Posted in Creative Non Fiction, Creative Writing, History Of Hull, Hull Retail History, Interviews, Kingston Upon Hull UK, Oral History

Kingston On Hull – Stories From The City – September 2016

Kingston On Hull – Stories From The City – September 2016

“I hope when you get home you’ll tell people what Hull’s really like,” said a Facebook friend, “it’s got a bad reputation, you know.”

These words echoed in my mind after it was posted on my timeline. It was 2 days before I left Hull. Right up until then my days had been fun and full and the evenings were spent organising, sifting and planning ahead.

There it was though, the question that throughout my trip was tucked away and forgotten. The side of my mouth twitched into my wry expression; it happens when someone says something uncomfortable to hear.

I reached out and typed, “I will be telling people that Hull is a fantastic City, that the people have been wonderful and the reputation it has isn’t deserved.”

The person clicked ‘like’ and my reply was not a platitude, after 8 days in the City it was meant.

What did I know about Hull before I arrived?

I knew where it was of course. It’s up there above The Wash in that crease that divides the North proper from the Midlands.

If you fold the British map along it you’d have Liverpool, the place of my birth on one side, Manchester underneath it and Hull at the end.

“Where is it exactly?” people asked before I took the journey.

“Yes,” I thought in reply, “it’s not even on the weather map is it!” Their fingers pointed vaguely at the TV screen until I pressed mine at the right spot. “There. It’s there.”

“Ohhh,” came the reply. “I see,” they added, not really seeing it at all.

“Why isn’t it on the weather map?” I thought before I arrived. “Hull was the main fishing port in England. Do they have their own way of doing the weather that doesn’t need the BBC?”

“It’s invisible,” my eyebrows knitted as I looked at The News one morning, “but it’s not invisible at all. Look at how historically important it is and the people I’ve got to know from there aren’t invisible either.”

Conversations I’ve had with people who’ve shared their stories floated back, warm and inviting. Coming from The South-Now, as I call it, the openness and enthusiasm to talk by the people of Hull is not something I experience from strangers on a daily basis.

“Where I live,” I said to quite a few people while I was away, “if you stop and chat to someone on a bus, they’ll think you are mad.”

“They’ll think your mad if you don’t, here,” came the reply.

Having hopped around the UK before settling in London I carry with me the friendliness of somewhere else. It’s in my bones to walk towards people and not away.

It’s in my bones to explore too. I walked around The Avenues, along Newland Park, around Chanterlands Crematorium and into Beverley Road Baths looking upwards all the time.

Throughout the stay, my head didn’t once sag and with it I took photo on photo on photo, there was so much history to look at as all my research sprang wonderfully to life.

The Bull, corner of Beverley Road and Stepney Lane, Hull.

Pictures of Dutch style houses spiking the sky in Park Avenue, the corner of The Bull Pub on Beverley Road, the glorious fountain I’ve seen in the tour guides and history books at the end of Westbourne Avenue whose mermaids were curving and glistening in the summer sunshine.

People’s voices came with me. I heard them telling me again about what was important, why it meant something to them.

Sometimes voices joined each other, laying lines of history along the same streets and roads I was walking.

“Cities are the people,” I said, “after bricks and buildings, it’s the blood that runs through it that makes them.”

The fountain on Westbourne Avenue, Hull. Saved from being melted down for the war effort.
The fountain on Westbourne Avenue, Hull. Saved from being melted down for the war effort.

“It’s not muesli, it’s Morocco,” I added, enjoying the way Newland Avenue bustled and brimmed with  numerous cafes and cultures. Everyone was everywhere, chatting, drinking, walking, ‘going to.’

Only the City centre was quiet. I walked there each time, along Beverley Road and Spring Bank from Pearson Park.

That journey was different, hardly anyone was doing the same but the nose of Prospect Street was like the bow of a ship, telling me I’d walked in the right direction.

“It’s taken its toll on businesses, this rebuilding. At least one has closed since they have put these barriers everywhere.”

