Greaser (subculture)

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For other uses, see Greaser (disambiguation).
For the British motorcycling subculture of the 1960s, see Rocker (subculture).
Typical North American greaser of Quebec. (circa 1960)

Greasers were a youth subculture that originated in the 1950s among teenagers in northeastern and southern United States. Rock and roll music was a major part of the culture, and styles were influenced by singers such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Ritchie Valens, but the two main figures of the look were Marlon Brando and James Dean. In the 1950s, 1960s, these youths were also known as "hoods". This may be due to the fact that the style was more popular in working class neighborhoods that had higher crime rates than upper-class neighborhoods.[1]

The name "greaser" came from their greased-back hairstyle, which involved combing back hair using hair wax, hair gel, creams, tonics or pomade. The term "greaser" reappeared in later decades as part of a revival of 1950s popular culture. One of the first manifestations of this revival was a 1971 American 7 Up television commercial that featured a 1950s greaser saying "Hey remember me? I'm the teen angel." The music act Sha Na Na also played a major role in the revival.

Although the greaser subculture was largely a North American youth phenomenon, there were similar subcultures in the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Germany, and South Africa. The 1950s and 1960s British equivalent was the rocker, also known as a ton-up boy. Unlike British rockers, who were exclusively bikers, North American greasers were known more for their love of hot rod cars, kustoms and vans, not necessarily motorcycles. Both subcultures are known for being fans of 1950s Doo Wop, Rock and roll, and rockabilly music.

During the 1950s, women also became a part of greaser culture. Like men, they joined motorcycle gangs and wore jackets displaying their group's or gang's name. Latina women involved in gangs typically did not fight side-by-side with male gangs, but they did fight rival female gangs in the 1950s. Women were often depicted as the property of male motorcycle gang members.[2] [3]

Fashion[edit]

Clothing usually worn by greasers included fitted T-shirts (often with the sleeves rolled up); ringer T-shirts; Italian knit shirts; Baseball shirts; bowling shirts; "Daddy-O"-style shirts; denim jackets; leather jackets; black or blue jeans (with rolled-up cuffs anywhere from one to four inches), baggy cotton twill work trousers, black leather pants or vests, bomber jackets, letterman jackets, tank tops, khaki pants and suits. Common accessories included bandannas; black leather gloves; fedoras; motorcycle helmets; vintage leather caps; stingy-brim hats; flat caps and chain wallets. Common footwear included motorcycle boots, such as harness boots or engineer boots; army boots; winklepickers; brothel creepers; cowboy boots and Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

Typical hairstyles included the pompadour, the Duck's ass, S-Curls, Finger Waves, Afros with parts or shaped like pompadours, and the more combed-back "Folsom" style. These hairstyles were held in place with pomade, wax, or hair creams such as Brylcreem. Greaser fashion was a key influence on punk, heavy metal, the gay leather subculture, the fetish scene and the Castro Street Clone.

The leather jacket, as popularized by pilots during World War II, became an icon of greaser culture. Compared with the previous decades, the 1950s were considered dull and youth and craved a new sense of adventure. The leather jacket marked greaser youths as daring and adventuresome young men, like the pilot heroes of the recent war.

Portrayals in popular culture[edit]

1949 Mercury, a greaser favorite

Greasers are usually portrayed as urban working class "ethnics," often Italian American or Hispanic American. Notable exceptions include films such as The Wild One (1953), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Outsiders (1983), which portrayed a more rural, white, non-ethnic, southern or midwestern United States variant of the greaser subculture. This is a very common stereotype, but Greasers came in all races and ethnicities. There are some movies and video games with a Greasers of different ethnicities, for example, The Wanderers features a Chinese greaser gang, and two black greaser gangs, and the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle features a few black greasers.

In the 1950s, Hollywood film characters portrayed by actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean influenced American greaser culture. American youths were looking for entertainment and identity following the war-hero image of the World War II generation. The 1950s was a boring time for America's youth,[4] and the greaser became an individualistic iconic image as a role model to escape boredom. The subculture also featured deviant social behavior infludenced by the way films portrayed greasers.[5][6]

The birth of the motorcycle outlaw emerged from the 1947 Hollister Riot. In July 1947, 4,000 motorcyclists gathered in Hollister, California to watch motorcycle races for the weekend. The partying became unruly and several motorcyclists were arrested. Exaggerated media reports of those riots gave birth to the motorcycle outlaw image. These were the first public depictions of a connection between motorcyclists and criminal behavior. The Hollister riots were dramatized in the 1953 film The Wild One, starring Brando.[7] [8] [9] This film was arguably the first true greaser film. It depicted Brando as a member of a motorcycle club, with a leather jacket and military or law enforcement style hat.

James Dean represented greaser culture in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. Like Brando, Dean became an icon of America's rebellious youth. In the film, his character is portrayed as an outcast trying to fit in with his peers while wearing a red leather jacket. This reinforced the notion of individualism even within the social boundaries of greaser culture. Dean epitomized youths' search for identity during the 1950s. Dean's untimely and reckless death made the jacket even more symbolic of the rebellious greaser seeking adventure.

A notable example of the media's depiction of women in greaser culture is the movie Grease.

Fonzie, a character in the American hit TV show Happy Days, which ran from 1974 to 1984, was based on the greaser stereotype. Fonzie represented the American greaser with his Duck's ass hairstyle, leather jacket and motorcycle. His cool attitude and ability to control mechanical things such as jukeboxes, as well as women, which he treated like mechanical things, made him appear as a man in control.[10]

The rebellious greaser image is described in the 1991 song by Richard Thompson, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning". The song describes James, an outlaw 21-year-old male who is unsure if he will live long enough to see his 22nd birthday. The song refers to James's acts of robbery to get money to buy a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle. The motorcycle and a red-headed girl are the prized possessions that define his greaser image. The lyrics describe James dying with pride and his image living on through his motorcycle.[11] [12]

The James Dean-style greaser image appeared in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.[13][14]

See also[edit]

References[edit]