Review of 2016: The Year The House of Mirelle Book Came Alive
At the stroke of midnight on the 31st December Big Ben will tell us that 2017 is finally here.
The UK City of Culture starts on January 1st and it heralds a glorious year of art, music, dance and loads more besides to whet the public’s appetite for All Things Hull.
2016 was also about All Things Hull, but mine was about Hull of the past.
It was a landmark year when The House of Mirelle lifted from the pages of my research notes and came alive.
This year has brimmed with adventure; it took me on a voyage of discovery that was fascinating, full and fun.
Here are my standout moments from 2016:
From research to reality
In the turn between last year and this, the research into The House of Mirelle had generated a list of people I needed to find because they had direct contact with the fashion house.
My big database called The Find List was up and running and I knew why certain people were important to the story. Every single person mentioned in the research findings – yes, every one – had been added to The List, but there were people who were absolutely key.
By January I was ready to ‘go live.’ Those names shuffled to the top were ones I urgently needed to trace, but, I asked myself, how to find them from so long ago and where on earth do I start?
The Mirelle research started right at the very beginning – way, way prior to 1950 so many of the people at the top of The List weren’t still alive.
In 2015 I pondered what to do.
Does that mean I have to leave those people there or is there another way?
How do you go about finding people who are no longer alive and even if I do, can I trace them with only a maiden, family or married name?
What happens if I do find them and then they don’t want to know….Hm!
All these thoughts were scribbled down in my research diary until one day I decided that the internal struggle was there because it didn’t seem right to leave their experiences to one side even if they had passed on.
Finding out why The House of Mirelle was special
I felt something special about Mirelle – the same feeling that’s driven me on since I first discovered it in 2014.
Someone said of shopping there:
“Oh, it was an experience, a real experience, I can tell you.”
The flutter rising and falling in her voice confirmed what I already knew.
“If that’s true,” I thought, “then those no longer alive would have talked about it with their family and friends as well.”
Following this hunch, in December 2015 I decided to trace the family members of those on the top of The List whether I thought they were alive or not.
“I’m in this with both feet,” I said at the Royal Station Hotel in September. “I’ll follow the story through to the end, wherever it takes me.”
Tracing and finding key people
Through more research skullduggery in early 2016 letters started to go out introducing myself. They were sent across the UK to the last known addresses of people or their sons and daughters.
I had no idea how reliable those addresses were, or how reliable my intuition was that people would want to reply either.
One of the first letters was sent back from Gloucester with ‘return to sender, not known’ scrawled across the front in red pen. Yes, it was disheartening but it was at the same time useful to cross that line of inquiry off The List.
“You never know,” I thought, “they might be found later on…”
Little did I know the oft quoted research adage ‘keep your mind open’ would be so true this year.
People’s stories make the history of Hull
The nerves dissipated, replaced by cautious optimism when the first response to one of my letters came back having found the right person.
They said, ‘yes, that’s me, those are my parents’ and from that a whole other story unfolded.
It was one about a family lineage that can be traced back to the 19th century and the prominence of Jewish culture and retail throughout Hull’s history including the present day.
I’d contacted that person because I wanted to ask if they had a photo of an outfit that had been designed and made at The House of Mirelle. They did and I was then even more delighted when they gave it to me to use.
When it arrived earlier this year I saw what I’d originally wanted to see – a real life photograph to illustrate the written description of an outfit.
At the end of this year though I hold that photo in my hands and see what it really represents; a story far wider than the House of Mirelle, the story of Hull itself.
Other people have come forward too in many different ways and have generated many, many different conversations. Their voices follow me as I carry out my research.
Snippets and clips float back at different times, making links between what I’ve researched and what happened for people living the experience directly.
The voices give personal histories and stories of their own, they provide a completely different dimension.
Since early this year finding people has extended from letter-writing to social media, phone calls, emails and texts also.
At the end of this year I feel the warmth of those surrounding me and the amount of Christmas cards on my window sill that have an “HU” postcode is testimony to how welcoming and open everyone has been.
This year has been a huge milestone in bringing the people into the story. It’s been wonderful.
There are still more surprises to come
Last week I spoke to a woman for the first time. At beginning of the year she was at the top of The Find List but was completely untraceable.
It took all year and another coincidence to find her and only happened because someone unconnected recognised her from something I’d shared from my research sources.
Talking to her brings a ‘name’ that reaches back all the way to the 1930s. As a nice aside it reconnected these two people after a long time too.
For me the standout part of 2016 has been incorporating people into the research.
It has been and still is absolutely extraordinary to hear people’s stories, receive their mementos and get to know them and through that, bring the House of Mirelle alive.
