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 @carriehenwrites Skype @carriejourno: Instagram: carriehenphotography #HULL2017
Each of the 15 designs were walked through the long galleries to the central catwalk followed by visitors, students, admirers and clouds of photographers with flash bulbs popping.
Taking a respectful circular tour around the permanent fashion exhibit before crossing a packed hallway into the Raphael room the designs remained firm – no frippery here, they retained their structure.
In the collection was a suit designed with a hybrid of 60s and cool glam rock in space age silver, a red trouser suit cut so simply and draped, clinging to the body like a Balenciaga cape and a sculptured men’s outfit using Spanish earthy browns of the Basque countryside.
There was far more layering and texture than you’d ever see in classic Balenciaga but the sculpture was there.
This Fashion In Motion was a more modernist theatre and each design was unique and individual, setting apart one designer from the next.
Review of 2016: The Year The House of Mirelle Book Came Alive
At the stroke of midnight on the 31st December Big Ben will tell us that 2017 is finally here.
The UK City of Culture starts on January 1st and it heralds a glorious year of art, music, dance and loads more besides to whet the public’s appetite for All Things Hull.
2016 was also about All Things Hull, but mine was about Hull of the past.
It was a landmark year when The House of Mirelle lifted from the pages of my research notes and came alive.
This year has brimmed with adventure; it took me on a voyage of discovery that was fascinating, full and fun.
Here are my standout moments from 2016:
From research to reality
In the turn between last year and this, the research into The House of Mirelle had generated a list of people I needed to find because they had direct contact with the fashion house.
My big database called The Find List was up and running and I knew why certain people were important to the story. Every single person mentioned in the research findings – yes, every one – had been added to The List, but there were people who were absolutely key.
By January I was ready to ‘go live.’ Those names shuffled to the top were ones I urgently needed to trace, but, I asked myself, how to find them from so long ago and where on earth do I start?
The Mirelle research started right at the very beginning – way, way prior to 1950 so many of the people at the top of The List weren’t still alive.
In 2015 I pondered what to do.
Does that mean I have to leave those people there or is there another way?
How do you go about finding people who are no longer alive and even if I do, can I trace them with only a maiden, family or married name?
What happens if I do find them and then they don’t want to know….Hm!
All these thoughts were scribbled down in my research diary until one day I decided that the internal struggle was there because it didn’t seem right to leave their experiences to one side even if they had passed on.
Finding out why The House of Mirelle was special
I felt something special about Mirelle – the same feeling that’s driven me on since I first discovered it in 2014.
Someone said of shopping there:
“Oh, it was an experience, a real experience, I can tell you.”
The flutter rising and falling in her voice confirmed what I already knew.
“If that’s true,” I thought, “then those no longer alive would have talked about it with their family and friends as well.”
Following this hunch, in December 2015 I decided to trace the family members of those on the top of The List whether I thought they were alive or not.
“I’m in this with both feet,” I said at the Royal Station Hotel in September. “I’ll follow the story through to the end, wherever it takes me.”
Tracing and finding key people
Through more research skullduggery in early 2016 letters started to go out introducing myself. They were sent across the UK to the last known addresses of people or their sons and daughters.
I had no idea how reliable those addresses were, or how reliable my intuition was that people would want to reply either.
One of the first letters was sent back from Gloucester with ‘return to sender, not known’ scrawled across the front in red pen. Yes, it was disheartening but it was at the same time useful to cross that line of inquiry off The List.
“You never know,” I thought, “they might be found later on…”
Little did I know the oft quoted research adage ‘keep your mind open’ would be so true this year.
People’s stories make the history of Hull
The nerves dissipated, replaced by cautious optimism when the first response to one of my letters came back having found the right person.
They said, ‘yes, that’s me, those are my parents’ and from that a whole other story unfolded.
It was one about a family lineage that can be traced back to the 19th century and the prominence of Jewish culture and retail throughout Hull’s history including the present day.
I’d contacted that person because I wanted to ask if they had a photo of an outfit that had been designed and made at The House of Mirelle. They did and I was then even more delighted when they gave it to me to use.
