understood as what Lawrence Grossberg called a “saturated panic” or a “felt crisis,” that is, a social phenomenon “so rich in symbolic resonance, so obviously constructed, and within a few years so widely adopted, [that] an understanding of its uses and meanings provides an entrance into the social and cultural world of [the time under study]" (Neuberger 3).   Despite the stereotype of the 1950s as peaceful and bland, such crises were not atypical; rather, they epitomized a decade of political and cultural suspicion. Like other threatening figures, juvenile delinquents seemed deserving of scrutiny and control. 

Pulp novels featuring juvenile delinquents compared teens to the Mafia as well as Storm Troopers (Teen-Age Mafia by Wenzell Brown [1959] and Delinquent! by Morton Cooper [1958]).  Movies made them into monsters or aliens (Doherty). Some examples include: I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Teenagers from Outer Space (1959).  The obvious conclusion to draw from these metaphors is that teens were, at the very least, strange creatures, possibly hazardous, or, more harshly, enemies with different loyalties, leaders, and standards of decency.  This separation from American society gave them a distinctly foreign genealogy.

Teens, then, were Others, a point highlighted when Brando roared into town in The Wild One.  Marlon Brando as Johnny epitomized what most mainstream adults feared about teen culture by reacting against adult society and embodying the search for pleasure, excitement, novelty and violence that many attributed to youth culture as a whole.  Even before he spoke, his blue jeans, black leather jacket, and noise challenged the suited and skirted citizens surrounding him, communicating his disdain for the success ethic, consumerism and, above all, quiet that were supposed to be the hallmarks of his generation.    

A paradigmatic example of this is Brando’s black leather jacket – except for the motorcycle, the most significant piece of biker iconography.  The black leather jacket is a motorcycle jacket designed for the rider.  The classic motorcycle jacket can be traced to Ross Langlitz, who in 1947 designed a jacket that Langlitz Leathers still produces.  Airtight and sturdy with canted sleeves and shorter in front than behind, it was designed for both the safety and the comfort of its wearers.  Leather, after all, provided the best protection from road rash and other minor motorcycling injuries before the development of tougher synthetic fabrics.  However, neither comfort nor safety, although contributing factors, really explains the jackets outlaw appeal or its central importance in The Wild One.  To understand that, we need to delve further into the jacket’s history and symbolism. 

Metaphorically, a leather jacket conveys a talismanic quality of fierceness; the wearer is a different animal, tough, and thick-skinned (Farren 66; Lurie 232).   He is uncivilized, perhaps brutal, and so should be respected if not feared.   Another association, more relevant for our purpose here, comes from its history.  Black leather jackets similar to the 1950s style appeared in World War I Germany, worn by German flying aces (Farren 20).  Through the second World War, black leather coats used by the Gestapo and SS link the black motorcycle jacket almost inevitably with the Third Reich, a link further reinforced by the common wearing of Nazi insignia by motorcycle gangs.  One could contrast this image with the brown leather jacket, which is traced to the English Royal Air Force (RAF), and even today has the connotations of heroism and adventure (Farren 28).  The wearer of the black leather jacket, on the other hand, though his allegiance to the German army is typically not of philosophy but of power, connotes danger, intimidation and often hostility. A secondary association with black leather is communism.  According to one intelligence report, black leather coats were telltale clues of Kremlin affiliation (Dunham 63). When Brando and his men drove their motorcycles into a sleepy country town at the beginning of The Wild One wearing black leather, they were an invading army, metaphorically and sartorially. The all-male nature of Brando’s gang reinforces this idea of an army.  The gang’s women don’t arrive until the Beetles do.

Any comparison of internal delinquents to obviously external and foreign enemies cannot be innocent in the Cold War.  Metaphorically, a line is being drawn linking the internal to the external threat.  Despite the superficial construction of them as separate, the internal and external crises were epistemologically the same.  This could help explain both the governmental attention to private and social sphere activities described as subversive, how could they not be seen as linked? J. Edgar Hoover, for example, made this claim consistently, seeing communist agents in teen rebelliousness, violent comic books, Hollywood liberalism, and civil rights agitation, or generally any cultural movement that went against his political aims (Hoover; Gentry).

This is easier to understand if we keep in mind the cultural dynamics of the Cold War.  The situational dynamics of the Cold War resulted from its unique bipolar global structure. Because the Cold War featured two competing systems, exclusion from one pole meant a potential alliance with the other, giving even peripheral groups the potential for tremendous cultural power.   Subcultures identified with the enemy had a large (negative) cultural capital, and were often seen as powerful enough to merit governmental or police intervention, as juvenile delinquency did.  This Othering is strategic, however, because it masks what delinquents and bikers reveal about American culture.

