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
The Jubilee Church building on King Edward Street is a stalwart of Hull’s historical centre.
Surviving in the cityscape over years of rebuilding, it sits in a single row of Victorian and Edwardian buildings on King Edward Street.
That bit between Waltham, Story St and Albion St miraculously survived the city center bombing of The Hull Blitz, just!
Yesterday I was lucky enough to have a tour of the building.
Having read so much about its history, it was a treat to walk in through the double fronted wooden doors and wander around from top to bottom.
We went through double swing doors into the main church and admired the original wood cladding and the long and light crittle windows – still opened and closed by a hand held winch of old.
The doors have porthole windows with beveled edges on the thick glass.
Although painted white with many layers of emulsion, downstairs a doorway left in the original dark wood conjours up images of the 1930s when people dressed up in hats, coats and gloves to go to church on a Sunday.
That the building is there is nothing short of a miracle. Not even the Hull Royal Infirmary (HRI) on the opposite side of King Edward Street escaped the bombing.
On 7th May 1941 when it was hit, by luck and planning ( wings had already been evacuated ) no-one was killed.
The Waltham Street Chapel, closed for worship in 1936 didn’t escape entirely. It lost the back section in the Blitz but the front remained.
Afterwards its space was in demand and it leased out the space on the ground and first floor.
When Albion Street was hit, the library moved into the first floor. It remained there until it moved into the Church Institute in 1958.
Many people recall the Nat West Bank occupying the ground floor. They also leased it from the Central Methodist Church.
The slate and black marble fascia of that time was clad with permission from them after the new Methodist church was opened in 1960.
A new sign went up on the front in 1998 and of course nowadays it is The Jubilee Church.
They use the rooms in the building for worship, groups or 1-1 meetings. They host crafting and cooking sessions also and the smell of cooking as we walked around was delicious.
At the last minute we were offered the chance to see Nat West’s old safe in the basement.
The door was open and we could look inside to where the money was kept in the old days.
The words “Chubb” were plainly seen over the door frame and the bars and wheel handle that would have opened and closed it every night were too.
I had a go at pushing the door but it was not going anywhere. It remains half open, half closed with the shelves inside stacked with trays and cans.
The basement room is a food bank – which we thought was completely appropriate – and made us smile a lot. 🙂
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.
“Because Mira Johnson and House Of Mirelle were in Hull,” I reply. “Also because, well, when I started to look at both those things in light of Hull’s history overall, it became clear that their story is Hull’s too.”
“Everyone knew everyone, Carrie, everything is connected,” said a lady one day.
“I see that,” I answered, “the shops and the streets and the houses and the people in them – they are all part of each other.”
“It’s still the same way today,” they replied, firmly. “We all know someone who knows someone.”
“That’s what makes this so fascinating to research,”I said. “It’s not for everyone I know. It’s a lot of painstaking, slow, fine attention to detail but what comes from it – um – I’m seeing what you mean about everyone knowing everyone, yes, but also that everything really does connect with everything from way back when right through to now.”
“I don’t know if you know, Carrie, but Hull was bombed more than London in The Blitz.” He said it bravely and fearfully, both at once.
“I did. It must have been absolutely awful. How anyone survived is beyond me.”
“There have been a lot of changes you know,” someone else said, pensively. “Sometimes I lay awake at night and think about how great it was to go to all those shops in the old days, I’m sure many people do.”
“It reminds me of that song, beneath my feet begins to crumble, but my love..”
“Never dies!” they said, finishing the 1960s lyrics for me.
“Oh it was a golden age, it really was,” said someone new. “We went dancing all the time but I always kept Saturday nights free for the New York Ballroom because I might meet someone there.”
Book Review: Fashion On The Ration – Julie Summers
On the back sleeve of Fashion On The Ration, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes says: ‘I would not have thought a book could make me nostalgic for rationing, but Julie Summers has managed it. A marvellous read.’
From the perspective of the now, when vintage fashion is so popular and generations have been born with no direct experience of the war, it is easy to look at the fashion of this era with rose tinted spectacles.
This was a time of men in going to war, women in being called up or working in the jobs men left behind and children being evacuated.
All this happened alongside the clear and present danger of Nazi Germany finalising their advance through Europe and capturing Great Britain also.
For those not in the know, fashion rationing was a means by which central government controlled every aspect of clothes design, production, manufacture and purchase during the war years.
It was also a time of great invention. Rationing was balanced by the other central initiative – Austerity or the CC41 scheme.
