Posted in 1950s Fashion, 1960s Fashion, Fashion History, History Of 20th Century Fashion, History Of 20th Century Fashion In Hull, History Of Hull, House Of Mirelle Fashion House Hull Book, Hull Fashion, Hull Retail History, Kingston Upon Hull UK, Photographs, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Wedding Dresses

Photography: Cataloging The House Of Mirelle Australian Wedding Dress

The Australian Wedding Dress has arrived safely on home soil, travelling just like the bride did between Perth and the UK!

Carrie is photographing and cataloging it and it’s made her think about who the original owner is, what else she wore on the day and the beautiful way it was designed and created.

We’re still looking for the original owner – contact us if you think you know who it might be!

© Carrie Henderson 2017

Posted in 20th Century History, History of Sewing, The History Of Dressmaking, Vintage Fashion Blog

Sewing History: Keep The Thimble In The Monopoly Board Game, Hasbro!

It’s happened. Hasbro, the owners of the property board game favourite Monopoly have decided it needs updating.

In a nod to reality TV shows they put the pieces we know and love to the vote and one was going to be ‘evicted.’

Which one would it be? the Scottish Terrier, the battleship, automobile, top hat, thimble, boot, wheelbarrow or cat….

In the game since 1935 when dressmaking skills were as widespread as cooking, yes, you’ve guessed it, this year the thimble was out.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it follows the disappearance of another dressmaking staple – the iron. It was replaced by the cat in 2013.

Readers of my blog already know that I have a connection to sewing that means I see these objects woven into the fabric of the collective history of dressmakers, fashion designers and sewists.

Commentators on this decision are pointing out that as those voting didn’t recognise the thimble it signifies the cultural decline of sewing over the last 40 years.

Aside from how strange I find it that people don’t recognise a thimble, there are other reasons why I disagree with their insight into why.

Sewing dipped between the 80s and 90s but in the new century, it’s on the up again…

Make Do and Mend, the wartime movement installed by the UK government to save essential resources  is being practiced left right and center and 5 years ago while magazine readership globally was struggling the amount of people buying the craft title Prima was up by 4.9%. 

Massive websites like Sew Daily  have over 78,000 Facebook followers and crafting groups and crafting cafes are benefiting from the upsurge in interest.

Let’s not forget The Great British Sewing Bee hitting our screens in 2013.

A lot of people are riding the curve and the engine is powered by You Tube and Social Media

I belong to an online crafting group which is truly international. There are members who live in New Zealand, Canada, the UK, Europe and America.

We are online ( sorry folks, it’s a private group ) and there we do what makers have done for generations- we share crafting projects, we post photos as we go along, we ask each other’s advice, discuss patterns, problem solve and produce our ta daa! moments too.

Bi-craftual 

We are a group of knitters, sewists and off-shoot crafters. We all have a primary skill – mine is sewing – but we cross over often.

When we try one of the other crafts we use the fun hashtag #bicraftual 🙂

It’s my online Workroom 

Sewing workrooms were historically places that women gathered together, employed to produce sewing work.

Workrooms would be attached to department stores, businesses or fashion houses like The House of Mirelle in Hull.

The Workroom girls were employed as skilled ‘hands’ i.e. they had been trained and / or apprenticed and had sewing skills necessary to carry out couture dressmaking, ‘making up’ designs or doing alterations.

In my experience of interviewing people for The House of Mirelle book, The Workroom girls had many expert sewing skills.

They may have one area that they specialised in, chiffons or heavy fabrics for instance, but could transfer across and do lots of other types of work too – they were #bicraftual, if you like.

The sewing thimble 

This is where the humble thimble comes in…

The thimble wasn’t an optional extra, something you see in your grandmother’s button tin or tucked away in family mementos, it was absolutely essential to carrying out sewing work, and it still is…

Anatomy of a sewing thimble 

I use a thimble, I can’t hand sew without it.

I put it on the middle finger of my right hand and I use it to guide and push the needles as I hand stitch things like buttons, seams or hems.

The little round dents stops the needle from slipping across the surface and aside from stopping my fingers from hardening or bleeding ( needles are sharp at both ends ) it’s part of the essential sewing kit that was passed on to me when I was taught how to sew.

All the women in traditional sewing workrooms used them too, as couturiers or members of my crafting group do also.

Sometimes the thimble had no lid, so you can see your finger tip through the end, but the use of them was as important to sewing as the iron or the treadle.