In a newspaper exchange over the causes of juvenile delinquency, one mother wrote, “I noticed a suggestion that group-minded children are more apt to slip into delinquent behavior.  This seems a valid suggestion to me, since I believe that groupiness (i.e., the creeping paralysis of conformity) is responsible, together with materialism, for many of our ills today" (San Francisco Chronicle May 21, 1957).  In her criticism of teen conformity and her mention of materialism, this woman reveals one of the most disturbing aspects of teen culture:  the fact that teens were not merely Other, but also a direct reflection of American society and its problems.  In their status as both separate from and part of American culture, teens provided a site for examining some of its central concerns while simultaneously making that criticism indirect.  This indirection was crucial, for conformity and materialism struck close to issues heavily identified with U.S. national identity--individualism, economic prosperity, and capitalism.

The construction of teens as Other allows us to glimpse social tensions surrounding issues of difference and homogeneity in American culture.  These issues were quite complex, as teens were chastised for not behaving according to traditional standards of behavior—not conforming in other words—and at the same time, they were seen as a frighteningly homogeneous group that dressed, talked and acted the same, like Brando’s all-leather, all-male gang (Salisbury; Hechinger).  Yet again, this disparagement of conformity had both an internal and an external referent.  The external referent was clearly the communist, who, according to popular rhetoric marched mindlessly lock-step with the Politburo (“the American communist is not like other Americans.  To the Communist, everything – his country, his job, his family – takes second place to his Party duty” (Cherne 21)).  Culturally, it was easy to denounce this external conformity.  However, there was also an internal referent not so easily acknowledged.  Overall, the United States at the time was stereotyped as an age of conformity, not only since the decade ended but also while it was going on.  Books such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) as well as the stereotype of the man in the gray flannel suit, all depict the emerging corporate culture of the time as one of lock-step behavior extinguishing individualism.  Teenagers were especially criticized for being group-oriented, and in these representations I would argue they acted as the scapegoat for fears of conformity in all groups. The homogenizing and conforming aspects of Soviet culture had an analogue in the U.S.—a subversive idea defused through the rhetoric of bipolarity and opposition.

Despite claims of its universality and its Americanness, individualism was a cultural value in crisis in the 1950s, as the benefits of isolation seemed to be losing out to the efficiency of cooperation. In the debates over progressive education, tract housing in suburbs, the influence of television, and so on, we can see the old models of individualism and self-sufficiency being challenged by a move toward greater homogeneity in patterns of consumption, the changing corporate workplace, the spreading national culture industry, and even global national interdependence.  William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) chronicled this shift as he describes the new Organization culture where privacy and individualism were sacrificed in favor of a hegemonic system which essentially Taylorized private life (literally visible in the growing tract suburbs like Levittown, NY). This Organization mentality proved infinitely transportable, as it moved into the military, government, and finally became linked with national identity.  The link between consumer and national interests here betrayed is not as paradoxical as might at first appear. The 1950s were the age of big business, with corporations becoming the norm and business entering politics through Eisenhower’s Cabinet (Oakley 162).  With the political policies formulated to keep the U.S. economic boom going, it seemed as if the fate of the country was explicitly linked to the performance of business—the business of corporations rather than mom and pop entrepreneurs.  Given that capitalism and U.S. business policy was one of the political bases for the Cold War with the Soviet Union, any critique of the business and corporate mentality would necessarily have been heavily coded and displaced onto an easier target.

I see in many representations of juvenile delinquents a displaced commentary on the growing U.S. consumer marketplace and U.S. class structure, and The Wild One is no exception. 

Much of the paranoia about juvenile delinquency seems to have been due to its undermining of traditional class markers and morals.  One sociologist wrote that delinquents have the values of the gentleman of leisure, namely, the search for excitement and adventure rather than the Protestant ethic (Hollander 227).   Certainly, it was crimes that embodied that search for excitement that got the most publicity.  In many ways teens did resemble a new leisure class, since they began their careers later, were kept in school longer, lived at home and depended upon parents’ resources.  However, this search for excitement and rejection of work and thrift is also attributed to lower classes.  Delinquent style, with denim jeans, T-shirts and ducktail haircuts arose from working class youths who had neither the money for fancier clothes nor the time to change before rushing off to work after school hours.  Both these attributions of class affiliations were negative, however, because they rejected the norms of the middle-class, the 1950s default standard for decent behavior.  This mingling of class signs reflects the shifting class structure of 1950s life. Old standards, such as owning a house or receiving a college education were more open through the new Levittowns and the G.I. Bill.  Style was no longer top-down, if it had ever been, as the street fashion of working class youth became widespread, until it even entered high culture with the fashion trends of the 1960s. The expectations for economic opportunity and job placement were also expanding due to the economic prosperity of the time.  Teens both mirrored these changes and commented critically on them.

