Posts Tagged ‘fashion’

Dress Design in the 1950’s — So you want to be a designer? Final Part

September 3, 2010

Dress Design in the 1950’s

So you want to be a designer? — Final Part (see previous three posts for rest of story).

I did indeed find another job. As a designer, yes, but also assistant to the Manageress Designer. This was to be a new thing for me — designing straight to the retail.
The premises were above one of the shops the factory supplied. The names may have been different, but both factory and shops were owned by the same person. Plans were already far advanced for their move into specially renovated premises, on the opposite side of the periphery of Nottingham’s city. Little did I know then that we would be treated to the stink of the glue factory every time a window was opened. No doubt our boss was not too pleased to find his new Daimler with piercing scratches right along the sides. (The lads who did were quite open about it. They told him, “We did it with this rock, mister.”
The room I worked in before the move was crowded but friendly. The finishers and others worked at one end and I had a long worktable at the side of the designer-manageress’s. This is the person I answered to (I’ll call her Joan). The boss, an incredibly busy person not shy of taking off his coat and doing a job to push production along, rarely spoke to anyone other than Joan. Here I will call the boss, Mr Big. He surely must have been at my interview, but I have no recollection of an interview taking place. That seems to be lost in the mist of time with events of far more significance taking place.
It was just as well we were to move. Tales of being overrun with mice, crowding, and the drabness of the place were depressing. Joan was overbearing and watched me like a hawk. Her upgrading of sizes were done to the perfection of cutting through the correct side of a fine pencil line. She would check to make sure the correct fraction had been added and that no pencil line showed. In a way it was funny because the boss seemed to have a far laxer approach, judging by what he did occasionally. He sometimes bought dresses and had them copied. One day, when Joan was not there to do it, he quickly unpicked the seams of a dress, placed the pieces on fabric and cut round them. He gave the parts to Joan’s sample hand to make up. Later, Joan cut a proper pattern made to our own specifications.
It did not take me long to hate the place. Moving to the prepared factory didn’t help either. It was still two bus journey’s to get there and it was in a deprived area within the stink of the glue factory. It had two toilets, but after a factory inspection one had to set aside for the man who came to work on the cutting bench, and the one who did the driving. Not that it mattered, no one had time to visit the toilet unless really urgent. Golly, I was timed by Joan, and what’s more, told off for not switching off my light during those few minutes.
Finally I was allowed to do a few sketches when things were slack, but I need not have bothered, Mr Big had no intention of using them. It did not take long to realize that I was only there to cut patterns. In fact, Joan came up to me one day and said, “Mr Big had been contacted by a man who can use the electric cutter, and he can grade patterns too. He wants eight pounds a week. He thinks he would be better off with him than keeping you.”
I was getting about five pounds a week then. I felt utterly humiliated. But that was the way things were. Mr Big took on a machinist. At the end of the week he looked at her work card, saw that she had not earned as much as he expected from his machinists and gave her two minutes notice to leave. They may have been on piece rates but he wanted to fill his benches with girls who could push through the work to his advantage.
So there I was, keeping my nose to the grindstone while thinking about looking elsewhere. The man did come and work for the firm. He was fast with the electric cutter and laying up machine, but he had no time for pattern cutting. Business was booming.
The only highlight for me was manning the firm’s stand each afternoon for a week during a Nottingham Trade Fair. I wore one of the firm’s designs made just to fit. That was to be my uniform for the week.
It did not take long to get another job. I informed Joan that I was leaving and where I was going. She was furious and sneered, “Huh! Another jersey-knit firm!” (As opposed to the many types of fabric used there.)
About ten minutes later I was brought my ‘cards’ and pay in lieu of a week’s notice. I was given two minutes to leave the factory.

The next place did not work out either. They really wanted help on the cutting bench (where I used an electric cutter for the first time) and an assistant for the designer. Not that she did much designing, as simple ‘sloppy Joe’ type of garments, made of brushed nylon, were brought in to be copied. I cut plenty of samples of her designs but few apparently sold. I was given a chance to design a couple of garments myself, one to specific instructions and the other freely. It was a nice black suit with perfect fit. All the samples were sold off in the factory after a few months, so I bought my suit and wore it on my honeymoon!
But I was back in that awkward position of being staff in a segregated system. Having lunch with staff in a boxed-off corner of the canteen was embarrassing. I soon joined the girls I worked with. The factory was even further away from home too. So I found myself another job.

