June 16, 2015

Knitting and Sewing

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:56 am by historywardrobe

A lovely first-hand account of WW2 thrift and ingenuity

A Housewife's Work

Crafts are coming back into fashion again, but rather as a hobby than a necessity. In this post, my Mum looks back to the knitting and sewing during the war and post war years.

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British Women Go To War by J.G. Priestley / P.G. Hennell

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:52 am by historywardrobe

This is a gem of a book and the colour photos, although posted, are highly inspirational


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May 8, 2015

Where Did Their Clothes Go? Textile Recycling at the Foundling Hospital

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:45 pm by historywardrobe

I always enjoy finding out more about historical recycling of textiles


The Foundling Hospital was set up to care for children whose parents were unable to support them. The first children were accepted in 1741 and it was quickly recognised that the Hospital provided a valuable public service. From 2 June 1756 to 25 March 1760 Parliament provided funds for the Hospital to accept all children presented to it. Nearly 15,000 children aged 12 months or under were accepted.

Babies entered the Hospital wearing clothes provided by their mothers and were commonly garbed in decorative printed, checked and striped gowns. Yet these garments could not be used again by the Foundlings because the Hospital required its charges to wear a uniform. Infants were dressed identically in grey, the older children wore brown. With 15,000 children entering the Hospital in the space of four years, tens of thousands of garments were collected. So where did these clothes go?

Textiles were expensive during…

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April 28, 2015

Fancy a Cuppa? Taking Tea in the Thirties

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 9:06 am by historywardrobe

1930s lime green gown and bolero jacket... and my grandmother's art deco china

1930s lime green gown and bolero jacket… and my grandmother’s art deco china

There’s so much to talk about over tea in the Thirties…

Did you see the new Clark Gable film at the pictures last night..?  Have you heard the latest about the Abdication Crisis on the wireless..?  Wouldn’t you just love to cruise across the Atlantic in the super fast ‘Queen Mary’..? 

Open the newspaper to read about weddings, coronations, invasions, Olympics… and that man Hitler.

These are modern, fast-moving times.  You might have driven your automobile to the tea shop (stopping at newly-invented zebra crossings, I hope; observing new cat’s-eyes road markings, and possibly parking in a new multi-storey car park).  The cafe table cloths might be laundered in an automatic washing machine – although boiling water poured from a height is also recommended for removing tea stains.

At least you won’t be bothered by people talking on mobile telephones.

What will you be drinking…?

Tea, of course.  Made from steeped tea leaves and served in china cups with saucers and tea spoons (one lump or two?)  Or on a hot summer’s afternoon perhaps some home-made lemonade, with enough real lemons to make you wince.  There’s coffee too.  Instant coffee that take seconds to make (caffeine-free also available).  No fancy lattes, moccachinos or expressos – just with milk or without.  All to be chased down by a cigarette or two (Good for the lungs, dontchaknow).

What will you be eating?

There are many familiar products in the 30s, from Birds Eye custard and Ovaltine to Ryvita and Bourneville chocolate.  But

A perfectly pretty pink cake from 1936

A perfectly pretty pink cake from 1936

it’s cakes which reign supreme at a 1930s tea table.  Fluffy Victoria sponges squishing layers of fruity jam and fresh cream… cherry cake, chocolate cake, short bread, gingerbread, almond biscuits and coconut pyramids, all dusted with delicate icing sugar.

Not good for the figure?  Fear not!  Marmola Anti-Fat pills promise to melt away the pounds; Beasley’s Reducing Corset controls unruly curves.  For an extra healthy look, Kolynos toothpaste whitens tea-stained teeth and Beecham’s pills soothe a sour stomach.  (And if you’re worried about being too, too thin, Beautipon amazing vegetable flesh forming paste will give you curves in all the right places.)

Need a little extra help?  Then men – strap on your Linia abdominal belt! Women – wiggle into your rubber roll-on girdle!

Delightful fashions c 1931 - not much room for cake in these long lines

Delightful fashions c 1931 – not much room for cake in these long lines

Most importantly: what will you wear to tea?

Ah, for that information you’ll need to see a performance of the History Wardrobe presentation Tea Gowns & Tea Time with a tempting display of vintage fashions and a simply smashing insight into taking tea 30s-style.

For more details on events near you, see the History Wardrobe diary.  And bon appetit!

April 5, 2015

V.E. Day 70th Anniversary – Memories From My Family’s Photo Album (Kent & Netherlands)

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:05 pm by historywardrobe

A very special and very personal VE day remembrance

Come Step Back In Time

V. E. Day commemorative silk scarf. Private collection. ©Come Step Back In Time V. E. Day commemorative silk scarf from 1945. Private collection. ©Come Step Back In Time


Germany surrendered on 7th May, 1945, and the next day was declared V.E. (Victory in Europe) Day, ending World War Two in Europe. However, for many servicemen and their families, May 1945 was not their war’s end. The Allies were still at war with Japan but on the 6th and 9th August, 1945, the United States dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered, World War Two was officially at an end.

