Welcome to the website of Carrie Henderson, non-fiction writer researching the House Of Mirelle, social history and British vintage fashion. Contact: email@example.com: Twitter @carriehentweets #HULL2017
There were two ‘uniforms’ during WW2; the ones that the armed forces and voluntary services wore and the second was the uniform supply and control measures the government imposed on the population of Britain.
From the outset, the government knew that clothing the people of Britain was the elephant in the room in terms of managing WW2.
Wars are expensive; they require man (and woman) power, raw materials, armaments up to the job and enough of a profit to cover costs. That wasn’t all; the armed forces must be clothed and factories must still manufacture what was required whilst their working men were unavailable and away.
The blockade of Europe and danger in the seas meant essential supplies of raw materials like wool, silk and cotton would fast run out. Fabric and clothing production, a thriving industry at the outset of the war in 1939 was also inefficient and wasteful.
Factories were needed to produce the millions of yards of material required to clothe people in uniform instead of the frilly and frivolous fashions of the late 1930s.
Wasteful of fabrics in short supply, a simple thing like adding a large hem to a skirt or embroidery to a dressing gown could save thousands of hours of man power and materials required elsewhere.
Zips were a no-no as the metal was needed for armaments, as was elastic, and silk for silk stockings were needed for parachutes.
Very quickly dressmakers and manufacturers were told that they didn’t have design freedom any longer and Austerity Regulations and Limitation Of Supply Orders – or LIMOSO’s – set out what they could and couldn’t use when designing or running up an item of clothing.
With the outbreak of war, inflation affected prices and the rarer commodities like silk started to shoot up in the shops. Inflation had to be kept under control and the economics of pricing became a hot issue; something had to give.
The government accepted it had to control all aspects of clothing supply, manufacture and retail. Initially it looked back on the lessons learned during World War 1 when a form of standard suit was devised to clothe the people of Britain.
They didn’t want to do the same, so unpopular was it, but needs must and from June 1st, 1941, Clothes Rationing was introduced across Great Britain.
Whitehall was particularly concerned about the poor and working class who were perceived to be suffering most from the materials shortages affecting clothes production and supply.
Middle and upper class women had large wardrobes that could survive rationing, they thought, but the working class didn’t.
To address this, by 1942 the Utility Scheme was fully rolled out which produced clothing with quality cloth and materials designed and manufactured to Austerity Regulations. Utility Clothing was in the shops at fixed prices to ensure affordable clothing was available for all people across the land.
It attracted none of the new and dreaded Purchase Tax which affected all non-essential items.
Utility was cheaper, of better quality and more long lasting than non-utility items. For the first time working class women could buy well designed, well made clothing to survive the war years regardless of income.
War was different for those with more money at their disposal. They were used to buying for pleasure and to dress for the right social occasions but it didn’t make any difference to the government, they restricted how many items of clothing could be bought by anyone in the country.
The press coined a phrase to describe the actions of government and “Wartime Socialism” was born.
On the Whitsun Bank Holiday Sunday of June 1941 a wireless broadcast told retailers and the British public that from opening on Tuesday morning, all clothing would be rationed. Margarine coupons were initially used but later on dedicated clothes rationing books were circulated.
Clothes had points allocated to them, usually determined by square yardage of cloth and whether the government deemed them necessary or a luxury item. Each point or half point was worth a full or half coupon.
People were told how many points they had to ‘spend’ over periods of time, 66 in the first year and less and less as the war drew onwards.
When spending on clothing people exchanged their coupons and paid cash also. When they ran out that was that, there were no more coupons to spend for anyone.
Budgeting for how many points you had was a national occupation and a source of misery for many. Although forces uniforms were not rationed, things like knickers and maternity clothes were. The government adopted a form of market research to respond to national need and changes were made regularly, filling the columns of newspapers and fashion magazines.
It was no good moaning; the government was entirely in control.
Many people commented that Mrs Sew and Sew’s advice in the famous Make Do and Mend campaign had been part of working class life forever and wearing second hand clothes and hand-me-downs was no different during the war than beforehand.
The wealthy who did have money to spend regardless of rationing tried other methods and the black market thrived on those with cash to spare.
Purchase Tax was implemented to prevent the buying of luxury goods; fur coats, a common staple of many a woman’s wardrobe, attracted 100% Purchase Tax for instance. That meant you paid the retail price to the shopkeeper then exactly the same amount again went to the government – very pricey.
Buying luxury was expensive and prevented excessive spending on items that weren’t necessary – after all if everyone bought unnecessary items, factories would have to produce them to demand and they were focused on war.
Eventually the country learned to knuckle down and see it out. Whether you were rich or poor, the regulations applied and everyone did their patriotic bit to adapt.
Southsea, near Portsmouth was no different from anywhere else in the country in what it had to endure.
On the shoreline of the beach there is a museum dedicated to D Day, which took place on 6th June 1944.
It is appropriate that the museum is situated there as The Solent holds a long military and naval history. The castle looking across to The Isle Of Wight has existed in one form or another since Tudor times.
The Mary Rose, Henry V111’ths ship which sunk in 1545 resides in its low lit museum in the Portsmouth Dockyard.
The D Day Museum itself houses The Overlord Tapestry, a modern interpretation of the Bayeux which stitches together scenes from that day in a long piece of embroidery circling the main room.
