Thursday 16 December 2010

Mrs Brown's wardrobe

So sweet, maybe too good to be true, a frilly cotton set of underwear found in the decorative arts collection in Stoke

After much drooling I managed to pull myself together enough to share the photos from Tuesday's visit to Stoke Potteries Museum and Art Gallery! These pictures don't really do the garments I saw justice. To see a picture is one thing, but to see the clothes up close is another thing entirely. They are almost like time capsules, in that they embody times gone by and individual pasts.

Some had hand stitching and repairs and some still had the original price tages still attached. But all were of interest:

The first thing we looked at were dresses from the correct era, late Forties, early Fifties. I was looking out for the distinctive influence of Dior's 'New Look'; The nipped in waist and full skirt. But many of the dresses, though beautiful, were still boxy and focused on the shoulders.

This blue number had a high neck and lovely detailing on the shoulders

Quite unassuming at first glance I think this red dress would have been stunning when worn. It has a high neck and would give the wearer an elegant column shape. Very film star!

I felt very drawn to this hot peach dress for the character of Mrs Brown. Although is isn't as up to date as I'd have liked, the colour is quite unusual and the material is light and floaty, fun and young. The skirt is slightly fuller than the other dresses, maybe this dress is on the verge of the 'New Look' revolution?

Some of the other dresses were very much evening attire and were very stylish. When looking for the brand label I was impressed to see many of them had been hand stitched and were obvioulsy hand made, maybe from patterns found in magazines like those found in Vogue. It highlighted how common it was to sew your own back in those days as off the peg clothes were still relatively new and seamtresses were for the well off. But that didn't stop some women creating some exquisite designs!

This long evening gown has a full skirt and a focus on the bust area. It came with a little cropped jacket. When we looked inside, there was obvious stitching holding the strips of sequins in place. The kind of stitching done at home, certainly not a seamtress or machine.

Another beautiful example of hand stitching. This dress had no makers label. Here you can see a definate direction towards the 50's with a halter neck, emphasis on waist and full skirt!

This dress really stood out for me. Not only is it stunning, it strides both decades perfectly. You can see the Paris influence and it has a bold and young pattern. I love the pink satin fins which draw attention to the waist. It's very stylish. I was worried it might be too posh for Mrs Brown, maybe beyond her means but I have been told that the dress was purchased at a sale at Marshall and Snelgrove, a department store that by the 1950's was losing business and eventually merged with the company which eventually became Debhanams.

Another example of fabulous evening attire! This dress was from the Heiress brand. Although this sounds quite upper class I'm told by the museum it was similar to the Horrocks label in that it sold affordable off the peg fashion. A strong contender for Mrs Brown's outfit.

We also looked at 1950's cocktail dresses. These, though gorgeous, were too advanced for the era of the project, but they were worth taking photos of just so you can see!

The skirt of this dress was so stiff it stood out on it's own with a built in crinoline!

This dress evoked much sighing when it was discovered. It is simply a dream frock, layers and layers of floatly white in a girly prom style. The bodice is boned and the skirt is very full and soft. It is screaming to be put on and adored!

Next came underwear. I was looking for suspenders, bras, and slips. The slips let me tell you were a real suprise treat!
Wartime and rationing; you'd expect very simple unembellished articles. Not pink, frivolous numbers and silky peach Utility!

This peach slip bears the Utility label. Most of the Utility slips we found were of the same style, simple yet suprisingly pretty

The shop ticket was still attached to this slip which was in perfect condition!

A very girly touchable slip, with a full petticoat, perfect for those full Dior style skirts

This was certainly the find of the day! A pink gorgeous slip made by a brand called Movie Star. The Museum's archives tells it was brought over from America during the war! A present from a soldier? A black market accquision? Or an overseas gift from a family member?

An advert for the USA brand Movie Star. The company later changed it's name to Stardust, and the founders even went on to create a modelling accademy and talent agency! With such emphasis on glamour and elegance inspired by the famous women of the silver screen I can see Mrs Brown being enchanted with this idea and being very happy to own a bonafide American item of clothing so closely associated with the movies she so loves!

Some of the underwear wasn't quite so evocative. Upon our searches we found a huge rubber girdle, complete with lacing and a strong unpleasant smell of old rubber. But this was joined by more refined undies; boned all in ones and bullet bras. Not to mention a lovely frilly set of knickers, like something from a 50's dream:

The Beast, as it became known that day! This was a seriously big rubber girdle!

