Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.


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[110] Dedicated Follower

I’m nearly done. Next on my diminishing list is the subject of Clothes and Fashion and we need a bit of a background summary first.

In the post-war situation of austerity people were relatively poor and choice of clothing was quite limited. It was more a matter of buying clothes than anything to do with fashion. (Of course there was fashion and it may have appeared in the news and the newspapers but it was for the rich. Remember that my blogs are mostly sweeping generalizations about my upbringing.)

I will make my usual comment that the pictures I find are generally too modern but they are the best I can do.

There is always the danger that this could be quite a large list of what we didn’t have then – but I won’t let that put me off. I’ve done it before!

Diversion

Before I start, this may be difficult for those from the US. I may miss out some but here are some examples of UK clothing terms.

Trousers are pants. Pants are underpants.

Waistcoats are vests. Vests are A-shirts.

Braces are suspenders. Suspenders are … no exact equivalence but suspender belts are garter belts;

Tights are pantyhose;

A Dinner Jacket is a tuxedo (although it generally means a suit not just the jacket.) A tuxedo may be a white Dinner Jacket.

Y-fronts are jockey shorts.

Knickers are panties. French knickers are tap pants.

[Of course Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other countries may use other terms.]

Men

I will start with clothing for men. You will remember way back at Blog [5], which looked at winter clothing. People in general dressed in similar clothes.

For men, we had grey trousers with turn-ups and creases and shirts – often plain white. That was about it. Outside the house men always wore jackets and ties. (I think many men always wore them inside as well.) Jackets were plain and greyish and ties were simple designs, often stripes.

pullover  sleeveless

When it was colder we had pullovers – long-sleeved or sleeveless knitted woollen tops that went over our shirts. We used the terms jumper, woolly or pullover interchangeably. They all looked much the same. Quite a lot of them were actually knitted by housewives. [You will note in one picture that smoking a pipe was a positive feature in advertisements, portraying a relaxed feeling.]

Shoes were black leather laced shoes – what we would now call brogues. Men might have been seen with black or brown leather brogues but never any other styles.

Summer Clothes

As a sort of diversion I do remember sometimes wearing T-shirts and (brown leather) sandals bought for when we went on holiday. I’m pretty sure only children wore T-shirts and my father only ever wore sandals on holiday.

Work Clothes

Everyone dressed much more formally all of the time so suits were more common. You did sometimes see three-piece suits that included a waistcoat. There was a less formal jacket called a sports jacket, maybe a bit thicker and warmer than an ordinary jacket.

(I worked in the Civil Service. Even in the Seventies and Eighties we were still more or less expected to wear a jacket and tie to work and this was true for clerical and similar jobs. Higher grades always wore formal suits and professional men such as doctors and lawyers always wore suits. Dress codes began to collapse in the Nineties and I started to go to work without a tie. I still used to put on a suit and tie when meeting people from other organisations.)

Rain and Weather

There was a thing called a raincoat. It was a long, straight dark grey (or very dark navy blue) coat that stopped the rain. We may have called them waterproof but under modern rules for more accurate labelling they might be considered water resistant. If you had a group of men wearing raincoats they would all look the same.

raincoat overcoat

There was also an overcoat, much the same shape as a raincoat but thicker and warmer (and not waterproof,) generally brown.

As people walked more (or used the busses) it was much more common to see umbrellas. An umbrella was a long, black rolled up device. (Don’t be silly, there was no choice!) For office workers a rolled up umbrella was almost part of the ‘uniform.’ From what I sometimes saw on early television I think that workers in the City of London routinely wore bowler hats but the fashion for hats more or less disappeared around the sixties.

Underclothes

For men, pants meant Y-fronts and there were matching vests, which we all wore. We had never heard of boxer shorts.

y-fronts

(It’s old money. 6s 6d became 32p on decimalization.)

The trend has moved to not wearing vests. This may be a function of warmer temperatures, warmer outer clothing or less walking outside but I think it was supposedly triggered by a film [US: movie] in which the romantic lead male was shown without a vest. I can’t find the reference.

Everything Else

OK, think of some of the things you wear today. These are some things that were unknown in the Fifties.

Jeans were not seen until the sixties and then just for adolescents. I have worn jeans most of my life but I never see anyone older than me wearing them. (Of course we didn’t have denim jackets either.)

Track suits were worn by athletes and you might see them on television. They were plain (definitely without any trace of adverts) and were taken off just before the start of a race. They were not worn by the general public or seen in shops.

Running shoes were presumably worn by athletes. I am not sure what they looked like. They had spikes to help the grip as athletes ran on cinder tracks. They were not fashion items and not available to us. We had those black tennis shoes (plimsoles) from China you could buy at Woolworths – just for PE at school.