When it arrived earlier this year I saw what I’d originally wanted to see – a real life photograph to illustrate the written description of an outfit.
At the end of this year though I hold that photo in my hands and see what it really represents; a story far wider than the House of Mirelle, the story of Hull itself.
Other people have come forward too in many different ways and have generated many, many different conversations. Their voices follow me as I carry out my research.
Snippets and clips float back at different times, making links between what I’ve researched and what happened for people living the experience directly.
Since early this year finding people has extended from letter-writing to social media, phone calls, emails and texts also.
At the end of this year I feel the warmth of those surrounding me and the amount of Christmas cards on my window sill that have an “HU” postcode is testimony to how welcoming and open everyone has been.
This year has been a huge milestone in bringing the people into the story. It’s been wonderful.
There are still more surprises to come
Last week I spoke to a woman for the first time. At beginning of the year she was at the top of The Find List but was completely untraceable.
It took all year and another coincidence to find her and only happened because someone unconnected recognised her from something I’d shared from my research sources.
Talking to her brings a ‘name’ that reaches back all the way to the 1930s. As a nice aside it reconnected these two people after a long time too.
For me the standout part of 2016 has been incorporating people into the research.
It has been and still is absolutely extraordinary to hear people’s stories, receive their mementos and get to know them and through that, bring the House of Mirelle alive.
The British Library
Depending on how you think about research, spending time delving into the records of the past is either a practical necessity or a dream come true.
This is why loving your subject is essential; there will be things to do that are mundane and to others seem utterly boring but to you it’s all on the path to the book you’ll publish in the end.
This year I’ve got to know The British Library very well indeed. It was in February that I first took myself and a ruler, some pencils, a flask of tea and a big notebook up to Kings Cross reading rooms to ‘tackle 1951.’
I have to fill the gap between sources that I already have and the sources that are only available at The BL, as I affectionately call it.
Starting at the beginning of 1951 I’ve steadily worked through each year there and at the time of writing I am slap bang in the 1960s.
That’s at least 12 of the most wonderful days spent in the reading rooms. When I walk away I have a spring in my step that comes from the ‘wow’ of finding more.
While I’m at The BL I read and take notes of anything that may link in with fashion, Hull or The House of Mirelle and I do it one year at a time all and in one go.
Going there is a treat. It’s an extraordinary building which has free exhibitions, a hustle and bustle of interested visitors and a quiet presence that is matched by the thrill of turning original items over page by page. I literally hold history in my hands.
My research trips there have generated a massive database of background information, articles and notes about what researchers call ‘context.’
So if you want to know what Hullensians were wearing in 1956 or 1960 – I’m your girl!
Coincidences and serendipity
One aspect to 2016 makes me smile. There have been so many coincidences on this journey that they’ve developed into signposts along the way.
Researching and writing about Mirelle is a big project with edges that keep changing and when I’ve put it to one side for a while, a new coincidence calls me back in.
What do I mean?
There was the time I was watching a documentary that had a boat in it called ‘Mira,’ when Betty Bartlett’s daughter Anne contacted me this year, the house I stayed in in Hull and the two people who last saw each other in 1978 – one of whom I couldn’t find – bumping into each other in Hull just as I said: “I don’t think I’ll be able to find them.”
These coincidences have got an energy of their own. They can be personal or about Mirelle but the most recent is quite extraordinary.
For a while as a child I lived in a small village in Lincolnshire. In the 40 years since my family moved away we’ve had no contact with it at all. Near where I currently live I have a friend who comes from Hull and a relation has written a screenplay about The Triple Trawler Tragedy and it was sent to me to read.
I loved it. However it wasn’t that coincidence that stunned me – her relation lives in the same small village where I lived in Lincs.
There’s these, and there are many, many more……
2 Mirelle dresses: Sewing, sales, modelling and buying from the 1950s – 1970s
During 2016 I became the proud owner of 2 House of Mirelle dresses. They come from different eras; 1950s and 1970s.
Each speak to the talents of the buyers who sourced the designs of the day, they really knew their clients and were fashion buying experts.
They also show the talents of the workroom girls who were employed for their sewing and tailoring skills, sales staff who matched the perfect outfits with customers and the models and mannequins who displayed them in the fabulous fashion shows.