Although small, thimbles are terribly important to the culture and history of sewing

I think it’s time for protest on behalf of all sewists across the generations.

Save the Monopoly thimble, Hasbro – it’s not defunct. It’s as alive and kicking as ever and in use around the world today!

© Carrie Henderson 2017

Posted in 1940s Fashion, 1950s Fashion, 1960s Fashion, 1970s Fashion, Creative Writing About Fashion, Fashion History, Fashion Illustration, Fashion Modelling, Fashion Museums, History Of 20th Century Fashion In Hull, History Of Hull, History of Sewing, House Of Mirelle Fashion House Hull Book, Hull 2017 City Of Culture, Hull Fashion, Hull Retail History, Interviews, Kingston Upon Hull UK, Oral History, The History Of Dressmaking, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Journalism, Vintage Fashion Research

A Review of 2016: The Year The House of Mirelle Book Came Alive

Hull 2017 Booth, Paragon Station, September 2016 Hull. On Thursday 22nd September the booth opened, this was a quiet moment before the launch!
Hull 2017 Booth, Paragon Station, September 2016 Hull. On Thursday 22nd September the booth opened, this was a quiet moment before the launch!

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:

Pearson Park gates in the dusk. September 2016.
Pearson Park gates in the dusk. September 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.

Display folders of research findings that were taken to Hull.
Display folders of research findings that were taken to Hull.

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.

Whitefriargate Hull, September 2016.
Whitefriargate Hull, September 2016.

The voices give personal histories and stories of their own, they provide a completely different dimension.

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.

At the British Library or the 'BL' as I call it. An extraordinary place where you can hold history in your hands.
At the British Library or the ‘BL’ as I call it. An extraordinary place where you can hold history in your hands.

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.

Hull History Centre
Hull History Centre

This is growing all the time and is so wide ranging and full it has become the Primary Historical Resource for Mirelle.

It compliments that which is held in other places, Hull Museums and Hull History Centre, for instance.

2016 saw plans wider than the book emerging.

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.

Article about the search in Hull Daily Mail 30/7/2016. Courtesy Hull Daily Mail.
Article about the search in Hull Daily Mail 30/7/2016. Courtesy Hull Daily Mail.

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.

We had so many people getting in touch but we still haven’t found the original owner yet. 

We’d love to solve the mystery in 2017!

From Hull to Australia: who was the person who originally owned this dress?
From Hull to Australia: who was the person who originally owned this dress?

And finally – the trip to Hull in September 2016

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.

Pearson Park September 2016.
Pearson Park September 2016.familiarity means you forget how it seems to a new visitor but I didn’t have that experience with the people I met.

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.

I’ve written about my trip in this blog post and this from that 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.

The Humber Bridge, Hull.
The Humber Bridge, Hull.

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.

Myself and Anne at The History Centre on 21st September. Our first visit it was one of great meaning to her and I.
Myself and Anne at The History Centre on 21st September. Our first visit it was one of great meaning to her and I.

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….

2017 will be the year of The House of Mirelle.

Happy New Year everyone!

© Carrie Henderson 2016

Posted in 1920s Fashion, 1930s Fashion, 1940s Fashion, 1950s Fashion, 1960s Fashion, 1970s Fashion, 1980s Fashion, 1990s Fashion, Conserving Vintage Fashion, Costume In Museums, History Of 20th Century Couture, History Of 20th Century Fashion, Publications, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion Journalism

Publications: Vintage Storage – A Guide To Conserving Vintage Clothing In Your Home by Carrie Henderson

Posted in Costume In Museums, Fashion History, Fashion Museums, History Of 20th Century Fashion, Journalism and Creative Writing, Online Magazine Articles, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion Journalism

Short Story about Being Your Own Museum Curator, When Mrs Mac Invited Me Into Her Home..

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.”

© Carrie Henderson 2016

Leather gloves for a Southern Belle.
Leather gloves for a Southern Belle.
Posted in 1970s Fashion, Fashion In Films, Films, Haute Couture, History Of 20th Century Fashion, Oral History, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History

Donfeld and Costume Design: Diamonds Are Forever, Wonder Woman and China Syndrome.

Jill St John as Tiffany Case, Diamonds Are Forever, 1971.Love them or loathe them, the Bond movie franchise has presented the viewing public with a dazzling array of outfits worn by the ladies in the films. 

This week I found myself thinking about Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery’s last outing as Bond.

