Friday, 20 March 2015

Last-Week Links: 20 March 2015


It really feels like the year has begun now. At almost a quarter a way through, it really should! But there's something about blue skies that helps with plan making, and something about deadlines that speeds things up, and I've been enjoying both recently.

I've also been doing lots of reading. Aside from Fashion on the Ration, I really enjoyed Tracey Thorn's Bedsit Queen, a gentle, thoughtful book about being a girl in a band. Happiness by Design is the book I keep recommending to people - it's really made me think about what makes me happy and how I can try and introduce more of that into the everyday ... still working on that! You can see all the books I've read so far this year here...



If you are flying off anywhere on EasyJet before the end of March, look out for me in their magazine. At the start of the year I was lucky enough to return to Porto and explore their great food scene for the feature. I highly recommend the eclairs from Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, which do come in colours other than orange!

Elsewhere:

* The picture at the top of this post is unmistakably the model Bettina, who sadly died earlier this month. I wrote about her influence on fashion here.

* Another of my 'Last-Year Girls' is Marisa Berenson. Love this interview with her - and that they ask her about her Dressing Up book.

* The amazing story of 21 Callot Soeurs dresses.

* There's going to be a TV series about Eileen Ford. Hope they do the 1940s stuff justice!

* A cracking Top Ten books about women in the 1950s. When I saw this list online, I was already in the middle of The Years of Grace, as it was referenced in The Last Debutante (post to follow on The Years of Grace, it's great stuff!). I'm now on the author's own Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes.


* My new favourite internet site is Public Domain Review. It's full of vintage gems such as this 1947 "Are You Popular?" social advice film.

* Know a badly dressed man? This site should help.

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Monday, 16 March 2015

Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum, London


Within the space of a couple of weeks, five different people contacted me to tell me about the Fashion on the Ration exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum. I’m obviously entirely predictable when it comes to 1940s fashions! I was already eagerly prepped, having been racing through the excellent accompanying book to the show by Julie Summers, ahead of seeing the show.

Early 1940s fashions have become an interest of mine over the last few years (see this post, for example, or this one) and what was surprisingly refreshing about this show was that it focuses solely on Britain, allowing the book and show to hone on the detail that – understandably – often has to be omitted in wider reference books. Having come to the period largely through personal stories, such as Love Lessons, I also enjoyed that the first person accounts that can be found in the IWM’s collection of diaries, letters and archives play an essential part in both display and book.

Pupils of a London County Council dressmaking class in Brixton, London, hold a fashion parade to show their friends and family what they have learnt. © IWM (D 12897)

As expected, Fashion on the Ration celebrates the stylish improvisation the lack of materials necessitated – the same inventiveness that has proved inspirational for countless subsequent editorials and collections. What I’d previously overlooked – and is marked in this display – is that about a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform during the Second World War. That’s not just the armed forces, but also factory workers, dockworkers, policemen and women and the like, meaning it became entirely normal to see uniforms on the street. Vere Hodgson described the excitement in London in 1943:

“Piccadilly is such a thrilling place these days. All the uniforms of all the nations jostle you on the pavement … girls too in their service uniforms by the hundred. Few fashionables – because all the pretty girls are in battle dress.”

Even for those women not in uniform, wartime living necessitated adaptation of their usual dress standards. One grandmother, after her first night time visit to the air raid shelter, insisted that next time she would have to be wearing trousers. Other times it was the material that was compromised. This amazing bra and knickers set made from a silk escape map still looks wearable today, but – as steel and rubber became increasingly hard to come by – the millions of corset wearers felt their loss keenly – and loudly.

A display of Utility clothes in a shop. All these clothes were designed by Norman Hartnell. © IWM (D 10727)

Undoubtedly, the female population were more equipped to be able to ‘Make Do and Mend’ than we would be today. Eileen Gurney was housewife and an avid dressmaker. She described her outfits in letters to her husband in painstaking detail. One, on display in the exhibition, features an illustration of how she adapted the line of an old coat to make it look more current. Gurney was an avid reader of Vogue, taking pride in recreating its latest looks on her budget. In fact, when rationing was first introduced in 1941, she was quite pleased as she felt that, finally, her clothes might be able to compete with those who shopped from the magazine’s pages.