One dress is constructed in ways that shows couture sewing skills from the 1950s at their very best.
The other shows how the shop and workroom developed into the 1970s but that the sewing skills used in additions and alterations remained of the high quality expected of the earlier era.
As a dressmaker myself, holding two clothing items in my hands ( with cotton gloves on of course ) that might have been touched by the staff I’ve interviewed about Mirelle is tremendously exciting.
Both gowns are stunning. Fashion historians will view them in one way, visitors to an exhibition about The House of Mirelle another. Which leads me onto….
The House of Mirelle exhibition
2016 has seen the Mirelle archives grow and grow so that it contains photographs, interviews, clippings and programmes donated to me from throughout Mirelle’s history.
This is growing all the time and is so wide ranging and full it has become the Primary Historical Resource for Mirelle.
I have been offered exhibition space at Hull History Centre in November 2017 and the proposal includes a fashion show. One ex-model has even offered her services to the show saying she’ll ‘do her thing’ just like she used to. Marvellous!
It’s wonderful that the people I’ve got to know are so enthusiastic about this idea. Mirelle ran fashion shows throughout its 40 years of opening and they were occasions that people flocked to from miles around.
We may not be able to use the City Hall, Locarno Nightclub or The New York Hotel as Mirelle did in the time but we can make it just as good – a modern version in our time.
House of Mirelle wedding dress
In the midst of the post-Brexit melee, Jo Moore placed an advert in her local newspaper in Perth, Australia.
She wanted to know if anyone could tell her who originally owned the Mirelle dress she’d bought from a Perth charity shop.
I decided I’d help by writing a blog post about it and retweeting it too.
The very next morning, after a flurry of interest, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Humberside and within 24 hours the Hull Daily Mail interviewed Jo all the way from their offices in Hull too.
They followed that up by interviewing me next, admittedly from a shorter distance.
We had help left right and center and social media stepped up and made it a worldwide search.
All the way around the UK and Australia people shared and shared the information, inspired by the idea that the bride would see her wedding dress again.
In a couple of weeks it had been shared over 13,000 times which left me and Jo breathless.
On the 18th September I clambered onto a train at Kings Cross with one large and heavy suitcase, a backpack filled with research materials in display folders, my voice recorder and laptop and headed to Hull.
The coincidences continued….
It was while I was there that I read a block of finely printed text about a family wedding and Mirelle.
A seemingly innocent portion sprang out at me – the address the bride lived in. It was in Pearson Park and, as my eyes boggled, I saw it was exactly the same house I was staying in. At that very moment I was glad I was sitting down.
The time I was in Hull was extraordinary. When you come from a place familiarity means you forget what it’s like for someone seeing it for the first time.
It wasn’t the case though. Everyone had a love of explaining the history of Hull and a real connection with the past.
I did so many things that were unforgettable, You only have a first experience once but I felt it would be every bit as unforgettable even if it was the 3rd or 10th time.
The Hull History Centre was important for answering the questions that can only be answered in Hull and exploring the City on my own was also.
Being taken on trips to The Humber Bridge and a tour of the City centre was as well and the big get together of all the people involved with Mirelle at The Station Hotel too.
I can’t wrap my mind around calling it The Mercure, it’ll always be The Station Hotel to me.
What a lovely afternoon that was. As people contact me, I find they know others. I’ve become a hub around which people ask to be reconnected with people from their past and if they give me permission I don’t mind at all, it’s a thrill of a different kind.
While I was there I was given some illustrations by a Mirelle designer from the immediate post-war period. It was an unexpected moment and brought a tear to my eye that was as hard to brush away as they were when I was then given Mirelle fashion show programmes too.
After that, the same person passed two black and white photos over the table between us.
In them was a woman she didn’t recognise but she thought it was way back in the 1940s. I knew who it was in an instant. I’d met her for the first time only 3 days before.
Now an 88 year old she worked at Mirelle from the close of war in 1945. Listening to her talking was one of the most meaningful conversations I’ve ever had. The air was filled with sewing skills, the influence of rationing, getting ready for fashion shows and making up for clients.