The British Library
Depending on how you think about research, spending time delving into the records of the past is either a practical necessity or a dream come true.
This is why loving your subject is essential; there will be things to do that are mundane and to others seem utterly boring but to you it’s all on the path to the book you’ll publish in the end.
This year I’ve got to know The British Library very well indeed. It was in February that I first took myself and a ruler, some pencils, a flask of tea and a big notebook up to Kings Cross reading rooms to ‘tackle 1951.’
I have to fill the gap between sources that I already have and the sources that are only available at The BL, as I affectionately call it.
Starting at the beginning of 1951 I’ve steadily worked through each year there and at the time of writing I am slap bang in the 1960s.
That’s at least 12 of the most wonderful days spent in the reading rooms. When I walk away I have a spring in my step that comes from the ‘wow’ of finding more.
While I’m at The BL I read and take notes of anything that may link in with fashion, Hull or The House of Mirelle and I do it one year at a time all and in one go.
Going there is a treat. It’s an extraordinary building which has free exhibitions, a hustle and bustle of interested visitors and a quiet presence that is matched by the thrill of turning original items over page by page. I literally hold history in my hands.
My research trips there have generated a massive database of background information, articles and notes about what researchers call ‘context.’
So if you want to know what Hullensians were wearing in 1956 or 1960 – I’m your girl!
Coincidences and serendipity
One aspect to 2016 makes me smile. There have been so many coincidences on this journey that they’ve developed into signposts along the way.
Researching and writing about Mirelle is a big project with edges that keep changing and when I’ve put it to one side for a while, a new coincidence calls me back in.
What do I mean?
There was the time I was watching a documentary that had a boat in it called ‘Mira,’ when Betty Bartlett’s daughter Anne contacted me this year, the house I stayed in in Hull and the two people who last saw each other in 1978 – one of whom I couldn’t find – bumping into each other in Hull just as I said: “I don’t think I’ll be able to find them.”
These coincidences have got an energy of their own. They can be personal or about Mirelle but the most recent is quite extraordinary.
For a while as a child I lived in a small village in Lincolnshire. In the 40 years since my family moved away we’ve had no contact with it at all. Near where I currently live I have a friend who comes from Hull and a relation has written a screenplay about The Triple Trawler Tragedy and it was sent to me to read.
I loved it. However it wasn’t that coincidence that stunned me – her relation lives in the same small village where I lived in Lincs.
There’s these, and there are many, many more……
2 Mirelle dresses: Sewing, sales, modelling and buying from the 1950s – 1970s
During 2016 I became the proud owner of 2 House of Mirelle dresses. They come from different eras; 1950s and 1970s.
Each speak to the talents of the buyers who sourced the designs of the day, they really knew their clients and were fashion buying experts.
They also show the talents of the workroom girls who were employed for their sewing and tailoring skills, sales staff who matched the perfect outfits with customers and the models and mannequins who displayed them in the fabulous fashion shows.
One dress is constructed in ways that shows couture sewing skills from the 1950s at their very best.
The other shows how the shop and workroom developed into the 1970s but that the sewing skills used in additions and alterations remained of the high quality expected of the earlier era.
As a dressmaker myself, holding two clothing items in my hands ( with cotton gloves on of course ) that might have been touched by the staff I’ve interviewed about Mirelle is tremendously exciting.
Both gowns are stunning. Fashion historians will view them in one way, visitors to an exhibition about The House of Mirelle another. Which leads me onto….
The House of Mirelle exhibition
2016 has seen the Mirelle archives grow and grow so that it contains photographs, interviews, clippings and programmes donated to me from throughout Mirelle’s history.
This is growing all the time and is so wide ranging and full it has become the Primary Historical Resource for Mirelle.
2016 saw plans wider than the book emerging.
I have been offered exhibition space at Hull History Centre in November 2017 and the proposal includes a fashion show. One ex-model has even offered her services to the show saying she’ll ‘do her thing’ just like she used to. Marvellous!
It’s wonderful that the people I’ve got to know are so enthusiastic about this idea. Mirelle ran fashion shows throughout its 40 years of opening and they were occasions that people flocked to from miles around.
We may not be able to use the City Hall, Locarno Nightclub or The New York Hotel as Mirelle did in the time but we can make it just as good – a modern version in our time.
House of Mirelle wedding dress
In the midst of the post-Brexit melee, Jo Moore placed an advert in her local newspaper in Perth, Australia.
She wanted to know if anyone could tell her who originally owned the Mirelle dress she’d bought from a Perth charity shop.