Via Austerity the war years raised standards of clothes production, included famous couturiers in design and controlled prices of clothing. This ensured that quality clothes were available for all.
Summers has tackled what is an enormous subject with enough of a light touch to make it a genuinely pleasurable read – a page turner in fact.
This is an incredible achievement as the story does include its context; it was time of world conflict, danger, loss of life and huge change in the British economic, personal and cultural landscape.
That context is told in linear way throughout each of the chapters in the book. It explains how war was ongoing for many years and fashion was affected also – it wasn’t a one-off thing.
It very successfully avoids the style of stout academic texts; clothes rationing and Austerity were big ideas executed with an attention to detail from the British government that boggles the mind of even the most fervent fashion historian.
Once you delve into the detail of Limitation of Supply Orders (LIMOSO’s), for instance, you are faced with a complex wall of bureaucracy that launched a thousand letters in newspapers, confusion in shoppers minds and real personal hardship.
I was hoping that aspect to the story of clothes rationing would be tackled in a way that was interesting to read and I wasn’t disappointed.
That information is there but woven into the overall story as to make the pace quick and the depth of information delivered even quicker.
The pleasure of reading this book belies how detailed and well researched Fashion On The Ration is.
Summers has included the information that academics will need; explaining the dates that clothes rationing ceased, quoting from Mass Observation accounts and giving the fashion export figures for the war years also, but she’s written it in a way that non-academics will find enjoyable.
Quotes from the people experiencing fashion during rationing speak to the acceptance, gripes and frustration in making do and mend or not having enough rationing coupons to buy essential clothing and footwear.
Descriptions of how uniform changed fashion and designers solved problems with Austerity regulations also speaks to the creative limitations of the time.
Towards the end of the book the end of rationing and resurgance of Paris as the fashion capital of the world is told in a way that emphasises the before-and-after impact of the war and explains its lasting change.
After WW2, the US fashion scene asserted itself on the international stage and this is not forgotten – it points the reader forwards to the changes in the fashion scene that took place during the 1950s and beyond.
If you missed this exhibition, you won’t feel left out in reading the book. The illustrations and photographs are limited within it but you can do your own research and find examples readily.
Summers has very successfully balanced why fashion rationing was an extraordinary and unique period in British fashion history with the historical fact also.
Putting down the book I felt I’d lived through some of those years alongside the people quoted and reflected on why it resonates in our thinking even now.
Summers does not tackle that question explicitly but the book in its entirety explains why its reach and influence on fashion has lasted for years to come.
The jiffy envelope from the second hand book seller arrived in time for Christmas.
When I reached in to pull out the book I discovered that it wasn’t the size I’d expected – it was much smaller and lighter in my hands.
I ran my fingers over the textured leather cover feeling the dips of the gold picture and the white lettering before I opened it up and saw the face of Kay Pearson looking back at me. She was pictured at a piano surrounded by friends.
I am lucky to own a copy of Life In Hull From Then Till Now, it is a book long out of print.
It was published in 1978 after a story about Kay Pearson’s life was featured in the Hull Daily Mail’s Jane Humber section.
The publisher, Bradley Publications and Co, was as tickled by her story as the ivories that Kay played from childhood.
I’m also lucky to have this book because Kay’s story spans over 70 years of history in Hull from the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century until the 1970s.
Her story is told without artifice, flourish or it seems, that much conscious editing and it’s good for it. It’s retained a feel of someone sitting down at an old-fashioned typewriter to recount their life from start to the point when it was written.
At one point at the outbreak of the Boer War, the typeface even changes, as if the moment was a rift in time that could never be breached.
Kay’s voice speaks clearly from the pages. It reads as if she is talking out loud to an audience that she obviously enjoys.
Her life story is extraordinary. This is a spoiler free blog except to say that it’s the details of her life as a women that makes this book so fascinating.
It is at times a brutal account of female life: cleaning The Article, evidently an essential part of post-birth kit in the early part of the century, turned her 14 year old stomach and ours as reader also.
Her story has many up’s, down’s, dips and turns and at the same time charts the social history of women and the changes that the 20th century brought too.
Her stories of clothing make for fascinating reading.
By the time she’s in receipt of a widow’s pension in the 1950s she notes that one criteria of the pension is: “I must dress decently.”
This was given to her after the state stepped in and democratised fashion throughout the war years through the CC41 scheme, something that historians talk about benefiting the working classes of Britain more than those with money.
