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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 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 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 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