Saturday, 13 February 2016

Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom and all the single ladies

Despite the title, this isn’t a Valentine’s-themed post – but if you happen to be single, it’ll probably make you grateful for some of the advantages of 21st-century life. Last weekend, I went to a study day at City Lit that was inspired by Virginia Nicolson’s Singled Out, a book telling some of the stories of the “surplus women” after the First World War. Although this was a period when opportunities for women were growing enormously, they still had to battle with inadequate wages, or living situations. For every inspiring career woman, or bachelor girl striding forth, twenty more would be agonising over whether they could afford anything more than a bread roll for their lunch.

You don’t need to look far to find such women in literature of the period – think of the almost destitute Miss Pettigrew, who gets to “live” for one day, or Muriel of Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street, who eventually rescued by her friend Delia from a life of waiting at home for a husband to show up. Appropriately enough, by chance the next book I picked up – The Town in Bloom by Dodie Bloom (set in the mid-1920s, but published in 1965) – also charted the bid of an interwar heroine to strike out on her own.

Not that the family-less Mouse has much choice, but – despite her name – she’s certainly given more confidence and faith in her own abilities than the other characters above. She arrives in London, from Manchester, with a little cash determined to become an actress and installs herself at the Club – a hostel for other single women – in “a rather handsome building with a lot of heavy stonework”.  She’s swept up by the fashionable Molly and Lilian, who work as “glorified chorus” girls, to join their “village”. We learn, as does Mouse, that means “one of the groups of cubicles into which some of the big rooms are divided.”

Mouse goes on to describe her cubicle:
“It is almost private as the partitions are solid and go up to within a foot or so of the ceiling. And I have a good big cupboard, a washstand, combined with a dressing table which has long drawers, a folding table and a chair. There is a large window (some of the cubicles don’t have windows) and from my bed I can see tall trees in the quite large Club garden.”

From the “almost private” bedroom to washing to eating, their space is not their own: Take washing, for example:
“After breakfast I was initiated into the never-ending Battle of the Bathroom Door. There were plenty of ‘cold bathrooms’ where there was hot and cold water in the wash basin but only a cold tap for the bath. Access to cold bathrooms was free, but one could only get into a “hot bathroom” by putting tuppence into a slot-machine on the door. Molly believed cleanliness should be free, always left bathroom doors open, and took advantage of any she found open.”

Mouse’s account is almost an exact replica of that of Mary Margaret Grieve, a trainee reporter on the Nursing Mirror, and one of the women quoted in Singled Out:
“It was a great gloomy mansion block, but from her minute first-floor cubicle she could just see stars between the chimney-pots. Hostel life was full of shifts and expedients. The mean manageress charged threepence for a bath; for this sum the geyser produced a barely tepid puddle at the bottom of the tub.”

Mouse’s living situation at least seems jolly – although her meals “were apt to be a bit meagre”, they were “pleasantly served on brightly decorated earthenware, and our nice, pink-uniformed waitress was said to get specially good helpings for her tables.” The girls seem to survive on regular feasts of toasted “Veda” bread and gossip.

Despite Mouse’s endearing enthusiasm, it’s hard to escape the slight depressing air that hangs around the Club. The majority of its inhabitants (ranging in age from teenagers to 60 plus) are looking for the love affair that will take them away from it all – and the phone call that never comes:

“The company in the lounge seemed mainly composed of out-of-work actresses waiting for telephone calls from agents and managers, which seldom came. Some of these girls were doubly out of luck as they also awaited called from elusive men friends. (So many members were in the midst of unhappy love affairs, so few in the midst of happy ones – and even the fortunate few put in a good deal of time waiting for telephone calls. Every time the lounge door opened girls raised their heads hoping to hear their names called; then, when disappointed, sank back into apathy.”

Mouse does escape through a love affair – but she never marries. Instead, we later learn, she’s made a life through a “mishmash” of “acting, writing, book shops, dress shops”. (An experience that somewhat echoes the life of another interwar young lady, Jean Lucey Pratt, whose journals were recently published as A Notable Woman.) Mouse does, however, stay true to the enterprising, plucky new woman that, I learned last week, was being promoted by the advertising of the period.

