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

Couture Or Trade A Pictorial Record Helen Reynolds Book Cover
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

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World War 2: The 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