The emergence of the “greaser” look in 1950s America can be attributed to influential figures like Elvis Presley and James Dean.
This style, characterized by slick-backed hair, cuffed jeans, leather jackets, and a strong association with automobiles, became widely popular.
Photographs depicting 1950s greasers offer a fascinating insight into the fashion trends embraced by young men of that era, including some who were renowned stars of the 1950s.
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.
The etymology for the term greaser is unknown. It is speculated that the word originated in the late 19th century in the United States as a derogatory label for poor laborers, specifically those of Italian, Greek, or Mexican descent.
By the time of the Civil War, the words “greaser” and “greaseball” were understood to carry racist and segregationist meanings.
“Greaser” was later used to reference automotive 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 ethnic connotation and a relation to machine work.
The greaser subculture may have emerged in the post–World War II era among the motorcycle clubs and street gangs of the late 1940s in the United States, though it was certainly established by the 1950s, when it was increasingly adopted by ethnic urban youth.
The original greasers were aligned by a feeling of working class and lower class 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 or white working-class outsiders, and were often interested in hot rod culture or motorcycling. A handful of middle-class youth were drawn to the subculture for its rebellious attitude.
Ethnically, original greasers were composed mostly of Italian Americans in the Northeast and Mexican-American Chicanos in the Southwest.
Since both of these groups 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 during the 1950s and 1960s.
The most notable physical characteristic of greasers was the greased-back hairstyles they fashioned for themselves through 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, coiffed, or teased their hair.
Male greasers typically wore loose work pants such as cotton twill trousers, common among the working class; dark slacks, or dark blue Levi’s jeans, widely popular among all American youth in the 1950s.
The latter were often cuffed over black or brown leather boots, including steel-toed boots, engineer or Harness boots, combat boots, work boots, and (especially in the Southwest) cowboy boots.
Other footwear choices included Chuck Taylor All-Stars, pointed Italian dress shoes, brothel creepers, and winklepickers.
Male shirts were typically solid black or white T-shirts, ringer T-shirts, Italian knit collared shirts, unbuttoned shirts with sleeveless undershirts underneath, or sometimes just sleeveless undershirts or 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).
Their music taste was also a defining element of the subculture.
Greasers were particularly drawn to rock and roll, which was gaining prominence during that time, and their style became closely intertwined with the emerging rock and roll culture.
However, the greaser subculture was often misinterpreted and associated with delinquency and street gangs.
While some groups may have engaged in rebellious or antisocial activities, many greasers were simply young people searching for a distinct identity and a sense of community.
Popular culture figures such as Elvis Presley and James Dean significantly contributed to the glorification and popularization of the greaser image.
Films like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Wild One” further solidified this subculture’s influence on mainstream media and the public’s perception of rebellious youth.
(Photo credit: Retrowaste / Pinterest / Flickr / Wikimedia Commons).