School_plimsolls

Anoraks, parkas and all forms of zipped jackets – no. Just plain woollen button jackets.

[I am struggling with zips. I think there were some but they were not common. None of our clothes had zips. Jackets had buttons. Trousers had button flies.]

Forget most decoration or colour and especially writing on clothing. Clothes were plainly designed, perhaps just stripes or check.

Fashion?

There were fashion shops and I earlier to list the local Ilford shops that I remembered. But we bought basic clothes from department stores.

Women

Women spent much less money on clothes than now and less time in shopping for clothes. There was no such thing as ‘retail therapy’. It has to be remembered that married women did not possess their own money. Most women were housewives. [As far as Income Tax was concerned a married man included any income of his wife as if it was his income. Joint assessment from about the Seventies was gradually replaced by the modern system.] For their clothing women could save and accumulate money left over from a housekeeping allowance, or ask their husbands for money to buy clothes, or rely on occasional birthday or Christmas presents.

So choice for women’s clothes was much less than now. There were fewer shops selling a narrower range of clothing, mostly utilitarian rather than fashionable. Even in the Fifties most of the fashion shops dealt with women’s clothes rather than for men.

Fashion

As a man I couldn’t tell you much about fashion for women now and I’m even more lost back in the Fifties and Sixties when I have to go on early memories. I do know that Mum wore fairly ordinary clothes at home, often covered with a protective apron or pinafore. Nan mostly wore a housedress, which was far more plain and basic than anything I can find in a picture. She had a red one and a blue one so that she always had one while the other was ‘in the wash.’

Women wore fairly plain dresses or skirts.

For women, trousers were unheard of in the Fifties, except for some slacks for informal wear. Trouser suits for women for formal occasions started to creep in from the Sixties, when they were considered very daring. After a long transitional period, by the late Nineties it was unusual to see women in the streets in skirts or dresses. Those still not wearing trousers were either over about fifty (wearing long skirts) or under about twenty (in attractive short skirts) or obviously in formal attire dictated by their work. Since the turn of the Century most dress codes for working women have changed to allow trousers.

The last to change has been uniforms for schoolgirls. Even around 2000 they wore short skirts but now trousers are usual.

Underclothes and Lingerie

I am doing women’s clothes in a different order because I think some changes in outerwear may have been associated with changes in underclothes. I knew little of this subject as a young boy but I can generalize mostly from advertisements in the newspapers but also from my mother and sisters.

girdle

Women wore something called a girdle. Wikipedia is failing me because they no longer seem to exist. Modern girdles are not the same. The nearest equivalent is a corset but they were far removed from Victorian corsets. They were foundation garments that controlled and shaped in a way that must have been tight and uncomfortable – but they were not designed to be seen. As you can see in the picture above the bra could be equally unattractive and uncomfortable and sometimes the two were combined into one garment.

You can also see in the picture that these girdles had suspenders – to hold up stockings. Women wore stockings and in the fifties they were still often those with a seam. Without intimate knowledge of adolescent girls of the time I’m guessing here that those who didn’t need the control of a girdle wore suspender belts instead.

I am sure tights were available but they were not generally worn or cheap. Tights rapidly replaced stockings from around the Sixties with the advent of mini-skirts.

legs_in_black_stockings

Sometime after tights other variations appeared in various lengths such as pop sox and self-supporting stockings. The picture above is included purely for academic information.

[I can’t speak with any real knowledge of lingerie in the Fifties as opposed to everyday underclothes. I am sure it existed. I think it is much more of a significant market now. Now it is advertised to men to buy for their loved ones at Christmas and other occasions. In many large stores the lingerie department is next to menswear and not by the womenswear. It is also true now that what women wear all the time is designed to look attractive and sexy (perhaps to make them feel more attractive and sexy) and more like lingerie. Of course I only know this because of extensive research done for my blogs! I found the picture below in my research.]

lingerie

Miniskirts and Hot Pants

Miniskirts appeared in the early sixties and soon became popular, at least for the younger generation who felt able to wear them. It was presumably necessary to wear tights rather stockings for mini-skirts so the change to tights continued in parallel with fashion changes. As with many fashions, more mature women tended to stick with what they knew rather than adopting new fashions. (See above for jeans and trousers for women.)

Dorchester Debs

miniskirts-08

Short shorts for women also made a brief appearance in the seventies, known as hot pants. Since then shops seem to be selling all sorts of alternative womenswear all the time. Fashions now change more rapidly.

hotpants

The picture above is from a fashion show. These were reported a little in television, newspapers and glossy magazines (not as early as the Fifties.) Actual clothes available in shops came a little after the fashion shows and were generally less outlandish – but fashions did change.