“Oh no.” I snapped, “ that’s terrible.”

In 1922 it was Pearson's Park, in 2016 Pearson.
In 1922 it was Pearson’s Park, in 2016 Pearson.

If only the people could find a way of overlaying the old photos of the City centre across the new, like they do in architects or building programmes, they’d see what I see as I look around.

I hear the masts from the ships clattering in the wind. I hear the ‘ding’ of the bell over a door as a well dressed woman removes her gloves and hears “good morning, Madam.”

I compared the center to Leeds, another great Northern City but it wasn’t the same. There, I found the scale of the buildings so immense they were like giants walking through you.

In Hull though, the uneven cobbles along Whitefriargate had fishes carved into them and the sole building on The Land Of Green Ginger looked as immaculate as its For Sale sign glimmering in the window.

I got lost, a bit, but the nearness of everything surprised. King Edward Street was not Oxford Street, Story Street was an offshoot, the walk past the old Edwin Davis building empty and for sale and with planning permission attached took me to The New Theatre and Kingston Square in moments.

The old Edwin Davis department store in central Hull. A beautiful building.
The old Edwin Davis department store in central Hull. A beautiful building.

“Where Madame Clapham was,” thought I, smiling again at the number of people who’ve asked, “have you heard of Madame Clapham?” and the number of times I’ve said, “yes, yes I have. I’ve heard about Madame Clapham.”

It’s close here, you can see how people knew each other and how proud those buildings would have made you.

“Would you like to go for a tour?” I was asked. “Oh yes, please,” was my reply. The car ride headed towards The Humber Bridge to stop and look at it curving over the water.

“It’s immense,” I said, “and simple and beautiful for it, isn’t it,” I added.

“I used to stop here while it was being built and watch them pile drive those struts into the river bed. I walked over it on the night it opened,” they added and then another voice joined in.

“It was amazing when it opened,” the other voice said, “I walked over it you know, the night it opened. Everyone did.”

Our wrong-turn trip into Lincolnshire and back again before stopping had become an afterthought with the view. I stood letting the wind blow through me, feeling the greys, browns and blues mix for wide miles.

“I’ll find water, eventually,” I joked in the Station Hotel.

“It’s just there, there,” said someone, pointing out of the door to the left. “Go find, Carrie!”

For Sale, Land Of Green Ginger, Hull.
For Sale, Land Of Green Ginger, Hull.

In the last hours of the last day in the City centre I’d taken time to explore. That settling feeling was in my mind, the one you get on the last day of a holiday knowing you are to leave soon.

I’d visited the Maritime Museum but I was surprised to find there were only my footsteps echoing around. They mixed with the plainsong of a fisherman’s folk ballad in an upstairs gallery; but aside from me it was entirely deserted.

“Just me and those figureheads that watched me as I walked in.”

I skated past a polar bear roaring and dressed up in a sou’wester in the selfie mirror. I tweeted #museumselfie but no-one tweeted back.

Rounding another corner I found myself in a room about the Ellerman Wilson Line. I laughed first, delighted to find it and then after reading for a while shouted a quiet, “Yess!” That turn had answered something I’d brought with me in my vast notebook called The Questions.

Polar Bear, whaling exhibit. Hull Maritime Museum.
Polar Bear, whaling exhibit. Hull Maritime Museum.

“It’s happened again,” I said over tea,” another coincidence. It’s got so’s I’m looking out for them now and if one doesn’t happen at least each week, I think it’s telling me I’m on the wrong track.”

“It’s like being a detective,” said a woman across a seat from me at The Royal Station Hotel. “Yes, yes it’s very much like being a detective,” I said, looking directly back at her, “good choice of word.”

I’ve always thought that saying “I’m Doing Research” is academic and excluding. I understand what it means, because I’m the one doing the research and after all I’ve been trained in how to do it but that doesn’t describe it to anyone other.

Doing research is like being a detective, an information-detective, except you don’t have FBI computers at your disposal comparing DNA and matching fingerprints.

