Towards the end of the summer holidays, it was always time to sort out clothes for the new school year as I would disobligingly have spent my summer outgrowing everything. Families like mine had very little disposable income and there were no systems of credit so clothes went through a recycling process. A child’s dress bought for a special occasion, like a bridesmaid’s dress, was worn for parties until it was outgrown. Coats, sweaters, in fact all items of everyday children’s clothes, were only replaced when they no longer fitted the child they were bought for. Then, they would be washed, pressed and passed on to a sibling or a cousin. I was lucky because my three older cousins were girls. I was always thrilled to get something new to wear that had belonged to my cousin Kate.
Going shopping for new clothes meant a trip to Manchester to get the best quality we could afford so that they would last. This meant shopping at Marks and Spencer whenever possible. British Home Stores was second choice along with C&A. (For years I believed Nana when she told me that C&A stood for coats and ‘ats.) My primary school recognized that cash was limited for many families and so school uniform was notional rather than required.
My clothes were chosen for me on the basis of serviceability and room for growth. On a shopping expedition my job was not to have an opinion, my job was to stand still, turn with my back to my mother and have clothes measured against me. It was exactly the same procedure as when my mother measured a sweater she was knitting for me. She would hold up the back section, still on the needles, against my back and check how many more rows she needed to knit to ensure that it would fit for as long as possible. Most of the children at my school wore sweaters and cardigans which had been hand-knitted either by their mother or their gran. I really envied the little girl who had a shop-bought cardigan which had obviously been bought around the time of the coronation; knitted into its pockets were tiny union jack flags.
It was completely acceptable for girls to wear shorts in the summer but most of the time it was expected that we would wear dresses and I have to tell you that this meant feeling chilly for much of the year. My dresses (invariably made by my mother) came in different colours and fabric patterns but followed the same basic pattern; rounded neckline (sometimes with a collar) short puff sleeves (sometimes with a frill or longer sleeves with a cuff) fitted bodice and full skirt. Quite a few of my dresses had smocking across the bodice. A dress for a special occasion would have a very full skirt and be worn over a stiffened nylon petticoat. On colder days I would wear a cardigan over my dress but for parties, this was replaced by a ‘fuzzy-wuzzy’ bolero knitted in fluffy angora wool.
Girl’s clothes made few concessions to winter weather so we added layers to keep warm. In the colder months, I would wear a vest and sometimes a liberty bodice underneath my clothes. A liberty bodice was a kind of extra-thick vest that fastened at the front with stupidly soft rubber buttons which were hard to fasten and which were always breaking. My mum loved to knit so I was always well covered with winter woollies. Sadly, there were no warm tights or leggings for little girls so I wore socks, longer length in winter, and Clarks sandals fastened with buckles. I always wanted red sandals but my mother said mine had to be brown for school. My shoes were serviceable and bought one pair at a time unless there was a wedding and I was going to be a bridesmaid. I always envied girls like Sheila Boyes who had the Clarks black patent shoes with a strap that could flip back behind the heel, as well as their school shoes. Wellingtons were always passed on from my cousins. They were probably my least favourite footwear. I can still remember wellington tops rubbing sore patches on my legs on cold, wet days. The only other shoes I needed were the slip-on black canvas plimsoles for PE at school – until I started ballet classes. Then I had to have soft ballet shoes. I wasn’t trained to dance in the pink satin pointe shoes all little ballerinas aspire to until I was at secondary school.
Here is my friend Gwen on her tricycle (Photo courtesy of Gwen Irving)
There were strong conventions which controlled the passage from children’s wear to adult clothes. Until the time that they were considered old enough for trousers, boys wore shorts. This rule was applied even at secondary school where long trousers were not allowed until boys were in their third year – aged 13 or so. Telling a young person’s exact age from their clothes was impossible. Auntie Irene and Uncle Roy who lived in flat 5 both came from Bolton. In 1953 Uncle Roy went to Wembley to support his team, Bolton Wanderers, in the cup final. He cheered them on and now and then whirled his football rattle over his head. In between times, he put the rattle back in his briefcase. It was a thrilling match but a certain level of reserve was expected. Young and old, the men at Wembley that day dressed identically in their everyday clothes. Fashion designed exclusively for teenagers hadn't yet been conceived. Children wore children's clothes until they were considered old enough to be dressed like their respective parents. As my Uncle Roy said, ‘That cup final crowd was like standing in a sea of middle-aged clones.’
Standing in between my parents who were only in their thirties at the time!