Throughout, Kay describes shopping, clothes, fabric and fashion in a way that reminds me that fashion as we know it these days has such a connotation to consumerism, extravagance and luxury.
There is an accompanying recognition of how, in comparison with ‘then,’ the ‘now’ is easy.
True poverty was part of Kay’s life.
At the turn of the century, her mother made a hearthrug from old bits of coats and trousers. Sometimes she’d “buy a soldiers old red uniform from the ragman that she’d cut into 2 inch strips and it made a splendid splash of colour on the ‘clipped mat’ as it was called.”
But she was an opportunist. She earned pennies on Sunday afternoons in the early 1900’s running errands because “men and woman enjoyed parading the whole length of Queen Street down to the pier and dress was not complete without a rose, gardenia or carnation to wear.”
Luckily her sisters were good needlewomen and helped her mother make a “new dress …in a delicate pink or grey,” so that she could wear it with rag dolled hair in a childhood performance.
She was still using this dress as a costume in 1978, it survived so well over the years.
To us these days, we’d think that it was a rare skill but Kay said that she wasn’t a skilled seamstress – despite this she handmade the outfits for her two daughter’s wedding days in 1941 and 1942.
It took her 16 weeks to prepare for the 1941 wedding: “there was materials to decide upon and purchase for the bride and bridesmaids. My daughter’s choice of wedding ensemble was plain, but choice, taking me exactly 10 weeks to complete.”
She adds detail that describes how precious this was in the horrors of the Hull Blitz:” I dread to think how many occasions I had to dismantle the gown from the hangers and store in numerous travel cases for safety, as air raids occurred.”
In 1942 her second daughter got married quickly, as was the trend at the time. Kay again made a wedding outfit from scratch after her daughter and her decided on “materials, styles and colours”.
By 1949, towards the end of rationing she looked back and recorded her thoughts: “All gowns, including my own, were complete for the great day, were really something, so much that I marvelled at my capabilities of dressmaking and a four tiered wedding cake into the bargain!”
We are left with this description to imagine the clothes she made.
And what of her own wardrobe?
“From the time I reached 15 years, I had saved up enough money to purchase mustard serge to have a costume made.** I purchased this from a shop called Sultans in Great Passage Street, the cost 3 shillings and 6d.
“A girl, apprentice to the trade, who did odd jobs of work on the side, made up the material at a charge of 5- and very nicely too – I felt a proper “swank” in it.”
And of her own wedding in 1915?
“Finances in our household were down to zero..to obtain a bridal gown was out of the question, however, material was purchased at a store Willis and Co, on the corner of Waterhouse and Carr Lane.
“Five yards of pale blue ninon*** at a sale, price 9 3/4 per yard. It cost 4 – 8 1/2 d.
“My eldest sister concocted a dress and jacket for me, and the left over pieces were made into two small head bonnets for the bridesmaids who were arrayed in white.
“My ensemble was made up of a straw hat trimmed with forget-me-nots, and a pair of my younger sisters shoes, I carried a bunch of flowers.”
Kay doesn’t include any photos of these family occasions, choosing instead to show pictures of Hull which are often faded and hard to make out on the page.
They are interspersed with snippets of programmes from performances she took part in or produced, and photos of herself performing in her later years also.
But one photo of her youngest daughter Betty, exists. It is the final photo in the book. Standing in her back garden, she is dancing for her mother as she took the photo.
She is smiling and holding the skirt of her dancing outfit which has the signs of being hand made also.
I’d ordered Life In Hull From Then Till Now, because I’m interested in Hull’s social history through oral history telling. That’s a phrase that means collecting and studying history through listening to people talking about the past.
Kay started to write aged 81 and that’s exactly what oral history is all about – talking about it and writing it all down. It’s part of the method I’m using in researching the House of Mirelle also.
As Kay said: “people always feature in any walk of life, some times fictitious, however every word you are about to read is fact and has needed no research.”
She was absolutely right.
Kay Pearson was a musician, mother and without realising it, a pure social historian of Hull.
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.
Monica Piekielniak is a fashionista with nous. She knows some of the best finds are tucked away on the rails in charity shops. Little did she guess that her latest discovery – a grey / taupe box jacket – would take her search for the label far away from Poland all the way to the UK:
“I bought a jacket in the thriftshop in Poland with the tag of this company. Everytime when I find any interesting things I’m checking its value, company where it comes from, price in the online shop etc,” she said.