British Vogue September 1944, via

What’s apparent in Fashion on the Ration is just how influential Vogue and other women’s magazines were in this period. When “woodies” were introduced – shoes with wooden soles to replace hard to come by rubber – The Lady gave advice on how to walk in them: “If you find yourself walking a bit duck-footed in the first few days, concentrate on placing your toes in a pigeon position and you’ll find your muscles will soon co-operate and you’ll be walking the right way once more.”

In another example, when there were concerns about the safety of women with long hair working with machinery, Whitehall called in Vogue. And, following their spread that featured the “trim heads” of Deborah Kerr and Coral Browne and proclaimed the joys of shorter hair “for neatness, easy cleanliness and good looks”, Eileen Gurney, for one, wrote to her husband telling him that she’d restyled her hair into a short bob.

British Vogue, June 1941, via

British Vogue had to adapt its material to changing needs. Another feature, for example, featured a diary of a war bride, proving how it was possible to prepare for your wedding in only five days. One of the most moving objects in the exhibition is a tiny cream wedding dress, made from pre-War silk, that was worn by fifteen different women for their weddings during the war.

Another champion enabling the white wedding was Barbara Cartland – then working as an advisor to young women needing new support in their new lives in the services – helped establish a ‘wedding dress pool’ at the War Office. Its purchases were frequently supplemented by her own income, as she “understood that those dresses were made of more than satin and tulle, lace and crepe de chine; they were made of dreams, and one cannot sell dreams cheaply.”

Two models on a rooftop in Bloomsbury, London, wearing wartime fashions in 1943. © IWM (D 14818)

Never before had the government exerted so much authority over its citizen’s wardrobes. As well as corsets and stockings, the austerity regime meant everything from men’s trouser turn-ups to skirt pleats were scrutinized. Utility, introduced in 1942, aimed to produce designs of affordable good quality, with minimum wastage.

With designers such as Molyneux, Norman Hartnell and Edward Molyneux all producing designs for the scheme, it was the first time ‘designer’ dressing was open to all. Looking at their clothes in the exhibition, they remain pretty desirable – mainly because of their lovely use of colour and pattern. Even that’s controlled cleverly, employing fabric using smaller repeated patterns so less fabric is wasted in the cutting.

At a YWCA mobile club, members of the ATS crowd up to the counter to buy cosmetics, tissues, sewing kits and notepaper. © IWM (D 13493)

Having a well-dressed population was seen as being essential to morale, but it became harder and harder to achieve as the war drew on. Women were encouraged to use make-up (“Beauty is Duty”) but even that involved battling shortages. Vogue changed tack and encouraged its readers to use “four fundamental cosmetics … which don’t come out of jars and bottles”. These were sleep, a proper diet, exercise and relaxation – all easy to come by, no doubt, when you’re a women struggling to look after your family, probably working too as well as partaking in regular voluntary work.

Even after the war ended, rationing stayed in place in one form or the other until 1949, with new items remaining hard to come by. One 1946 advert for Church’s shoes shown in the exhibition proclaims how their new shoes are “just arriving. We wish there were more”. After all this restriction, it’s easy to see how scandalous but thrilling the swathes of material used for Dior’s New Look must have looked. And what a death knoll it must have seemed for the likes of Eric Newby’s family wholesale business after struggling through the war years.

While I am unconvinced by the exhibition's conclusion of the parallels between 1940s and today’s fashions, both the Fashion on the Ration exhibition and the book are a brilliant insight into everyday British lives in this period, and the important role that fashion and appearance can play in the every day.

