Welcome to the website of Carrie Henderson, non-fiction writer researching the House Of Mirelle, social history and British vintage fashion. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org: Twitter @carriehentweets #HULL2017
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.
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.
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.