“When I saw that in the net ain’t much informations about Elka Couture I became more interested because I realised it isn’t much known company as H&M or New Look etc and when I saw that it was working only in 1960s I was totally shocked.”
“It’s unbelievable that a jacket from 60’s in UK moves to 2015 in Poland!” she added.
Since she’s found out more about the Elka Couture brand she doesn’t wear the jacket, keeping it as an “interesting item” in her wardrobe.
How the jacket ended up in Poland will always remain a mystery. If any Polish readers know who owned the jacket, post a comment here to let us know!
Most Elka Couture items are not as well travelled as Monica’s and are found closer to home. Ray Gumbley, photographer, works for the charity Age UK:
“Yesterday I was out looking for a black vintage dress for a model to wear in some photographs I’m doing. I was looking up the name of the label when I came across your site. Its a long black dress with sequins around the chest inside the label reads ELKA Couture.”
When asked what he was planning on doing with his new couture purchase he said:
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the dress yet. I will probably try and auction it or put it in one of our charity shops (I work for Age UK Derby and Derbyshire) to raise some funds for Age UK or do what I normally do and hoard it and keeping swopping it for another dress lol.”
We’d love to know what your decision was, Ray and if you have some photos from portraits you took, go ahead post the link to them here.
Jacqui Taylor is the proud owner of an electric blue textured synthetic dress suit made by Elka Couture. It was designed in a twin-set style that was very fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s.
“No, there are no washing instructions on the dress or coat,” she added.
How can you date this gorgeous outfit?
A law was passed in Britain in 1986 to insert fabric care labels – or laundry symbols – into all garments made in the UK. Between 1963 and 1986 the typical washing machine and temperature symbols that are so familiar to us today were sewn less frequently into garments and were not included at all before the 1960s.
Jaqui’s outfit had no such labelling. That, the synthetic textured fabric and the style helps to date it to the 60s or 70s. What a beautiful eye catching outfit with over 40 years of history behind it.
Monika all the way from Poland, asks the 6 million dollar question – or should that be Euros 😉
“I’m interested if Elka Couture was much known company in UK? Was they selling haute couture clothes …as its name suggests or it was something like the whole network of shops, or the only one in Hull?
“I also found the site of Hull Museum when I saw that they also collect Elka Couture clothes, then why they are so important?”
Well, Monika. I’ll try to give you an answer:
Elka Couture was a label that was based in London in the UK. It produced fashions mainly between the 1960s and the 1970s. Its designs were always eye catching and used 60s or 70s synthetic fabrics that were sometimes bold, sometimes glamorous and always unique.
Your jacket is unusual because it is made of natural fabric – cotton.
Elka Couture designs reach across the years since to attract people like you when you find them in the rails of charity shops, in auction houses or in vintage markets.
A maxi dress with the Elka Couture label was donated to Hull Museum because the label was sold at the House Of Mirelle – and that’s where your search started.
Follow me here as I blog more about Elka Couture, Hull vintage fashion and the House Of Mirelle.
If you have an Elka Couture item take good care of it, it’s a part of British fashion history..
With the plaintive wail of air raid sirens in the air, half of the British workforce in uniform and the impact of rationing, the 1940s had a stark divide between fashion during World War 2 and fashion after the war ended.
In 1939 when the war broke out, women were wearing what we’d regard today as ultra feminine outfits – wearing trousers was frowned on and not yet accepted widely – it took the war to change that view.
In 1939 skirts were worn at knee length and dresses with fitted bodices and pretty sleeves were all the rage. Fabric was in abundance and the influence of the new synthetics like rayon and rayon silk was everywhere.
Every woman accessorised with a hat and gloves. Shoes were mid height with fancy patterns and colours, designed to be as attractive as the rest of her clothes. Young women dressed in pared down versions of clothes from their mother’s generation.
Women strove to wear outfits, not items. Women of a certain class had to factor in dressing for different occasions also. These women changed into different clothes for dinner, if they were having afternoon tea with friends or if they were going out to a restaurant, for instance.
The wealthy fashion conscious British woman did this because it was right, it was proper and it was expected.
In London the Savoy restaurant had a dress code for evening; women’s gowns had to be floor-length to gain entry. Despite the restrictions of the war, the elite found that Britain continued dressing to this expectation, keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of wartime austerity.
It was the good manners and social rules prior to the war that created a fashion industry revolving around the famous British social norms of what should be worn and when.