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Sunday, 8 March 2015

Talking Vintage with Nzinga Russell



After my chat with vintage collector Nicky Albrechtsen, I thought it would be interesting to talk to more people who make their living through vintage clothing. Nzinga Russell is the entrepreneur behind a subscription service with a difference - signing-up to Style by Portobello, means you'll receive a box filled with vintage accessories picked by Russell directly from London's Portobello market each month. Let's find out more...

Tell me a little about the concept of Style by Portobello
Style By Portobello is a vintage accessories subscription service. Every month, for £35 our subscribers receive a Bello Box containing up to three unique vintage pieces, all of which are sourced from the fab vintage traders at Portobello Road market.

I adore vintage and the shopping process of uncovering those one-off gems so I have a real passion for getting as many people to try vintage as possible. Style By Portobello allows those that already love vintage to receive pieces they know they'll love every month. The concept also serves as a great entry point into vintage for those who love the high street but are really keen to try vintage but just don't know where to start.

By subscribing they get to benefit from the great style that vintage offers without the task of having to find the pieces themselves. I like to think that I have a bit of a knack for spotting a hidden gem amongst the clutter. I love that feeling when you know you have found something amazing. I want our subscribers to feel like that every month when they open their Bello Box. I also adore Portobello Road itself so this venture allows me to open up Portobello to the rest of the country, especially to those who don't live in London and don't get to visit.

What's so special about Portobello Market?
It is simply the best place to find amazing vintage pieces. The place has a great atmosphere. The diversity of the local people, the stall holders, vintage dealers, the great off-beat restaurants and bars, the homegrown talent in terms of new designer boutiques. It's such a melting pot. The place oozes cultural and fashion history.

Each market day has a different atmosphere as well as different parts of the market itself. My favourite days are:
- Friday is for the serious vintage hunters. Prices range from great bargains to sky high for designer finds. It's great for those who know their vintage but it's still totally accessible.

- Saturday is the busiest and biggest market day. Along with the locals you've got tourists who flock from the world over and spread their sense of excitement. You can shop vintage as well as new up and coming designers. Music is blaring and the cafes are packed. Great buzz all round. Perfect for people watching. I love seeing how the locals style their looks.

- Sunday is a real locals day. You may find more second hand bits as opposed to vintage and it's more of a smaller, intimate affair. Everyone knows everyone and there's a real relaxed community feel.

How did you discover/get into vintage?
My very stylish mother was the first to introduce me to vintage just by virtue of the fact that I would raid her wardrobe and nab her original 1970s Butler & Wilson earrings or borrow her original Biba pieces. She only ever buys quality so everything lasts. Thus her wardrobe was a real treasure trove for me with her vintage denims of all shades and washes and the amazing Italian leather belts and bags she collected on her travels. I found it all so exciting because with vintage it was so easy to be stylish and original. She even had some of my Grandmother's special pieces so I was able to experiment with gorgeous bags and jewellery from the 50s and 60s. I then had a wonderful friend who is still very much like my older sister. She would go vintage hunting every weekend and I would tag along. Whenever we meet the first thing we do is go vintage shopping, down the 'Bello of course!!

How big is your personal vintage collection?
I would say that it's embarrassingly large. This is probably the same for most vintage lovers as there is always something original to buy on the rails. I never throw anything away so my wardrobes are bulging and I also have a lot in storage. Vintage never goes out of fashion which is just marvellous. You can literally keep pieces forever. So I try to rotate my wardrobe and do a clear out every six months where I go through what I have at home and what I have in storage and then swap things over. I never get tired of vintage bags, belts, jewellery and shoes. With any of these pieces you can revolutionise a pretty average outfit. It's a quick fix way to give your look that 'stand out' factor. However I also can never have enough vintage jackets, dresses, coats and tops. Even in terms of the eras I love, I'm quite eclectic. I have a lot of 60s, 70s and a good amount of 80s.