Released in 1971, it had a cracking theme tune – sung by Wales’ own Shirley Bassey – but for me it was the most progressive Bond because of the costume designs worn by Jill St John.

Leading lady Tiffany Case ( how could you forget such a name ) was a cobbled together pastiche of the original character in Ian Fleming’s novel.

Ian Fleming's view of women has long been called into question, but Tiffany Case was created as a modern counter to James Bond
Ian Fleming’s view of women has long been called into question, but Tiffany Case was created as a modern counter to James Bond.

Fleming had written Case to be equal to Bond; similarly motivated, similarly competent and similarly free of any morality in how she treated people to get what she wanted.

What Tiffany Case wanted was wealth, those diamonds are forever you know, and in creating her, Fleming was creating a metaphor for the consumerism he saw and disapproved of in the 1950s.

The fashion for slash waisted gowns 

My thoughts had turned to Diamonds Are Forever because of a conversation with someone about The House of Mirelle.

Moments beforehand they’d mentioned that they’d once modelled a dress that was slashed to the waist.

They added that in those days, there was no tit tape to retain your modesty although this style was very much cutting edge fashion.

We stopped for a moment to consider how to deal with such an outfit, before I added: “I imagine you wore it carefully,” to the conversation.

Tiffany Case 

But the other half of my mind had returned to that slashed waisted dress worn by Tiffany Case, the one you see above in the photo.

This is without a doubt my favorite outfit worn by any Bond star ever; it wins hands down.

It is also one I copied and made, oh, about 15 years ago for a 40th birthday party which had a Bond fancy dress theme…

DonFeld costume designer 

The original dress – not my somewhat average copy – was designed for Miss St John by the designer DonFeld.

Don Feld liked the work of couturiers and fashion designers in the mid to late 1960s.  He particularly admired the work of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Rive Gauche’ label, the ready to wear line launched in 1966.

He adopted Saint Laurent’s contemporary look in his designs for the film and gave the most modern Bond girl a highly memorable look as a result.

If you watch it again you’ll notice that Tiffany Case is played with almost dead pan functionality by St John. She doesn’t simper and she does not play dumb.

In a negligee or a space age style suit, she’s her own woman.

Yves St Laurent 

In 1968, the Yves Saint Laurent collection caused a stir because he said that a modern woman should have a wardrobe that works for her and that it should include a trouser suit and a transparent black evening dress.

That explains the presence of the slashed waisted black dress which is such a visually stunning creation in the film.

It also shows how perfect Don Feld was for designing for this most modern of Bond women.

Don Feld also designed TV's Wonder Woman costume worn by Lynda Carter.
Don Feld also designed TV’s Wonder Woman costume worn by Lynda Carter.

W-W-Wonder Woman! 

Don Feld was the darling of Hollywood. He designed the Wonder Woman costume well known to those of us who were a youngster, or parents of youngsters in the 70s.

Kapow! What an unforgettable creation.

Don Feld worked on many high profile films, winning an Oscar for the 1985 Prizzi’s Honour.

En route he designed the costumes for The China Syndrome (1979), a standout film for many reasons.

That Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his performance was one, but for me as a 16 year old it was for the costumes worn by Jane Fonda.

I absolutely loved them.

China Syndrome and Inspiration 

A few years after the film was released, I was in the midst of completing my portfolio for O Level Art.

From childhood I knew I wanted to do textiles, fashion and costume. I’d filled sketch pads with drawings of clothes and shoes since I was old enough to hold a pencil.

I couldn’t have predicted that later on I’d end up working in film, but even at that stage my mind was drawn to costume design in pulling together the sketches for my portfolio.

Working hard, I stayed up late one night to see a film screened on BBC2. It was called The China Syndrome.

Some of The China Syndrome cast, including Jane Fonda.
Some of The China Syndrome cast, including Jane Fonda.

As the opening scene played, I didn’t know what a China Syndrome was, nor did I know that the film’s release had coincided with the meltdown at 3 Mile Island. 

I was gripped by the plot – it is a compelling story – but I was also instantly gripped by the costumes worn by Jane Fonda in the film.

I grabbed my sketch pad and while she was doing her thing on screen, tried to sketch and capture the clothes she was wearing.

These were in the days before You Tube and video and so I couldn’t stop and start the action to slow it down and really look at what I was doing.

Kept throughout the years afterwards - sketched in the dark whilst watching The China Syndrome.
Kept throughout the years afterwards – sketched in the dark whilst watching The China Syndrome.