The impact of the government’s measures in respect of clothing and apparel in WW2 was an enormous undertaking both for Whitehall administratively and for the people of Britain to comprehend and live through. Everyone but everyone was affected; women, men and children did not escape and those in the forces also.
When all rationing ended in 1952, the war years had seen a massive change to clothing and fashion.
The change was both attitudinal and practical; the efficiencies that the government implemented were strong enough to bear any national dislike and the influence of them affects fashions and expert consideration of those restrictions even today.
Throughout the D Day museum, the exhibits show how wartime fashion worked on the ground; for those in uniform, getting married, knitting for the forces or wearing Utility designs.
It is an extraordinary museum which isn’t only about the conflict – the presence of the Overlord Tapestry emphasises the great importance of the needle trades to Britain and the creativity, craft, ingenuity and adaptation that the British public made overall.
(Cecil Cinema, Hull. Blitzed in WW2, rebuilt and reopened in 1956.)
The cinema opened with The Seven Year Itch. Marilyn Monroe sent a telegram of congratulations.
“Why Hull?” I’m asked.
“Because Mira Johnson and House Of Mirelle were in Hull,” I reply. “Also because, well, when I started to look at both those things in light of Hull’s history overall, it became clear that their story is Hull’s too.”
“Everyone knew everyone, Carrie, everything is connected,” said a lady one day.
“I see that,” I answered, “the shops and the streets and the houses and the people in them – they are all part of each other.”
“It’s still the same way today,” they replied, firmly. “We all know someone who knows someone.”
“That’s what makes this so fascinating to research,”I said. “It’s not for everyone I know. It’s a lot of painstaking, slow, fine attention to detail but what comes from it – um – I’m seeing what you mean about everyone knowing everyone, yes, but also that everything really does connect with everything from way back when right through to now.”
“I don’t know if you know, Carrie, but Hull was bombed more than London in The Blitz.” He said it bravely and fearfully, both at once.
“I did. It must have been absolutely awful. How anyone survived is beyond me.”
“There have been a lot of changes you know,” someone else said, pensively. “Sometimes I lay awake at night and think about how great it was to go to all those shops in the old days, I’m sure many people do.”
“It reminds me of that song, beneath my feet begins to crumble, but my love..”
“Never dies!” they said, finishing the 1960s lyrics for me.
“Oh it was a golden age, it really was,” said someone new. “We went dancing all the time but I always kept Saturday nights free for the New York Ballroom because I might meet someone there.”
I actually had a lump in my throat, I loved that shop so much.
In 2008 the global financial crisis meant names were toppling left, right and center.
Holes and gaps in local high streets grew more often than new business as we sucked in and tightened our belts, but BHS remained.
I’ve been thinking about these shoes differently since the news.
They are as attractive as the photos show them to be in real life.
I don’t think they are that old, probably sold in BHS in the 90s – so why didn’t I find them at the time?
Because I didn’t go into BHS is the answer.
I didn’t believe you could find lovely items to wear like these in there or if you did it’d be a fluke, too expensive or too mumsy.
Well they aren’t so, since Thursday I own a piece of fashion history as well as a nice pair of shoes.
They are a symbol of another story also. It’s the one about the end of the British high street of the past – one where Buy British was an advertising catchphrase, no eBay or online existed and quality of design and materials resulted in shoes like these.
BHS may have been established by a team of American investors but they gave us something that is part of our culture, our memories and our history.
Book Review: Fashion On The Ration – Julie Summers
On the back sleeve of Fashion On The Ration, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes says: ‘I would not have thought a book could make me nostalgic for rationing, but Julie Summers has managed it. A marvellous read.’
From the perspective of the now, when vintage fashion is so popular and generations have been born with no direct experience of the war, it is easy to look at the fashion of this era with rose tinted spectacles.
This was a time of men in going to war, women in being called up or working in the jobs men left behind and children being evacuated.
All this happened alongside the clear and present danger of Nazi Germany finalising their advance through Europe and capturing Great Britain also.
For those not in the know, fashion rationing was a means by which central government controlled every aspect of clothes design, production, manufacture and purchase during the war years.
It was also a time of great invention. Rationing was balanced by the other central initiative – Austerity or the CC41 scheme.
Via Austerity the war years raised standards of clothes production, included famous couturiers in design and controlled prices of clothing. This ensured that quality clothes were available for all.
Summers has tackled what is an enormous subject with enough of a light touch to make it a genuinely pleasurable read – a page turner in fact.
This is an incredible achievement as the story does include its context; it was time of world conflict, danger, loss of life and huge change in the British economic, personal and cultural landscape.
That context is told in linear way throughout each of the chapters in the book. It explains how war was ongoing for many years and fashion was affected also – it wasn’t a one-off thing.
It very successfully avoids the style of stout academic texts; clothes rationing and Austerity were big ideas executed with an attention to detail from the British government that boggles the mind of even the most fervent fashion historian.
Once you delve into the detail of Limitation of Supply Orders (LIMOSO’s), for instance, you are faced with a complex wall of bureaucracy that launched a thousand letters in newspapers, confusion in shoppers minds and real personal hardship.
I was hoping that aspect to the story of clothes rationing would be tackled in a way that was interesting to read and I wasn’t disappointed.