In fact, Mouse refuses to grow old, shocking her village neighbours by her preference for sixties teenage fashions worn with “black woolly tights” and hanging out with the local twenty-something CND member. And, true to many of the stories contained in Singled Out (and Jean Lucey Pratt), she also remains only just one step away from financial peril. But Mouse a marvellous example of a Singled Out woman, a reminder that life could be different from what it had been before – if only you had the slight bit of capital, energy and dogged determination to make it so.

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Saturday, 23 January 2016

Dude ranches and the women in denim

Women pose at a Wyoming ranch, c. 1930. From Fine Art of the West, via

In January, when we're seemingly encouraged to beat ourselves up for various life failings, I try to promote a bit of being nice to yourself. With that in mind, for the 'Looking Back' slot in that month's issue of The Simple Things, I suggested a feature on the history of denim - after all, what's easier than pulling on a pair of jeans?

Bar Nick Kamen in a laundrette and the occasional story of people hunting for priceless denim in abandoned mines, I knew very little about the topic and I headed straight for the copy of Denim: A Visual History in the British Library (always slightly too expensive on eBay). Among the familiar brand names of Levi's, Lee and Wrangler and their links to denim as workwear, I found a reference to the first Lady Levi's in the 1930s with a tantalising mention of them being born out of the freedom of the dude ranches, and their associations with the quickie divorce. And, naturally, that became one of my key preoccupations.

The fantastic thing about writing for a magazine is that you can call on people far more knowledgeable than yourself to fill in some of the gaps. I spoke to Professor Alison Goodrun, who had recently returned from the Autry Center for Western Heritage (you can read her excellent blog here), researching female dude ranchers and resort wear. Dude ranch holidays peaked in the 1920s and 30s and offered a 'back to nature' retreat for wealthy East coasters. In reality, these were elaborate commercial enterprises, offering all kind of creature comforts and pushing vacationers into their outfitters to get fully kitted out in your western gear. It was a form of holiday wear. Just as wearing beach pyjamas was allowable by the seaside, jeans became acceptable wear on the dude ranch. Although they were sold in a select few East coast stores, a pair of jeans brought back from the West was the sought after souvenir.

‘Dude Ranch Vacations’ print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933. (BNSF Railway Company). Via Style Stakes project

The idea of freedom is captured wonderfully in this advert, featured on Professor Goodrun's blog. Like the best adverts, it's completely aspirational, promising an escape from everyday life and from social norms. But, as she points out, it's a complete break from traditional 'Old World' riding gear - it's a challenge to the upright regulations of English riding turn-out.

The Women, via

As I mentioned the subject to others, the reference came back time and time again: The Women. In this 1939 film, they decamp on a ranch to Reno waiting for their divorcees to come through. Each woman wears their own take on the Western look, from Mary's suitably wholesome checked shirt to the Countess De Lave's glitzy and ridiculous get-up.

I love this image of a 1942 shop display at Chicago's Marshall Field & Company, showing suitable dude ranch attire for such wealthy women. And Lisette Model's photographs of soon-to-be divorcees at Nevada dude ranches, taken in 1949 for Harper's Bazaar, are also amazing.

Diana Cooper and Iris Tree, from Diana Cooper's Autobiography

All of these wealthy women in western wear took me back to an amazing image I'd seen much earlier, this grainy image of British aristocrat Diana Cooper, photographed with fellow actress Iris Tree, included in Cooper's autobiography. Had they too succumbed to ranch fever? Although not providing fulsome details, Cooper indeed writes of "an orgy of 'dude' buying" on their arrival into Kansas City. Ever the trend setter, Cooper's entry dates to 1926.

About the same time I filed my article, Denim: Fashion's Frontier opened at New York's FIT, exploring denim's history and including a shout-out to the dude ranch. Although I can't get to New York, I was pleased to discover FIT's assistant curator is giving a free lecture in London in March, which I can attend (side note: how great does this display about the Snow/Vreeland heyday of Harper's Bazaar sound?). How delightful also that the sequel to the popular street style book, Denim Dudes, will focus on Denim 'Dudettes' - promising more stylish women in denim.

