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…”
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:
Made In Britain.
“Oh!” I said out loud. “Oh good grief. I didn’t spot that when I bought them.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
© Carrie Henderson 2015
Monica Piekielniak is a fashionista with nous. She knows some of the best finds are tucked away on the rails in charity shops. Little did she guess that her latest discovery – a grey / taupe box jacket – would take her search for the label far away from Poland all the way to the UK:
“I bought a jacket in the thriftshop in Poland with the tag of this company. Everytime when I find any interesting things I’m checking its value, company where it comes from, price in the online shop etc,” she said.
“When I saw that in the net ain’t much informations about Elka Couture I became more interested because I realised it isn’t much known company as H&M or New Look etc and when I saw that it was working only in 1960s I was totally shocked.”
“It’s unbelievable that a jacket from 60’s in UK moves to 2015 in Poland!” she added.
Since she’s found out more about the Elka Couture brand she doesn’t wear the jacket, keeping it as an “interesting item” in her wardrobe.
How the jacket ended up in Poland will always remain a mystery. If any Polish readers know who owned the jacket, post a comment here to let us know!
“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.
Thank goodness it survived the fire, Jacqui.
“No, there are no washing instructions on the dress or coat,” she added.
How can you date this gorgeous outfit?
A law was passed in Britain in 1986 to insert fabric care labels – or laundry symbols – into all garments made in the UK. Between 1963 and 1986 the typical washing machine and temperature symbols that are so familiar to us today were sewn less frequently into garments and were not included at all before the 1960s.
Jaqui’s outfit had no such labelling. That, the synthetic textured fabric and the style helps to date it to the 60s or 70s. What a beautiful eye catching outfit with over 40 years of history behind it.
Monika all the way from Poland, asks the 6 million dollar question – or should that be Euros 😉
“I’m interested if Elka Couture was much known company in UK? Was they selling haute couture clothes …as its name suggests or it was something like the whole network of shops, or the only one in Hull?
“I also found the site of Hull Museum when I saw that they also collect Elka Couture clothes, then why they are so important?”
Well, Monika. I’ll try to give you an answer:
Elka Couture was a label that was based in London in the UK. It produced fashions mainly between the 1960s and the 1970s. Its designs were always eye catching and used 60s or 70s synthetic fabrics that were sometimes bold, sometimes glamorous and always unique.
Your jacket is unusual because it is made of natural fabric – cotton.
Elka Couture designs reach across the years since to attract people like you when you find them in the rails of charity shops, in auction houses or in vintage markets.
A maxi dress with the Elka Couture label was donated to Hull Museum because the label was sold at the House Of Mirelle – and that’s where your search started.
Follow me here as I blog more about Elka Couture, Hull vintage fashion and the House Of Mirelle.
If you have an Elka Couture item take good care of it, it’s a part of British fashion history..
© Carrie Henderson 2015