Friday, 21 May 2021

730 things — Day 71 of 365

 I've been trying to think what my mother had in her wardrobe in the early 1960s when I was a child. We were not well off, but my mother had high standards regarding her appearance, and was socially ambitious, so she tried her best to look good and have the right things for every occasion, making her budget stretch. It was a time when every part of the day and every activity had a dress code, expressed differently depending on social class.

I remember how my grandmothers dressed then. My father's mother, who lived in a town (Scarborough) used to wear close-fitting knee-length shift dresses with a dressy (slightly scooped) neckline, in colourful chintzy floral fabric. She always wore court shoes with a moderate heel, often in a cream colour — and with a matching handbag. She always had a necklace or a brooch with sparkly crystals.

 My mother's mother, a country-woman who lived in a rural village (near Selby) wore knee-length straight brown tweed skirts, with a twin-set (maybe green or cream, no pearls), and practical, flat, brown leather lace-up walking shoes. 

These are the clothes I remember from my mother's wardrobe at that time:

  • knee-length stone-coloured skirt in a cotton blend
  • a pair of "slacks" as comfortable trousers were called, again in a stone colour, lightweight fabric
  • two crinkle fabric poly-cotton blouses in different shades of green
  • an acrylic cardigan in yet another shade of green
  • a courtelle (or some kind of synthetic wool) lightweight collared sweater in lipstick pink
  • two 1950s full-skirt-and-inclusive-petticoat summer dresses in different shades of white and green
  • a brown tweed suit in a smart cut
  • a knee-length black velvet skirt for going out to dinner (if invited to someone's home, we never ate out in a restaurant)
  • a loose-knit black top with large gold sequins stitched all over it
  • a full-length ball gown for the annual dance Eveready (where my father worked) hosted at Christmas
  • a smart green wide-brimmed hat for special occasions
  • a lightweight shower-proof jacket
  • a stone-coloured lightweight shower-proof summer coat
  • a black-and-white tweed winter coat
  • sandals, slip-on walking shoes, fur zip-up ankle boots for winter, a pair of black high-heeled sandals for extra special occasions, and wellington boots for gardening
  • she had a few pairs of nylons (stockings not tights then), suspender belts to hold them up, bras and pants (briefs, underpants, I mean), and a full length nylon slip to wear under skirts
  • though we had central heating from 1965, we didn't actually turn it on; so she had a bed jacket and thick warm dressing gown and slippers as well as her nightdresses
These are all the things I can remember. I find it interesting now to look back and note that the net petticoats in this 1950s summer dresses were made of cotton, but everything she'd bought later in the 1960s was acrylic or poly-cotton or just nylon. The change to synthetics came suddenly, spread swiftly, and was heavily advertised. We had nylon sheets and nylon nightdresses. My sister was five years older than me, born in 1952. The blouses of her high school uniform were made of cotton. By the time I followed her to the same school four years later (I was born in July and she in September, so though we were five calendar years apart, there were only 4 school years between us) the uniform blouses were all nylon.

My mother may have had a couple more tops and maybe a second skirt and second pair of trousers, but certainly no more than that. I think all normal middle-class women in the 1960s had what we would nowadays consider a minimalist wardrobe.

I remember my wardrobe from when I was about 14, just before I got my first job (at 15) and began to earn money to buy clothes. That was in 1971. I had
  • two hand knitted sweaters, one blue and one green. My mother had made them for me to wear at school when  was ten, so they were close-fitting, but that made them fashionable. I liked them.
  • a pair of dungarees in black cotton with a pattern of tiny pink flowers
  • a close fitting poly-cotton t-shirt with buttons at the top (like a henley) in a random stripe
  • a trouser suit in maroon tweed (yuck)
  • a synthetic cream-coloured blouse with a high frilled neck to wear under said trouser suit
  • an A-line airforce blue knee-length skirt in a synthetic knit fabric
  • a cream poly-cotton collared long-sleeved blouse to wear with the skirt
  • a polyester blouse with long full sleeves gathered at the cuffs and with a gypsy neckline fastened with ties, in a tiny dark floral synthetic fabric
  • two pairs of trousers — one green corduroy, one burnt orange denim
  • a red and white floral poly-cotton jersey collared top
  • a cotton smock top — smocks were all the rage at the time in unbleached cream cotton (!)
  • a winter coat
  • a winter uniform for school, two blouses and one of everything else
  • two summer dresses for school
  • two nightdresses, slippers and a warm fluffy dressing gown
  • shoes, obviously — these varied as my feet grew and were always strange because I had hard to fit feet. I'd have a pair of sandals for summer, brown lace-ups for school, and a pair of shoes for church on Sunday — and wellington boots for the garden or country walks
I may have had another t-shirt that I've forgotten, but I don't think so. I had a couple of bras, a couple of pairs of tights (I escaped the stockings era), long socks for school, and a few pairs of pants (I mean briefs, underpants). I think I might have had a jacket, but mainly I borrowed an old suede one from the 1940s that my mother still had. 

During this time she also passed on to me her full-skirted 1950s dresses, which I loved though they were no longer fashionable. I took out the net petticoats and wore them a lot. I also had a 1940s wrap dress from my great-grandmother, in mauve-and-grey flowered crêpe de chine, that I loved. My mother and sister intensely disliked these clothes — they thought I looked awful. They raided my room one day when I wasn't there, and threw them out.

In our village there was a small shop (Mrs Haskell's) where you could buy sweets and cigarettes and fresh bread, and a slightly bigger general stores, but we used to take the bus into a nearby market town (Bishops Stortford) where I went to school and where there was a branch of Sainsburys. Dorothy Perkins had opened a shop there, and there was a newly-opened fashionable boutique, and a traditional dress shop for women. But for clothes we'd mostly go on the train to London — usually John Lewis, and Oxford Street in general. Laura Ashley had started her shop in Kensington in 1968, and Biba opened, and there was the Petticoat Lane market — all of which came within my reach after I started earning my own money a year or so later.