V.E. Day commemorative pins, 1945. Private collection. ©Come Step Back In Time V.E. Day commemorative pins, 1945. Private collection. ©Come Step Back In Time

In 2015, Britain will be marking the 70th anniversary of V.E. Day Victory in Europe and from Friday 8th May 2015 there will be a three-day weekend of commemorative events across the country. At 3pm on 8th May, national two-minute silence will mark the…

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February 19, 2015

Original, Revival, or Costume?

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:12 pm by historywardrobe

Every costume historian – professional or enthusiast – faces the challenge of distinguishing real from replica, fact from fantasy. This great blog post flags up some of the deceptively authentic-seeming gowns doing the rounds of Pinterest as originals

February 7, 2015

Victorian Women on the Railways

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:19 am by historywardrobe

One of my favourite work ‘tasks’ is reading primary sources – essentially, scouring period newspapers, magazines, diaries and letters for insights and revelations.

For no accountable reason my family (Midlands mining/textile background) kept a bound volume of the sensationalist newspaper The Days Doings – Here and There, from 1870-1874.  I loved turning the stiff pages as a child and seeing women being savaged by circus lions; men blown sky high in factory explosions; actresses ‘surprised’ in their boudoirs by moustachioed strangers… All very gory or titillating by turns, and yet quite tastefully depicted.

The newspaper is disgracefully racist – a facet which was sadly lost on me as a child, but which spoils the re-reading as an adult.  In contrast to this casual and demeaning discrimination, it is often quite feminist (despite recurrent images of slender female ankles and impossibly dainty button boots.)    For example, journalists report positively on suffrage campaigning in New York and London.  In May 1872 they note with pride the employment of a female engine driver in an unspecified American Western state.  Naturally, they must then resort to drooling over her alleged appearance:

Days Doings 1870s_0018“The womanly engineer is a blonde, a genuine blonde, with wavy hair and the brightest and bluest eyes.”

However, much emphasis is placed on the fact that she is “thoroughly efficient in her duties” and “gifted with a very considerable degree of physical strength – having an arm which can pull with vigour, and a frame which can stand a certain amount of shaking.”  Ultimately the railway company and the reporters conclude:

“the experiment and the engineer work well, and the lady and the company, and the public are satisfied.”

We can be less than satisfied with the image accompanying the article.  For once the female’s ankles are hidden, but it is extremely unlikely anyone would drive a locomotive in fashionable hat, low-cut bodice and swirling skirts.

Now I’m speculating – is there, somewhere in the States – a genuine image of this pioneer railway worker?

January 26, 2015

We Also Served – Book review

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 6:29 pm by historywardrobe

105027One day there won’t be Women’s History.

One day there’ll be People’s history, encompassing each gender, race, age, culture and ideology.

Until this elusive future ideal, books which focus on neglected aspects of our past are crucial to present the fullest, fairest perspective.

We Also Served – The Forgotten Women of the First World War by Vivien Newman is a timely overview of experiences rescued from oblivion.  Here are women once lost behind the filters of indifference or deliberate censorship, now made visible again through accessible scholarship and engaging writing.

Newman explores facets of history which, thanks to the First World War Centenary and a new generation of historians, are almost familiar to the modern reader – munition workers, medical personnel, servicewomen and spies.  It would be easy to reduce a myriad of lives to neat stereotypes – the nurse, the WAAC, the factory worker – but Newman avoids this by drawing on a good variety of sources, and by combining analysis with first-person accounts.

It is the voices from the past which add an important human element to the historical overview – voices which deserve to be heard.  Among all the details and observations in We Also Served Newman rightly places the experiences of women in the First World War on an equal footing with those of the men.  There were few women engaged in martial combat during the war, but they had their own fights; their own victories and casualties.  Heroism or suffering on the battlefield are surely no longer considered the key requirement for a name being remembered on the roll call of history. Valorous deeds may have been underrated and unrecognised in the past, but Newman’s work clearly shows the courage is there regardless.

And not just courage.  We read of ambition, excitement, frustration and exhaustion.  Also, hope… and grief.

In one anecdote, Newman draws attention to the fact that when munition worker Lottie Meale’s husband donated a photograph of her to the Imperial War Museum, he inscribed the memorial message – “died of TNT poisoning contracted on duty.” He did not consider her sacrifice any less significant than those of the poor blokes killed abroad.

There is, of course, more to know.  Each chapter of this book could be expanded into a volume of its own.  There is always more to know and more to explore. Each life could have its own dedicated history (some of them do – the bibliography is helpful on this score.)  Newman’s book is one of several general WW1 histories which will inspire the even more specialist works which the subject so rightly deserves.