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Sunday, 3 January 2016

51 books in 2015 – how did I do?

At the start of 2014, I resolved to read 50 books over the course of the year. It was such a successful resolution (more so than never biting my nails again, perhaps unsurprisingly) that I decided to do it all again the following year, with the added challenge of trying to read one more book.

So, how did I do? You can see a list of the books I read during 2015 here. I’m pleased that I beat my target by two whole books. And, although I’m proud of my overall total – 53! – and the mixture of fiction and non-fiction, looking through the list, it’s quickly obvious that it’s quite limited in scope, with the vast majority written by white women. Only seven of the books were penned by men, just two were originally written in a language other than English and none date to pre-twentieth century.

Although I’ve enjoyed this year’s reading, it’s hard to pick out books I’ve really loved. There have been several big disappointments – Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests started out brilliantly, but descended into soapy disappointment; Carol was one of those rare examples of where I thought the film far surpassed the book (and I read the book first). I’ve yet to watch Brooklyn, but perhaps that will also fall into this category, as I loved Nora Webster far more than I did Colm Toibin’s earlier, much-praised book.

The book that took over my life and I was longing to discuss with other people was – as I think it was for many other people this year – A Little Life. I also consumed by Linda Grant’s stylish and intelligent take on aspirations in the second-half of the twentieth century in Upstairs at The Party.

I bemoaned my lack of books from earlier centuries, but the twentieth century got a very strong showing. I discovered some fantastic fiction from around the First World War, thanks to researching for a feature on the homefront for Article magazine, saw the 1920s and 30s through the eyes of Noel Streatfeild, enjoyed jitterbugging, rationing and fashioning in the 1940s, (im)perfect wives, debutantes and lesbians – and concrete buildings from the mid-century. And not forgetting the joy of 1980s movies, thanks to Hadley Freeman. That brings me onto the last book I read this year, which tells the story of women throughout the twentieth century through personal experience (albeit without so many references to Dirty Dancing a la Hadley). It’s A Notable Woman, the previously unpublished journals of Jean Lucey Pratt. She faithfully kept a diary from 1925, aged 15, up to her death in the 1980s. It’s wonderful discovery, and I hope to write something more substantial about it another time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m aiming to read 54 books during 2016. You can follow my progress here. I’d like at least one to be pre-twentieth century, and definitely more by BAME authors. I might try and read a few more things men have written too.  

Any recommendations let me know. I’d also love to hear about your favourite – or most disappointing – books you’ve read this year.

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

1950s bohemian London in Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

“Nell studied Davina’s long and voluminous black skirt, dusty black sweater with a high neck, and the various huge pieces of metal hanging from her wrists, ears and throat, and remembered seeing Gardis similarly festooned. Evidently this was Fashion.”

Stella Gibbons’ Here Be Dragons was published in 1956 and, like all my favourite books, offers a visual snapshot of the time in which it was written. Here we are in 1950s London bohemia. Teenage rebellion is begin to stir, but the movement is fuelled by coffee shops and jazz, rather than the imminent rock n roll explosion.

A change in family circumstance takes Nell from her sleepy village and thrusts her into the heart of Hampstead. Although Gibbons is most famous for Cold Comfort Farm, many more of her books are set in Hampstead, where Gibbons lived for many years. In the 1950s, it seems, it was facing an invasion of the bohemians:

“Hampstead showed increasing signs of being given over to Bohemia; the pavement echoed with flapping sandals and the clapping of Continental clogs there were tights and striped blue and white jeans to be seen loitering around the Underground station.”

Bohemian style idol, Eva Barok. Image source

Nell arrives in a respectable suit, but is swiftly given a sartorial lecture from her layabout cousin John. She needs to buy a beret and “if you can’t afford proper clothes, long full skirts and low heels and metal jewellery, you should copy Eva Bartok. She knows how to make horrible little suits like the one you’re wearing and old raincoats look marvellously romantic.”

John himself dresses in what’s described as “an extraordinary collection of clothes “. One ensemble includes an immaculate striped blazer, blue denim trousers, a gaudy American shirt.” I love this sense of improvisation, which reminds me of the improvisation of Ken Russell’s teddy girls. But, as with any subculture, en masse the bohemian dress and habits turn out to be no less strictly governed that those of their parents they rebel against. They party, dancing with naked feet in pools of cider while candles burn in – of course – Chianti bottles.

