Posts Tagged ‘Nottingham Art College’

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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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…