Posts Tagged ‘dress designing’

Designing in Post-War Britain

August 26, 2010

Design while at art college late 1948

So You Want To Be A Designer? Part One

Me, age 10 (?) doing my party piece, wearing the dress of a four year old with huge hanky pinned to dress (as some young children did many years ago)


My pencil sketch while at Nottingham College Of Art (design course), late 1948


The sort of design I turned out at Nottingham Art College late 1948. Pencil lines faded with age.

There is no doubt that interest in fashion, and dress design in particular, is a highly popular subject. Together the hits on my few postings concerned with design must top up to over 2,000, the majority on one post with plenty of sketches. I have been asked to write more about this interesting topic.
First let me say, I cannot speak for what happens in design offices and factories today. Of course, I could comment profusely on today’s fashion but I see that as pointless simply because ‘anything’ goes. The top of the pops celebrity of the week, or day, or hour, seems to set a rotating ephemeral trend. The only key theme seems to be ABSURD.
I look at some of the clothes and smile.
Many years ago when I was about nine or ten, I used to go on the stage dressed like a very young child at a concert reciting ‘A little ship’ in a lisping voice. Before getting to the end of the first verse, I would stumble and start again, and again, and again, gradually getting more tearful until I ran off the stage, accompanied by much laughter. Now, to perform my little act I would wear a small child’s dress with a large hanky pinned to the garment, usually with a huge safety-pin (see picture). Since children’s dresses used to be generous with sizing (they had to last as long as possible in those days) I could just get into one, but it was exceedingly short on a growing girl like me. So imagine the scene — girl walks onto the stage looking nervous. Her dress is short but covers her knickers, her hair is tied in two bunches, each with a large bow. She dabs her nose with the big hanky and gives a nervous grin. She gives little swinging movements as she lisps what she is going to recite.
Now open any page in a popular magazine and see that the celebs are wearing. Quite recently it was girly dresses with tiny puffed sleeves. Any one of them could have been styled on that dress I used to wear for the concert. (The main, if not only, difference being bosom exposure.) Open another magazine and you may well see baby doll dresses that look like the sleepwear I designed so many years ago when Lolita was all the rage.
The expression, ‘been there, done it, got the T shirt’ could never be more apt as far as fashion goes. For some women, T shirts — embroidered, sequined, printed, or plain and simple have almost replaced blouses, and the longer ones, dresses. Is it just fashion or a reluctance to use an iron?
I recall when I was designing in the late 50’s, we had some special expensive fabric to try out. To keep costs down we were encouraged to create slim fitting designs. The fabric, being beautifully patterned, required no extra adornments. I styled a perfectly plain dress — pencil line with split skirt. I added a square piece of fabric folded into a small shawl, which fastened in front. Simple, slick and ‘with it’. After gaining approval from the bosses, we had a little fun when returning to my room. I pulled a hat flat down over our model’s head to look like a cloche and we did a laughing interpretation of a pre-war flappers’ dance.
Nothing is new. Anyone can wear anything, all you need is confidence. If a celeb wore a flour sack deliberately splashed with paint, and fastened a wide leather belt at whatever she regards as her waist, the fashion world would go nuts — Gina Wotsername photographed in posh restaurant wearing a sack. Now everyone wants one with that special paint splashing. Wow, now Gina has her own fashion label. Years ago many of these magazines did not exist, neither did TV, but more people went to the pictures (as we called the cinema).
When I was working freelance, one of the firms took on a designer who was the wife of a well known film director. I think she might have been an actress too. The firm contracted to buy a certain number of her designs. She visited the firm to get the samples made just like I did. She was useless and had little idea how to cut a pattern. Since she was in when I was not there, she worked in my office and used my patterns when she could get hold of them (my sample hand started hiding my made-up designs and their patterns when possible). But, evidently, what she designed from them could not have been up to much, as I was told that this minor celebrity had cost the firm a lot of money. Goodness knows what she was paid but she stayed in a city hotel while she was doing the work.
But then, the sort of designs I was doing at art school in late 1948 (see pictures) would have been useless for the firms I worked for after leaving. It was more a case of turning impractical designs into ones that would be acceptable for the garment market. Clothes were not just thrown out in those days, they had to last.
More next time…

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