I decided I’d help by writing a blog post about it and retweeting it too.
The very next morning, after a flurry of interest, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Humberside and within 24 hours the Hull Daily Mail interviewed Jo all the way from their offices in Hull too.
They followed that up by interviewing me next, admittedly from a shorter distance.
We had help left right and center and social media stepped up and made it a worldwide search.
All the way around the UK and Australia people shared and shared the information, inspired by the idea that the bride would see her wedding dress again.
In a couple of weeks it had been shared over 13,000 times which left me and Jo breathless.
We’d love to solve the mystery in 2017!
And finally – the trip to Hull in September 2016
On the 18th September I clambered onto a train at Kings Cross with one large and heavy suitcase, a backpack filled with research materials in display folders, my voice recorder and laptop and headed to Hull.
The coincidences continued….
It was while I was there that I read a block of finely printed text about a family wedding and Mirelle.
A seemingly innocent portion sprang out at me – the address the bride lived in. It was in Pearson Park and, as my eyes boggled, I saw it was exactly the same house I was staying in. At that very moment I was glad I was sitting down.
The time I was in Hull was extraordinary. When you come from a place familiarity means you forget what it’s like for someone seeing it for the first time.
It wasn’t the case though. Everyone had a love of explaining the history of Hull and a real connection with the past.
I did so many things that were unforgettable, You only have a first experience once but I felt it would be every bit as unforgettable even if it was the 3rd or 10th time.
The Hull History Centre was important for answering the questions that can only be answered in Hull and exploring the City on my own was also.
Being taken on trips to The Humber Bridge and a tour of the City centre was as well and the big get together of all the people involved with Mirelle at The Station Hotel too.
I can’t wrap my mind around calling it The Mercure, it’ll always be The Station Hotel to me.
What a lovely afternoon that was. As people contact me, I find they know others. I’ve become a hub around which people ask to be reconnected with people from their past and if they give me permission I don’t mind at all, it’s a thrill of a different kind.
While I was there I was given some illustrations by a Mirelle designer from the immediate post-war period. It was an unexpected moment and brought a tear to my eye that was as hard to brush away as they were when I was then given Mirelle fashion show programmes too.
After that, the same person passed two black and white photos over the table between us.
In them was a woman she didn’t recognise but she thought it was way back in the 1940s. I knew who it was in an instant. I’d met her for the first time only 3 days before.
Now an 88 year old she worked at Mirelle from the close of war in 1945. Listening to her talking was one of the most meaningful conversations I’ve ever had. The air was filled with sewing skills, the influence of rationing, getting ready for fashion shows and making up for clients.
She didn’t see what she’d experienced as that important or why I’d want to ask, but to me as a fashion historian and a dressmaker, the time she spent with me was magic.
The artistry and skills of the Mirelle women are wide ranging and these things particularly connect the present with the past.
Through them we can see the links between fashion and creativity then and now and see the extraordinary collection of talents that centered on Hull’s House of Mirelle.
But I think this photo sums up the most meaningful moment of 2016
I started the first Mirelle notebook in 2014 with one name.
This year a woman got in touch with me, her name is Anne. We talked and she shared that her mother worked at Mirelle as a dressmaker.
We talked some more and while she did her name rang a bell.
Faint and distant it took looking back through 2 years worth of notebooks, my diaries, my databases and resources to find out why.
In a small book from 2014 I discovered a name. It was scrawled there in a rush long before I had explored what Mirelle was, before I’d even decided I was interested enough to go any further.
It was a sentence that meant only that I’d noted something down.
It said: “Betty Bartlett, dressmaker.” She was a fire warden at Mirelle during the war.
When I told Anne that her mother was the reason I’d started on the path 2016 has found me in, we both fell silent. She didn’t know it was there, she had been completely unaware of it up until that point.
We decided that we’d go to The History Centre for very the first time and view Betty’s Fire Warden card together.
You can’t take photos at the History Centre or use them without their permission because of copyright, but the assistants working at the desk took this photo of us holding the Fire Warden Card gladly – it can’t be seen clearly but they could see how much it meant to Anne.
We examined it inside and out though as I was aware that this was a very personal moment.
I’m not researching my history, I’m writing and researching the history of others. Sitting there holding the Fire Warden Card with Anne summed up 2014, 2015 and this year also.
It speaks to the journey I’ve found myself on and how meaningful it is to me and others.
Looking at it heralded something else important…
From January 1st 2017 as the fireworks explode in the sky above Hull I am ready to start writing….
2017 will be the year of The House of Mirelle.
Happy New Year everyone!
© Carrie Henderson 2016