Doing research means looking at primary sources: documents, recordings, words, memories, books and newspapers. It means meticulously asking questions that arise from doing that work and then doing the leg work to resolve them.

It doesn’t go in order either. 1975 is more clear than 1955, 1941 is obtuse but 1985 is finished. You learn to give the information enough room to reveal itself however disordered and unruly it is while it does.

beverleyminstercopyrightcarriehenderson“You are very organised,” said someone I was interviewing in Beverley. Beverley was ‘all change’ from Hull. I’d stolen half an hour to walk around the immense Minster before meandering through the shallow streets to the market square.

Across the restaurant table between us was my portable office.  The Find List, The Questions, my folders with visual materials in them, all laid out amongst the coffee and tea we’d chosen to drink while we talked.

We swapped stories and then about how we organise materials. “From the outside it’s the ultimate example of a duck swimming calmly but paddling beneath,” I joked.

“Yes,” she laughed, “it is a bit isn’t it.”

Writers of non-fiction spend long hours reading, reading, reading then writing, writing, writing. I have to know the subject I’m writing about inside out and back to front.

I have to have asked and answered all possible questions. I have to support, or prove, what I know by producing the evidence too and all that happens before any writing, big writing that is, not little writing like note-taking and ideas in a notepad.

Then there are people, the blood and bones in the story of The House of Mirelle. The people are like The Humber, they run through it by telling their experiences in their own words, supporting and adding to the research I’m doing.

They thread through the book, enriching it with their Oral History – what they say in their words, not mine.

Hull History Centre
Hull History Centre

Tuesday at The Hull History Centre, my first visit, detective and voices came together. Someone came with me; they had a reason to be there for the first time too.

When I first started researching Mirelle the Hull History Centre website returned a name.

The name was Beatrice Bartlett. The Fire Warden card typed into the collection details indicated that she worked during World War 2 with a bucket of sand and a broom to sweep incendiaries from the Mirelle business premises.

I’d written down the reference in the first Mirelle notebook. Later on ‘Beatrice Bartlett’ was added to The Find List, a big database of people I am seeking out to talk to or incorporate into the story. Then, as often happens with research, it became one of the gaps until a year and a bit later a woman got in touch.

“My mother worked at Mirelle,” she said, “she was a dressmaker.” We talked, she shared and I took notes. Afterwards the conversation returned in a quiet moment. “Her name rings a bell,” I thought, “but why.”

I turned the pages on my notebooks, starting with the most recent first but found nothing there.

I searched the Mirelle Database but nothing exactly matched either. I turned out my filing, going back and back through time. 3 months ago, 9 months ago, last year, the year before. Then I read the words – Beatrice Bartlett, Fire Warden and the History Centre reference alongside a note about one child, a daughter.

My scratchy writing stopped me in my tracks. It couldn’t be that this woman was her, could it?

It was. After she and I took stock we decided that we would view her mother’s Fire Warden Card for the first time together. The staff took a photo of us holding it.

“It means a lot to you, I know,” I said, “me too, to be here with you when you see it and because it was the first piece of research that gave me a clue that there was a story to tell.”

The next day I returned and viewed the City’s bomb maps coloured in greens, reds and yellows. “She used to say she didn’t know how she survived,” I recalled the lady telling me of her Mum. I looked down at the numerous handwritten “D’s” that overlaid the areas in the City centre, a big slice of ‘D’s’ and green.

“Are you making a reasonable assumption that ‘D’ stands for destroyed?” I asked the Library assistant. “Um, the key doesn’t make that clear,” they replied. We stood above the table it was laying on and regarded it again.

”I suppose when it comes to The Blitz, ‘D’ meaning destroyed or damaged means pretty much the same thing.” I said, eventually. His eyebrows flicked up momentarily as he looked back at me.

“Hull was bombed as much as London,” he said. I didn’t answer because page after page of the Hull Daily Mail was running through my mind. I’d read the reports about A North Eastern Town, unfolding the Blitz of 1941 and most of the 20 years before and since.