I didn’t have time to switch the light on either so when the film finished and I looked down I could see how much of a rush the result was.

But there it was, a sample sketch of Jane Fonda’s costumes and for me, the start of what was to come.

“I sometimes go quiet while I’m listening to people talking,” I said to the woman on the phone in the earlier conversation.

“It’s because I’ve got a database of information in my mind and I’m flicking through it, matching what you’ve said with something else I know.

“Sometimes people say things that hark back to what people have told me and sometimes it’s because of the research I’ve done.

“You’ve made me think about something else, actually,” I added, before we changed subject and moved on.

She certainly had. Fashion has been returning to this trend since Julianne Moore stepped onto the red carpet in 2015 wearing this tomato red Tom Ford creation.

2015 Oscars, slash waisted dress by Tom Ford.
2015 Oscars, slash waisted dress by Tom Ford.

Good design doesn’t date and style remains constant.

Don Feld’s legacy is in how his costumes inspired and were inspired by some of the most iconic looks of a generation.

© Carrie Henderson 2016

Posted in 1940s Fashion, 1950s Fashion, Costume In Museums, Fashion History, Fashion Museums, History Of 20th Century Fashion, History of Sewing, Oral History, Social History, The History Of Dressmaking, The History Of Haute Couture, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History

Fashion History: The D Day Museum, Southsea – Uniform, Clothes Rationing and Make Do and Mend

Uniform-D-Day-Museum-image-Copyright-Carrie-Henderson-2016There 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 Anderson Shelter. Dug into the gardens of many homes, protecting against The Blitz.
The Anderson Shelter. Dug into the gardens of many homes, protecting against The Blitz.

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.

Keep Calm and Drink Tea: The D Day Museum's cafe surrounded by the clothing of war.
Keep Calm and Drink Tea: The D Day Museum’s cafe surrounded by the clothing of war.

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.

Working for the war effort: woman were employed in their millions to aid the war effort.
Working for the war effort: woman were employed in their millions to aid the war effort.

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.

Parachute Silk was used to make wedding dresses and offcuts or mistakes in factories taken to make bras and knickers.
Parachute Silk was used to make wedding dresses and offcuts or mistakes in factories taken to make bras and knickers.

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.

Information plaque about the parachute wedding dress.
Information plaque about the parachute wedding dress.

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.

Knitting for the forces: women knitted for the men overseas and the gloves, balaclavas and woollies were gratefully received.
Knitting for the forces: women knitted for the men overseas and the gloves, balaclavas and woollies were gratefully received.

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.

Mrs Sew and Sew gives the rules that working class women already understood.
Mrs Sew and Sew gives the rules that working class women already understood.

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.

The beauty of war: the map showing the seascape between Britain and occupied Europe.
The beauty of war: the map showing the seascape between Britain and occupied Europe.

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.

Women's clothing was rationed and controlled. All made sacrifices for the war effort.
Women’s clothing was rationed and controlled. All made sacrifices for the war effort.

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.

D-Day-Museum-Exterior-image-Copyright-Carrie-Henderson-2016On 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.

Southsea Castle. A setting with a clear blue view to the sea.
Southsea Castle. A setting with a clear blue view to the sea.

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.

Not only about the sirens: changes to clothing made during WW2 has an influence felt even today.
Not only about the sirens: changes to clothing made during WW2 has an influence felt even today.

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.

© Carrie Henderson 2016

Posted in 1990s Fashion, Creative Writing About Fashion, Fashion History, History Of 20th Century Fashion, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Shoes

Fashion History: Today I Wore My Vintage Shoes To Honour BHS

My most recent vintage purchase-a pair of British Home Stores shoes.
My most recent vintage purchase-a pair of British Home Stores shoes.

I found them at the beginning of last week. They were set out in the tumbled shoe section at the local Oxfam.

There they were, winking at me while I walked past the window all perty, cheery and cheeky, apple red against the rain and pavement greys and cold of earlier this week.

I needed to walk by but 2 or 3 steps later my feet took me back.

They forced me. Damn my shoe addiction, I am completely at its mercy. They wanted to see the flash of colour in the shop window for themselves.

They conspired against me, the shoes and my feet.

The shoes said,”I’m the right sort of red, not too bright, not too brassy. “I’m leather,” they sang. “I’m as good as new…”

“they have low heels too,” said my feet.