That information is there but woven into the overall story as to make the pace quick and the depth of information delivered even quicker.
The pleasure of reading this book belies how detailed and well researched Fashion On The Ration is.
Summers has included the information that academics will need; explaining the dates that clothes rationing ceased, quoting from Mass Observation accounts and giving the fashion export figures for the war years also, but she’s written it in a way that non-academics will find enjoyable.
Quotes from the people experiencing fashion during rationing speak to the acceptance, gripes and frustration in making do and mend or not having enough rationing coupons to buy essential clothing and footwear.
Descriptions of how uniform changed fashion and designers solved problems with Austerity regulations also speaks to the creative limitations of the time.
Towards the end of the book the end of rationing and resurgance of Paris as the fashion capital of the world is told in a way that emphasises the before-and-after impact of the war and explains its lasting change.
After WW2, the US fashion scene asserted itself on the international stage and this is not forgotten – it points the reader forwards to the changes in the fashion scene that took place during the 1950s and beyond.
If you missed this exhibition, you won’t feel left out in reading the book. The illustrations and photographs are limited within it but you can do your own research and find examples readily.
Summers has very successfully balanced why fashion rationing was an extraordinary and unique period in British fashion history with the historical fact also.
Putting down the book I felt I’d lived through some of those years alongside the people quoted and reflected on why it resonates in our thinking even now.
Summers does not tackle that question explicitly but the book in its entirety explains why its reach and influence on fashion has lasted for years to come.
Since The Great British Sewing Bee hit our TV screens, evening classes, fashion degree and pattern cutting courses have been inundated with a resurgence of interest from applicants who want to learn the skills required.
When Reynolds uses the word ‘early’ in the title of her book she means very early; 100 years ago until the final days of the great training colleges of London in the 1950s.
The majority of this book focuses on the 1920s and 1930s though and it isn’t only factual description – the book is beautifully illustrated with photos.
In those days London was Great Britain’s go-to-place for all things fashion. It was a vastly important industry and it was necessary to staff it with women and men who had developed the not inconsiderable skills that were required.
At the turn of 19th to 20th Century the London fashion industry was suffering from a shortage in supply of people with the correct skills. Trade and staff were being lost to Paris, the acknowledged global capital of fashion as a result.
Recognising this, 3 trade schools were established in London. Eventually these schools became subsumed into creating The London College of Fashion. Then though, girls joined at primary or secondary level and spent their time learning the essential skills for employment in the London fashion houses when they graduated.
Now you may think of industrial sewing machines, large mechanical cloth cutters or computers and clever graphics packages like you’d find in the courses taught these days, but you’d be wrong!
The clothing industry was very different in the early days described in Reynolds’ book. Everything but everything was done by hand.
Measuring, designing, drafting, stitching, embroidering, cutting and finishing – the essential skills – must be done well and by hand or not at all.
In one section she describes how a lone sewing machine exists in a classroom but that it is barely used. Embroiderers used more machinery than tailors but the intricate, meticulous and highly expert skills we associate with Haute Couture these days were what was required.
For educators this book is a fascinating wander through the relationship between industry and education that existed at the time.
There was such an explicit correspondence between the output of skilled labour from these trade schools and the London industry that the two could not be separated.
Teachers were often skilled tailors with no formal teaching qualifications and as many of the large black and white photos show, from mannequin parade to classroom the schools were set up for one reason only – to staff the London fashion houses, full stop.
So what would your day in a needle trades school be like?
It depended on what age you were and what speciality or stream you were studying.
You could specialise in embroidery for instance or pattern cutting. You had dedicated classes in these subjects but you also spent time learning skills in fashion illustration which meant drawing gowns and outfits in a life drawing class. Your uniform denoted which ‘stream’ you’d chosen.
Health and safety was not neglected either. The schools knew that the industry brought risks in terms of workers’ health and so PE lessons and games were as vital a part of preparation for the workforce as the needle skills themselves.
The schools were essential for career progression as well. Once employed by the London fashion houses, many women found themselves stuck in one position and on-the-job training was not available to them or ineffectual.
As a result the schools ran evening classes to update and expand on tradespeople’s skills. This, in turn, increased female expertise in the workplace which had a knock-on effect of increasing the earning power of women also.
Throughout the book there are large black and white photos either to advertise the schools or advertise the students’ work at the time.
For non-academics or people simply interested in getting an insight into fashion history it is in poring over the photos that you’ll get enjoyment from this book.
They show moments in the learning process frozen in time.
Most of these photos have been set up with a camera in mind. Pupils are posed with hands poised like Greek statues, modelling their finished creations.
Classrooms are quiet and static, quite unlike how they would have been in reality.
It’s as if the reader is the school inspector coming for a visit or an employer seeking out their next staff member by examining each pupil’s work.
They are a joy to examine. You can see how hand embroidered dresses fell straight to the floor in perfectly crafted folds or how gowns were drawn, drafted, cut, made and modelled with the essential plumes expected at Court.
In many ways though this book shows you that the basic skills are still the same. You still have to know how to fit a dress to make one from scratch whether you are a tailor or a home dressmaker.
You still have to know how to finish seams whether you hand baste them or use a foot on your sewing machine.
It’s the transferable skills over time that make the book more than scenes from fashion history – most dressmakers and tailors will immediately be able to put themselves into these photos as they recognise themselves in the rooms.
