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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.
This was a time of enormous social change for women, people in Hull and the UK generally.
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.
© Carrie Henderson 2016
** ‘Costume’ in this context describes a skirt suit.
*** ‘Ninon’ is an artificial fabric similar to Rayon.
All images here are reproduced from the book. Although the publishers are no longer active in Hull, acknowledgement goes out to them for the copyright and to Kay Pearson also.
The 70s are back as a design inspiration for high fashion. Before too long shoppers will see flares, wedges and maxi skirts trickling onto the high street and we’ll be swapping skinny jeans for wide strides once again.
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.
© Carrie Henderson 2015
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!
“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.
Thank goodness it survived the fire, Jacqui.
“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..
© Carrie Henderson 2015