Enter one of their café haunts and:

“There they sat: the large calm, dirty girls in flowing skirts and lead jewellery, and the dreamers in drain-pipes and duffel coats, the spinners of fantastic plans for making fortunes brooding silently over newspapers, with unwashed hair falling across (in the case of the girls, who believed in living naturally) unpowdered faces.”

The Troubadour cafe, London, 1950s. Image source

Gibbons is seemingly quite fixated on their cleanliness (or lack of), perhaps the most evident characteristic they were rebelling against the “cleanliness is next to godliness mantra” of previous generations. In another café, Nell encounters the “dirty faces of the Espresso drinkers, set off by brilliant checked shirts, white jackets fastened by wooden links, black ‘jumpers’ (as Nell called them) and, in the case of the women, exaggeratedly severe or flowing manner of arranging the hair. Coiffures and beards played a large part in the exhibiting of their personalities, and did not always look quite clean.”

It’s not only ‘jumpers’ that need an explanation, but the whole notion of separates. When Nell tells her mum she needs some to look modern, her mother responds “need what?” And she’s even more surprised when Nell tells her she’s spotted a top “for less than a pound and a skirt for less than 30 shillings” on Oxford Street, because “No ‘top’ or skirt costing as ridiculously little as the sums Nell had mentioned could be anything but bad style.” Not only are the ways of dressing and shopping on the cards, it’s obvious that there is a shift in generational styles – perhaps something that’s usually more closely associated with the 1960s. Here Be Dragons captures these transitions, and revealed some of these details that normally would get overlooked in a survey of how fashions, and even teens, changed postwar. 

Leon Bell and the Bell Cats and some hand-jivers. Image source.

Over the course of the book, Nell comes ‘chic’ and, in a real sign of the times, moves from tea shop to running her own espresso shop. How her business survives the Swinging Sixties remains unknown.

Here Be Dragons is full of wonderful details that make you feel like you could be living in London in the mid-1950s, and it’s perhaps a better book if you read it for these details, rather than the plot itself. But what vintage fashion nerd could resist a book that includes the following description of Cecil Beaton’s Glass of Fashion (first published in 1954)? It comes straight from the mouth of Nell’s debuntante school friend: “It’s all about pre-1914 tarts, with drawings of them in saucy hats.” Quite.

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Saturday, 17 October 2015

Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition

How can fashion brands compete in a global marketplace and capture the interest of potential new, loyal customers? The answer, from Louis Vuitton at least, seems to be to stage a lavish exhibition. London was recently host to the "Series 3" exhibition, following in the footsteps of Shanghai and Los Angeles, an elaborate installation devoted to the Louis Vuitton's Autumn/Winter 15 collection.

Like Les Journées Particulières I went to a couple of years ago (and also hosted by the LVMH group), there's a sense that that Series 3 exhibition gives everyone privileged access to a closed-off, exclusive world. And, while this exhibition was free, it was staged on such a grand scale that made it clear that no expense had been spared. Taking over a huge building on London's The Strand, Series 3 included everything from geo domes to rooms that appeared to be bathed in bright sunlight, even though we were visiting on a dark autumn evening.

Inescapably, the exhibition reinforced the idea of the designer as genius. One room was intended to represent inside Nicolas Ghesquière's mind, giving us lesser geniuses a glimpse into his inspirations and his muses.

More interesting was how those ideas were embodied in the collection. Footage of the collection was shown in a space that replicated the one in which the collection had been held. It captured the energy of the show for those of us who are never going to be FROW-ers. 

Also emphasised throughout was the craftsmanship that went into each Louis Vuitton piece, and their use of some cutting edge (literally) 21st-century technology. Lasers that can scan the leather for imperfections and cut the pieces around it, therefore leading to less waste - very clever indeed. You could watch close up video footage of hands assembling the bags, as well as see the work being done live. As in Les Journées Particulières, they'd brought in some real life workers to answer our questions. It was every bit as interesting and - telling - no, the woman we spoke to couldn't afford to own a Louis Vuitton bag herself. 