Brando’s blue jeans provide an example of this critique of consumer culture. The jeans worn by Brando and his men were not the designer jeans that appeared in the late 1970s; rather, they were “the anti-fashion wardrobe that symbolically flaunted the mores of the frightened society at large" (Gordon 33).  In the 1950s, jeans were in a transitional cultural stage, between their early connection to the working classes and their later appropriation by a wider American public. During this time, jeans were common leisure wear, but became especially identified with the growing youth culture as the decade progressed.  Part of both the juvenile delinquent and Beat subcultures, jeans showed a rejection of the values of consumer culture; as one scholar noted, “To wear plain jeans and dark colors was to reject the more-is-better, new-is-better mentality of the Organization man world" (Gordon 34). Scholars have noted jeans’ identification with naturalness, comfort, physicality and the loosening of social restraint (Fiske 2-3)—it was these identifications which made jeans an appropriate component of the costume of the juvenile delinquent, stereotyped as closer to the primitive and natural, without the scruples or impulse control which society demands.  The link with the working class also reinforces this stereotype, since in the language of clothes, an affiliation with the lower classes increases erotic appeal (Lurie 255).  Wearing jeans then implies a rejection of the model of upward mobility of the time, as well as an embrace of the sexuality, emotionality and other connotations that went with working class culture.  Why Brando wore them is clear.

Ironically, the popularity of The Wild One almost led to the demise of the biker icon.  As teen style of all kinds became more widely diffused, much of its potential social critique was lost.  Jeans became the standard garb of not only juvenile delinquents, but of all high-school students, and then those older and younger.  Levi-Strauss and Company spearheaded this move, growing sharply during this period.   Like jeans, teen culture also grew and became less threatening.  Even fears over juvenile delinquency began to wane.  Like teen culture, youth rebellion became a ubiquitous and even expected part of growing up. Teen culture then became both temporary and transportable, setting the stage for its commodification.  By making youth revolt a phase, it became reified, easily divorced from its context, and objectified.  In perhaps the final insult, biker style also lost its edge during this period, becoming stock and unthreatening, or even ridiculous.  Instead of Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler, Americans were given Harvey Lembeck’s Eric Von Zipper (see Figure 3).

Eric von Zipper was a character in the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon Beach movies.  Head of a gang named the Rats (the women were Mice) he was a comic foil to Frankie Avalon’s clean-cut surfer teen.  Lembeck appeared in seven beach films including Beach Party (1963), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).  Spouting nonsensical slang and with his nefarious plans always going awry, Von Zipper presented the biker as not only absurd, but what was perhaps worse, passé.   

Dick Hebdige in his seminal study of subcultures claimed that cultural assimilation results from two separate mechanisms: domestication or exoticization (97).  I see these two processes as linked and sequential in 1950s culture.  In the Cold War, exoticization was a prelude to domestication; it was the process by which the cultural object was purified, turned into a commodity and politically neutralized. The exotic link was the ritual accusation of foreign influence, which by accusing subcultural groups of meddling in the sphere of politics effectively prevented them from doing so.   Like the poles of a magnet, the two sides remain in a dynamic equilibrium.  Subcultural groups were aligned according to those lines of force and pulled in competing directions.  This gives a new gloss to the oft quoted dialogue in The Wild One.  “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”  “What have you got?”   Rebelling against everything is, after all, a way not to rebel against anything in particular.  The result was a system of reciprocal cancellations, political neutralization, and a booming market--the war remained cold while subcultural style was exported worldwide. 

Upon the release of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), a film about an idealistic teacher’s problems with juvenile delinquents at an inner-city vocational school, U.S. Ambassador to Italy Clare Booth Luce tried to prevent overseas distribution, fearing the film would present “a negative image of the United States at a time when it was trying to exercise world leadership" (Oakley 273).  Luce’s concern for national reputation underscores the precarious position the U.S. occupied and its vulnerability to international attention; the Cold War was never far from anyone’s mind.  This situation is underscored by a review of the film in The New Republic which contains, alongside the text of the review, an advertisement for a new book on the Soviet system and a teaser for the following week’s article on the U.S. State Department’s Loyalty and Security Program (The New Republic 132 Apr. 11, 1955: 29-30).  The juxtaposition implies a need for the vigilance Luce exemplifies. 

Despite the powerful position the U.S. occupied after the second World War, or perhaps because of it, the United States found itself fighting a propaganda war as hot as the political war was cold.  Advances in media technologies, the same that were blamed for the spread of teen culture and juvenile delinquency, as well as propaganda methods learned in W.W.II, led the Russians to capitalize on American internal strife by publicizing it internationally.