There is a covert message in the book however and it’s that these skills can take years to develop properly. It makes the 3 – year fashion degree courses of today seem almost a breath in comparison.
It’s a book for academics, educators and fashion lovers alike but for those of you into the 1920s and 1930s, I’d say it was essential reading.
The jiffy envelope from the second hand book seller arrived in time for Christmas.
When I reached in to pull out the book I discovered that it wasn’t the size I’d expected – it was much smaller and lighter in my hands.
I ran my fingers over the textured leather cover feeling the dips of the gold picture and the white lettering before I opened it up and saw the face of Kay Pearson looking back at me. She was pictured at a piano surrounded by friends.
I am lucky to own a copy of Life In Hull From Then Till Now, it is a book long out of print.
It was published in 1978 after a story about Kay Pearson’s life was featured in the Hull Daily Mail’s Jane Humber section.
The publisher, Bradley Publications and Co, was as tickled by her story as the ivories that Kay played from childhood.
I’m also lucky to have this book because Kay’s story spans over 70 years of history in Hull from the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century until the 1970s.
Her story is told without artifice, flourish or it seems, that much conscious editing and it’s good for it. It’s retained a feel of someone sitting down at an old-fashioned typewriter to recount their life from start to the point when it was written.
At one point at the outbreak of the Boer War, the typeface even changes, as if the moment was a rift in time that could never be breached.
Kay’s voice speaks clearly from the pages. It reads as if she is talking out loud to an audience that she obviously enjoys.
Her life story is extraordinary. This is a spoiler free blog except to say that it’s the details of her life as a women that makes this book so fascinating.
It is at times a brutal account of female life: cleaning The Article, evidently an essential part of post-birth kit in the early part of the century, turned her 14 year old stomach and ours as reader also.
Her story has many up’s, down’s, dips and turns and at the same time charts the social history of women and the changes that the 20th century brought too.
Her stories of clothing make for fascinating reading.
By the time she’s in receipt of a widow’s pension in the 1950s she notes that one criteria of the pension is: “I must dress decently.”
This was given to her after the state stepped in and democratised fashion throughout the war years through the CC41 scheme, something that historians talk about benefiting the working classes of Britain more than those with money.
Throughout, Kay describes shopping, clothes, fabric and fashion in a way that reminds me that fashion as we know it these days has such a connotation to consumerism, extravagance and luxury.
There is an accompanying recognition of how, in comparison with ‘then,’ the ‘now’ is easy.
True poverty was part of Kay’s life.
At the turn of the century, her mother made a hearthrug from old bits of coats and trousers. Sometimes she’d “buy a soldiers old red uniform from the ragman that she’d cut into 2 inch strips and it made a splendid splash of colour on the ‘clipped mat’ as it was called.”
But she was an opportunist. She earned pennies on Sunday afternoons in the early 1900’s running errands because “men and woman enjoyed parading the whole length of Queen Street down to the pier and dress was not complete without a rose, gardenia or carnation to wear.”
Luckily her sisters were good needlewomen and helped her mother make a “new dress …in a delicate pink or grey,” so that she could wear it with rag dolled hair in a childhood performance.
She was still using this dress as a costume in 1978, it survived so well over the years.
To us these days, we’d think that it was a rare skill but Kay said that she wasn’t a skilled seamstress – despite this she handmade the outfits for her two daughter’s wedding days in 1941 and 1942.
It took her 16 weeks to prepare for the 1941 wedding: “there was materials to decide upon and purchase for the bride and bridesmaids. My daughter’s choice of wedding ensemble was plain, but choice, taking me exactly 10 weeks to complete.”
She adds detail that describes how precious this was in the horrors of the Hull Blitz:” I dread to think how many occasions I had to dismantle the gown from the hangers and store in numerous travel cases for safety, as air raids occurred.”
In 1942 her second daughter got married quickly, as was the trend at the time. Kay again made a wedding outfit from scratch after her daughter and her decided on “materials, styles and colours”.
By 1949, towards the end of rationing she looked back and recorded her thoughts: “All gowns, including my own, were complete for the great day, were really something, so much that I marvelled at my capabilities of dressmaking and a four tiered wedding cake into the bargain!”
We are left with this description to imagine the clothes she made.
And what of her own wardrobe?
“From the time I reached 15 years, I had saved up enough money to purchase mustard serge to have a costume made.** I purchased this from a shop called Sultans in Great Passage Street, the cost 3 shillings and 6d.
“A girl, apprentice to the trade, who did odd jobs of work on the side, made up the material at a charge of 5- and very nicely too – I felt a proper “swank” in it.”
And of her own wedding in 1915?
“Finances in our household were down to zero..to obtain a bridal gown was out of the question, however, material was purchased at a store Willis and Co, on the corner of Waterhouse and Carr Lane.
“Five yards of pale blue ninon*** at a sale, price 9 3/4 per yard. It cost 4 – 8 1/2 d.
“My eldest sister concocted a dress and jacket for me, and the left over pieces were made into two small head bonnets for the bridesmaids who were arrayed in white.
“My ensemble was made up of a straw hat trimmed with forget-me-nots, and a pair of my younger sisters shoes, I carried a bunch of flowers.”
Kay doesn’t include any photos of these family occasions, choosing instead to show pictures of Hull which are often faded and hard to make out on the page.