At my new firm, I knew I was on a two week trial, not that it made any difference to the way I worked. The first thing to sort out was the blocks they had been using. Nothing fitted properly. The sample hand told me that if a bodice was too big for the dress’s skirt they would make a tuck in the bodice. Likewise if the skirt was too big for the bodice. What if the sides did not meet up? They cut off a bit themselves. Having been used to working to the thickness of a pencil line, I decided things had to change. Once I had a perfect set of blocks for the main sizes — not a big job — I could get down to designing.
What a place to work in though. At least I had a window near my cutting table, the rest of the room had to be lit up. The ceiling was low, with old wooden beams, and somewhat oppressive. The only toilet was off a landing down the stairs. It had a wash basin in there too, which was used to wash cups and mugs used for tea or coffee.
At the end of the first week, apart from cutting some specials and improving the blocks, I had designed ten dresses based on ones in a brochure I had been told to look through. The samples were all looking good and well made. Friday afternoon, I was called into the office. Of course, I expected to be given the post permanently. Instead I was told the opposite. They were really looking for an overlooker and I was not the person for the job. However, they said they could not fault my pattern cutting skills and would gladly give me a reference. They said I could stay for the second week if I wanted to. But I took my one week’s pay and left.
Before I left the building the sample hand came up to me. “You’re leaving aren’t you? We all knew you wouldn’t get the job. You see you’re too good. Mrs Smith (the previous designer who still had some influence) will never allow someone in her job who can better than her. We’re all very sorry about it, and we wanted you to know.”
I found that support comforting, especially as I had not been told about the overlooker requirement when appointed. The room had been working very smoothly that week. What did Mrs Smith do that would have made a difference? When she was cutting the patterns, likely she had to constantly sort out seams that didn’t fit!
On the Monday I called in at the Labour office (now job centres). I refused to be ‘signed on’ and found myself a job as a sample cutter at a well-established Nottingham firm turning out high quality garments. The pay was about the same but I only had one bus to catch to get there. It kept me going financially for a few months until that real break came my way.
I had applied for a job some months earlier but had not received a reply — that is, until it suddenly arrived unexpectedly . I was the only one for the interview. Their main interest in me was my connection with the firm I had done my training with. They sold garments to some of the same buyers. The man who did most of the selling for this firm knew the managers of the other one. (Likely had gulped down a few ‘glasses’ with them.)
The person who interviewed me lived in Manchester and only dropped in a few days a week. A ‘sleeping partner’ came rarely. One of the main partners had died some time before I went there. (His two sons ran a lingerie business on the floor above) The business seemed to be mainly run by the traveller, who got the orders and made sure the goods went through the factory and out. A secretary did all the office work. The overlooker made sure the garments were made and went through the system. (Unfortunately, this overlooker was a friend of the designer whom I was replacing.)
I was told why they were letting their designer go — evidently she came and went as she chose. Possibly she had someone to look after, I’m not sure. I was given £6 a week and told it would be raised to £8 if I merited it. Later on, supported by the traveller who kept the business afloat, I asked for the £8 and got it.
The overlooker was openly hostile but with Freddie (the travelling salesman) behind me, I got on okay. I also had an excellent sample hand and we worked well together. Freddie got what he needed, someone to be there, drop everything, and get on with whatever he had brought in that was hot on the market scene. This is where his connections came in. He would come along with samples of embroidery or ‘skirt permanent pleating‘ and want samples of dresses doing straight away. It was easy enough to design dresses to suit these samples and cut both pattern and fabric within a short time. Freddie would have his completed samples to take off to a customer in pretty quick time. This is where he scored at retail production. So this firm did both wholesale and retail trade. I could imagine he must have got somewhat frustrated before if the designer was missing half the time.
Freddie took me with him occasionally to meet the customers — both London and in Nottingham. He once told me what the buyer at C&A had said to him: “… and did that little girl design these?” He was quite impressed.
One day bales of a silky fabric arrived that had been bought incredibly cheap. I was asked to design a blouse that would be attractive but work out inexpensive. My design was just right. The blouse sold and the whole lot gone within a week.
To me this was all a dream come true. A good job with good money doing something that I was good at. What could be better?
Unfortunately, the boss in Manchester died and the business was sold out to the brothers who owned the lingerie firm above. They took over the two floors and the office.
With an excellent testimonial from Freddie, I applied back to the first firm that I worked for in Awkwright Steet. Not only were they pleased to take me on, they also took on a number of the workgirls, including my sample hand. I also had yet another another rise in salary. More to my personal satisfaction, I returned to that factory as a fully-fledged designer, and only just a little over two years after I had left it.
When I turned freelance, soon after my first child was born, I continued designing for that firm, plus the lingerie firm that had taken over my previous one. Shortly after, I designed and cut patterns for a firm manufacturing housecoats in Dudley, and occasional designing for others — in Nottingham, Leicester, London. These last were just fleeting as I had no wish to travel as my second son had been born. A few years later our third child arrived.
By this time manufacturing in this country was quickly dying out. The firm I first worked for sold one of their factories and turned the other over to underwear as being more profitable. Then the housecoat firm collapsed. I was still doing good business with the lingerie firm but they were greatly concerned about imports and looking for ways to reduce costs.
When my sons started school I became interested in Education. I took a three year teacher-training course, and finally qualified a year after we moved up here (Cumbria). It had been incredibly hard: my hubby in a completely different job, a mid-stream change of colleges for me (driving me towards a break-down in health), our children in different schools away from friends and family, and a different way of life for all of us. But I still did an occasional bit of work for the lingerie firm. Then the overlooker at that firm suddenly died. The remaining director (his brother having died some years earlier) sold out. Like most factories in Nottingham, that building is now turned into expensive apartments. What’s more, clothes can be bought at ridiculous prices due to cheap, if not, ‘sweated’ labour abroad. Even so, while workers labour long hours for low pay merely to put food in their children’s mouths, fortunes are being made at their expense. Does anyone care?
I look back on my life and consider these last years. After teaching I studied for the church and worked in lay ministry. These last years I have been writing stories and novels. Everything in my past is useful as a writer, but of interest to the modern reader? I very much doubt it.