Fashions

You will not be surprised to learn that fashion in clothing is much more relevant for women than for men. I still belong to the old school of thought that when I buy new clothes (a rare occurrence) I avoid anything fashionable. I don’t want something that will be out of fashion in a few years and I would never discard old clothing just because it is no longer fashionable. Women are different. They like to be fashionable.

(I think that men believe women dress to make themselves attractive to men. It’s more probable that they dress to be seen as fashionable by other women.)

Since the seventies as women have obtained more equality and more spending power they have become a target for consumerization. There are more shops selling women’s clothes than anything else – and far more than those catering for men.

A quick look at Wikipedia has given me several terms for clothing fashions that have come and gone – and some that are still relevant. But none of these existed in the Fifties. (Not all are for women exclusively – and: Sweeping Generalization alert!)

Boob tube, crop top, hoody, chinos, leggings, leg-warmers, ra-ra skirt, sarong, cagoule, anorak, parka, Duffel Coat (Sixties), gilet, poncho, shrug, flip-flops, crocs.

Finally on the subject of womenswear I am pretty sure that slips and petticoats used to be much more common. I think there is something about clothing technology that has rendered them obsolete.

Children

The picture for children was similar, with reliance on housekeeping funds and the Family Allowance paid by the government as a benefit for children (usually collected by the mother). Children’s clothes were bought by their mothers. They were utilitarian rather than fashionable. With the age of majority at twenty-one, even 18 to 21-year-olds may not have had their own income. The idea of fashion did not exist for children (or babies.)

The other big difference in the Fifties was that boys used to wear short trousers up the age of about eleven or twelve. Nobody would have considered putting a boy or a young baby in full-length trousers.

Black Tie

A final little diversion about formal wear. There have long been the two standards of formal wear for special occasions.

White Tie with a long tailcoat has been reserved for very formal occasions (including the groom and best man at some weddings) and is now even more rarely seen than in the Fifties.

Black Tie goes with a formal Dinner Jacket and is normally reserved for formal evening dinner functions and some weddings. It remains the most formal attire on cruise ships that still have formal dining. I can only comment on Black Tie as I have occasionally attended such functions since the Sixties. (In those days I went to Dinner Dances once or twice a year with my father under the auspices of Freemasonry. More recently I have enjoyed cruises in my retirement.)

Wikipedia gives the standard for Black Tie as: a black dinner jacket of very specific design; an optional evening waistcoat or cummerbund; a white dress shirt; a black bow tie and black dress shoes (sometimes patent leather).

While this remains the standard various alternatives have crept in. I believe that changes started in the early Sixties when Anthony Armstrong-Jones, The Earl of Snowdon was seen to attend a black tie occasion with a heavy woollen roll-neck white jumper instead of a shirt, tie and jacket.

Perhaps the biggest changes are in the tie. Actual tied bow-ties are long obsolete but the tie no longer even looks as if it could be tied. There are various simpler shapes, some with wing-collar style shirts. Often the tie is not black but a dark red or blue. Dress shirts are not always white. And it is now common to see a white dinner jacket (but the trousers remain black.)

I won’t attempt to comment on women’s Black Tie dress codes, which used to include very formal long dresses, except to say that from around the Sixties formal trouser suits are considered acceptable.

 

Dedicated Follower of Fashion is a 1966 single from The Kinks. It lampooned the contemporary British fashion scene of the Sixties and mod culture in general. It starts like this.

 

They seek him here, they seek him there

His clothes are loud, but never square

It will make or break him so he’s got to buy the best

‘Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion.

 


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[5] Winter

[5] Layers of Clothing

Frost_patterns_2

There is more to surviving the colds of winter than sitting around our lonely coal fire. Before you ask, it was definitely not still the end of the last Ice Age! Weather and climate were more or less the same as today. Now is not the time to discuss Global Climate Change. Maybe later.

We managed, with the help of warmer clothing and warmer beds. I don’t want you to think it was easy. Of course, we suffered hazardous temperatures without complaining and kids nowadays don’t know how easy it is for them! I have to get my Grumpy Old Man bit in sometimes.

Getting Dressed

Imagine me, as a boy of seven or eight, emerging from by bed in the morning into a cold room. Until I left home to go to university at twenty, I shared a room with two brothers so you have to imagine a room with three beds in a row. Mine was the middle one. We dressed as quickly as possible, starting with the warm layer of white, woollen underclothes. There were no boxer shorts then, just standard Y-fronts and matching vests. In those days people wore vests.

