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Greasers are a working-class youth subculture that was popularized in the late 1940s and 1950s by middle and lower class teenagers in the United States. Rock and roll music, and rockabilly, were major parts of the culture. Entertainers such as Marlon Brando and James Dean became prototypical figures that influenced the styles in this culture; others were Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty, Chuck Berry, Big Joe Williams, Big Joe Turner, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette, Vince Taylor and Ritchie Valens.
The name greaser came from their greased-back hairstyle, which involved combing back hair using creams, tonics or pomade. In the 1950s and 1960s, these youths were also known as hoods, short for hoodlums, owing at least in part to the fact that this sub-culture commonly existed in poorer, higher-crime neighborhoods and the general disrespect for societal norms often shown by these youth.
Although the greaser subculture was largely an American youth phenomenon, there were similar subcultures in the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Japan, France, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. In Sweden they are called raggare and in Japan they are known as Yankee. In South Africa they were called duck-tails from the way their slicked back hair flipped over the back of their collars. The 1950s' and 1960s' British equivalent was the rocker, also known as a ton-up boy. Unlike British rockers, who were exclusively bikers, American greasers were known more for their love of hot rods, muscle cars, and big Harley Davidson chopper or cruiser motorbikes rather than the lightweight Triumph or BSA Cafe racer motorcycles popular in Britain. Both subcultures are known for being fans of 1950s' Doo Wop, Rock and roll, jazz, blues, country, 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. The women who were 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.
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 revivals.
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Clothing usually worn by greasers include T-shirts in white or black (often with the sleeves rolled up), ringer T-shirts, Italian knit shirts, Baseball shirts, bowling shirts, "Daddy-O"-style shirts, denim and 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 bandanas, 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, Conks, Finger Waves, Afros with parts or shaped like pompadours, and the more combed-back Folsom style. These hairstyles were held in place with pomade such as Dax, Murray's or Royal Crown, and hair creams such as Brylcreem. The pompadour hair style worn by greasers has been adopted by those enamoured with vintage culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which includes hot rods, muscle cars, American folk music, rockabillybands, and Elvis Presley, as well as actors such as James Dean and Desi Arnaz.
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 the youths craved a new sense of adventure. The leather jacket marked greaser youths as daring and adventuresome young men, like the pilot heroes of a recent war.
In popular culture
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Greasers are usually portrayed as urban, street-wise, working-class ethnics, most often Italian American or Hispanic American. Notable exceptions to this portrayal include films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Outsiders (1983), which portrayed a more rural or suburban, white, non-ethnic, non-Northeastern variant of the greaser subculture, while The Wild One (1953) portrayed the non-ethnic, non-urban biker greaser stereotype. Movies with greasers of different ethnicities include the 1979 film The Wanderers, which features Italian, Chinese, Black, Jewish, and Irish greaser gangs, and the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, which features black, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Puerto Rican greasers. The film Lords of Flatbush centers on a mixed gang of Irish, Italian, and Jewish greasers in 1950s Brooklyn, New York, while the 1961 film The Young Savages features Italian and Puerto Rican greaser gangs as well as an Irish greaser in East Harlem. The long-running stage play Grease and both its 1978 film adaptation of the same name and the film's 1982 sequel, Grease 2, featured respective late 1950s and early (JFK era) 1960s male greaser cliques and their added Pink Lady female opposites cliques to the genre.
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 many of America's youths, and the greaser became an individualistic iconic image as a role model to escape boredom. The subculture also featured deviant social behavior influenced by the way films portrayed greasers. Dean represented greaser culture in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, in which his character is an outcast trying to fit in with his peers while wearing a red windbreaker 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 leather jacket that he frequently wore, even more symbolic of the rebellious greaser seeking adventure.
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. 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.
A notable example of the media's depiction of women in greaser culture is the movie Grease and its sequel, Grease 2. These films also portrayed the stereotype of greasers as Italian Americans, with the exception of the character Kenickie. Grease 2 also featured Irish and Polish American characters as well.
Fonzie, a character in the American hit TV show Happy Days, which ran from 1974 to 1984, was based on the Italian-American greaser stereotype. Fonzie represented the 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, made him appear as a man in control.
The 1976 concept album by British progressive rock band Jethro Tull, Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die!, depicts the life of an aging greaser, Ray Lomas, as the title track describes him as "the last of the blue blood greaser boys".
The video game Bully features a gang of greasers. All of the greasers in the gang are Italian-American, with the exception of a single African-American greaser.
The Fallout series of games has had a number greaser characters and references. The "Tunnel Snakes" and "Kings" are gangs with a clear greaser style – the former being a gang of bullies and the latter being an altruistic, protective group operating as a gang. The atom cats in Fallout 4 also represent greasers, as their power armor customizations and care for them is similar in a way that greasers cared for the cars.
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.
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