We Also Served ends with the words of WRAF servicewoman Florence Green, who, at the grand age of 110, told a reporter: “I was proud of my service.”  Newman can rightly be proud of hers too.

For details of the History Wardrobe costume presentations Women and the Great War and Great War Fashion visit www.historywardrobe.com

York in the Great War

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 3:02 pm by historywardrobe

105015The city of York has a long, vibrant and occasionally violent history.

Until very recently the four years of the Great War have been comparatively overlooked by historians and memorialists.  Books, TV programs and films had previously focused only on the military aspects of the war.  Thanks to the war’s Centenary we now have a far greater appreciation of how immense the war’s impact was on all levels of society… and on the Home Front too.

Karyn Burnham’s history York in the Great War is part of a neat series by Pen and Sword books.  As such, it suffers under the constraint of the series’ word limit. Frankly – it’s too short!  Happily, what we have is a nicely-researched, well-written overview of a fascinating city during a tumultuous era.

York in the Great War will enable locals to see their city with fresh eyes, wondering – Was this where the Zeppelin bombs fell? Was this where the women from the Cocoa Works had their allotments?  Did troops march down this street?

In York in the Great War details of daily life touch on so many aspects of the wider war, both home and abroad.  For example, the book covers issues about recruitment – and conscientious objection.  We read of the welcome given to Belgian refugees… and the fearful bigotry behind the internment of so-called ‘enemy aliens’.  Zeppelins raid; food is rationed and influenza strikes. 1559 days of war are endured, until the bells of York Minster are free to peal again in peacetime.

Adding to the book’s appeal are previously unpublished images from the collection of local historian, the late, great Hugh Murray.

Above all, it is the personal stories which make this book a treat.  My favourite?  The tale of Sgt T.J. Williamson of the 5th King’s Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiment.  His life was saved during the second battle of the Somme when a potentially fatal bullet was stopped… by the tin of Elect Cocoa sent out as a ‘comfort’ by Rowntree’s Cocoa Works.

May 21, 2014

The Future of Fashion…

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:06 am by historywardrobe

… from a Victorian perspective.

1926 men

A prediction of 1926 menswear. Hardly the sober 3-piece suit of actuality

In 1893 The Strand Magazine published a bizarre article by W. Cade Gall.  It claimed to record the dream of a snoozing gentleman in which he read a history of fashion written in 1993.  This mock history explored the absurdities of fashion’s evolutions, complete with zany illustrations (all featured in the article).

Fashions of 1893

Fashions of 1893 – perfectly ‘normal’ for their time

The true delight of the piece isn’t so much in the flamboyant costumes depicted.  Nor is it quite in the squirm of superior knowledge a modern reader might feel comparing predictions with reality. The real pleasure is in turning the spotlight on our own preconceptions.

Any culture struggles to see outside its own social and technological norms.  We assume that what we wear and how we wear it are ‘natural’ and inevitable even.  There are strong often-unexamined beliefs about the ‘correct’ gender of clothes, and also what’s appropriate for a certain status, profession or religion. 

Take trousers.  The imaginary 1993 fashion history recorded women actually breaking with convention to wear breeches of many forms – ‘In 1897 the divided skirt threatened to spread universally.  But it passed off, and nothing of a radical order was attempted in this direction until the revolution which brought in trousers for women in 1942.’  Given the rise of women cyclists in bloomer suits in the 1890s, and the adoption of trousers by women in World War Two, this isn’t too far off the mark.  However, it is clearly inserted as a joke.  A sort of cosy ‘women in trousers… whatever next! Harrumph!’

In 1893 it was inconceivable that men would leave off neckties, shirts and jackets.  Or that anyone could go out hatless.  That clothes would fit sleek to the body.  That legs would become a new erogenous zone.  That corsets would shrink first to girdles, then bras; that women’s drawers would become so scanty they disappear between the rump cheeks.

1980s and 90s

Female fashion of 1989 (left) and male peacocking from 1993. More suited to a couture catwalk fantasy than reality…

As for fabrics, the late nineteenth century saw early developments in cellulose fabrics leading next to rayons – ‘art silks.’  Until DuPont’s work with fully artificial fabrics in the 1930s and the invention of nylon, the only way to form-fit fabric was through rubber elastic, or clever bias-cutting. 

The late 20th century has seen a dazzling surge in textile innovations.  Garments made of Kevlar, Gore-Tex, PVC, Mylar etc have expanded the range of enviroments and scenarios in which humans can survive and thrive.  All very Space Age.

Frocks on Parade

…although these genuine outfits from the 1980s might well look outlandish to future costume historians. (As featured in the History Wardrobe presentation ‘Frocks on Parade’)

But I can’t help wondering what a fashion history of our lifetimes would reveal about our clothes.  Will we be admired for wearing digital prints, spray-on fibres and ‘intelligent’ weaves… or will we be ridiculed for our conventionality, impracticality, informality and over-consumption?

I look forward to finding out in the future.



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