The Soviet propaganda machine regularly publicized material on juvenile delinquency; the allegation that the U.S. could not control its own children was useful propaganda fodder, especially as it compounds a symbolic media invasion with insinuations of internal instability and a difficult future. For example, an editorial in Pravda countered claims that the Soviets were barbarians (an accusation made by U.S. Secretary of State Dulles) by giving evidence of U.S. poverty, illiteracy and juvenile delinquency.  D. Zaslavsky wrote, “The U.S.A. has the greatest incidence of juvenile delinquency in the world . . . about 2,000,000 girls and boys under the age of 18 are arrested by the police each year in the U.S.A. for various crimes, ranging from robbery to murder.  The most terrible thing is that juvenile crime is the U.S.A. is not decreasing but growing.”  The editorial goes on to berate “these gentlemen who have the impudence to boast of their `culture’ and to teach other peoples how to live" (21).  Juvenile delinquency, like other internal social issues, provided the Soviets with an opportunity to embarrass the U.S. internationally and gain a significant propaganda victory.  In this light, Ambassador Luce’s concern over the release of The Blackboard Jungle seems almost reasonable.

But Luce, despite her best efforts, could not stem the tide.  Although she successfully got The Blackboard Jungle removed from the Venice Film Festival (it was replaced by The Kentuckian) (McGee and Robertson 30), other movies, music, and artifacts appeared. Moreover, American-style JDs themselves appeared, both in Europe and behind the Iron Curtain. 

As in the U.S., juvenile delinquency was seen as a dangerous and growing problem following World War II.  The United Nations noted increased youth crime in “England and Wales, the Union of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, The Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, Greece, Yugoslavia, France, Sweden, Finland and the German Democratic Republic (United Nations Review 7 July 1960: 35).  Juvenile delinquency was also discussed at the first such congress in Geneva, 1955.  In addition, there was media coverage of increases in the USSR, South America, Southeast Asia, and the Far East (New York Times February 14, 1960: 14). Certainly the reasons for this increase vary between and even within countries, but despite the diversity of causes for teen crime, the teen criminals looked remarkably similar—blue jeans, black leather jackets, and a sneer.  They might have stepped out of The Wild One.

In France, they were “Les Blouson Noir,” or black jackets, and they began appearing in Paris, Baudol, and Cannes in 1959 (Newsweek 54 August 10, 1959:84; New Yorker 35: September 5, 1959: 99-100; New York Times February 14, 1960: 14).  In Germany, the “halb-starken.” (half-strong) “sport the blue jeans and duck-tail haircuts of American trouble-makers" (New York Times February 14, 1960: 14). Amsterdam’s “nozem” wore “juvenile delinquency’s international uniform–leather jacket and blue jeans” and liked to “roar around the city’s central Dam Square on souped-up motorcycles" (Time 74 September 14, 1959: 32, 34).  The “skinn-nuttar” (leather jackets) were visible in “any large town in Sweden.”   Significantly, they all sport the iconography of the juvenile delinquent as developed in the United States and, although delinquency in these countries had been a problem throughout the decade, they manifested this particular form in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Some notable deviations in style do appear.  Although biker style appeared in the Rockers in England, it was the Teddy Boys, who adopted a form of Edwardian dress, that received the most press.  Also, in Russia, the hooligans wore blue jeans, but also zoot suits, reflecting that country’s time lag in imports from the West.

I would argue that this movement of JD style abroad was intimately connected with what was happening within the U.S.  The elision of ethnicity, class, and regional groupings made possible by the transition to teen culture to commodity, which was important in the diffusion of its possible subversive potential in the U.S., also made it easier for teen culture to forge new bonds across national lines.  As it became a commodity, it became transportable.  Disaffected youth around the globe adopted the costume.

In its status as commodity, juvenile delinquency provided a new Cold War weapon, if one that soon backfired.  Although the Soviet Union made haste to publicize the problems of juvenile delinquency in the United States, it began to have trouble with its own youth, who were influenced by foreign teen culture.  Reports of the “stilyagi” blamed this new youth misbehavior on “An incorrect upbringing at home, an upbringing of irresponsibility and contempt for work, [and] servility to anything foreign--i.e., to the tastes and morals of the bourgeois gilded youth" (Sovetskaya Kultura Jan. 18, 1955: 2).  Although this teen style was a decade out of date by Western standards, it gave the Soviets cause for concern as it undercut the carefully maintained Cold War barriers between East and West. 

This reveals a change in the us/them binary—what had been an opposition between U.S. and Soviet culture was transformed in this instance to a war between the generation in power and the one rising up.  One can see here the beginnings of the youth counterculture that emerged later in the decade.  The movement of delinquency culture internationally completes a cycle—JDs went from being linked to the Soviet Union, to being linked to the U.S., to linking the Soviet Union to the U.S.  This latest turn was perhaps the most subversive movement of all, as it set the stage for the reincorporation of the biker into American youth mythology.  The stage was then set for Peter Fonda’s Captain America in Easy Rider (1969; see Figure 4).  And with the popularity of that character, the Wild Ones finally took over the town.

 

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