They are interspersed with snippets of programmes from performances she took part in or produced, and photos of herself performing in her later years also.
But one photo of her youngest daughter Betty, exists. It is the final photo in the book. Standing in her back garden, she is dancing for her mother as she took the photo.
She is smiling and holding the skirt of her dancing outfit which has the signs of being hand made also.
I’d ordered Life In Hull From Then Till Now, because I’m interested in Hull’s social history through oral history telling. That’s a phrase that means collecting and studying history through listening to people talking about the past.
Kay started to write aged 81 and that’s exactly what oral history is all about – talking about it and writing it all down. It’s part of the method I’m using in researching the House of Mirelle also.
As Kay said: “people always feature in any walk of life, some times fictitious, however every word you are about to read is fact and has needed no research.”
She was absolutely right.
Kay Pearson was a musician, mother and without realising it, a pure social historian of Hull.
For home dressmakers like myself, the return of the 70s heralds a glorious nostalgia because it was in this decade that I first sat in front of a sewing machine making clothes.
In those days my tastes were influenced by fashion magazines and the girls go-to manual for fun and teen living ‘Jackie’, but my expeditions were simple because I was still young and at the start of learning the language of home sewing.
You never forget your first time making something to wear – mine was inspired by the 1978 film ‘Grease.’
The world went mad for 50s retro and I did too. I bought a length of cheap green floral cotton that cost under a pound a meter, borrowed a tape measure and my mother’s sewing machine, laid out large pieces of newspaper on the kitchen table and made a circle skirt.
I had help with the measurements and cutting the pieces of newspaper into a pattern, but I was determined to make it myself from start to finish. I’d already been taught how to thread and use the sewing machine and like a new driver I didn’t veer from one track of running stitch throughout.
Afterwards I proudly hand stitched the buttonhole over the top of my first invisible zip and hung it on my wardrobe doors so I could admire it while I played 45s and listened to Top of The Pops and wrote letters to my friends.
When I returned to school on Monday morning the trouble I got into because my homework wasn’t complete was offset by the feeling of achievement when I wore the skirt afterwards. I was hooked on home sewing and the history of fashion forever.
I grew out of it, eventually, and I held onto it for many years as a memento. Throwing it away was an emotional moment, but by then grunge, punk and new wave had replaced 50s retro and I’d sewn many more complex projects.
The mind-swimmingly complicated process of deciphering the sewing pattern blueprints had also passed and I had the start of a collection of vintage sewing patterns from all eras and all styles that I still add to today.
When you buy a vintage pattern it is rarely in perfect condition, it is often ripped and torn or even covered with the dreaded sellotape – a total no-no for conserving paper patterns.
But despite the flaws, the marks on the envelopes are evocative and intriguing.
They record the first owner’s comments, struggles and tips, as if they knew that in the future someone would be holding the pattern in their hands again, marvelling at the design long forgotten and about to unfold fashion history for the first time in years.
The news that the 70s are back has made me rub my hands with glee.
During the 70s home sewing was on the decline due to mass production of clothing. Women were working more than ever before and there wasn’t as much free time available to make clothes.
But it was still common to leaf through pattern catalogues on a Saturday morning at the nearest department store, choosing the next sewing project.
I own more than 50 vintage patterns from that decade. Looking back through my collection, the 1970s fashions are laid out to enjoy and imagine making all over again.
They walk through my memory like music from the past, making me wish for long slender legs and figure to match so that I’d be able to wear them when I grow up, exactly as I did then.
Faces look back at me. Those unseen and unknown models drawn by unrecognised artists, snapped by photographers never found behind bursts of light at London Fashion Week.
The 1970s was the most changeable decade for fashion in history and the start of my love affair with fashion. These patterns are precious reminders of the past.
They show how styles, designs and tastes from the big name designers brought more change and diversity to high street fashions than ever before or since.
The film Dior and I premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and huzzah! it is now available for the everyday fashiony folk to soak up on Netflix.
“People are utterly fascinated by what would happen at this house,” says Cathy Horyn, fashion critic at the New York Times and there’s no argument from the viewer. At the end of ‘Dior and I’ we capitulate in the film’s friendly, easy style, to the gravitas of this brand.
The name Christian Dior has taken center stage since he opened his first atelier in Paris.
A year later in 1947, his ‘New Look’ indelibly altered women’s fashion. Dior is a house with so much “fashion DNA” that it instantly conjours up the exclusive world of cigarette-slim models, impeccibly glamorous magazine covers and the starbursts of endless flashbulbs on mirrored runways.
In choosing to centre his documentary around the arrival of Raf Simons to the House of Dior as Creative Director – the Belgian fashion designer broke into the fashion world in only 1995 – he takes us on a journey through a radical change in the house.
Throughout the film you sense that risk but also how enervating and modernising Simons’ process and ideas are.
It’s a new appointment and it isn’t going to be easy. Upon realising he has a mere 8 weeks to generate an entire collection Simons leans back in the lift and says: “Oh Fuck! Stress.”
He is told that managing the ‘human element’ is crucial and the reason for that unfolds.
Florence is introduced to him as the Premiere for dresses and for suiting the Premiere is Monique.
These are two ladies you could pass in the street and not think ‘couture’ but they are the highest and “most important people in the whole company…because they manage very large teams and insanely large collections.”