The shot above is an attempt to capture the daylight room - so bright that even the models were wearing sunglasses. This room attempted to bridge the gap between the history of Louis Vuitton and the brand today. That meant historic trunks and cases shown alongside accessories from the a/w collection. There was the trunk that inspired the new Petite Malle bag, down to the crosses that decorated it. Or it became apparent how the lining of another case inspired the hatched padded of some of the other bags. 

That lead into a giant "walk-in wardrobe", filled with pieces from the collection and demonstrating that the brand today was about much more than accessories. Of course, it's always fun to be able to get a close-up look and feel of garments that you'll never buy, or even dare to try on, in your everyday life. 

The final room resembled that of a teenagers, in that it was covered with tearsheets of images from the latest Louis Vuitton advertising campaign. For that they've picked ambassadors who bring a slightly edgier, contemporary look to the brand, such as Jennifer Connelly and Alicia Vikander. It was a room clearly intended for selfies (as was the whole exhibition), a simple way of communicating the Louis Vuitton message over social media. 

With my museum head on, it's easy to pull apart these commercially-led exhibitions. It's impossible to miss the messages they are pushing about the brand: heritage, quality, craftsmanship, reinterpreted for today. They want the brand to be seen as something desirable, and cool. If you can't quite afford a bag yet, how about some sunglasses? How about a belt? 

However, it's made me stop and consider a brand that I really only had a passing historic interest in before. Perhaps if I was looking to invest in a designer item, I'd consider them where I wouldn't have previously. It seems like an awfully elaborate way to make some sales but - given that this is the third installment - those big fromages at LVMH must consider it one that works.  

Thanks to my fellow visitor Tia for letting me use her photos. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Noel Streatfeild and fashion modelling in the 1920s

One of my favourite posts I've written is this one, about how Noel Streatfeild used her experience of modelling in the 1920s to create an accurate - albeit romanticised - picture of life inside a fashion house for her book Clothes-Pegs. I’ve been revisiting Noel recently (as evident from my 51 books in 2015 list) and one of the most noticeable things about her books is how she reworks the same themes over and over again, all drawn from her own experiences: her stories are stuffed full of sisters, vicars and stage school children. Her first book, The Witcharts, is essentially Ballet Shoes, with a few more out-of-wedlock pregnancies! Given this, I couldn’t believe she didn’t revisit the setting of the fashion house at some point.

After a bit more reading, I discovered she does, at least three more times. It’s the setting for another “Susan Scarlett” story (Streatfeild’s pseudonym), Peter and Paul (1939), where Petronella (Peter), a vicar’s daughter, becomes an in-house model. Susanna, a vicar’s daughter, goes off to London, still stunned with grief after the First World War, and becomes a model in Parson’s Nine (1932). And, in Away from the Vicarage (published as On Tour in the States, 1965), a “fictionalised biography” of Streatfeild’s life - you may well have guessed it - Vicky, a vicar’s daughter, becomes a model.

This makes it even more amazing that this experience is given so little attention in what’s been written about her life. It wasn’t as if Streatfeild was ashamed of the experience. In her Desert Island Discs, she admits outright, “I was always a fashion model between jobs. I was very tall … and in those days I was very slim and there was plenty of fashion work going in the west end.” But perhaps that honesty only came with time. Vicky, in Away from the Vicarage, doesn’t tell her father and fears someone from her drama course spotting her at her modelling work.

As backed up by the detail given in Clothes-Pegs, Streatfeild described herself as having a “blotting-paper memory”. That means it’s possible to eek out a few more details about a model’s life in the 1920s from these books. For starters, it’s obvious that models were in demand, as Streatfeild says above. Vicky is lucky because “it was the beginning of the period when mannequin parades were all the rage. Clothes were shown all day long – to the trade in the morning; at thés dansants in the afternoons; in the intervals of musical comedies and variety shows and at nightclubs.”