The Designed For Love Trilogy — Awakening Love, Seduction By Design, Checkmate. Published by Magpies Nest Publishing in the Uk

The first book, Awakening Love, does contain settings familiar to me — the factory, home, and life in general with social distinctions as lived then. But June’s story is not mine. She does have much of my spirit though — a desire to achieve. Her love life is not mine but the morals and education do reflect those times. ‘Seduction’ moves the reader on to the late sixties and seventies, when mini skirts and hot pants became the rage, and sex was no longer a hush-hush subject. The final part takes the reader to the glorious Lake District where June regains an even stronger zest for design. Her former boss is as sexually potent as ever!
Chapters from all the books can be read at Magpies Nest Publishing.

So You Want To Be a Designer? Part Three

August 31, 2010

This rough design is the dress (as I remember it) that I did in my first job training to be a designer. I was sixteen at the time. The other dress is a basic design I used for a number of best-selling designs.

My first dress design at the factory. I don't like it much but I was paid!

Part three

Having got over the shock of having my dreams shattered, I caught the bus for work the next day with lower expectations of job satisfaction.
In a way I was in a privileged position compared with the workers. I was on the monthly staff roll and that meant I could use the staff toilet just off the stone stairway below. For this we had a communal key. No mixing with the girls at the toilet level! I was also allowed to go in at eight-thirty, the girls had to be there for eight. Mind you, they lived almost on the doorstep, I had to go five miles, or so, by bus and then walk the rest of the way.
The staff usually went out for lunch. They had their coffee break in their office. I went down to the canteen with the cutters. The girls tended to eat with their coffee. Likely they hadn’t had breakfast. I soon picked up the habit of enjoying a delightful cheese bap and a Swiss tart each morning. Was this comfort eating or piggishness? Possibly both. After all, for me, this was ‘eating out’. Only those with money or a good wage ate outside of the home, except that great take-away — fish and chips. Foreign food had yet to make inroads into British eating habits. Few people went abroad to know anything different. Few English cafes were around, never mind foreign food ones. My mother once took me to a Lyons Corner House and I thought that quite posh.
I was soon given samples to cut. Of course, my work was checked to make sure I had the patterns placed correctly. If a lay had already been made, it was just a case of making sure it came to the edge of the fabric fold. And, of course, that I cut it out exactly on the lines — smoothly.
I was asked to assist the head designer. I knew how to cut out economically just as I knew how to cut patterns. It is always essential to get patterns laid according to the grain of the material. The line of grain is always marked on the pattern. Measuring the each side of the line to the edge makes sure it is correct. Deviations and the fit of the bodice, and hang of the skirt, could be ruined. Turnings are always allowed on the pattern. A drawing of how to lay the pattern on the fabric correctly and for the most economical use of fabric is drawn on the largest piece of pattern with the actual amount of cloth needed. This is essential for the costing of each garment.
Before long I was grading patterns to different sizes. I also helped the designer by communicating with her sample hand and the girls who did the trimming, embroidery, finishing or pressing. In other words I was her gofer. After each buyer had been there would be much gofer activity.
Then came the day, when things had gone quiet, I was asked to do a few drawings for dresses. Now this was exciting. I was given an office to work in. It was being used as an extra stockroom so rolls of fabric and boxes of trimmings were carted off elsewhere. Before long I produced a few drawings. I showed these to the head designer and she suggested additions were needed. I added a pocket, which then had appliqué embroidery as an extra to pep it up a bit. It was in two shades of grey. Apart from the dress, the only comment I recall was that I had put arms, legs and a head to my designs. As to whether she could draw I have no idea but her drawings were of the garments alone as if hanging on hangers. No need for anything else — working drawings for the workgirls being the only essential.
I have done a rough drawing of the dress as I remember it. Normally sketches would not be shaded, it was enough to put which fabric was being used and maybe a swatch if needed. I can’t say I liked it with the pockets but the designer knew what she was doing. In fact I think it was the boss who suggested the appliqué on a pocket. The dress sold well and in a number of sizes and shades. So began my designing there. How exciting when the buyers came! I would be in my room waiting and then in would come the boss with a pile of dresses on his arm and instructions on how some needed changes to suit the customer.
I still had gradings to do and the designer to assist, samples to cut when required. That season was over and my contribution was small but quite successful. I was back on cutting again. I asked to go on the machines for practice. But I got worried when the chief designer said that would be useful. They could put me where needed.
We had a new overlooker for the cutters and he was a menace. Every time he passed me by he would rub the knuckle of his thumb down my spine. Did he think he was giving me a thrill? I asked him several times not to do it. He would just laugh. So when I had had enough of being laughed at, I swung my booted foot at his shin. He called me an unpleasant name, but I had the last laugh!
He wasn’t the only teaser. The one before him was training for management and quite pleasant. But he knew how easily I blushed and would stand staring until I looked up, knowing my cheeks would turn red. The cutters would laugh with him. Even so, they were a pleasant bunch.
From that first design beak, each time the new season stuff was being designed and new fabrics coming in, I was given a chance to design again. I had my own sample hand and she was a wonderful help. But this in-between position was not good. Assisting the designer was one thing but working on the shop floor denied me the respect the rest of the monthly staff received. My wages were not brilliant either. When I reached eighteen I looked around for another position.
Meanwhile, while walking down the street one day, I saw a woman walking towards me wearing one of my designs. It was unmistakable. The cut was simple enough, but I’d put appliquéd flowers flowing out of a pocket on the skirt and out of one on the bodice.
More to come — working in an almost windowless low-ceiled room, in a factory with only one toilet; working in a factory where mice played; working in others too…
And then my really big chance…