In complete contrast, small boned slip which would have given a refined shape

A mesh girdle with bra in one

Big knickers, not just somehting from Bridget Jones then.

It's difficult to see here but this bra was a classic vintage pointy shape

I enjoyed these wooly all in ones. It's easy to forget that during the austere times of war and after a pair of warm undies like these would have been very welcome. In fact they were common across all classes with adverts for ladies wool underwear being found in Vogue magazines of the period.

My head is full of ideas from this wonderfull collection of clothes! I now have to decide what would best suit Mrs Brown, and work in her dressing room set. Some more research I think and I'll be there, I already have some favourites, but it's not about what I'd like, it's what would fit the story of Mrs Brown the best given her character and circumstances. I'll let you know how it goes.

P.S once I've decied on the outfit and underwear, we can start to build on her accessories; hats, gloves, jewellery and shoes!

Wednesday 8 December 2010

The woman behind the outfit

It's time to start putting a face to the character of my dressing room set project with Stoke Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

I can't keep calling her 'the character' and to be honest she has really started to take shape over the past few weeks. Reading the magazines of her era has really put the objects we've found in the decorative arts collection into perspective. The irony is we will never see her face, or really know what she looks like, and I kind of like that mystery. What we will see is her style, her tastes and how she lives her life illustrated through her dressing room.

We know she's young, married and sociable. She's a film fanatic, adores the movie stars and dreams she can be like them. She, like many women from that era, was starved of new fashion for years both by the restrictions on materials and fripperies and by her social situation. So like many others she followed vicariously through magazines and films, reproducing and customising items if she could.

Next week I will have the opportunity of viewing the clothes, underwear and accessories that are housed in the decorative arts collection of the museum and making some decisions as to what she would wear. In the meantime I have been looking into ladies fashion from the late 1940's early fifties to try and find her style.

A McCall's pattern from 1948 were you can see the influence of Dior's New Look; a wider skirt and emphasis on the waist

I can see her wearing young clothes and trying to incorporate the latest fashions where she can. As Scarlett O Hara's mother said, 'It's only natural to want to look young and be young when you are young' and this statement could sum up her outlook on life too. Married to an older man perhaps she feels fashion is her defining feature, to keep hold of her identity?

The sailor style from the mid to late Forties, note the hats and gloves

A Hollywood Pattern pantsuit, very modern!

Fashions associated with Hollywood and the film industry would appeal to her immensely. In 1947 Horrocks Fashions Ltd (based in North England) was beginning to produce simple off the peg cotton dresses promoted by British film stars. Horrocks had read the public's craving for newness and change. One of the reasons for using cotton was that it had been seen as second rate material for so long during the austere war years. Now it was being publicised as a real fashion item to boost sales in Britain.

A long evening version of the Horrocks dress style

The Horrocks styles were dynamic and new, featuring yet again the narrow waist and full skirt which followed the Paris fashions. The prints were fun, colouful and bright. You can certainly see the embryoic style of the stereotypical 50's housewife in them. One of their selling features was the high quality of the fabric that was easy to iron and take care of.

Other clothes:
Stockings would have been hard to get hold of which leaves an opening again for dealings with the black market (see my last post) and fraternizing with possible unsavoury characters.

Hats and headscarves remained a popular accessory during and after the war. Headscarves were firstly used as a practicality for women working in the factories to keep their hair safe from machinary, but the style caught on and crossed all classes becoming a staple item for all. Even the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, became known for wearing her headscarf tied under the chin.

Gloves were still big news and completed an outfit. There was still a definate ettiquette too. A 1948 edition of Vogue offered an article on gloves stating:

'Modern usage holds that gloves should be worn on occasions such as these: going to a formal luncheon, dinner, reception, or dance; in the streets of large towns and cities; going to and from church; going to official receptions or entertainments...a woman should always take off her gloves before she starts smoking, playing cards, eating, drinking or putting on make-up.'

I think my character would have adhered to these simple rules to try and define herself amongst other woman, especially if she read it in Vogue!

I'm not sure what we will find in the collection next week but I now have an idea to work towards in a sense of colours and personality. Oh and before I forget, her name... ... it's Mrs Brown.
Align Centre

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.