The 1920s - when Streatfeild modelled - was a boom time for fashion modelling, although perhaps it didn't happen in the way we’d think of it today. It was the decade the mannequin parade really took off, and the parades were held regularly within department stores - sometimes several times a day - as well as put on by the fashion houses. As Vicky’s experience suggests, they were a form of entertainment as much as presentation. In 1928, The Times reported how “There has been a big call on the mannequins and some firms have experienced considerable difficulty in supplying their needs.” No wonder Vicky/Streatfeild found it easy to find work.

Vicky’s favourites are the mornings, because “usually only two or three models were used, and they would sit in their underclothes eating sticky buns, waiting for the various groups of buyers.” They get given port or wine to “put colour in their cheeks.” That’s also what happens at “Reboux”, the house where Peter models. Eloise sits around, dressed only in her “brassiere and panties” and pesters Pauline (Peter’s sister, also known as “Paul”) to go out and buy them choc-ices. Other than when seeing clients or being fitted, the “models never went out unless they had a date. They had fearful meals in their own room of such things as sardines and cream buns.”

Yet, for their mollycoddled appearance, it’s apparent that the models do have to work hard. As Streatfeild writes from experience, “only a girl who has done it knows how it feels to have to look exquisite to order any time between nine and six.” And then there’s that strange anonymity that’s thrust upon models that I’ve written about before. Susanna certainly experiences that. In one show, a men grabs her by the wrist to look at the hat she’s wearing before remarking, “these brims are nearly perfect for line; it’s difficult to see what I mean on this girl, as she has a hopeless profile for them, but on anyone else it would be divine.” No wonder Susanna feels numbed by the whole experience: “I felt as though I didn’t exist, that I was just a machine. I don’t think I was even expected to be able to speak. I had to pinch myself to remember I was alive at all.”

Models are secondary to the clothes, convenient ciphers for the client’s desires. Peter is too beautiful to be a successful model.  While she’s has plenty of gentlemen admirers and is known as “a figure in the night-clubs and restaurants”, she can never make a sale when she’s showing for “mothers of plain, rather-difficult-to-marry-off daughters.” Those mothers, we’re told, “sniffed and started at once to run down the clothes, subtly suggesting the fault was Petronella’s.”

Modelling is never presented as a career for life. Streatfeild doesn’t feature it as a possible career option in her 1950s Years of Grace book of advice for teenage girls, despite it being at a peak in popularity and respectability in that decade. Susanna and Vicky use it a way of making ends meet, to be given up when stability returns. For Susanna, it’s a profession associated with a depressing period in her life when, we’re told, she allows herself to go into bedrooms with men at parties. Peter is pawed at and ogled by men constantly too. Streatfeild might write that it’s a way to earn “an honest penny”, but you sense she doesn’t quite believe it. Susanna, for example, is told, “All this mannequin, cinema, photographing rubbish was so many hours filled in till you got on the right track.”

As that last sentence suggests, these books also illustrate a period in modelling that was evolving to encompass more than simply mannequin parades. Susanna also makes money from being a photographic model, showcasing a “painfully suburban-looking home” and a film extra, while Petronella is Reboux’s first photographic model.

But, perhaps the main difference is the coming of the movies. By the time Streatfeild was writing Peter and Paul in the 1930s, the beautiful girl doesn’t want to appear on stage, and in no way is modelling considered the pinnacle of her career. Peter talks and dreams of Hollywood as being the embodiment of glamour and, indeed, that’s where she ends up, clearly too beautiful for Britain or modelling. If you don’t snag the husband (which is the fairy-tale conclusion to the model’s life in Clothes-Pegs), a decade on, you can at least get yourself a Hollywood contract.

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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

To Bed With Grand Music and the Second World War Home Front in women's hats

Vogue, 1 August 1940, via

I've recently finished Marghanita Laski's To Bed With Grand Music, a dark, witty tale charting the 'fall' of a woman, set on the British home front of the Second World War. Originally published in 1946, it's obvious why this book was shocking at the time - it still is. There is no keeping the home fires burning, no scrimping or saving, making do and mending. We're left uncertain whether the anti-heroine, Deborah, will be given her due comeuppance.