I could name who was in the columns of local businesses advertising new premises with the words, ‘business as usual,’ and I knew that some of them I’d already walked past on my way up Spring Bank.

Business As Usual; the wording on the signs on the barriers in central Hull is the same as those used to advertise change of addresses during The Hull Blitz.
Business As Usual; the wording on the signs on the barriers in central Hull is the same as those used to advertise change of addresses during The Hull Blitz.

“Just like that sign outside on the barriers,” I thought, “I wonder if they know.”

“I hope they finish it in time,” someone said, as we stood in a shop entrance in the centre, “It’s really affected business here.” I noticed how kind they were being about everyone’s trade, they all stood together.

“Are you looking forward to next year?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” they said, drawing themselves up a little, “of course, I think it will be a really good thing for us, for Hull.”

“That’s good,” I said, raising my hand to shield the sun, “it’s got so much to say for itself, this City of yours you know, it’s not what people say it is.”

“It’s suffered a lot,” came the even reply. “It’s still there though if anyone wants to look for it.”

Norman Harrap and Son, established 1933 and still attractively set in Spring Bank, Hull.
Norman Harrap and Son, established 1933 and still attractively set in Spring Bank, Hull.

I nodded. “It is.”

After we parted I looked at the mass of orange barriers. “I haven’t seen anyone who’s talking about being blue yet,” I messaged someone who’d travelled to take part in the Spencer Tunick installation, “but the barriers are still here,” I added, thinking the Council had done a good thing to arrange the exhibit around the sea of orange.

“It took days to get it out of his hair,” came the reply.

“I went to The Humber Bridge today,” I said. “It was truly amazing, if a little unexpected.”

“Oh, I haven’t done that for years,” they said whistfully.

“Those houses there flood every year, you know.” I was told as we left that place.

“Are they holiday homes,” I asked but my mind wasn’t working and instantly regretted it. “No, no people live there,” was the reply.

I considered a part of London called Richmond. The local newspapers are full each year of people sandbagging cottages along the River Thames because of the Spring tide. It seemed far away and manicured, and this hardship wasn’t.

“Hull used to be a really wealthy City, you know. It all changed in the 70s when the fishing industry closed down but there’s always been money here, always been wealth.”

“I hope next year brings lots of good,” I replied.

“Oh I’m looking forward to it, it’s going to be really exciting.”

“I can’t wait to see the fireworks on January 1st,” I said, thinking ahead to November and the possibility of joining in Hull 2017 with a Mirelle exhibition. The enormity of what I was returning to do flashed in front of me for a few seconds.

“I’ve got a lot of writing to do between now and then,” I added, thinking about how good the trip had been for the research and how the story was now laid out like the roads into Hull from Lincolnshire.

“Do you want me to drive you around the East now?”

I thought about a meeting I had lined up and the next visit but I was tempted.

“No, no thank you. I said.” I want to save something for the next visit.”

“Next time?” came the reply.

“Yes, yes. Let’s do that next time. Next time we’ll properly see The East. I’ll be back before long you know,” making the promise to myself also.

“Let me know,” they said, “let me know when.”

© Carrie Henderson 2016



Posted in Creative Non Fiction, Creative Writing, Creative Writing About Fashion, House Of Mirelle Fashion House Hull Book, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Research, Writing A Creative Non Fiction Book, Writing Advice

Stop and Say Hello! Research Trip To Hull From 18th September 2016

Research, as anyone who has done some will tell you, can be as long as a piece of string.

The research into the book I’m writing about The House of Mirelle is no exception.

The House of Mirelle book spans over 150 years of a family’s history, 90 years of Hull’s history and almost 40 years of the history of fashion. My goodness, but it’s huge!

All research starts with a question and a gut desire to uncover, reveal, explore and explain something that is interesting to you.

In my case, the story of Mirelle is fascinating and especially so when viewed in context; it is inextricably tied up with the history of fashion and retail, tailoring and design, women’s working lives and the history of Hull also.