So You Want To Be A Designer — Part Two

August 28, 2010

So You Want To Be A Designer — Part Two…

Sketch on pad and pencils — lingerie like this came later

When I first started designing it was for the wholesale trade. This meant a time gap between design and the dress appearing in a shop. These shops were often called Madam shops, many of which claimed to sell exclusive designs. Wholesale buyers would come to the factory showroom before the actual season began, to choose the garments they required for their exclusive label. They would be bought in large quantities but in different shades and sizes. All would have the customers label stitched inside. (Some surprising names too) As soon as a garment was sold exclusively, it was put aside, but that did not mean we could not use it again in a different form. A little addition or something removed and it was fine to sell it to another customer. But garments were also sold with the firm’s own label. And salesmen travelled with samples too. So we had orders large and small.
Cutting would be done in bulk. The girls working the different sewing machines received bungles and, according to style, would perform their contribution ready for the following process. It is unlikely that many, if any, of these factories have survived over the years. Once trade was opened up some years after the war, cheap imports killed of much of our garment industry. The factories I knew in Nottingham have either been pulled down or turned into expensive apartments.
I suppose it is a bit like books. Mass production means a cheaper product, especially if manufactured abroad. Garments from China and elsewhere are produced far cheaper than even making one’s own clothes. Clothes are thrown away rather than be repaired, and many women throw out what they get bored with.
Looking at the clothes worn by many women, it is hardly surprising few fit properly because they are cut to allow for a wide band of sizes. Fewer sizes mean easier and cheaper production. So too, lack of fitting to the figure and the use of stretch fabrics.
I saw a dress in our local factory shop that I thought was for a slim six-year old. Not so — it was an ‘all-size’ woman’s dress cut in a tube of stretch fabric. Now I really did have a job keeping a straight face. This tiny garment was indeed incredibly stretchy, but pull it outwards and it became shorter in length. Now, it stands to reason you can’t have it all ways. I imagined a gang of girls out for a Saturday (or Friday) night booze-up, walking through town each wearing the same one-size dress tube. Miss Skinny’s dress tight over her size A cups and downwards to just cover her thighs. While Miss Buxom’s dress looking almost threadbare and barely covering her crotch. (Her bosom somewhat exposed too.) The rest of the girls in-between.
I myself cannot go by dress sizing today. I have clothes varying from size 12 to size 18. The size 18 I bought today. It looks as small, if not smaller, than a size 12.

I ask myself if it is possible to get a job as a designer in the UK these days. Of course you get the fashion houses turning out their usual freakish dresses, which are copied in a more toned down style for practical use. Our presenters on TV generally dress with restraint, but few seem to wear clothes that actually fit. Ah, maybe they do when the girls get up in the morning, but eating, travelling and sitting down can alter the shape of the body. Tight dresses ride up legs and buttons pull across chests and breasts.
Very few clothes look good when sitting down if tight at the waist. And how amusing to see tops constantly being pulled up to cover popping-out breasts, and pulled down to cover the bulging fat at the waist. And pants that open up at the back when the wearer sits down, as if giving an airing to what lies lower down.

Clothes used to be made to standard sizing with a certain tolerance to allow for movement and slight difference in size. Of course, corsetry, light or heavy, help preserve the figure’s shape, which clothes were designed to enhance. Film stars all had these lovely shapely figures. We girls wanted to look like they did — desirable. Big floppy bosoms were rarely seen. Cross-your-heart bras were meant to shape and separate. Firm breasts were enhanced by the cut of garments. Likewise waists and hips.

Firmness and standard fitting, made it fairly simple to cut patterns from blocks, knowing they would fit. Draping on a model might be possible for certain styling but they too had to have a pattern for sizing up and down. One-off designs might be okay for dresses for the rich and costed accordingly, but copies would have to be practical for the ‘masses’.