What interests me particularly, when I look back, is how we mostly had just one of everything, or (as in the case of school dresses or blouses worn every day) one to wash and one to wear. We didn't have a whole stack of tops or trousers. We had a couple of sweaters, and a jacket or coat for if it was cold, something special for church, footwear suitable for different situations (summer, winter, muddy walks), knitted gloves and scarves for winter. 

Across the road from where we live now are some homes that would have been built after WWII, when a whole lot of council houses were built. Some are white-rendered, others left in the simple red brick. Four houses in each row, two homes sharing each set of chimneys.

These homes were regarded as suitable for a family. The stairs to the upper floor start right opposite the front door, and downstairs has a good sized living room and moderate sized kitchen. Upstairs there's a bathroom and I don't know if they have two bedrooms or three — I think most probably three. Each one has a front garden of a size suitable for growing flowers and a back garden big enough to grow vegetables. They are not big. It's interesting to notice the relative proportions of the garden and the house — the garden is relatively generous for the size of house, and that tells you something about the expectations and priorities of the time. They didn't need much space indoors because they didn't have much stuff, but they wanted and needed to grow their own food. None of those houses has off-road parking, nor did they need it. People walked or went by bus or tram. 

I find I learn a lot from thinking about those times, and taking the trouble to notice the difference made by the gradual and inexorable rise of consumerism led by mass production and the opening up of world markets. 

Going back to the world of today — the items I'm moving on this time are some large scissors surplus to requirements —

— and a small roasting tray. 

I got that picture off the internet. It's the same roasting tray but mine was nothing like so sparkling clean; it's just that I forgot to photograph it for you.


Angela said...

I lived in Bishops Stortford from 1956-1963, and went to Northgate End Primary School, which was next to the cattle market. I remember when we were in the playground, and someone threw a boy's cap over the wall - it landed on a bull's head. And I vividly remember the old Sainsburys, with its beautiful tiled floor which has sawdust on it, and the big bacon slicer on the counter. They cut the slab of cheddar with a wire, and poured loose tea and sugar into bags. And for special treats, we went to Finlay's Teashop, and I had a driunk of squash and a Kunzle cake. Happy memories! Thanks for reminding me

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello, Angela — yes, that's where I went to school. The playground for Infants 1 ran alongside the wall that overlooked the cattle market — I remember it vividly. I must have started school there in the September of 1961. Mrs Barker taught Infants 1, and Miss Powell taught Infants 2 — and she worked at her family's fishmongers on Saturdays.

Zillah said...

I live in one of those houses! Not over the road from you, of course, but in Yorkshire. The large proportion of garden in relation to house is one of the reasons we were so keen on it. It is also of very simple, yet good quality, construction. We do struggle to keep the amount of stuff we have to an appropriate level for the size of house, although I hope this will be easier now our children are older and people no longer feel the need to buy them so many THINGS!

Suzan said...

What wonderful memories you have shared.

I am a little younger than you. I do have specific memories of my clothing. My mother made most of the stuff I worked. At one stage my underpants were made from my father's shirts. Pretty uncomfortable. At high school I had two undershirts and one tunic. I couldn't wear socks as my eczema was so bad my socks stuck to legs and had to be soaked off. For my final two years of school I went to a Catholic school that did not have a uniform. Mum and I shared three pairs of jeans and I think six t shirts. For better occasions I was able to borrow a dress or two. I have one pair of trousers and some blouses.

I have memories of dresses made out of curtain lining. These dresses were made for three of us and decorated with braid. IN early 1974 Brisbane suffered a huge flood and some of my cousins lost all their clothing. Instead of lining new curtains mum converted this stuff into dresses. How I loved my long flowing dress. I would happily wear such a dress today.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Zillah — that post-war build of family homes has left a legacy all over Britain. They are great houses. Just along the way from our home is a sort of enclave of such houses — really lovely — their garden all have hedges, and there's like a little village green with a couple of trees; it's like a tiny village, so sweet. Our evening walk often takes us that way, and we look with great affection at those houses.
The size of children's toys is often in inverse proportion to the child. The toys shrink down from baby gyms and pedal cars and large teddies, to crayons and skipping ropes and Lego, and finally vanish into the computer altogether. There are possibilities for minimalism there!

Hi Suzan — What torture that eczema must have been. I hope it doesn't still flare up and bother you. I can just imagine the long flowing dress out of curtain lining — it sounds lovely.
I have a memory of my mother taking pink flannelette sheets (cot sheets, I expect) and making it into the linings for a pair of curtains. She made the curtains from a white candlewick bedspread. The result was lovely. The curtains just looked soft and white, but when the morning sun rose and shone through the curtains, it gave the light in the bedroom a pink glow.

Nearly Martha said...

Apropos of nothing really. Just thinking about clothes. Parental divorce shenanigans meant that we were quite poor for a time when I was young and I did have to go into Dorothy Perkins with Social Security vouchers to buy an outfit for school. It was essential but an experience I wouldn't recommend. Makes me wonder if that is why I do enjoy clothes now. I do know that my first purchase with my first wage packet from Nat West was a pair of velvet trousers from the same Dorothy Perkins shop.

Pen Wilcock said...

Velvet trousers! That's so glam! I also delighted in being able to buy my own clothes when I first got a job — Sainsburys checkouts, when I was 15. The living minute I got my hands on some wages I took off to the Laura Ashley shop in Kensington High Street to buy one of her beautiful dresses.