My heart talked next:

“oh! the embossed leather is gorgeous. You could wear them with jeans, with trousers, with that black and red dress, you could wear them with…”

Apple red - gorgeous with summer blues and greens.
Apple red – gorgeous with summer blues and greens.

My head adjudicated, fought and lost the battle – they were even in my size.

Soon they nestled at the top of my bag and peeked out at me from the floor all through the next meeting.

When I took them home the label emerged:

BHS

Size 4

Made In Britain.

“Oh!” I said out loud. “Oh good grief. I didn’t spot that when I bought them.”

BHS shoes - just the right sort of red and embossed leather too.
BHS shoes – just the right sort of red and embossed leather too.

When I walked away with them in my bag this week none of us knew that the battle to save BHS would fail.

Since then it feels the British high street has lost more of its retail heritage, our retail heritage

I’m not the only one confused by why this has happened. It seemed to be so promising.

I was rooting for its survival, it felt as if we all were and we were pulling together as one.

Once the troubles were announced I went in to browse and was surprised by their range. I bought some towels and pillows, because they were nice, not because I felt I had to.

The staff were helpful and friendly. There was none of the sense of economic doom when Icelandic firm The Pier went into administration.

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.

If they are so nice, why didn't I find them in BHS at the time?
If they are so nice, why didn’t I find them in BHS at the time?

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.

BHS damned well deserves to survive!

© Carrie Henderson 2016

Posted in 1940s Fashion, Book Reviews, Fashion History, History Of 20th Century Fashion, Social History, The History Of Haute Couture, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History

Book Review: Fashion On The Ration – Julie Summers

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.’

There lies the nub of the issue tackled in Summers’ book which accompanies the Imperal War Museum’s exhibition ‘Fashion On The Ration.’

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.

©Carrie Henderson 2016. 

Posted in 1920s Fashion, 1930s Fashion, 1940s Fashion, 1950s Fashion, Book Reviews, Fashion History, Haute Couture, History Of 20th Century Couture, History Of 20th Century Fashion, History of Sewing, The History Of Dressmaking, The History Of Haute Couture, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History

Book Review: Couture or Trade: An Early Pictorial Record Of The London College Of Fashion by Helen Reynolds.

Great British Sewing Bee Feedback
Patrick Grant and May Martin provide feedback about a skirt as Claudia Winkleman looks on in wonder.

Since The Great British Sewing Bee hit our TV screens, evening classes, fashion degree and pattern cutting courses have been inundated with a resurgence of interest from applicants who want to learn the skills required. 

The influence of the GBSB shouldn’t be underestimated – since it’s aired sewing skills have exploded into the nation’s consciousness with a fervour last seen in the late 1940s and 1950s.

You Tube is brimming with tutorials taught by gifted amateurs and professionals alike and home sewers watch Sewing Bee with stitching fingers twitching as we follow contestants’ efforts.

These days we are used to looking at the efforts of the GBSB contestants in glorious technicolour in the hour-long slots on telly.

But how did women learn the skills for sewing in the old days, long before TV was invented?

The answer can be found in Helen Reynolds’ book Trade Or Couture, An Early Pictorial History Of The London College Of Fashion.

When Reynolds uses the word ‘early’ in the title of her book she means very early; 100 years ago until the final days of the great training colleges of London in the 1950s.

The majority of this book focuses on the 1920s and 1930s though and it isn’t only factual description – the book is beautifully illustrated with photos.

In those days London was Great Britain’s go-to-place for all things fashion. It was a vastly important industry and it was necessary to staff it with women and men who had developed the not inconsiderable skills that were required.

At the turn of 19th to 20th Century the London fashion industry was suffering from a shortage in supply of people with the correct skills. Trade and staff were being lost to Paris, the acknowledged global capital of fashion as a result.

Recognising this, 3 trade schools were established in London. Eventually these schools became subsumed into creating The London College of Fashion. Then though, girls joined at primary or secondary level and spent their time learning the essential skills for employment in the London fashion houses when they graduated.

Now you may think of industrial sewing machines, large mechanical cloth cutters or computers and clever graphics packages like you’d find in the courses taught these days, but you’d be wrong!

The clothing industry was very different in the early days described in Reynolds’ book. Everything but everything was done by hand.

Measuring, designing, drafting, stitching, embroidering, cutting and finishing – the essential skills – must be done well and by hand or not at all.

In one section she describes how a lone sewing machine exists in a classroom but that it is barely used.  Embroiderers used more machinery than tailors but the intricate, meticulous and highly expert skills we associate with Haute Couture these days were what was required.

