Bank holiday, 1976, Southend, England. Photograph: © Chris Steele-Perkins /Magnum Photos

In the early 1950s, when photographer Chris Steele-Perkins was growing up in Burnham-on-Sea, a seaside resort in Somerset, teddy boys were the only other outsiders. “I was born in Burma – so, there weren’t many people who looked like me. Teds were hanging on the street corners, posturing, standing out. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to them.”

Steele-Perkins travelled to Afghanistan, embedding himself with the Taliban four times, and spent time in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, but his 1979 book The Teds became one of the most-referenced fashion anthologies in Britain.

Bradford, England 1976. Photograph: © Chris Steele-Perkins/ Magnum Photos

These photographs are now being exhibited in the UK for the first time in nearly 40 years in London but their success stand as testament to the Britishness of this subculture. In these sharp monochrome images, you see dark regional pubs, street corners, faces and cigarettes – all signifiers of the teds’ social life, their slang, and esoteric lifestyle.

The teddy appeal was twofold. Aesthetically, it rejected the 1950s post-war blandness while also focusing on particular pieces previously unattainable to the wearers because of the class system. There was the drape jacket, with collar, cuff and pocket detail; slim, tapered trousers, with chukka boots or brogues; and a hairstyle defined by a heavily greased quiff at the front, and a “duck’s arse” at the back.

It was meticulous and elegant and, like the Teds themselves, had a certain glamour attached to it, “even if it was violent,” says Steele-Perkins. “The whole mythology, the extravagant way they styled themselves, and lived their lives. People wanted to be part of it. And looking aesthetically, if it goes back to the dandyism inspired by that Edwardian style [hence ted] of dress, it was also about class.” Or rather a rejection of it; the drape jacket became symbolic of a pan-class aspirationalism: “Dandys wore it, but the butcher boy wanted to, and could, wear it too.”

Barry Ransome in the Castle, Old Kent Road, London, England 1976. Photograph: © Chris Steele-Perkins/ Magnum Photos

Steele-Perkins spent his childhood observing teds, and a large chunk of his early career documenting what would become the next generation of this subculture between 1966 and 1967. He doesn’t know why this second-wave came along, but says the media were pivotal in their rise: “Back in the 1950s, you would read this stuff in the newspaper and, well, my dad thought it sounded awful.” In June 1955, the Sunday Dispatch headline ran “War on teddy boys: menace in the streets of Britain’s cities is being cleaned up at last”. “But the point is,” says Steele-Perkins, “they were in the papers.”

Adam and Eve pub, Hackney, London, England 1976. Photograph: © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

The exhibition comes 40 years after 1956, a watershed year for the teds. This was the year the Bill Haley film Rock Around the Clock was released, which sparked riots at London’s Elephant and Castle Trocadero. Seats were knifed, bottles and fireworks were thrown at the police, four shop windows were smashed. The protest spread nationally, leading to the film being banned in Belfast.

Market Tavern, Bradford, England 1976. Photograph: © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

Thanks to coverage in newspapers and on TV, teds were one of the first subcultures to be documented both as they were evolving and also on a national scale. Naturally, this gave them a weight that other youth tribes would not get, until the punks came along. Which is not to do a disservice to the mods or rockers, explains Steele-Perkins, but rather to show how important the teds were to British subcultures reacting to the environment, culture and politics provided by society. “In many ways, they came along because they were postwar teenagers, and teenagers were, I suppose, a postwar invention.” As he adds: “Teenagers often need some sort of community.”

Steele-Perkins was far from a ted himself – “I had a beard and long hair at the time” – but hung around long enough for them to start to talk to him, trust him and let them photograph them. The main issue was not the photography, rather it was capturing them with candour: “They were getting dressed up because they wanted to be seen. So the struggle was getting them to not pose, to get something more real.” The trick, he says, was patience: “If you spent long enough, they got too tired to pose.”