These were the social rules that gave The House Of Mirelle a wealthy clientele in Hull who could commission and afford the clothing that the fashion House created.
Pre-war: how women bought clothes
The average women bought mass produced clothes from catalogues, local stores or made them at home. Paper patterns were widely available, as were sewing machines that often permanently sat in the corners of living rooms draped with items in various stages of creation.
Sewing skills amongst women was considered as important as knowing how to cook and were used regularly.
It was usual for those with very little money to rework clothing, patching and mending. Hand-me-down’s were passed from person to person to get the most wear from them.
Only the wealthy could afford to have their clothes made for them by dressmakers, tailors or seamstresses.
The very wealthy like the British royal family, upper classes or those on the debutante circuit could afford clothes designed and made by couturiers – a French term loosely meaning “sewers.”
Couture meant exceptional service. It was hands-on, expensive and labour intensive. It meant that clothes were designed, cut and made to fit your specific measurements by expert craftspeople. Expense wasn’t spared and outfits cost a lot of money.
At the outbreak of war, buying couture was a concern for the upper classes, one that the average person might know something about but not have direct contact with.
Clothing had been rationed in World War 1 and it was a terribly unpopular move. When Winston Churchill became British PM, he didn’t want to do the same again.
The influence of Parisian fashion and couture
Up to the war, Paris ruled the western world’s fashion industry. It was considered the most innovative and cutting edge in terms of technique and design. Paris set the styles and shapes and the world always followed.
Then war broke out in Europe. Within a year Paris, the center of fashion and couture, fell to the Nazi’s. The industry and its influence on fashion temporarily eradicated as a result.
It fast became apparent to the manufacturers of clothing and the government that there were problems with sourcing materials and selling clothing as they had done pre-war.
Although Great Britain was an island nation and to a limited extent was self sufficient in terms of materials and manufacture, the fall of Europe created problems with the scope of design, supply and manufacture of clothing.
At the start of war, UK textile and clothing manufacturing was a healthy industry with many factories operating across the country – particularly in the North. Clothes factories and British couturiers like Hardy Amies often used locally sourced and woven fabrics such as British wool and cotton. However there was also a necessary market for imported cloth or textiles from outside the UK.
Long established trade routes no longer existed due to the Nazi blockade of Europe, silks were unavailable due to the same destruction of trade routes with China and Japan.
Shortage of materials, problems on the horizon
The government saw problems on the horizon.
Problem 1 – you can’t make clothing without textiles.
Problem 2 – those very same factories and the personnel in them were needed for the war effort.
Very soon after the war began the import textile market was suffering from the global crisis. The influence of Paris had also crumbled and the lack of spare cash in the pockets of the everyday person meant the fashion economy was heading for a crash.
In 1939, writing for Mass Observation in the first months after war was announced, Pam Ashford from Glasgow said:” Miss Bousie bought a battery in a tailor’s shop. It is the only thing they are doing. No one wants clothes.” The rich were still able to afford their clothing, but the poor could not.
Something had to be done.
Clothes rationing came into being in June 1941 by an act of parliament called the Limitation of Cloth Supplies and Apparel Order. It wasn’t the only commodity that was controlled by the government but in our thinking, the CC41 scheme relates strongly with the fashions of the war era.
The scheme was called CC41, it started in 1941 – hence its name and design found on the Utility labels from the time. Some people think that the ‘CC’ in CC41 stands for “Controlled Commodity,” however this isn’t accurate and it has come about my misreporting of the time.
The idea behind CC41 was to control the fabrics, the designs and the manufacturing processes used to produce clothes.
Clothing designed under CC41 rules was called ‘Utility Clothing’ by the British government.
The Utility Scheme directly influenced clothes rationing. It was a way by which designers and customers could survive the limited supply of materials and protect what was needed for production in the war effort.
There was another element to the Utility scheme, however. Churchill expressed a view that he specifically wanted to avoid the British public being dressed in: “rags and tatters.“ He saw it as patriotic to remain as well turned out as possible with clothing enhancing the morale of women and men during war.
The two cheeses
The CC41 logo designed by Reginald Shipp is affectionately known as The Two Cheeses. When it was introduced, clothing ration books hadn’t been printed and people used spare margarine coupons to buy their clothes instead.
By freeing up fabrics and materials and the factories that made them, it focused more resources on the war effort and kept fashion standards for everyone in Britain too. Historians argue that Utility clothing changed fashion, democratising quality clothing for all.