She didn’t see what she’d experienced as that important or why I’d want to ask, but to me as a fashion historian and a dressmaker, the time she spent with me was magic.
The artistry and skills of the Mirelle women are wide ranging and these things particularly connect the present with the past.
Through them we can see the links between fashion and creativity then and now and see the extraordinary collection of talents that centered on Hull’s House of Mirelle.
But I think this photo sums up the most meaningful moment of 2016
I started the first Mirelle notebook in 2014 with one name.
This year a woman got in touch with me, her name is Anne. We talked and she shared that her mother worked at Mirelle as a dressmaker.
We talked some more and while she did her name rang a bell.
Faint and distant it took looking back through 2 years worth of notebooks, my diaries, my databases and resources to find out why.
In a small book from 2014 I discovered a name. It was scrawled there in a rush long before I had explored what Mirelle was, before I’d even decided I was interested enough to go any further.
It was a sentence that meant only that I’d noted something down.
It said: “Betty Bartlett, dressmaker.” She was a fire warden at Mirelle during the war.
When I told Anne that her mother was the reason I’d started on the path 2016 has found me in, we both fell silent. She didn’t know it was there, she had been completely unaware of it up until that point.
We decided that we’d go to The History Centre for very the first time and view Betty’s Fire Warden card together.
You can’t take photos at the History Centre or use them without their permission because of copyright, but the assistants working at the desk took this photo of us holding the Fire Warden Card gladly – it can’t be seen clearly but they could see how much it meant to Anne.
We examined it inside and out though as I was aware that this was a very personal moment.
I’m not researching my history, I’m writing and researching the history of others. Sitting there holding the Fire Warden Card with Anne summed up 2014, 2015 and this year also.
It speaks to the journey I’ve found myself on and how meaningful it is to me and others.
Looking at it heralded something else important…
From January 1st 2017 as the fireworks explode in the sky above Hull I am ready to start writing….
I was only 6 when an American couple moved next door. Mr and Mrs Mac were as easy as their Southern drawl and their generosity and warmth were also.
I called him The Man With The Invisible Stetson. She, though, was slight and small.
They drew us in quick until one night dressed in fawns and beige, they took us to dinner at The Belvedere to say ‘thank you.’
I was gauche and said “YUM” but they remained calm, even when I slid between the bars in their balcony, looking into their home.
She found me of course and invited me in using a delicacy as light as her words.
I saw things inside; huge wooden cabinets inlaid with glistening walnut and dusky rose, silently closed.
Seats in gilt and leather beside curtains that brushed the floor. I held my breath as I walked around, listening to the lilt in her voice and taking in the new.
I polished a dining room table so vast I stood on a chair to reach to the middle. The soft ‘swoosh swoosh’ of the duster went in circles until the reflection from the nearby windows was sharp and deep.
“You are better than my cleaner,” she said.
Later that day she taught me how to make popcorn the American way and afterwards we walked into Mac’s room.
I stood in the doorway as she padded to a low drawer, it opened with a creak.
She asked me to “come over and look.”
Inside was tissue paper folded in layers. Slight fingers pulled one side open, then another and she paused before raising a long white glove.
Running up the side were buttons the size of my fingernails. It was of a color so pale, it could hardly be seen amongst the others.
She held it in her hands and let me touch; it was cool and soft.
She opened it up and slipped it onto her thin, long hand until she’d smoothed up to her elbow.
She held her arm out as I watched her move. The glove was pure and perfect but it looked still on her arm, like a thing with no life, no breath at all.
She told me she was a collector and pointed inside.
I stepped in. The drawer was full of 100 leather fingers all wrapped in their own white sheets.
“They are from The South,” she said, “long, long ago.”
“I’ve had some of these since I was a child.”
“My mother had them and my grandmother. They go as far back as we do, Mac and I.”
Her eyes flicked into mine, telling me something I was too young to understand.
“They are beautiful,” I said.
The silence between us was as soft, as soft as the carpet.
“You like these things, don’t you,” she said to me.
“Yes, yes I do.”
“We’ll do a deal,” she said, stepping back as she closed the drawer.
“If you polish my table every week, I’ll tell you what I know.”
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.