Laski conjures up a London not being battered by bombs, but getting battered in cocktail bars, a city populated by people who get dressed up to go out and have serial affairs. It's strikingly similar to the New York conjured up in Dawn Powell''s A Time To Be Born "when the true signs of war were the lavish plumage of the women". The true sign of war in To Bed With Grand Music is - to borrow the description of Juliet Gardiner, who has written the foreword for the Persephone edition of the book - the "frivolous hats".

Today, in a fairly hatless society, it's hard to grasp the social nuances attached to hat wearing in the past. After all, most women still wore them: a sample taken in central London in 1940 noted that 79 out of 100 women still wore hats (turbans and scarves were counted separately).

But, despite it being normal and, indeed, probably "proper" to wear a hat (or perhaps because of the latter), judgements on hat wearing in the first half of the twentieth century often seemed to take on something of a moral flavour. Catherine Horwood's excellent Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class Between the Wars notes how in the 1930s, women's supposedly frivolous attitude to hats were the constant butt of cartoons. Although a social necessity, they were seen to encompass the weakness of the female gender: extravagance, frivolity and indecision.

There's something of that judgment too, in this 10 March 1941 report from the Observer:

"One of the curiosities of this war is the lack of accommodation of the head to warlike conditions. Alone the turban shows some consciousness of a period in which efficiency is all-important ... the general hat seems to be something flighty".

Perhaps no surprise then that, in To Bed With Grand Music, the start of flighty Deborah's downfall is marked by spending "a couple of weeks' salary on a hat that would never do for daytime wear at all".

At the turning point of her affair with Joe - before she decides to be unfaithful to her husband for the first time - she goes into an "extremely expensive hatshop" with him. Like the hat buyer described by Horwood, she is torn with indecision about which model to buy. But it appears she doesn't have to decide after all. Just as Joe allows her to maintain her pretence of being a dutiful wife and mother while enjoying the perks of being the mistress of a married man, he solves her hat problems by buying her both, reassuring her "But you don't have to decide."

1943, via 

Deborah yearns "for sophistication, for sleek black frocks, and, more than anything else, for an immense variety of expensively nonsensical hats." The hats become a symbol of her "sophisticated" lifestyle, and her simultaneous plunge into debt.

Laski's criticism of Deborah is clear. She describes her choice in headwear as "tarty hats". Deborah's hat is one of the first things noted by her mother on meeting her newly sophisticated daughter. And Deborah is clearly aware of their connotations too. She deliberately doesn't wear one when going to seduce the "innocent" Ken Matthews.

In the press at the time, the flamboyance of women's hats were, on one hand, defended as a way to keep up morale. Grace Margaret Morton, for example, described them as an "expression of an effort to put a bit of gaiety into a world burdened with problems" in 1943.

But, while hats were one of the few items of women's clothing not to be rationed, they were widely expensive. By 1944, the Observer was noting the shift from hats to the more practical scarves and bandeau amongst women, no doubt for their practicality. And wearing a frivolous hat would have been an obvious indication that perhaps you weren't working away, doing your bit for the war effort (alas, try as Deborah may to justify it, I don't think her job of flogging dodgy antiques to visiting G.I.s  would be counted as a helpful contribution at all).

Woman's Own, 1945, via

That viewpoint is backed up by an article in the Observer from 15 October 1944 where "A Woman Reporter" writes: "The exaggerated hat fashions recently shown in Paris and Lisbon have had their effect on the trade in Britain. Although women consider these foreign fashions unsuitable to all but a fully leisured life and much too spectacular, their appearance has stimulated the hat trade."

It's hard not to read this report without linking this desire for spectacular hats with the desire illustrated by Deborah for a less conventional lot in life - especially when the reporter notes there has been increased orders for "more thrilling models". How many more women were there like Deborah wanting to escape the dreariness of wartime for something more thrilling - whether at the level of buying a fancier hat, or going to the extremes that Deborah does? And there are hints that even Deborah's mother, the solidly respectable wife of a Leeds councillor better watch out. The report also includes the note that "even provincial stores" were being "more enterprising in buys than four years ago"

Is there a moral to be found in To Bed With Grand Music? It's hard to say - I find it hard to believe Laski would rather Deborah stayed at home instead and made her son miserable. But there's definitely a lesson that can be taken away from this book, and that's to choose your hats carefully.

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