The government devised a set of penalties and incentives for manufacturers to support the initiative.
Manufacturers who made 85% Utility Designs were then allowed to make the rest of their items in non-utility cloth but the 15% of these “other” designs still had to follow the same restrictions and regulations. Non Utility clothing was taxed heavily, regarded as luxury items.
Times were hard and people railed against the restrictions that rationing created. The government asked British Pathe to help inform the public about the new rules.
People watched these films in cinemas which were hugely popular – the time of having a television in the home was a speck on the future sight line of mass entertainment.
CC41 – an enduring legacy
CC41 and Utility Clothing has become iconic and legendary and its influence has been felt throughout the fashion industry. A CC41 label indicates that it is a valuable and historic item of clothing.
In 1942 regulations were tightened by the introduction of The Making Of Civilian Clothing (Restriction Orders) but relaxed at the end of the war where a new “double lines” Utility label emerged to indicate that the fabric used was of a higher quality than that found in clothes with the CC41 label or Utility designs.
The double lines label indicated that it was a more luxurious item than earlier items. Frocks could use a better quality of fabric and be designed with more flair.
The public felt that the frivolities of fashion may be heading back into the public consciousness again.
In reality, it was a long way off.
In this You Tube video, Imperial War Museum curator Laura Clouting talks about the Fashion On The Ration exhibition, 2015:
Fashion rationing didn’t end in Britain until 1949 long after the end of the war, but the legacy was felt deeply. It was in this period that the powerful idea of making quality fashions accessible to all was born and from it, women’s fashions changed permanently.
Shopping expeditions to the high street or browsing online to buy that must-have pair of shoes is far away from the couture shopping experience.
Couture, or hand-made clothing made to an individual’s requirements is every bit as glamorous as it sounds and its history is not entirely French!
Although ‘couture’ is a French word meaning ‘sewing’, the business was invented by a British fashion designer called Charles Frederick Worth.
This grand-sounding gentleman worked as an apprentice in various textile merchants in the 19th Century. While he was learning about fabrics, a skill essential for any fashion designer, he visited art galleries and studied portraits of historic women. He was consumed and inspired.
On moving to Paris in 1845 he set up a small dressmaking department in the firm Gagelin which was so successful that in 1858 he’d branched out on his own. The ‘House Of Worth’ is widely regarded as the first couture house in history.
His creations were so extraordinary that they were received with acclaim. French royalty ordered and bought them, American women flocked to Paris to view and buy and European aristocracy bought and wore House Of Worth creations.
His fashion house had a strict heirarchy of ‘hands’ or employees, a Directrice – or head salesperson who was in charge of selling the clothes – and their skills were second to none.
His garments were extremely expensive, exclusive and completely out of reach of the average woman. They were living works of art.
Realising they needed to safeguard the standards associated with the name couture, Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture established a set of guidelines. Anyone calling themselves a couture house must adhere to them. These rules were tightened up in 1945 at the close of World War 2 and are still in use today.
Parisian fashion held the world in it’s hands. By the 1900s it was simply the center of fashion worldwide.
But Britain wasn’t forgotten – it had its own couturiers too.
Based in London the work of Digby Morton, Norman Hartnell, Bianca Mosca, Hardy Amies and Edward Molyneux established British fashion in the international marketplace.
In 1941 they became the founder members of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers – or IncSoc. These designers were asked to create patterns for Utility clothing under the clothes rationing scheme in World War 2. The results of the CC41 designs have remained in the British consciousness since.
They used quintessential British tailoring skills to create a wardrobe that was simple, understated and elegant. With the Utility scheme for the first time couture creations were entirely within reach of the British public.
The House Of Worth was by no means the only or first fashion house but Charles Worth was such an extraordinary publicist that his name has been associated with the establishment of couture fashion since.
His success is also a story about how a couture fashion business relies on publicity and promotion, social connections, reputation and word of mouth recommendation.
It was as vital then as customer service and branding is now.
Mira Johnson, Directrice of The House Of Mirelle followed in his footsteps. She was the powerhouse behind Hull’s fashion house and like Worth, a consummate publicist. She harnessed the power of the press to advertise ‘her fashion house.’
Through doing so she left a legacy for us to admire in the pages of journals and newspapers of the era and everlasting awareness of the couture designs found in donations to Hull Museum made by the House Of Mirelle.
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.
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 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.
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…