Greasers are a youth subculture that was popularized in the 1950s to 1960s by predominantly working class and lower class teenagers and young adults in the United States. The subculture remained prominent into the mid-1960s and was particularly embraced by certain ethnic groups in urban areas, particularly Italian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. Rock and roll music, rockabilly and doo-wop were major parts of the culture.
Etymology of the term "greaser"
The word "greaser" originated in the 19th century in the United States as a derogatory label for poor laborers, specifically those of Mexican, Italian descent.[a] The term was later used to refer to mechanics. It was not used in writing to refer to the American subculture of the mid-20th century until the mid-1960s, though in this sense it still evoked a pejorative connotation and a relation to machine work.[b] The name was applied to members of the subculture because of their characteristic greased-back hair.
Origins of the subculture and rise to popularity
The greaser subculture may have emerged in the post–World War II era among the motorcycle clubs and gangs of the late 1940s, though it was certainly established by the 1950s.[c] The original greasers were aligned by a feeling of disillusionment with American popular culture, either through a lack of economic opportunity in spite of the post-war boom or a marginalization enacted by the general domestic shift towards homogeneity in the 1950s. Most were male, usually ethnic and white working class, and held interest in hotrod culture or motorcycling. A handful of middle-class youth were drawn to the subculture for its rebellious attitude.
The weak structural foundation of the greasers can be attributed to the subculture's origins in working-class youth possessing few economic resources with which to participate in American consumerism. Greasers, unlike motorcyclists, did not explicitly have their own interest clubs or publications. As such, there was no business marketing geared specifically towards the group. Their choice in clothing was largely drawn from a common understanding of the empowering aesthetic of working-class attire, rather than cohesive association with similarly dressed individuals. Some greasers were in motorcycle clubs or in street gangs (and conversely, some gang members and bikers dressed like greasers), though such membership was not necessarily an inherent principle of the subculture.
Ethnically, original greasers were composed mostly of Italian Americans in the Northeast and Chicanos in the Southwest. Since both of these peoples were mostly olive skinned, the "greaser" label assumed a quasi-racial status that implied an urban, ethnic, lower-class masculinity and delinquency. This development led to an ambiguity in the racial distinction between poor Italian Americans and Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. Greasers were also perceived as being predisposed to perpetrating sexual violence, stoking fear among middle-class males and a degree of arousal among middle-class females.
Decline and modern incarnations
Though the television show American Bandstand helped to "sanitize" the negative image of greasers in the 1960s, sexual promiscuity was still seen as a key component of the modern character. By the mid-1970s, the greaser image had become a quintessential part of 1950s nostalgia and cultural revival.
Fashion, style, and culture
The most notable physical characteristic of greasers was the greased hairstyles they fashioned through the use of hair products such as pomade or petroleum jelly, which necessitated frequent combing and reshaping to maintain. Males sported coiffures adopted from early rock 'n' roll and rockabilly performers such as Elvis Presley, among them the Folsom, Pompadour, Elephant's trunk, and Duck's ass, while females commonly backcombed or teased their hair.
Male greasers typically wore loose cotton twill trousers, common among the working class, or dark blue Levi's jeans, widely popular among all American youth in the 1950s. The latter were often cuffed over ankle-high black or brown leather boots, including cowboy, steel-toed engineer, or harness styles. Other footwear choices included Chuck Taylor All-Stars and brothel creepers. Male tops were typically solid black or white T-shirts, ringer T-shirts, or sometimes tank tops (which would have been retailed as underwear). Choices of outerwear included denim or leather jackets (including Perfecto motorcycle jackets). Female greaser dress included leather jackets and risque clothing, such as tight and cropped capris and pedal pushers (broadly popular during the time period).
In the early 1950s, there was significant greaser interest in doo-wop, a black genre of music from the industrial cities of the Northeast that had disseminated to mainstream American music through Italian American performers. Greasers were heavily associated with the culture surrounding rock n' roll, a musical genre that had induced feelings of a moral panic among older middle-class generations during the mid-to-late 1950s, to whom greasers epitomized the connection between rock music and juvenile delinquency professed by several important social and cultural observers of the time.
Portrayal in media and popular culture
The first cinematic representation of the greaser subculture was the 1953 film The Wild One. The band Sha-Na-Na models their on-stage presence on New York City greasers (the band members themselves were mostly Ivy Leaguers).
- Rockers, similar subculture in the United Kingdom
- Teddy Boy, a contemporary subculture in the United Kingdom
- Nozem, a similar subculture in the Netherlands
- Raggare, a similar subculture in Sweden
- The similar term "greaseball" became a slur for individuals of Italian descent, though to a lesser extent it has also been used more generally to refer to all Mediterranean, Latin, or Hispanic people.
- S. E. Hinton, author of the novel The Outsiders, an influential portrayal of greasers, knew the term from her youth in the 1950s.
- Moore writes that there is ambiguity surrounding the birth of the defining greaser fashion and style, though the associated look is similar to the one displayed by post-war bikers.
- Moore 2017, p. 138.
- Dalzell, Tom; Victor, Terry (2015). The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Routledge. p. 1044. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
- Aman, Reinhold (1984). Maledicta, Volume 7. Maledicta. p. 29.
- Ruberto, Laura E.; Sciorra, Joseph (2017). New Italian Migrations to the United States: Vol. 1: Politics and History Since 1945. University of Illinois Press.
- Moore 2017, p. 139.
- Torres 2017.
- Moore 2017, pp. 138–139.
- Symmons 2016, p. 182.
- Tricario 2014, Section "Anticipating an Italian American Consumption Culture".
- Moore 2017, p. 141.
- Symmons 2016, pp. 181–182.
- Tricario 2014, Footnote #56.
- Symmons 2016, p. 184.
- Moore 2017, p. 140.
- Blanco F. 2015, p. 137.
- Moore 2017, pp. 139–140.
- Gelder & Thornton 1997, p. 185.
- "Danny McBride: Guitarist with rock'n' roll revivalists Sha Na Na". The Independent. April 10, 2010.
- Blanco F., José (23 November 2015). Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe (illustrated ed.). ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781610693103.
- Gelder, Ken; Thornton, Sarah, eds. (1997). The Subcultures Reader (illustrated, reprint ed.). Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415127271.
- Moore, Jennifer Grayer (2017). Street Style in America: An Exploration (illustrated ed.). ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440844621.
- Symmons, Tom (2016). The New Hollywood Historical Film: 1967–78 (illustrated ed.). Springer. ISBN 9781137529305.
- Torres, Lucia (January 12, 2017). "Pachucos and Teddy Boys: How Generations of Youth in the U.S. and U.K. Borrowed From Each Other". KCETLink. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
- Tricario, Donald (2014). "10. Consuming Italian Americans: Invoking Ethnicity in the Buying and Selling of Guido". In Cinotto, Simone (ed.). Making Italian America: Consumer Culture and the Production of Ethnic Identities. Fordham University Press. ISBN 9780823256266.