Oldest teenagers in town

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Nicholas Tucker recaptures youth at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. Adolescence has officially arrived at London's Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. A permanent display of 150 items, including clothing, models and photographs, now traces British youth from the early apprentice systems to the Rave parties and marijuana pipes of today.

An accompanying video si-lently flicks from Teddy Boys through to Rock and Roll, Ban the Bomb, Carnaby Street and Flower People.

In the various specialist displays, different shoes are eloquent of the enormous changes seen from school sandals to later exotica where the visual effect is more important than mere questions of mobility. Some exhibits are as fascinating as they are unfamiliar. "As faggots are brought from the forest, firmly held by the sinews that bind them, I will cleave to my sisters wherever, whenever I find them." A right-on feminist statement of today? No, a Campfire promise of 1933, part of a movement founded by the American Dr Luther Halsey Gulick and his wife in 1911.

The costume, consisting of Indian squaw dresses and headbands, might have done nicely on the King's Road circa 1970. But it never caught on in pre-war Britain, with young people still preferring Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, with manuals including rhyming couplets such as "Tony thought smoking was manly and grand, but he felt like a fool when he scarcely could stand".

There are numerous accessories, ranging from Punctual Attendance Medals in 1902 to the skull ear-rings and Punk Boot Guard-chokers of later years. There is also a girl's Liberty Bodice made in stockinette under the 1941 Utility Scheme. Even this is preferable to the cut-down adult clothing once inflicted on the young. Two Tredegar Patch Girls, 1860, stand in old ladies' clothes carrying what look like giant flower-pots on their heads.

Another full-size photograph shows a boy at the turn of the century wearing a Norfolk smock, pitch-fork grasped firmly in one hand. His smock is ridiculously large, turning him into a perfect butt for sneering, townee humour. What might he have made of the suspender belts, brassiers and condoms now ranked in the case just behind him?

A yellow chiffon Charleston dress in the Parties display is a reminder that there was some fun for teenagers before the 1950s. The last war brought in a new puritanism, although even the voluminous unisex air-raid siren suit was a step forward in challenging female stereotypes. Ration Books, with their miserly clothing coupons, show clearly the constraints once taken for granted. Rastafarian pendants and wrist-bands take the story up to 1995.

Teenage visitors often have a poor deal in museums, falling between childhood and adulthood here as they often do elsewhere. Bethnal Green has made a start; other museums should also now think again before acquiring yet another dolls' house or teddy bear.

Adolescence has always had its own iconography, but teenage momentos are not as carefully cherished for succeeding generations as are childhood objects. Perhaps they are often seen as too embarrassing to keep having around.

But one teenager's excesses can be richly enjoyed by succeeding generations, as this exhibition amply proves.

Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, admissionfree. Open Monday-Thursdayand Saturday, 10.00-17.50. Tel: 0181 983 5205

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