For educators this book is a fascinating wander through the relationship between industry and education that existed at the time.

There was such an explicit correspondence between the output of skilled labour from these trade schools and the London industry that the two could not be separated.

Couture Or Trade A Pictorial Record Poulin Mannequin Show 1924
Mrs Robert Mathis or “Poulin” was a society dressmaker. She staged this mannequin parade for Barrett Street students in 1924.

Teachers were often skilled tailors with no formal teaching qualifications and as many of the large black and white photos show, from mannequin parade to classroom the schools were set up for one reason only – to staff the London fashion houses, full stop.

So what would your day in a needle trades school be like?

It depended on what age you were and what speciality or stream you were studying.

You could specialise in embroidery for instance or pattern cutting. You had dedicated classes in these subjects but you also spent time learning skills in fashion illustration which meant drawing gowns and outfits in a life drawing class. Your uniform denoted which ‘stream’ you’d chosen.

Health and safety was not neglected either. The schools knew that the industry brought risks in terms of workers’ health and so PE lessons and games were as vital a part of preparation for the workforce as the needle skills themselves.

The schools were essential for career progression as well. Once employed by the London fashion houses, many women found themselves stuck in one position and on-the-job training was not available to them or ineffectual.

As a result the schools ran evening classes to update and expand on tradespeople’s skills. This, in turn, increased female expertise in the workplace which had a knock-on effect of increasing the earning power of women also.

Throughout the book there are large black and white photos either to advertise the schools or advertise the students’ work at the time.

For non-academics or people simply interested in getting an insight into fashion history it is in poring over the photos that you’ll get enjoyment from this book.

Advanced Sewing Class Mid 1920s
Women working in the needle trades updated their skills in evening classes. Image from Couture Or Trade: An Early Pictorial Record Of The London College Of Fashion.

They show moments in the learning process frozen in time.

Most of these photos have been set up with a camera in mind. Pupils are posed with hands poised like Greek statues, modelling their finished creations.

Classrooms are quiet and static, quite unlike how they would have been in reality.

It’s as if the reader is the school inspector coming for a visit or an employer seeking out their next staff member by examining each pupil’s work.

They are a joy to examine. You can see how hand embroidered dresses fell straight to the floor in perfectly crafted folds or how gowns were drawn, drafted, cut, made and modelled with the essential plumes expected at Court.

In many ways though this book shows you that the basic skills are still the same. You still have to know how to fit a dress to make one from scratch whether you are a tailor or a home dressmaker.

You still have to know how to finish seams whether you hand baste them or use a foot on your sewing machine.

It’s the transferable skills over time that make the book more than scenes from fashion history – most dressmakers and tailors will immediately be able to put themselves into these photos as they recognise themselves in the rooms.

There is a covert message in the book however and it’s that these skills can take years to develop properly. It makes the 3 – year fashion degree courses of today seem almost a breath in comparison.

It’s a book for academics, educators and fashion lovers alike but for those of you into the 1920s and 1930s, I’d say it was essential reading.

© Carrie Henderson 2016

Posted in 1920s Fashion, 1930s Fashion, 1940s Fashion, 1950s Fashion, 1960s Fashion, 1970s Fashion, Book Reviews, History Of 20th Century Fashion, History Of 20th Century Fashion In Hull, History Of Hull, History of Sewing, Hull Fashion, Hull Retail History, Oral History, Social History, The History Of Dressmaking, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Research, Vintage Wedding Dresses

Hull History: Life In Hull From Then Till Now , A Book by Kay Pearson, Mum, Musician and Social Historian.

The jiffy envelope from the second hand book seller arrived in time for Christmas.

Inside photograph from Kay Pearson's book Life In Hull From Then Till Now.
Kay loved music throughout her life, working in music hall, theatre, dance halls and in people’s homes tickling the ivories.

When I reached in to pull out the book I discovered that it wasn’t the size I’d expected – it was much smaller and lighter in my hands.

I ran my fingers over the textured leather cover feeling the dips of the gold picture and the white lettering before I opened it up and saw the face of Kay Pearson looking back at me. She was pictured at a piano surrounded by friends.

I am lucky to own a copy of Life In Hull From Then Till Now, it is a book long out of print.

It was published in 1978  after a story about Kay Pearson’s life was featured in the Hull Daily Mail’s Jane Humber section.

The publisher, Bradley Publications and Co, was as tickled by her story as the ivories that Kay played from childhood.

