I’m not sure about you, but I generally think of the teenager as a post-war phenomenon — something that started up in the 1950s and really got going in the 1960s. But I’ve read claims that the British teenager began to emerge considerably earlier. I thought I’d see what evidence I could find for this in the Kays catalogues of 1920-1940.
There certainly does seem to be a category of young person between child and adult in the Kays Autumn/Winter 1920 catalogue. Young women in this category are referred to as ‘maids’, although they are also ‘daughters’ — the catalogue addresses their mothers, not the young women themselves. It is ‘your daughter’ and not ‘you’ who will be ‘delighted’ by the coat frocks depicted above.
The Spring/Summer 1922 catalogue very helpfully lets us know how old these young women might have been. It advertises some extremely similar ‘coat frocks for young ladies’ (also called ‘daughters’ and ‘maids’) one of which is for ‘ages 15 to 20’.
This age group would quite probably have left school, as compulsory education ended at 14. But they were unlikely to have married: the average age at first marriage for women in the UK was 26 in 1920, and fell only slightly to 25.7 in 1930. Young women of the social classes who generally used mail-order — working and lower-middle — often got jobs but continued to live with their parents. Parents would take a considerable proportion of young women’s salaries, but some would be left as spending money — more than whatever, if anything, they would have had whilst still in school. It’s easy to see why these women might have seemed to occupy a distinct place in society.
On the male side of the equation, the Autumn/Winter 1928 catalogue provides some interesting information. It sells clothing for ‘young gents’ addressed, similarly to young women, as ‘your son’:
As soon as your Son starts to work his clothes come well into the picture.
He is anxious to consider his appearance — he wants to look smart, and realises now that he is earning a wage appearance may enter considerably into advancement.
Like young women, these young men form a special category, no longer children but not quite independent adults.
In Spring/Summer 1931, I found a reference, not quite to teenagers, but to the ‘teens’ as a time of life, with a dress that ‘will suit all maids in their teens’. It’s on the left on the page shown below. It looks fashion-conscious, with its low waist and flounces, as does the other dress on the same page. Neither seems quite like the ladies’ ‘smart frocks’ in the same catalogue, but I’m not sure whether the differences are significant.
On a similar theme, Spring/Summer 1935 brings some ‘young gents’ whose faces are certainly different from the men’s, but whose suits are virtually indistinguishable.
By Spring/Summer 1940, there has at least been a change in language, at least. Young women are addressed directly, no longer ‘your daughter’, but ‘you’:
In your ‘teens? Then here’s your style.
Were these young women early teenagers? Two dresses with a ‘full “SWING” skirt’ — one of them, in particular, with ‘lots of life’ — make me think of dancing, evenings out and (perhaps) carefree teenage enjoyment. But another dress on the same page in ‘cute “Little Lady” style’ suggests childishness. Kays seem to have seen a distinct market for their goods in the 15-20 age-group, but at the same time, this group got relatively little catalogue space, compared to adults or even children. At very least, they don’t seem to have been the powerful consumers we find in the teenagers of today.
Source for information on average marriage age: Tomka, Béla, A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe, Routledge 2013, p52.
For general information on the lives of working class young women in this period, see Todd, Selina, Young Women, Work, and Family in England, 1918–1950, Oxford 2005.