In Hull from 18th September for a week or so. Stop me and say hello!
In Hull from 18th September for a week or so. Stop me and say hello!

Someone summed it up to me once, saying: “you got curious.” Well yes, that’s a good way of putting it, I certainly did.

I couldn’t have guessed at the start of the journey what would be uncovered and revealed and I’m not exaggerating when I say it has been absolutely fascinating.

My goodness what a grand story this is to curate and tell.

It describes periods of Hull’s history, long disappeared over the generations. It talks about a rarified time in fashion retail and design also.

It starts in the ’30s when families gathered around the wireless rather than television and theatres resounded with laughter at vaudeville and variety shows.

It was unthinkable, immoral for women not to wear corsets in the 1930s and that speaks volumes about women’s status and how clothing and fashion was dictated by what social occasions you dressed for during the day.

It’s not only about the fashion, though.

To tell the story of Mirelle accurately takes a lot of detailed, meticulous work. I spend time seeking out and exploring facts and then verifying them. These facts answer questions I have but soon new ones emerge that then are worked on.

Seeking out people who had  a part to play in the story is really important. People’s oral history is part of a phenomenological research element too.

That mouthful means: “how you interpret your experience” and “what you say about your experience straight from the horses mouth,” by the way.

All of this behind the scenes legwork is important and coming to Hull for a research trip in September is all part of it.

I’ll be based in the City for a whole week and I’ve got a busy itinerary already.

I’ll be working for a couple of days at the History Centre verifying facts in the City archive, in Beverley for a day and Hornsea too, I’ll be talking to new people with more stories to share and taking a tour of all the places in the City and outside that have parts to play in the history of Mirelle.

If you see me walking by and recognise me, do stop and say ‘hello.’

If you want to speak to me about your memory of Mirelle go right ahead and contact me and we’ll arrange to meet while I’m in town also.

I’m in town from Sunday 18th September through to the week of 26th September.

My email address is

Here’s to coming to Hull!

© Carrie Henderson 2016

Posted in Creative Non Fiction, Fashion History, History Of 20th Century Couture, History Of 20th Century Fashion In Hull, History Of Hull, House Of Mirelle Fashion House Hull Book, Hull Fashion, Interviews, Journalism and Creative Writing, Social History, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Journalism, Vintage Fashion Research

House Of Mirelle: It’s People’s Memories and Stories That Makes History Come Alive

In my school days we learned about history by reciting a seemingly endless list of dates and events.

“Chartism, The Corn Laws, Peterloo and World War 2,” chanted me and my friends as we held our history homework in our hands, waiting to enter the musty-dusty, dated classrooms.

By the time I took A level classical history things had got better.

Plays written by ancient voices made us gasp and laugh and we imagined living in the ancient ruins we visited. Descriptions of the lives of the average Joe or Joan were more interesting than reciting lists of kings and queens and prime ministers and acts of Parliament.

Classics made history better – it wasn’t necessary to ‘do lists’ to learn any longer.

What made the difference was the people’s voices that spoke out from the pages of history. Despite being over a thousand years past, it was fresh and said more about the time than any encyclopedia or text book. Voices and experiences and arts and culture made history come alive.

Researching the House Of Mirelle started with the modern equivalent. The research into the background of the fashion house means doing a lot of reading, then a lot of questioning about what I find, then even more reading and fine-sifting of information I’ve discovered.

That research has to happen before getting to the next bit – asking people about what they remember of the fashion house in real life. Like ancient history, this part makes the black and white information from the pages of materials I’m reading leap into life.

The House Of Mirelle did the same. It started with an interview:

The person said: “my aunt remembers it, she said it was ‘posh.’ She never went there….she thinks they made clothes for the Royal Family.”

I sat there listening to her, thinking of the pages of the text books, fashion books and magazines, the pages of information about the history of Hull, the lists of questions in my note books and drafts of the first chapters.