I’m also lucky to have this book because Kay’s story spans over 70 years of history in Hull from the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century until the 1970s.

This was a time of enormous social change for women, people in Hull and the UK generally.

Her story is told without artifice, flourish or it seems, that much conscious editing and it’s good for it. It’s retained a feel of someone sitting down at an old-fashioned typewriter to recount their life from start to the point when it was written.

At one point at the outbreak of the Boer War, the typeface even changes, as if the moment was a rift in time that could never be breached.

Page 80 of the book Life In Hull From Then Till Now by Kay Pearson.
Page 80 of the book. At the outbreak of the Boer War, the typeface mysteriously changes.

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.”

The inside cover of Life In Hull From Then Till Now by Kay Pearson showing it was published by Bradley Publications and Co, 39 High Street, Hull in 1980.
Bradley Publications and Co, 39 Hig Street, Hull. Written in November 1978 and the second edition published in 1980.

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?

Evening Dress Circa 1900 - 1905 made of Ninon
Evening dress, ca. 1900-05. Made of “ninon” fabric (sheer, delicate material, probably silk in this dress.) This dress is far out of Kay’s reach, made instead for the affluent upper classes.

“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.”

Illustration from Life In Hull From Then Till Now by Kay Pearson.
A snapshot of time. Throughout the book, illustrations and photos of Old Hull are interspersed with Kay’s story. Some do not exist any longer since the Hull Blitz and regeneration of the City in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

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.

Page 192 and 193 of Kay Pearson's book Life In Hull From Then Till Now.
The back of the book shows a receipt from a performance at Hull’s Tivoli Theatre on 13th April 1937 and a letterhead for her troupe, The Pearson Juveniles, used throughout the 1930s.

Kay Pearson was a musician, mother and without realising it, a pure social historian of Hull.

© Carrie Henderson 2016

 

** ‘Costume’ in this context describes a skirt suit.

*** ‘Ninon’ is an artificial fabric similar to Rayon.

All images here are reproduced from the book. Although the publishers are no longer active in Hull, acknowledgement goes out to them for the copyright and to Kay Pearson also.

 

 

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 1970s Fashion, Creative Writing, Creative Writing About Fashion, Fashion History, The History Of Sewing Patterns, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion History, Vintage Fashion Research

Sewing The 70s: Vintage Sewing Patterns In The Era Of Glam and Punk

Starting the 70s. This pattern from 1970 shows the influence of the 60s in shorter skirts, turtle necks and bow-fronted shirts.
Starting the 70s. This pattern from 1970 shows the influence of the 60s in shorter skirts, turtle necks and bow-fronted shirts.

The 70s are back as a design inspiration for high fashion. Before too long shoppers will see flares, wedges and maxi skirts trickling onto the high street and we’ll be swapping skinny jeans for wide strides once again.

For home dressmakers like myself, the return of the 70s heralds a glorious nostalgia because it was in this decade that I first sat in front of a sewing machine making clothes.

In those days my tastes were influenced by fashion magazines and the girls go-to manual for fun and teen living ‘Jackie’, but my expeditions were simple because I was still young and at the start of learning the language of home sewing.

The pattern envelope says: Chuck Howard is a talented and versatile designer ..originality and elegance clearly express his philosophy. Year unknown.
The pattern envelope says: Chuck Howard is a talented and versatile designer ..originality and elegance clearly express his philosophy. 1970s but year unknown.

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.

Two sides of 1975 in fashion.
Two sides of 1975 in fashion.

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.

Kaftans were all the range in 1973. Comfort dressing at it's height.
Kaftans were all the range in 1973. Comfort dressing at it’s height.

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.

1976 - Oh So Boho!
1976 – Oh So Boho!

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.

Here come the boys! Men's fashions in 1977.
Here come the boys! Men’s fashions in 1977.

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.

Diane Von Furstenburg's famous wrap dress invented during her divorce. A staple item in a woman's wardrobe since.
Diane Von Furstenberg’s famous wrap dress invented during her divorce. A staple item in a woman’s wardrobe since.

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.

The last of the 70s. 1979 fashion before the dawn of the 80s. All change!
The last of the 70s. 1979 fashion before the dawn of the 80s. All change!

© Carrie Henderson 2015

 

 

 

Posted in Fashion History, Fashion In Films, Film Review, Films, Haute Couture, History Of 20th Century Couture, History Of 20th Century Fashion, Vintage Fashion Blog, Vintage Fashion Research

Fashion In Film: Frederic Tcheng’s ‘Dior and I’ Drops Couture Fashion Into Netflix

The film Dior and I premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and huzzah! it is now available for the everyday fashiony folk to soak up on Netflix.