The mothers in the flats were all young and very happy to leave behind utilitarian wartime clothing in favour of new styles. I don't know who originally bought them, but each month the mothers in our flats shared a single copy of Vogue, passing it between each other. I know they shared because I got into terrible trouble for cutting out pictures of models in beautiful evening dresses to stick into my scrapbook. To me those Vogue ladies with their Christian Dior ‘new look’ tiny waists and billowing skirts were all the princesses in stories and films somehow transported into real life. There was no way that the short, utilitarian wartime dresses could be adapted to look anything like that. My mother and her friends had to have new clothes.
When it came to her wardrobe, my mother was extremely lucky. She was a perfect size 12 (in the days when that was the size to aspire to) who ate whatever she liked but never gained weight. Not only that but, for a while, she worked for Horrockses. Originally producers of cotton fabric, Horrockses business had expanded to include high-quality ladies’ fashion. They were immensely proud when the young Queen Elizabeth wore many of their dresses on her first Commonwealth tour. Obviously, my mother could never afford to buy Horrockses dresses from the shops, but occasionally substandard or damaged items came her way. The most magnificent of these was an evening dress. Samples packaged in boxes were sent from the designers in London. In this case, an inattentive employee opening a sample package had used a Stanley knife and sliced through both the packaging and its contents. My mother bought and somehow mended the dress. It was a favourite of hers for many years. It was made from a rich black cotton sateen and had a boned bodice. There was so much material in the long skirt that she could easily hold and lift the side seams until her hands met over her head. She wore it with a multi-layered net petticoat and when she moved the skirt rustled and twirled beautifully. She was a page from Vogue come to life. When I am grown-up, I thought, I will have a dress just like that.
I should add something about my mother's shoes. This was the golden age of the stiletto. Tall, spindly-heeled shoes with pointed toes, they were the height of elegance. Cinderella would have worn these to the ball and probably lost both whilst fleeing at midnight. My mother loved them. Nothing before or after ever matched her need for extra inches and added chic. She could never bear to wear flat shoes and nearly broke her neck in icy weather. Stilettos wreaked havoc wherever they went. It wasn't just the damage they did to women's spines or to their feet. Uncle Arthur’s job involved buildings maintenance and stilettos were his sworn enemy. Their tiny, sharp heels gouged smooth floor surfaces of all kinds into pockmarked ruins. Polite requests for women to add protective plastic covers to the tips of their heels went unheeded. Only the arrival of shorter skirts worn with flatter shoes in the sixties slowed and finally ended the damage.
My mother and her friends took turns hosting one evening a week when they met up to sew and knit clothes for themselves and their children. I could hear the buzz of their conversation and laughter and the whirr of my mother’s sewing machine. There would be tea and biscuits on offer – tastier biscuits than our usual ones and I would hunt down any survivors the following day.
The fabrics my mother used were almost exclusively cotton - much easier to work with on a temperamental sewing machine. She was able to buy lengths of Horrockses cotton which had been marked or damaged and put them to good use with careful pattern layout. I was allowed the offcuts to dress my dolls but I was never patient enough to sew things properly. Years later, when I wanted to dress like the girls in a very different edition of Vogue, I learned both patience and dressmaking. Even in the 60s, it was perfectly possible to make a mini dress for less than a pound.
Knitting wool did not arrive in ready-rolled balls in our flat. It came in skeins - long loops of wool twisted together which had to be hand-rolled into balls before they could be knitted up. This would sometimes involve the painful process of having to hold a skein looped between my two hands whilst my mother wound furiously. But this wasn’t always the case. My father sometimes brought home swatches of fabric for my mother and I, but one evening he appeared with an armful of bright pink knitting wool; each ball was wrapped in its own clear plastic bag. The yarn stayed in the bag and unwound as the knitter worked. This new line of synthetic yarns was to be marketed as the way to keep your finished garment spotless – no matter where you were knitting. My father asked my mother to knit something fairly small so that he could demonstrate the yarn’s quality when it was made up. My mother knitted a teddy bear which forever after sat on the bookcase in my father’s office. It was possibly the ugliest bear ever created in the least appropriate colour and yet there never was a better-loved animal. Everyone who came to his office commented on the bear, many offered to buy him and I am sad to say that I have no idea as to his whereabouts now. I have a vague memory of his being returned to my mother after my father died when his office was finally emptied, but that may be wishful thinking.