Back to my own story. Many factories existed in the Midlands and quite a few in Nottingham where I generally worked. (Further afield when freelancing). I was just sixteen when I began training at a knitted-fabric factory in Arkwright Street.
After the light and airy rooms of the Art College, where we sat peacefully designing or sewing, the noisy factory came as a shock. The design offices did not come up to my expectations, designing was done simply with sketches to show the sample-hand what the dress would look like when finished — seaming and styling. It was also a record, with a number to go with it, for orders to be placed with. The pattern would be numbered accordingly, also the lay to go with it, ready for production.
The lay was drawn on part of the pattern — that is the way the pieces were placed on the fabric for most economical cutting. When the design entered production a long piece of Swedish craft paper, exactly the width of the fabric, would have the pattern placed on and penciled accordingly. This lay was then machined with holes along the pattern lines, with a long-armed sewing machine. When placed on fabric, chalk puffed through the holes would leave an impression when the ‘lay’ was rolled away. A piece of fabric tied like a pudding held the powdered chalk. It didn’t fly all over and not much is needed to do the job. Several layers of cloth are cut at once. In more modern factories, electric cutters were used. But for soft knitted woolen cloth, hand cutting is probably better. Most knitted fabric these days is cotton, some mixed with other fibre.

In that particular factory the other floors had different things going on — wool knitted into fabric up above, and wool knitted on flat frames into jumpers on the floor below. Offices and storage on the ground floor. The noise of working machinery drummed and rattled above and below, almost drowning the noise of machinery in the outerwear department. All the sewing machines, including those for embroidery and other decoration, were looped onto rotating machinery. At the far end of the huge room, a partition separated the finishers, who sat quietly sewing on buttons, press studs and hooks and eyes. In those days, zips were fairly new and some skirts and dresses had placket or fly fastening. Another glass partition separated the finishers from the pressers. Off that room could be found the ladies’ toilets. What few men working there would be using the staff toilet. Off the main room a walk-in stock cupboard held fabric ready for use. A corridor took you to the managers’ office and the designers’ rooms.
The stone steps up which I walked every day, were worn down by the hundreds of workers who, over very many years had followed the same path. To keep the workers happy, the radio played out songs for singing. Just as it did in many other factories throughout the land. Not only for factory workers, but also for the busy housewife at home too. Modern gadgets — vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dryers, mixers, or anything else that needed an electric plug — existed in most homes. When I was at school it was assumed we would be using flat irons at home, although the teacher did show us how an electric iron could be plugged into a light bulb socket.
The smell of oil and warm fabric that had been delivered from the Finishers and Dyers, mingled with the sweat of workers. The windows were dirty and the floor worn and shiny with constant use.
Underneath the long cutting benches were bins on wheels. Remnants of fabric were kept in these bins just in case a part might need re-cutting. Every so often they were emptied so as not to get different shades mixed up. Of course, occasionally pieces would be taken to make small garments. Someone made her husband a swimming outfit but the fabric became soggy in the sea and he lost it, much to the delight of the ladies on the beach.
That first day at work, I was given a pair of cutting shears and told to sort out the remnants in the bins, chopping up the smaller pieces. I spent the whole day doing nothing else. My hands became sore and blistered, but worse — when I went into the huge canteen with the other girls at break time, the men who worked in the other departments all let out wolf whistles. The heat in my face told me that my cheeks were scarlet. Fortunately, the union rep went over and told them that I was a ‘lady’ and did not like that sort of thing!
When I arrived home, it was late and dark. I was tired and weary from being on my feet the whole day and bombarded with noise. Nothing was like I had expected. My hands hurt and plasters were needed for my thumb joints. I felt bitterly disappointed, humiliated and alone with my thoughts. I fell onto my bed and wept. My mother came to ask me what the problem was. To be truthful I didn’t really know what to tell her, so I said nothing. After a while I pulled myself together and read a book.
There’s nothing like a book for forgetting your problems.

More to come…

Dress Design and all that…

August 18, 2010

Wedding dress design 1949-1950

Dance dress designed by me in 1948. Black lace and net over gold satin.

Two designs for different occasions but they reveal the difference that a year or two can make in fashion.
I think I designed the gold/black ball dress in 1948 and the wedding dress a year later. Of course I was a mere teenager at the time and did not have the benefit of further education, TV and the vast number of magazines that are around today. But I did know how to cut a garment pattern. I attended a variety of art and craft classes in the Secondary Art School I attended between the ages of 13 and 15. Plus one term at the Nottingham College of Art and Craft. It should have been a two year Design Course but I had to withdraw so that I could earn a wage.
My dad had become completely disabled and the benefits expected today did not exist when I was young. My mum worked as a cleaner and, in our home lacked all the labour saving devices expected in today’s homes. It was hard enough putting food on the table. My mother never seemed to stop working. Dad (often angry and showing it) did his best to earn a little money while sitting at the kitchen table (the kitchen being the only room with heating — fire needed for hot water). Dad tried his hand at thonging handbags and purses, repairing vacuum cleaners, renovating old dolls prams and various other activities. None really earned much and likely most of it went to pay for his football coupons each week. Like today, those that can least afford it, gamble in the hope of winning that pot of gold at the end of an imaginary rainbow. But it all worked out okay.
Someone heard that I had left college and was working in a shop. This lady happened to be secretary to the boss of a garment manufacturer. I was interviewed on the strength of having a reputation for doing well both at college and for my general artistic talents. So, being engaged as a trainee designer and assistant to the chief designer, I had a foot on the ladder to success.
But I digress. These two outfits reflect my thoughts at the time as to what was fashionable. I made a booklet of designs – painted on black paper (most of them are on an earlier post) and the wedding dress featured on the first page.
The evening dress was something I thought of making for myself. But I chose something quite different. (That too is on another post).
I showed my designs to someone at the time and he said I was an uncut diamond. He was right. I did not move in the right circles and had to find my way to improve and succeed. But my ideas went down okay at the firm where I worked and buyers bought my designs. They liked the youthful image. I was on my way up. Switching to different firms gaining experience and then back again helped to broaden my outlook. After my children came along, I switched to freelance work, embracing not only outerwear but lingerie and housecoats too. I worked hard (I cut the patterns too) as we had a family and a home to look after too. Later, I gave up most of the designing and went in for teaching. The hours and work were more compatible with having a young family. But that’s another story!