I listened to her voice some more and the House Of Mirelle became real again, so many years after closing it’s doors and the last item was bought, her voice and her memory was bringing history alive.

© Carrie Henderson 2015

Posted in 1960s Fashion, 1970s Fashion, 1980s Fashion, Creative Non Fiction, Fashion History, History Of 20th Century Couture, House Of Mirelle Fashion House Hull Book, Interviews, Online Magazine Articles, Social History, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Journalism, Vintage Fashion Research

Elka Couture: From Poland To Camden, The British Vintage Fashion Label With The Eye Catching Designs

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.

Found In a Polish Thrift Shop. An Elka Couture jacket. Image courtesy Monica Piekielniak.
Found In a Polish Thrift Shop. An Elka Couture jacket. Image courtesy Monica Piekielniak.

“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.

Hanging in a Polish thrift shop, waiting for the right person to discover it. Image courtsey Monica Piekielniak.
Hanging in a Polish thrift shop, waiting for the right person to discover it. Image courtsey Monica Piekielniak.

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!

The box jacket from the back. Image courtsey Monica Piekielniak.
The box jacket from the back. Image courtsey Monica Piekielniak.

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.

Elka Couture 1960s or 1970s Suit Jacket. Image Courtesy Jacqui Taylor.
Elka Couture 1960s or 1970s Suit Jacket. Image Courtesy Jacqui Taylor.

“I bought the suit for £55 from an antique/vintage shop in Camden Market  the year before the fire there. I have only ever tried in on, never worn it, just coveted it!”

Thank goodness it survived the fire, Jacqui.

“No, there are no washing instructions on the dress or coat,” she added.

Elka Couture Dress Suit Jacket. Image Courtesy Jacqui Taylor.
Elka Couture Dress Suit Jacket. Image Courtesy Jacqui Taylor.

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.

The early Elka Couture label on Jacqi Taylor's dress suit jacket.
The early Elka Couture label on Jacqi Taylor’s dress suit jacket.

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

Posted in 1940s Fashion, Creative Non Fiction, Creative Writing About Fashion, Fashion History, Haute Couture, History Of 20th Century Couture, History Of 20th Century Fashion, House Of Mirelle Fashion House Hull Book, Social History, The History Of Haute Couture, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Research, Writing Blog

World War 2: The House Of Mirelle, CC41 Utility Scheme and Fashion On The Ration

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 women wore dresses. It took the war to make trousers acceptable.
In 1939 women wore dresses. It took the war to make trousers acceptable.

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.

November 1939 fashions.
November 1939 fashions.

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.

Fashionable evening gowns: autumn winter 1939 to 1940.
Fashionable evening gowns: autumn winter 1939 to 1940.

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 at home: as normal then as watching TV is today.
Sewing at home: as normal then as watching TV is today.

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.

“We are at war with Germany”

Picture how the country felt when on 3rd September 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced in sombre tones that England was at war with Germany. It was the second time in under 25 years the people of Britain had faced that stark news.

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.

Couture Molyneaux Dress 1939 Photographed on the Eiffel Tower by Irwin Blumenfeld
Couture Molyneaux Dress 1939 Photographed on the Eiffel Tower by Irwin Blumenfeld

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.

Fash crash

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

Clothing ration book: UK.
Clothing ration book: UK.

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 two cheeses: the CC41 label.
The two cheeses: the CC41 label.

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.

Green Rayon CC41 Dress from the British retailer Marks and Spencers.
Green Rayon CC41 Dress from the British retailer Marks and Spencers.

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.

Double 11 CC41 Luxury Logo 1945
The ‘double lines’ CC41 logo heralded a more luxurious Utility range in 1945.

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.

© Carrie Henderson 2015

Posted in Creative Non Fiction, Fashion History, Haute Couture, History Of 20th Century Couture, History Of 20th Century Fashion, History Of 20th Century Fashion In Hull, House Of Mirelle Fashion House Hull Book, Social History, The History Of Haute Couture, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Journalism, Vintage Fashion Research

The History Of Couture: Expert Fashion In The Making

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.