How did you decide to turn this into a business?
When I'd wear great vintage pieces I'd always get friends and strangers asking where I had found my pieces. When I'd say Portobello Road, their faces would light up. They'd say how much they love Portobello but don't have the knack for finding those special pieces that they know are there. Or they'd say that they love the market but live too far away to be able to go more than once in a blue moon. It struck my how great it would be if, no matter where you lived or whether you loved the thrill of the chase or hated rummaging, you could always have access to beautiful vintage pieces. 

Having had a stall at the market years ago and still having maintained those great contacts and relationships, I knew I'd be able to source wonderful things for a wider audience. We all know that subscription services have taken off so when I started exploring the idea as a business more thoroughly I realised that there wasn't anything like Style By Portobello on the market. So it's great to be the UK's first vintage accessories subscription offering. On top of all this, the concept is a great way of supporting the market and the traders.



Do you have a favourite vintage piece in your collection?
It's extremely hard to choose a favourite: my favourites change every few months! I will be obsessed with an item for weeks and then there'll be a new purchase or something else that I'll discover anew in my wardrobe. I would say, however, that there is a belt that I have had for years. It's a fantastically high quality brown leather belt from the 70s with a worn bronze ram's head as the buckle. It's amazing and I have never seen anything like it since adding it to my collection. It's definitely a wardrobe staple of mine. The quality of the leather goes without saying as it has definitely stood the test of time. The more worn and aged it becomes, the better it looks. The bronze ram's head it heavy and sturdy and never tarnishes

Another firm favourite is a pair of gold, 80s leopard head earrings encrusted with diamante. They are just so over the top. I wear them all the time. In terms of clothing, my favourite dress right now is a 70s floral piece (the one I am wearing in the photo above). The colours are just so bold and outrageous and the oversized collar is fantastic. It looks great in a/w or s/s. It's so versatile and unique. I love truly it. Who knows what my favourite will be next month.

What's the easiest way to include vintage into a contemporary wardrobe?
I love this question and I think it is a really important one. I think combining amazing vintage pieces with high street staples is the key to keeping your look contemporary and unique. The easiest way to include vintage into a contemporary wardrobe is with accessories. With one statement piece you can turn an outfit from average to outstanding. So I would say that a gorgeous vintage bag is a necessity. Each decade has some great shapes to offer so you'll always be able to find something that suits you. 

Next, I would say that finding a statement vintage necklace will really stand you in good stead and take a high street look to the next level. The 60s is a great era for jewellery as well as the 80s. If you're not a vintage novice and are already sold on the benefits of vintage clothing then sourcing a statement dress or jacket will do wonders for your wardrobe.

Ever seen a piece of vintage you've been sorry to pass by/let slip through your fingers?
No, not really. If I didn't buy it then it must have been because I didn't love it enough. There's so much amazing vintage out there that I have to be quite philosophical when it comes to missing out.

What is a typical day's work for you?
As I have two children, a typical day's work for me from Monday to Thursday starts before they wake up. I furiously work through as much basic business admin as I can before they wake up. Once I have got the children off to nursery I go back to my home office. The first part of the day involves continuing with the more mundane side of running your own business such as more admin, replying to routine emails and phone calls and having meetings. I'm currently pregnant with my third child so missing lunch is not an option! 

After lunch I do the fun stuff that lies at the heart of why I love running my own business. I brainstorm marketing ideas, continuously think of ways to delight our subscribers and then the most important time for me is what I call 'inspiration time'. I really believe that on a daily basis one needs to step back from the day to day tasks, get out of the office and experience the world outside. This is where the really great ideas come from. There's so much in my local area of Notting Hill and Portobello Road to inspire me so I max out on local galleries, exhibitions and culture. This time can also include reading a really interesting article or meeting a very inspirational person. It's then pick up time from nursery. Family dinner time with my husband and the kids is very rarely compromised, then once the kids are in bed I usually do another two to three hours work. 