My web sites:
Magpies Nest Publishing
Writing For Joy
Diary of a Country Lady
My books
Ask Gran Hobson
NEW SITE — Lakeland Writer — Checkmate and lovely photographs of Cumbria

Fashion in 1952 — Evening Dress

July 29, 2010

Forget the handsome guy (he\’s mine) One of my own original designs — two piece shot taffeta and brocade

I have now had well over 5,000 hits on posts that have designs going back to the early fifties. Not huge by some standards but good for Wrinkly Writers.
I came across this photo of me in 1952 (with my husband to be). I am wearing a dress I designed the year before (1951) But then it was long and simple — shot silk taffeta blue/black skirt and boned strapless top of gorgeous top silver and blue brocade. I later cut it short and used that material to make the sleeveless top (that you see here) to wear over the dress. It was a useful little outfit. A perfect fit too. All fastenings invisible.
Nothing wasted in those days. It wasn’t just that money was in short supply but we were brought up to make the most of what we had.
What I like about fashions of that era is the cut of clothes. They enhanced the figure. Good packaging with allure, rather than overt exposure of goods.

visit my other blogs
Writing For Joy
Diary Of An English Lady
Gladys Hobson — Author
Magpies Nest Publishing for my UK books.

Statistics, Schools and Fashion!

February 15, 2010

What use statistics?
At times, it seems the government rules by statistics. Is this a good thing? It seems to me you can prove anything you want to by the use of statistics. The clue is in what you are measuring and comparing with.

Years ago, when I was in the garment industry, we had a simple calculation for cutting patterns based on the average size of British women. So a basic block (size 14) would have a 36 bust, 28 waist and 38 hips. Patterns were graded upwards and downwards by two inches on these measures with necessary increases or decreases for shoulder, neck and other measurements.
But fashions change, and quite likely, since foundation garments are seldom worn, the average woman’s waist size has increased. More striking is the increase in bust sizes, especially when considering a bra’s cup. This makes a huge difference to both styling and cutting. I must say, at this point, that many dresses today are rather like (in appearance), the nighties I designed years ago. The very short ones just like ‘baby dolls’ that followed soon after the Lolita film.
(Nothing is completely new in fashion). When I was designing, clothes (apart from warmth) were to enhance the figure rather than reveal it so that little remained of mystery! I can assure you, wolf whistles told a girl she was alluring and seduction by design did not require half nakedness to be successful! (See picture – smooth lines to enhance the figure)
Back to statistics.
In order to get basic designs right, new statistics are needed for cutting patterns. But it seems that ‘choose your style then find a dress that fits — whatever the marked size’ rules the market.
Now look further afield. Statistics may tell us that the average household is in debt to £x,000. This annoys me. We have never been in debt and that is so for quite a number of people. The truth of the matter is that those in debt have far higher borrowing than these raw statistics tell us. As things are, it is ALL the population, especially the thrifty ones that will eventually have to pay the debt. Already they are losing out on interest on savings. Before long they will have to pay more in taxation, one way or another. We all sink or swim together, whether or not some have already paid for their lifebelt. What do statistics say about such matters? Nothing really, because we are now in the realm of sociology as well as financial affairs.
How about Education?
Millions are spent on exams to gain statistics of where pupils are at and if the system is working or failing. When I was training to be a teacher, exam performance was based on the normal curve and results were shifted to accommodate the fact that a certain percentage of the population has a very high IQ while at the lower end are those, possibly with brain damage, who have a limited ability no matter how much education and training they receive. In between the ‘average’ child. The curve was more or less constant and, it was suggested, exam results adjusted accordingly. Of course, it was recognised that, with the right education a child could improve considerably. However, it seems today that either there is a restraint on achievers or there are somewhat optimistic figures for what was once an ‘average’ ability pupil. Good that a lot of children who work hard get high grades. But is this because the exam system is at fault or are children either being taught better or is the population being born with a higher intelligence? Everybody can be a star may be true in life’s journey but it cannot possibly be true where exam results are concerned. I myself have an IQ above the average maybe, but I recognised that some of my pupils were blessed with a far higher one. I could never be a brain surgeon! Some children are gifted and others may try hard but are doomed to disappointment when the going gets tough.
What stats can do is show up weaknesses if tests are properly conducted — not under stress but more as part of normal classroom activities. Hence, a child may be found to need help with certain skills, or maybe a medical condition — eg hearing or sight loss, or dyslexia — may be discovered and necessary measures taken. Primary education is not the place to instil in pupils a strategy for passing exams. Stats concerned with the average age for various reading, writing and math skills, is only useful as a diagnostic tool to help seek out various weaknesses and pupils helped to overcome them. Sounds and words tests, based on statistical analysis can surely be of help here. (I found this to be so with a class of first and second year juniors, some of whom, having had extra help were not improving on their reading scores as much as I expected, After referral they each had a hearing problem, not great but enough for me to devise a remedial help plan.)
Now coming to all the stats concerned with good and failing schools, especially in Secondary Education . Panic among parents who want the best for their children. It seems to me the best these stats can do is point out where teaching and equipment can be improved, at the worst the focus becomes ‘personal’ and parents focus on the catchment area and desire to move, at great expense, to a school that has excellent exam passes. How does that make the rest of the pupils and families feel at such schools? I question whether the statistics should be made public the way they are. ALL schools should perform well for all their pupils. But exams are not everything. Academic subjects are not that important to children whose skills are ‘practical hands on’ and unfortunately the system fails these pupils. Years ago, development of such skills in a meaningful manner brought contentment and a sense of well-being. Not only are such skills useful when job (especially apprenticeships) seeking but also for contented (and economical?) living.
Mike Bostock has a comprehensive write-up of Educational Statistics on his new blog. Looks good to me. He explains things very well.