Empress Eugenie Wearing Charles Worth Dress.
Empress Eugenie Wearing A Charles Worth Dress.

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.

Utility Clothing Image Courtesy IWM London.
Utility Clothing Image Courtesy IWM London.

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.

© Carrie Henderson 2015

Posted in 1930s Fashion, 1940s Fashion, 1950s Fashion, 1960s Fashion, 1970s Fashion, Creative Non Fiction, Creative Writing, Creative Writing About Fashion, Fashion History, History Of 20th Century Couture, History Of 20th Century Fashion, History Of 20th Century Fashion In Hull, History Of Hull, History of Sewing, House Of Mirelle Fashion House Hull Book, Hull Fashion, Hull Retail History, Journalism and Creative Writing, Social History, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Journalism, Vintage Fashion Research, Vintage Wedding Dresses, Writing A Creative Non Fiction Book, Writing Blog

The House Of Mirelle: A Survival Story From The Hull Blitz

From the air, England is a patchwork of cities and country, stitched together with granite and rock and fields and streets.


Hard against the North Sea is the UK city of Hull, cradled from that vast expanse by the River Humber.  She reaches into Yorkshire in the North and Lincolnshire in the south with the city rooted in the crook of her arm.

Follow her out from the land of safety and your eye falls across the other country: one of rolling and glassy navy blues.

This is a cold sea, a bitter sea, a connecting northern flow that binds Hull with Europe. It is the strength of the sea that in medieval Britain, trade grew and with it the port at the estuary of ‘Mother Humber,’ respect for her lifeblood given in this name.

When docks were built to accommodate trade and industry, Hull became a gateway to the wealth that Europe brings. British woollen products and textiles were transported out from the enormous ship-filled berths, bringing wealth to the growing middle classes.

It was a gift of positioning geographically and economically for a woman called Mira Johnson. In 1939 she established a couture fashion house based at the Church Institute on Albion Street, in the center of Hull.

At first optimistic, this advantage turned when the North Sea blew against Britain in the war.

Hull’s gateway to world conflict would affect business, homes and family life as well as the character of the city for years to come.

In bad weather Zeppelins flying to London in the first world war turned back. The airships dropped their payloads of incendiary bombs onto the roofs and heads of the citizens of Hull. People lost their homes, business and lives.

In the aftermath Hull came to realise that a war could be fought from the sky. The people rioted for better protection. In preparation, 40,000 air raid shelters were built in the City but between Word War 1 and the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, airship technology had advanced.

With it the dark, sky line threat of aerial attack was realised. Air raid shelters were scant protection from The Hull Blitz. The as-the-crow-flies distance from Nazi occupied Europe gave Germany the arrows they needed to bomb the City and port of Hull.

In 1941 the City lived in constant terror of a Nazi bombardment seconded only by the London Blitz.

95% of houses were damaged. The toll of dead and injured was in it’s thousands. 152,000 were made homeless.

The Hull Blitz Decimated King Edward Street and Prospect Street, Old Hull.
The Hull Blitz Decimated King Edward Street and Prospect Street, Old Hull. Image courtesy The Hull Daily Mail.

The beautiful, historic Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the city center caved under the storm.

Half of it was destroyed, taking with it thriving retail and industrial businesses, hospitals, churches, pubs, schools, cinemas, factories as well as homes.

Albion Street, within the lopsided square of roads encircling the old City, looked very different at the start of the war that it did at the finish.

Albion St
Albion Street Air Raid Shelter. Image courtsey

The library, at the head of the street, attempted to maintain normality by opening its doors, but the people who lived in the brick terraces cowered throughout the Hull Blitz until finally, vast swathes of it was destroyed.

The air raid shelter to protect those who lived and worked nearby was a painful nothing, an inadequate and resounding tin hat against the driving onslaught of bombs.

But within this magnet to terror, the House Of Mirelle survived…

© Carrie Henderson 2015