Thursday, 2 December 2010

Strike the pose!

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the Betty Smithers Collection at Staffordshire University in Stoke as part of my research for the dressing table project with Stoke Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

Behind an unassuming door at the end of a short corridor there thrives a collection of vintage goodies just waiting for someone to look at them and discover their secrets! Mannequins stand to attention around the floor all gussied up in sequins and crepe, whilst excitable students flock in and out asking, always asking for more information about the items hidden away.

Our visit however took us into the heart of the periodicals. I was there to see the Vogue magazines of the 1940's and 50's! What a treat!
Further to my investigations into reading materials for the average working class, middle class woman of the late 40's early 50's I was eager to see what other publications a girl might read.

Last visit it was Home Notes, a modest little edition like the vintage equivalent of Woman's Own. The everywoman magazine that covered everything from making the perfect gravy to how to wear a hint of fur.
But as the character of my project has ambitions and a tendancy to dream I wanted to see how the other half might have lived, and see just how much she might have been able to aspire to!

My first problem though was just how and why would she get her hands on a copy of Vogue?
Well, lets think: I don't live in Milan and have Heidi Klum as a bff but that doesn't stop me from wanting to read all about these things in todays upmarket glossies, and I think that the same could be said for millions of women around the world from all different backgrounds. So why not a woman from the late 1940's?

That leaves how; Rationing is still happening, and make do and mend is the buzz line everyone keeps hearing. My girl isn't rich and leads a fairly simple existence (at least on surface it seems that way ;) ) so how could she get her hands on THE fashion bible of the upper class?

My first inclination was to think of the back market. Knowing the right people for undercounter dealings could get you perfume, nylons maybe even a copy of Vogue. (The fabulous magazine The Chap currently has an edition out themed around Spiv's, those dodgy gentlemen with the pencil moustaches and big overcoats. It's definately worth a read if you're interested in the diamond in the rough types throughout the ages.)

But Ruth, the Design Collection Manager at the university had another simpler explantion. She told me how her mother used to clean for a wealthy woman during the rationing era, and was given her old copies of Vogue when she had finished with them. Handmedowns, a nice solution, I like both scenarios as they highlight different situations and stories.


So, back to the actual magazine; I decided to look at two editions in the end, one from 1949, and one from 1952, this being the latest in the time bracket of the project's story. Being a fan of old movies and vintage fashion my whole life, opening the first page was like unlocking a secret door where I was allowed access to the things the first owner of that magazine saw, and being able to put myself in her place!

Firstly, nothing has changed, there were pages and pages of adverts for high class goods before you got to any actual articles. Fortnum and Mason, Cartier and Hunt and Roskell, purveyors to the royal family, all took it in turns to show off.


When I did get to the articles they were fabulous! 'Vogue says choose a coat with an easy manner' (incidentaly these coats were priced at £8 9s 2d, £192 by today's standards) and 'Living in the lowlands with Major and Mrs Telfor-Smollett'. There were articles about opera and Vogue's Spotlight introducing an interesting up and coming novelist named Truman Capote. Between these few and far between features were fashion shoots in London and Paris.

In fact Paris plays a major part in all the magazines I've seen from this era. Paris was the epitomy of fashion, to say the word Paris was to conjure up ideals of cutting edge contemporary design! Even Picture Post had features on the new looks.

1949 Picture Post feature on Paris fashions: 'Please concentrate on your hemlines'!

1949 Vogue sets the trend with a feature 'Paris great evenings'

Here I must digress and expalin a little of fashion history:
Between 1941-52 the Utility Sheme was set up, rationing clothing to the basic essentials in style, no excess material or accessories and only getting new clothes if absolutely essential. Fashions were very restricted and didn't move forward for years and buying clothes depended on how many coupons you had.

An advert in Vogue touting Aristoc stockings to the 'coupon wise' shopper

Then as if a ray of sunshine broke throught the fashion clouds Dior introduced his 'New Look' in 1947. This style abandoned all pretence of moderation and championed a full skirt springing from a tiny sinched in waist. His style became iconic and the aspiration of all fashion loving women whether they could afford the real thing or emmulate it. The focus was back on French fashion.

Beauty and living

Another feature I particulary enjoyed reading was the 'Beauty Routine' which listed tips to be followed both daily and yearly for the upkeep of a perfect visage. Tips included a weekly facial and manicure and to use eye pads at the end of the day 'before a gala evening'.

This highly privileged lifestyle was further advocated by the helpful stockists and salons listed at the back of the magazine. All your needs can be catered for including corsets and lingerie, kennels and hairdressing. If you need you pearls restrung or a continental furrier look no further!


One of my favourite things to be found in the Vogues were the Vogue Patterns. These were very popular as they gave women the chance to make up their own versions of styles seen within the magazine (if not them then their dressmakers at least).

There is an insightful section in the 1949 edition describing how due to the paper shortage at the beginning of the war the Vogue pattern book had to be incorporated into the magazine but with a 'slightly increased paper allowance' it could now be published seperately.

I think the pattern is a wonderful opportunity for my character to feel she is immersing herself in a more fashionable classier world! and it's certainly a viable option for her to make up her own desiner outfit on a budget.


Adverts are brilliant sign of the times and can tell you a lot about the era they appeared in. Adverts featured throughout all the magazines I looked through, and it was interesting to compare them in different publications:

It's easy to guess which is which, Vouge was all about the luxury goods, whereas Picture Post illustrates an existence with more concerns

Certain adverts jumped out as they displayed items from Stoke museum's decorative arts and social history collections, and it was fascinating to see that some brands like Yardley were advertised in both luxury magazines like Vogue and general magazines like Picture Post. Also perfumes like Coty, a pretty general product were advertised in Vogue too. I'm sure my character would have been thrilled that she owns some!

Keeping the project's character in mind other products caught my eye as they glorified Hollywood and the movie stars of the time

Hollywood jewellery anyone? Yes please! Advert found in Picture Post

Another wonderful product giving you the chance to be as charming and fascinating as those movie actresses. Advert found in Vogue

I have to admit it, I think if I was around in the late 40's early 50's I'd be copying the French fashions as best as I could, I'd be dousing myself in Coty and following the privileged lives of the Telfor-Smolletts whilst wearing my Hollywood jewellery (you can't distinguish it from the real thing!). Things aren't so very different between then and now... People love to dream and love to be sold the ideal of a lifestyle. I've found it so interesting finding out just how far a girl could copy that lifestyle within her limited means.


Kittie Howard said...

I'm really enjoying your posts. Lots of great info. It's just a suggestion but my mother (like many women in that era) could sketch a pretty dress and put together a pattern that looked reasonably close to the designer original. For years my mother kept this gorgeous dress that her mother had made for her -- stitch by stitch by hand, without a pattern or a sewing machine.

And, yes, Coty! Definitely!

Gemma Parker said...

Wow your Ma was one smart cookie! I wish I could even sew properly!
Thanks for the info, it's a great suggestion.

Debi said...

Oh wow! What an amazing collection--I'll have to check it out! Just found your blog and love it!!

Gemma Parker said...

Thanks so much Debi! I've been looking at your blog for research lately so I'm thrilled you enjoyed my blog too! You've probably already seen this but this site has fab vintage patterns you can download and make for yourself. Already seen a few I'd like to try!:

Debi said...

Thanks for the amazing link Gemma....I hadn't seen these. I am so in love with 3010 (I think that's the number) with the sash and the interesting button details! I will have to put these on my future project list :-)