It seems to me that, like the stats used for pattern cutting, the ‘essentials’ have changed over time. Is this a good thing? Do children get better education or has society split even further?

Praise Indeed! Review of Awakening Love

February 11, 2010

Here is a novel, Awakening Love, that I thoroughly enjoyed from an author, Gladys Hobson, who quickly pulled me into the lives of her characters, set in the restlessly reenergising world of post Second World War Britain.

It was easy to empathise, if not fall in love with, June Armstrong, a stunning and very young woman from humble beginnings who was determined to carve a career for herself, as well as establish an outlet for her astonishing creativity, in fashion design, and whose naivety regarding her great beauty and high-potency sex appeal quickly saw her the object of desire and more of several rich, charismatic, powerful – and some ruthless – men. That she wrestled with her own searing awakening sexual desires – the equal of her suitors – pitted against her moral sense, with chequered success, was not a surprise, but made excellent reading.

It quickly became obvious that this writer, surely, was weaving a tale of truth tantalisingly close to actual reality from those days, she tells it so well; only someone who has worked in the industry, fashioned the cloth, walked the corridors, and experienced much adoration of her own beauty and charisma is likely to be so convincing; alternatively, it would have to be someone who can marshal the visceral visions in her imagination to breathe and live on the written page.

Gladys Hobson had me admiring June’s fiancé Arthur, while wanting to take to her boss, and later business associate, Rob, with a cricket bat to teach the bastard how not to treat women; I give Ms Hobson full marks for how her wordcraft got me so engrossed.

Explicit sexual encounters there are aplenty, yet painted with such taste and consummate restraint, that I would happily have let my early teenaged daughter read this book had I owned it then, to help her understand and anticipate the world of sexual promise and pitfalls out there in the big bad world.

I have an enhanced and valuable insight now to what the class conscious Britain of those times was like, as well as a quickening of my understanding of primal human nature, thanks to reading Awakening Love. Also, it is a pleasure to read a book written by an author who has garnered much wisdom: their books are the better ones, the wisdom glistens from page after page, and only time and enlightened self-examination can bring such a harvest.

As a writer myself, there were gems aplenty that caught my eye and informed me among Ms Hobson’s paragraphs.

I commend the author for her remarkable achievement, and I will be reading the sequels.

;Payton L. Inkletter (writer, thinker, humorist)