“People are utterly fascinated by what would happen at this house,” says Cathy Horyn, fashion critic at the New York Times and there’s no argument from the viewer. At the end of ‘Dior and I’ we capitulate in the film’s friendly, easy style, to the gravitas of this brand.

The name Christian Dior has taken center stage since he opened his first atelier in Paris.

A year later in 1947, his ‘New Look’ indelibly altered women’s fashion. Dior is a house with so much “fashion DNA” that it instantly conjours up the exclusive world of cigarette-slim models, impeccibly glamorous magazine covers and the starbursts of endless flashbulbs on mirrored runways.

But what makes film fashionista Frederic Tcheng’s docco unusual is its timing.

In choosing to centre his documentary around the arrival of Raf Simons to the House of Dior as Creative Director – the Belgian fashion designer broke into the fashion world in only 1995 – he takes us on a journey through a radical change in the house.

Throughout the film you sense that risk but also how enervating and modernising Simons’ process and ideas are.

It’s a new appointment and it isn’t going to be easy. Upon realising he has a mere 8 weeks to generate an entire collection Simons leans back in the lift and says: “Oh Fuck! Stress.”

He is told that managing the ‘human element’ is crucial and the reason for that unfolds.

Florence is introduced to him as the Premiere for dresses and for suiting the Premiere is Monique.

These are two ladies you could pass in the street and not think ‘couture’ but they are the highest and “most important people in the whole company…because they manage very large teams and insanely large collections.”

Monique is so important that she is sent to New York with a salesperson at the drop of a hat because a client is unhappy with the fit of a garment. Simons reluctantly accedes to this fact of life in the midst of the 8 weeks he requires her to complete his collection.

Simons doesn’t sketch. His ideas are prepared visually in ‘files’ of concepts, others sketch those ideas, stylists translate them onto computers, he chooses 3 or 4 and when the decision is made, the seamstresses and cutters get to work interpreting these sketches into the 3D outfits.

The Atelier Team Choose The Design They Want To Work On.
The Atelier Team Choose The Design They Want To Work On.

When the sketches arrive Monique lays the designs on the table, the white coats gather round and as she talks through the designs, and people volunteer to make them.

Dior aficionados will know that they are wearing the same white coats that hark back to what the mild mannered man wore in the same atelier in the original days.

Making the designs into garments is a surprisingly democratic process when you consider that the sketches are just that. Sketches. Unlike paper patterns home dressmakers are familiar with, these designs do not come with instructions.

Once you compare the start of this construction process with the finished garment, your respect for the skill of the workers in the ateiliers triples.

When you watch the team bring in reinforcements to unpick cloth with thousands of tiny glistening hand sewn beads without a swear word or moaning – just a short nap in the small hours and then back to it – it will triple again.

DIORANDI_STILL33+copy
Unpicking cloth sewn with thousands of beads. Not a moan heard from any of them!

Monique and Florence are rightly revered for their talent.

Simons knows about Dior, of course but he finds the future more romantic than the past.

As an hommage to the great man, his first collection is inspired by Dior’s designs, particularly the silhouette of the New Look collection and his exquisite textiles.

Fashion lovers will enjoy these segments – they are delicious glimpses into the past. Gloved hands gently touch the archived textiles and clothing designs. They are kept rolled up in a way that makes you wonder if they understand how priceless they are to us as viewers but the gentle way they handle them tells all.

“Juxtaposing something of that time with something of this time, is very dynamic,” says Simons.

And Tcheng uses this historical reference too. He includes clips from a documentary made with Dior before his death in 1957. A whimsical and entirely French retrospective it weaves through the film drawing the viewer in like a fairy tale, grounding us in a sense of the past.

‘Dior and I’ reminds us of how the glossy spreads of haute couture we flick through is the end result of intricate, expert craftsmanship, design work and, let’s not forget, the clarity that comes with razor sharp business sense.

Tcheng illuminates the rarified, closeted world to show us again why it has so much fascination – because of the secrets it holds and the talents it represents.

© 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.

CC41

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.

North_Sea_map-en

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 Courtesyhullandeastridingatwar.co.uk
Albion Street Air Raid Shelter. Image courtsey hullandeastridingatwar.co.uk.

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