Monique is so important that she is sent to New York with a salesperson at the drop of a hat because a client is unhappy with the fit of a garment. Simons reluctantly accedes to this fact of life in the midst of the 8 weeks he requires her to complete his collection.
Simons doesn’t sketch. His ideas are prepared visually in ‘files’ of concepts, others sketch those ideas, stylists translate them onto computers, he chooses 3 or 4 and when the decision is made, the seamstresses and cutters get to work interpreting these sketches into the 3D outfits.
When the sketches arrive Monique lays the designs on the table, the white coats gather round and as she talks through the designs, and people volunteer to make them.
Dior aficionados will know that they are wearing the same white coats that hark back to what the mild mannered man wore in the same atelier in the original days.
Making the designs into garments is a surprisingly democratic process when you consider that the sketches are just that. Sketches. Unlike paper patterns home dressmakers are familiar with, these designs do not come with instructions.
Once you compare the start of this construction process with the finished garment, your respect for the skill of the workers in the ateiliers triples.
When you watch the team bring in reinforcements to unpick cloth with thousands of tiny glistening hand sewn beads without a swear word or moaning – just a short nap in the small hours and then back to it – it will triple again.
Monique and Florence are rightly revered for their talent.
Simons knows about Dior, of course but he finds the future more romantic than the past.
As an hommage to the great man, his first collection is inspired by Dior’s designs, particularly the silhouette of the New Look collection and his exquisite textiles.
Fashion lovers will enjoy these segments – they are delicious glimpses into the past. Gloved hands gently touch the archived textiles and clothing designs. They are kept rolled up in a way that makes you wonder if they understand how priceless they are to us as viewers but the gentle way they handle them tells all.
“Juxtaposing something of that time with something of this time, is very dynamic,” says Simons.
And Tcheng uses this historical reference too. He includes clips from a documentary made with Dior before his death in 1957. A whimsical and entirely French retrospective it weaves through the film drawing the viewer in like a fairy tale, grounding us in a sense of the past.
‘Dior and I’ reminds us of how the glossy spreads of haute couture we flick through is the end result of intricate, expert craftsmanship, design work and, let’s not forget, the clarity that comes with razor sharp business sense.
Tcheng illuminates the rarified, closeted world to show us again why it has so much fascination – because of the secrets it holds and the talents it represents.
Monica Piekielniak is a fashionista with nous. She knows some of the best finds are tucked away on the rails in charity shops. Little did she guess that her latest discovery – a grey / taupe box jacket – would take her search for the label far away from Poland all the way to the UK:
“I bought a jacket in the thriftshop in Poland with the tag of this company. Everytime when I find any interesting things I’m checking its value, company where it comes from, price in the online shop etc,” she said.
“When I saw that in the net ain’t much informations about Elka Couture I became more interested because I realised it isn’t much known company as H&M or New Look etc and when I saw that it was working only in 1960s I was totally shocked.”
“It’s unbelievable that a jacket from 60’s in UK moves to 2015 in Poland!” she added.
Since she’s found out more about the Elka Couture brand she doesn’t wear the jacket, keeping it as an “interesting item” in her wardrobe.
How the jacket ended up in Poland will always remain a mystery. If any Polish readers know who owned the jacket, post a comment here to let us know!
Most Elka Couture items are not as well travelled as Monica’s and are found closer to home. Ray Gumbley, photographer, works for the charity Age UK:
“Yesterday I was out looking for a black vintage dress for a model to wear in some photographs I’m doing. I was looking up the name of the label when I came across your site. Its a long black dress with sequins around the chest inside the label reads ELKA Couture.”
When asked what he was planning on doing with his new couture purchase he said:
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the dress yet. I will probably try and auction it or put it in one of our charity shops (I work for Age UK Derby and Derbyshire) to raise some funds for Age UK or do what I normally do and hoard it and keeping swopping it for another dress lol.”
We’d love to know what your decision was, Ray and if you have some photos from portraits you took, go ahead post the link to them here.
Jacqui Taylor is the proud owner of an electric blue textured synthetic dress suit made by Elka Couture. It was designed in a twin-set style that was very fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s.
“No, there are no washing instructions on the dress or coat,” she added.
How can you date this gorgeous outfit?
A law was passed in Britain in 1986 to insert fabric care labels – or laundry symbols – into all garments made in the UK. Between 1963 and 1986 the typical washing machine and temperature symbols that are so familiar to us today were sewn less frequently into garments and were not included at all before the 1960s.
Jaqui’s outfit had no such labelling. That, the synthetic textured fabric and the style helps to date it to the 60s or 70s. What a beautiful eye catching outfit with over 40 years of history behind it.
Monika all the way from Poland, asks the 6 million dollar question – or should that be Euros 😉
“I’m interested if Elka Couture was much known company in UK? Was they selling haute couture clothes …as its name suggests or it was something like the whole network of shops, or the only one in Hull?
“I also found the site of Hull Museum when I saw that they also collect Elka Couture clothes, then why they are so important?”
Well, Monika. I’ll try to give you an answer:
Elka Couture was a label that was based in London in the UK. It produced fashions mainly between the 1960s and the 1970s. Its designs were always eye catching and used 60s or 70s synthetic fabrics that were sometimes bold, sometimes glamorous and always unique.