VISIT Inkletter’s review pages

Late 1940’s Factory Life — Training To Be A Designer

July 21, 2009

This is the third part of the story of my design training and growing up into an adult.
That first day at work was painful on my hands. The cutting shears were huge and my hands fairly small and tender. The pressure on the ball of my thumb caused by the unyielding metal as it sliced through several thicknesses of fabric, was unrelenting. Binding the the thumb and finger grips may have softened things a little but it did not stop blisters forming.
The constant noise of heavy machinery above and below that huge room, as well as in the room itself, was like nothing I had ever before experienced. Noise of tanks going along the road and shaking the house was about the nearest thing but that was just an occasional occurrence, this noise only ceased when the workers stopped for lunch.
The room — almost a whole floor of the huge factory — was dull except next to the dirty windows. Plenty of lighting over work benches though. A smell of oil pervaded everywhere. The floor was worn and shiny from many years of use. Shiny knots and heavy grain in the wood stood out of the floorboards, not enough to trip us up but showing the factory’s age like the wrinkled and gnarled faces of some of the aged workers. Many of those employees had spent the whole of their working lives at that factory.
By the time I arrived home on that first day, I felt incredibly weary. My hands hurt and my feet ached. Everything had been so new to me. All my ideas about dress designing had been completely at odds with what I had experienced that day. I may have been staff, but to start with I was part of the workforce. The girls on the cutting bench were lovely, but I felt alone and gauche when talking to the staff. At lunchtime, the office girl took me down to the canteen to have lunch with her. Morning snack with the work-girls, then all change at lunchtime. I ate my pudding with a spoon. She ate it with a fork and spoon. We had nothing in common to talk about. She talked posh and had a boyfriend about twenty years her senior. I was back with the girls on my own level after lunchtime. Well, not really on my level because they were more sophisticated and knowledgeable about life as well as their jobs. (That is where I found out a lot about sex!) I felt everyone was laughing at me. Since I blushed easily, they had cause to.
It sounds daft now, maybe because my perception of life has radically changed. I was young and vulnerable in those days. I had never been away from home and even the girls at college, during my short time there, seemed above my ‘station’ in life. I had been the only girl at school without a navy gabardine coat (I only had a second-hand pea-green coat), and patches stitched over cracks in the uppers of my shoes had marked me out as a poor child. But I started work in the factory wearing a jumper and skirt I bought with my pay from the six weeks’ job I had before getting the trainee designer position. Even so, I was aware of poverty. Poverty had brought about humiliating experiences and they could not easily be dismissed from my memory.
So the evening of that first day of working in that factory, weary and disillusioned I cried myself to sleep. What had I expected? Bright offices and pleasant workrooms with genteel ladies working on individual garments. My mother wanted to know why I was crying but I could not tell her. I did not really know myself.
Teasing over blushing went on, but I settled in. Eventually I kicked the overseer on the shin because he refused to stop rubbing the knuckle of his thumb down my spine. Okay, so he called me ‘a nasty little bitch’ but he never did it again.
I became friendly with one of the cutters — May, a girl six feet in height and a big welcoming smile.
Joan, a young woman, was head cutter. She also modelled the new designs. A lovely friendly girl, she invited May and me to her twenty-first birthday party. I remember we had a lot to drink, mostly stuff like cherry brandy but also gin and lime. I stayed the night at May’s house. We had more to drink before we went to bed. Her younger brother was still up. He drank too, turned a greenish grey (I had never seen anyone turn that colour before) and threw up in the sink. Us? We ate a few large pickled onions, dropped a few and picked them up — likely with fluff attached — ate them and went to bed. We had a good night’s sleep and I went home the next day, fit and happy.
More of my adventures with May later.

Fashion and Dress Design

July 7, 2009

I find it interesting, as well as surprising, that my posts on dress design and post-war fashion are visited not only with regularity but have become ‘top of the pops’, viewings even exceeding those of Sex and the Over Sixties — and other sex related postings. Who searches them out?

Post-war Britain was an interesting time for those keen to be dress designers. Wartime (and just after) restrictions (where all clothing bore a utility label, and ‘make do and mend’ was just as much a war cry as ‘dig for victory’) were being lifted, more fabric could be used and thought given to the body beautiful. Brassieres that shaped as well as uplifted, and girdles that nipped in the waist all helped to achieve an ‘hour-glass’ figure perfect for the New Look in women’s clothing. Extravagant flaring skirts reaching below the calf gave a new elegance, and soft dropped shoulder lines were a necessary casting off of uniform dullness that we had lived with for so long.

When the New Look was introduced in Paris I was just a young teenager with my heart set on being a dress designer. I was in my second year of a two year course at a secondary art school. I remember there was a lot of buzz as to whether using so much fabric was practical and desirable. I guess we had long been brainwashed into thinking about economy and practicability. I did well at the art school and was allowed to go on to take a design course at the Nottingham Art College. I loved it. We were taught not only about design of all types of garments but also pattern cutting and making up. No silly clothes in those days. Dresses had to fit the figure, and fit perfectly. Elegance and style were important. Local manufacturers looked for clothing they could sell. No cheap clothes you could just discard in those days, and few people had money to spare for frivolity.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the course during the second term when my dad, after years of struggle with a creeping paralysis, could no longer go out to work. In those days benefits were abysmal and grants in short supply. I got a job at a ladies’ outfitters for thirty shillings a week. I hated it there. The girls sniggered when I asked a young lady if she would like to try on a suspender belt as she was not sure about the size. Corsets were tried on but no one had ever suggested anything of lesser value.

When a consignment of nylons arrived, a queue formed reaching outside into the street. My pencil disappeared as I was about to write out a receipt. The boss’s wife refused to lend me hers or replace it. I was stuck with a waiting queue — my face getting redder and redder. She eventually relented (bad for business?) and told me to let that be a lesson not to lose anything.

Imagine my joy when an acquaintance of the family, who was secretary to the manager of the outwear department of a very large clothing manufacturer, suggested she ask her boss if he would consider taking me on as a trainee designer.

I was indeed taken on, initially to assist the chief designer and to help on the cutting benches, but, within a fairly short time I too was designing for the firm. (The factory is more or less as I have used for one of the settings in ;Awakening Love where June is the young designer).

More in the next post…