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Matt Wolf's Teenage Tribes

A gifted doc filmmaker and prehistorian of youth selects his favourite five tribes

Matt Wolf is the filmmaker behind Teenage, a documentary about the prehistory of youth culture based on the book of the same name by Jon Savage. As the film premieres in New York, we asked Matt to tell us about his favourite teen tribes past and present.

The hidden histories in Teenage take place from 1900 – 1945. Instead of punks, hippies, and skaters, the film covers Hooligans, Bright Young People, Boxcar Children, Jitterbugs, Victory Girls, Sub-Debs, and many more forgotten youth “tribes.”

But when I was making this film, I also wanted to explore some of the post-war youth cultures that emerged after the birth of “teenagers.” Those music and style movements are covered on our blog. Below are some of my favorite youth tribes from recent and distant history.

Asgarda Girls: 

Amidst the Ukraine’s high rates of sex trafficking, a new movement of empowered young women has taken hold, Asgarda. This tribe of students lives together in the Carpathian Mountains, where they seek complete autonomy from men. They train in martial arts from Soviet karate masters, and they learn life skills and sciences in order to become ideal, female warriors.


Beginning in Germany during the early 1900s, the Wandervogel—wandering birds—rejected the onset of the consumerist, mass-production society in favor of tramping around the countryside. They’d take off all their clothes, make flower wreaths, and play the guitar, like proto-hippies. What made this early movement special is that youth were leading youth. You’ll learn more about the Wandervogel in the film Teenage.

Mexican Emos: 

In 2008 hate crimes began to spread across Mexico targeting teenage “Emos.” Emo identity originated in 1980s hardcore bands in Washington D.C. But in recent years the term has been appropriated by Mexican youth with long straightened hair, eyeliner, and large doses of confessional sentimentality. Because of Mexican Emos’ open bisexuality and androgynous style, they’ve faced violent backlash, including several citywide riots.

Swiss Rebels: 

In the 1950s photographer Karlheinz Weinberger documented gangs of Swiss hipsters, who wore American rocker clothes, and literally pinned images of Elvis on large pendant necklaces and belt buckles. Like proto-punks they literally cut up their pop culture influences and made them into a living collage.

Teddy Girls:

We hear a lot about the Teddy Boys from 1950s England, but it’s rarer to see pictures of the Teddy Girls. They had pencil skirts, rolled-up jeans, flat shoes, tailored jackets with velvet collars, coolie hats and long, elegant clutch bags. In other words, they turned Edwardian-era classics into tough Teddy Girl fashion. Filmmaker Ken Russell took some iconic portraits of these trailblazing young women.

Teenage premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this week. It is coming to Britain in the autumn. 

Follow the film on Twitter here: @teenagefilm