Your jacket is unusual because it is made of natural fabric – cotton.
Elka Couture designs reach across the years since to attract people like you when you find them in the rails of charity shops, in auction houses or in vintage markets.
A maxi dress with the Elka Couture label was donated to Hull Museum because the label was sold at the House Of Mirelle – and that’s where your search started.
Follow me here as I blog more about Elka Couture, Hull vintage fashion and the House Of Mirelle.
If you have an Elka Couture item take good care of it, it’s a part of British fashion history..
With the plaintive wail of air raid sirens in the air, half of the British workforce in uniform and the impact of rationing, the 1940s had a stark divide between fashion during World War 2 and fashion after the war ended.
In 1939 when the war broke out, women were wearing what we’d regard today as ultra feminine outfits – wearing trousers was frowned on and not yet accepted widely – it took the war to change that view.
In 1939 skirts were worn at knee length and dresses with fitted bodices and pretty sleeves were all the rage. Fabric was in abundance and the influence of the new synthetics like rayon and rayon silk was everywhere.
Every woman accessorised with a hat and gloves. Shoes were mid height with fancy patterns and colours, designed to be as attractive as the rest of her clothes. Young women dressed in pared down versions of clothes from their mother’s generation.
Women strove to wear outfits, not items. Women of a certain class had to factor in dressing for different occasions also. These women changed into different clothes for dinner, if they were having afternoon tea with friends or if they were going out to a restaurant, for instance.
The wealthy fashion conscious British woman did this because it was right, it was proper and it was expected.
In London the Savoy restaurant had a dress code for evening; women’s gowns had to be floor-length to gain entry. Despite the restrictions of the war, the elite found that Britain continued dressing to this expectation, keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of wartime austerity.
It was the good manners and social rules prior to the war that created a fashion industry revolving around the famous British social norms of what should be worn and when.
These were the social rules that gave The House Of Mirelle a wealthy clientele in Hull who could commission and afford the clothing that the fashion House created.
Pre-war: how women bought clothes
The average women bought mass produced clothes from catalogues, local stores or made them at home. Paper patterns were widely available, as were sewing machines that often permanently sat in the corners of living rooms draped with items in various stages of creation.
Sewing skills amongst women was considered as important as knowing how to cook and were used regularly.
It was usual for those with very little money to rework clothing, patching and mending. Hand-me-down’s were passed from person to person to get the most wear from them.
Only the wealthy could afford to have their clothes made for them by dressmakers, tailors or seamstresses.
The very wealthy like the British royal family, upper classes or those on the debutante circuit could afford clothes designed and made by couturiers – a French term loosely meaning “sewers.”
Couture meant exceptional service. It was hands-on, expensive and labour intensive. It meant that clothes were designed, cut and made to fit your specific measurements by expert craftspeople. Expense wasn’t spared and outfits cost a lot of money.
At the outbreak of war, buying couture was a concern for the upper classes, one that the average person might know something about but not have direct contact with.
Clothing had been rationed in World War 1 and it was a terribly unpopular move. When Winston Churchill became British PM, he didn’t want to do the same again.
The influence of Parisian fashion and couture
Up to the war, Paris ruled the western world’s fashion industry. It was considered the most innovative and cutting edge in terms of technique and design. Paris set the styles and shapes and the world always followed.
Then war broke out in Europe. Within a year Paris, the center of fashion and couture, fell to the Nazi’s. The industry and its influence on fashion temporarily eradicated as a result.
It fast became apparent to the manufacturers of clothing and the government that there were problems with sourcing materials and selling clothing as they had done pre-war.
Although Great Britain was an island nation and to a limited extent was self sufficient in terms of materials and manufacture, the fall of Europe created problems with the scope of design, supply and manufacture of clothing.
At the start of war, UK textile and clothing manufacturing was a healthy industry with many factories operating across the country – particularly in the North. Clothes factories and British couturiers like Hardy Amies often used locally sourced and woven fabrics such as British wool and cotton. However there was also a necessary market for imported cloth or textiles from outside the UK.
Long established trade routes no longer existed due to the Nazi blockade of Europe, silks were unavailable due to the same destruction of trade routes with China and Japan.
Shortage of materials, problems on the horizon
The government saw problems on the horizon.
Problem 1 – you can’t make clothing without textiles.
Problem 2 – those very same factories and the personnel in them were needed for the war effort.
Very soon after the war began the import textile market was suffering from the global crisis. The influence of Paris had also crumbled and the lack of spare cash in the pockets of the everyday person meant the fashion economy was heading for a crash.
In 1939, writing for Mass Observation in the first months after war was announced, Pam Ashford from Glasgow said:” Miss Bousie bought a battery in a tailor’s shop. It is the only thing they are doing. No one wants clothes.” The rich were still able to afford their clothing, but the poor could not.
Something had to be done.
Clothes rationing came into being in June 1941 by an act of parliament called the Limitation of Cloth Supplies and Apparel Order. It wasn’t the only commodity that was controlled by the government but in our thinking, the CC41 scheme relates strongly with the fashions of the war era.
The scheme was called CC41, it started in 1941 – hence its name and design found on the Utility labels from the time. Some people think that the ‘CC’ in CC41 stands for “Controlled Commodity,” however this isn’t accurate and it has come about my misreporting of the time.
