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 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