I am having some difficulty with translation here. ‘Y-fronts’ are a specific type of what we call ‘pants’, now sometimes called ‘slips’ in shops. In the US, they are ‘jockey shorts’. A ‘vest’ is not what we call a waistcoat. In the US, it is an ‘A-shirt’. In Australia it’s a ‘singlet’. The ubiquitous vest and pants were simple but warm underclothes, top and bottom. In those days, underwear was not designed to be seen, it was to keep us warm. For those interested, Wikipedia have a number of pages about underwear and its history!

For what came on next, I think it will surprise younger readers when I say that we always wore short trousers. [US readers will have to keep up. ’Trousers’ are ‘pants’ to you.] Not the summer shorts of today but sturdy, woollen trousers with creases, cut short well above the knees. All boys wore short trousers until the age of at least eleven. I never saw anything like denim or jeans until I was a bit older.

Schoolshorts1

This is the best picture I can find of short trousers. School uniforms tend to retain styles of fashion a bit longer than home life. The socks in the picture are similar to what we wore but our shoes were polished black leather.

We wore shirts and, for school, ties, but I need to describe our shirts, which were not open fronted like modern shirts. We put them on over our heads and only the top half could be buttoned and unbuttoned. For school they were plain white.

But, on top of that we always had woollies, pullovers, jumpers or jerseys. These variously described warm woollen garments always went over the top of shirts. They are known as sweaters in the US. (We used the term sweater, generally for something even thicker and warmer.) I write this almost on Christmas Jumper Day, a modern invention, which highlights one of the remaining uses of the term. Sometimes they were sleeveless but they were always worn over a shirt – not instead of a shirt.

So, before leaving the house we already had three layers – vest, shirt and jumper – warm enough to handle the day.

At the same time, girls always wore short skirts. This is not the place for the history of fashion but at that time women and girls virtually never wore trousers. While the fashion for short skirts in women did not come until the sixties, schoolgirls at home and at school always wore short skirts or dresses. (It was not until this century that girls moved towards trousers as an option for school uniforms.)

Jack Frost

Jack Frost is a friendly spirit, sometimes mischief-making, the personification of crisp, cold, winter weather, found in many stories of old. We always blamed him for the frosty, fern-like patterns on our windows on cold winter mornings. Frost settles in tiny crystals outside to make the white layers that cover grass and the ground. When it’s very cold it builds up on trees. On glass, it spreads to make pretty patterns. We often found frost on the windows when it was cold, normally on the inside of the windows. Perhaps it was the water vapour as we breathed at night. It wasn’t colder inside than out but it was cold inside!

The best we could do downstairs was to have a warm breakfast, cereal with warm milk. The fire, if it was lit yet, was in the other room.

All we needed to prepare us to go out was some more warm clothing – jacket, gloves, scarf and sometimes an overcoat. We walked to school in all weathers. It was never so bad that anyone considered closing the schools. To be honest, I don’t think we ever had to walk to Junior School in snow, but we were not deterred by the cold.

Bedtime

At the end of the day the house would be warmer, at least downstairs. I don’t remember ever feeling too cold. I can remember the process of trying to find the optimum distance from a coal fire. Too near was too hot, but further away was too cold. I will say a little more about house heating in the next blog, but I will end this one with a little about the end of the day.

We did not have duvets but the beds were warm. We had sheets and blankets – two or three warm, woollen blankets. On top in the cold, perhaps a patchwork quilt, the warm precursor to the duvet. But what really kept us warm were pyjamas, warm, flannel pyjamas. Remember, we dressed for warmth, not fashion. (They were ‘pyjamas’, not ‘pajamas’, but as for so many words, the US spelling has now crept into usage in the UK.  We most definitely did not have onesies!)

1962-63

By way of a postscript, a few words about unusual, hard winters. They come every few years. There was a hard winter a few weeks after I was born, in 1946-47, something my mother sometimes talked about. She had to trudge through the snow to see two very sick children in hospital. (The doctor once said to her, pointing to my twin: “We may be able to save him, but the other one doesn’t have a chance.” Fortunately, he was wrong about me. We both made healthy recoveries.)

Then there was 1962-63, when I was courting. (You may have to look that up. People don’t do it now. They just leap into bed. Grumpy Old Man mode again!) At the time, it didn’t seem that exceptional to us, but it may have been the worst winter of the last hundred years. It snowed on Boxing Day, leaving a few inches of snow on the ground. In some places, the snow was cleared from pavements [sidewalks], which just meant moving it to larger piles. It stayed around for another two or three months, as snow, ice or slush, as the nights stayed cold. We just accepted it, sometimes walking in the road when the pavement snow was deep.

The next blog may continue on the theme of winter heating …