The idea behind CC41 was to control the fabrics, the designs and the manufacturing processes used to produce clothes.
Clothing designed under CC41 rules was called ‘Utility Clothing’ by the British government.
The Utility Scheme directly influenced clothes rationing. It was a way by which designers and customers could survive the limited supply of materials and protect what was needed for production in the war effort.
There was another element to the Utility scheme, however. Churchill expressed a view that he specifically wanted to avoid the British public being dressed in: “rags and tatters.“ He saw it as patriotic to remain as well turned out as possible with clothing enhancing the morale of women and men during war.
The two cheeses
The CC41 logo designed by Reginald Shipp is affectionately known as The Two Cheeses. When it was introduced, clothing ration books hadn’t been printed and people used spare margarine coupons to buy their clothes instead.
By freeing up fabrics and materials and the factories that made them, it focused more resources on the war effort and kept fashion standards for everyone in Britain too. Historians argue that Utility clothing changed fashion, democratising quality clothing for all.
The government devised a set of penalties and incentives for manufacturers to support the initiative.
Manufacturers who made 85% Utility Designs were then allowed to make the rest of their items in non-utility cloth but the 15% of these “other” designs still had to follow the same restrictions and regulations. Non Utility clothing was taxed heavily, regarded as luxury items.
Times were hard and people railed against the restrictions that rationing created. The government asked British Pathe to help inform the public about the new rules.
People watched these films in cinemas which were hugely popular – the time of having a television in the home was a speck on the future sight line of mass entertainment.
CC41 – an enduring legacy
CC41 and Utility Clothing has become iconic and legendary and its influence has been felt throughout the fashion industry. A CC41 label indicates that it is a valuable and historic item of clothing.
In 1942 regulations were tightened by the introduction of The Making Of Civilian Clothing (Restriction Orders) but relaxed at the end of the war where a new “double lines” Utility label emerged to indicate that the fabric used was of a higher quality than that found in clothes with the CC41 label or Utility designs.
The double lines label indicated that it was a more luxurious item than earlier items. Frocks could use a better quality of fabric and be designed with more flair.
The public felt that the frivolities of fashion may be heading back into the public consciousness again.
In reality, it was a long way off.
In this You Tube video, Imperial War Museum curator Laura Clouting talks about the Fashion On The Ration exhibition, 2015:
Fashion rationing didn’t end in Britain until 1949 long after the end of the war, but the legacy was felt deeply. It was in this period that the powerful idea of making quality fashions accessible to all was born and from it, women’s fashions changed permanently.
Shopping expeditions to the high street or browsing online to buy that must-have pair of shoes is far away from the couture shopping experience.
Couture, or hand-made clothing made to an individual’s requirements is every bit as glamorous as it sounds and its history is not entirely French!
Although ‘couture’ is a French word meaning ‘sewing’, the business was invented by a British fashion designer called Charles Frederick Worth.
This grand-sounding gentleman worked as an apprentice in various textile merchants in the 19th Century. While he was learning about fabrics, a skill essential for any fashion designer, he visited art galleries and studied portraits of historic women. He was consumed and inspired.
On moving to Paris in 1845 he set up a small dressmaking department in the firm Gagelin which was so successful that in 1858 he’d branched out on his own. The ‘House Of Worth’ is widely regarded as the first couture house in history.
His creations were so extraordinary that they were received with acclaim. French royalty ordered and bought them, American women flocked to Paris to view and buy and European aristocracy bought and wore House Of Worth creations.
His fashion house had a strict heirarchy of ‘hands’ or employees, a Directrice – or head salesperson who was in charge of selling the clothes – and their skills were second to none.
His garments were extremely expensive, exclusive and completely out of reach of the average woman. They were living works of art.
Realising they needed to safeguard the standards associated with the name couture, Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture established a set of guidelines. Anyone calling themselves a couture house must adhere to them. These rules were tightened up in 1945 at the close of World War 2 and are still in use today.
Parisian fashion held the world in it’s hands. By the 1900s it was simply the center of fashion worldwide.
But Britain wasn’t forgotten – it had its own couturiers too.
Based in London the work of Digby Morton, Norman Hartnell, Bianca Mosca, Hardy Amies and Edward Molyneux established British fashion in the international marketplace.
In 1941 they became the founder members of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers – or IncSoc. These designers were asked to create patterns for Utility clothing under the clothes rationing scheme in World War 2. The results of the CC41 designs have remained in the British consciousness since.
They used quintessential British tailoring skills to create a wardrobe that was simple, understated and elegant. With the Utility scheme for the first time couture creations were entirely within reach of the British public.
The House Of Worth was by no means the only or first fashion house but Charles Worth was such an extraordinary publicist that his name has been associated with the establishment of couture fashion since.
His success is also a story about how a couture fashion business relies on publicity and promotion, social connections, reputation and word of mouth recommendation.
It was as vital then as customer service and branding is now.
Mira Johnson, Directrice of The House Of Mirelle followed in his footsteps. She was the powerhouse behind Hull’s fashion house and like Worth, a consummate publicist. She harnessed the power of the press to advertise ‘her fashion house.’
Through doing so she left a legacy for us to admire in the pages of journals and newspapers of the era and everlasting awareness of the couture designs found in donations to Hull Museum made by the House Of Mirelle.