My mother did once knit my father a primrose yellow jumper which he happily wore until his little sister, Aunty Nance, said with his expanded waistline it made him look like a giant canary. Apart from that, my father’s clothes seemed unchangingly baggy and dull. Our flats were filled with young families and yet in the few pictures I have of those years all the men, none of whom was near forty, look dreadfully middle-aged. Their trousers and jackets were all shapeless. They looked as if they were wearing a job lot stolen from the same enormously short, fat person. Men’s clothes were also colourless; their shirts were white and their suits were sober versions of grey and navy. Sweaters did nothing to add to their palette range and leisurewear didn’t exist. Sportswear was worn for sports; tennis players and cricketers wore whites. Football players wore the same kit every season and it was only ever seen on the pitch. Their shorts were knee-length and voluminous. Rugby players wore mud so their original clothing was irrelevant.
The dress code for work was formal and a gathering of men on their way to work looked identical – all tragically middle-aged, irrespective of their birth dates. The concept of smart workwear simply did not exist and neither did dress down Friday. Men like my father had a working wardrobe of a suit, clean leather shoes, white shirts and a small selection of ties. In unusually cold weather he might also wear a sweater underneath his jacket. The pockets of my father’s jackets did nothing to enhance the garment’s appeal. His wallet, handkerchief, cigarettes and matches were periodically crammed there, causing them to sag like mini panniers. In wet weather, his outerwear was a raincoat and in the winter months, a heavy topcoat. Both of these garments were very long and as shapelessly unappealing as the suits they covered. Like many men, my father wore a trilby hat, winter and summer alike which may have been because he was losing his hair. My mother remembered me furiously pulling my doll’s hair off in handfuls (at that time dolls had their hair glued in place) When she asked me why on earth I was doing that I replied ‘I want it to look like daddy’.
On a very hot day, men might remove their jackets at work but not without checking if that would be acceptable, particularly if a lady might be present. This was because the braces which held up their baggy trousers would now be on display and they might appear unprofessional. Working in a lab did mean wearing a white coat so an employee could possibly get away with wearing older, but certainly not dirty, clothes underneath. The rules for women's office wear were just as clear. The usual outfit would be a modest blouse or sweater and skirt of a suitable length. It was unheard of for women to wear trousers to work in an office. Trousers for women at work were only acceptable if, like bus conductresses, the uniform for their job demanded it.
One of the UK's most popular newspaper cartoonists was called Giles. He had invented a cartoon family and he used them to poke fun at all sorts of headline-grabbing events. The most ferocious of this clan was the grandmother figure. Now, my Nana was not at all like the gin-loving reprobate of the Giles cartoon family in character – she just looked a lot like her. Winter and summer alike my grandmother wore the same dark coat and hat. In fact, Nana could not have left the house without a hat and gloves – she would not have felt properly dressed. Her shoes were flat-heeled and looked vaguely orthopaedic. In frosty or snowy winter weather she wore rubber-soled suede ankle boots with fleece linings which fastened with a zip up the front. I couldn’t tell you what Nana’s dresses looked like. They were always covered by a coat outdoors or a cross-over floral pinny indoors. All the older ladies in my family wore those pinafores at home. When I would stay with Nana she would wear a nightie to bed which covered from her chin to her feet and her day clothes did more or less the same. I know that she wore a fearsome salmon pink corset with so much whalebone that it could stand unaided because I saw it being washed. It had an unbelievable number of hooks and eyes. I knew that my mother pulled on an elasticated tube-like thing called a rollon to hold her tummy in and her stockings up, but it would have cowered and trembled before this salmon pink monster.
Nana had strong ideas about appearance and behaviour and frequently held up my cousins as ‘ladylike’ role models. Before her marriage she had been in service to a wealthy family. Their young daughter’s poor health prevented her from joining in physical activities and social occasions and she was desperate for a companion of her own age. She took a liking to my grandmother who suddenly found herself promoted to a different life ‘above stairs’. Nana accompanied the family on days out in Southport and enjoyed seaside walks and afternoon teas with them. She used to recall her shock at seeing suffragettes during one of these outings; two women, running past and knocking a man’s top hat off shouting ‘Votes for Women!’ I think many of my grandmother’s attitudes to dress and to life, in general, came from observing a lifestyle which she viewed as superior to her own.
There was one style of dress amongst young adults that challenged the 1950s sedate notions of appearance - Teddy Boys. I was terrified of Teddy Boys. Nana had told me hair raising stories about them all carrying flick knives and knuckledusters which they used to attack each other and anyone else nearby. Teddy boys were instantly recognizable by their tight jeans, pointed leather ‘winklepicker’ shoes and ‘bootlace’ ties. They wore long jackets with dark velvet collars. The jackets were sometimes so long that they came down to their knees. Their hair always looked shiny thanks to the greasy dressing they applied so they could style their hair into a quiff; the hair would be combed straight back from the face with the ends twisted around and dropped back onto the forehead. Altogether it was a very aggressive dress style which gained a lot of gratifying disapproval from older people.