Then Friday and Saturdays are pure indulgence. I am down at the market as soon as I can be, touching base with my favourite stall holders and sourcing amazing stock for our subscribers' Bello Boxes. I catch up on local news, pop into my favourite eateries and just soak up the atmosphere. It's hard work running your own business but it gives you a freedom and flexibility that can't be beaten.

What advice would you give to someone beginning to experiment with vintage?
I would say have fun and always buy quality pieces as they will last. When it comes to accessories, be as adventurous as you dare and when it comes to clothing, completely ignore size labels. TRY IT ON!

Thanks Nzinga! Feeling inspired? You can find out more about Style by Portobello here or follow them on Twitter here.

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Friday, 27 February 2015

Last-Week Links: 27 February 2015


I was lucky enough to head up to Tyneside this week for the 6Music festival. Singing along, dancing, a bit of getting over emotional: it was magnificent. Just as magnificent, in fact, as the gorgeous river front. Full credit also to the women (and men) of Newcastle who do brave the February air without their coats. It really isn't a myth.


As you may know, I'm now working as contributing editor on the magazine The Simple Things. The March issue is out now and is every bit as fresh as the coverline promises. In this issue, I spoke to the lovely people at The Future Mapping Company, as well as finding some cheap and easy ways to make over an old sweater. Also in this issue: culottes, amazing sushi, vintage cameras and the most amazing libraries.

I've also been updating my Last-Year Girl Book Etsy shop. There are some real treats in there at the moment, from 1970s cult fashion bible Cheap Chic to a first edition of Dior's Little Dictionary of Fashion and a gorgeous book on 1950s London (check out the Festival of Britain endpapers).

On my own reading list, I've enjoyed Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Curtesy - the last season of British debutantes in 1958. The return of the Great British Sewing Bee is also making me very happy indeed.

Elsewhere on the internet: 

* In the January issue of The Simple Things, I wrote about fitness trends from the past (you can see a copy of the article here) and I developed a bit of a Jane Fonda crush. No surprise then I loved this piece on a week of Jane Fonda workouts.

* Keeping Calm and Carrying On can now make you thousands.

* How the V&A's National Art Library collects magazines

* An interesting series on the creative ways creative people dress for work

* Louis Vuitton does Wes Anderson - oh my!

* Graffiti artists fighting copying fashion brands

* I've ordered a copy of Mommy Dressing after reading this post on American Age.

* Take a look at the Europeana Fashion Tumblr for more fashion inspiration: it brings together thousands of different fashion and costume-items from 22 European institutions, including the V&A and MoMu as well as archives such as Missoni. I love this Southend Teddy Boy and this gorgeous floral lady as featured in recent posts.

Have a wonderful weekend!

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Friday, 20 February 2015

Last Week Links: 20 February 2015

Yeah, haven't done one of these for a while...


First things first, I'm now on Instagram. Finally.

I've also been all over weekend trips recently - Margate, Newcastle and, this weekend, Oxford. We saw Love is Enough: the Jeremy Deller-curated William Morris and Andy Warhol exhibition. The Museum of Modern Art is a great space, and the exhibition really tried to make the most of it, the walls papered with some of Morris' famous wallpapers (a refreshing alternative to the typical white space). The exhibition was far from perfect, but at least it made me think - this one star review from the Telegraph is definitely too harsh.

We also managed to squeeze in a visit to the Ashmolean, a Ben's Cookie, a cream tea and a visit to a ye olde English pub. Well done us. And we got rather carried away by all the marvellous brushes, instruments and implements in the shop Objects of Use (as pictured above on my ... Instagram!)

More exhibitory delights this week, as I went to see the Elvis show at the 02. Featuring objects straight out of Graceland, it didn't have quite the emotional punch that a pilgrimage to Graceland does. But, produced with fondness and with a blind eye turned to many of his foibles, it was still top class entertainment. And those jumpsuits really are something.

I finally finished reading Silence by Shusaku Endo - very good, but Portuguese missionaries being tortured did not want to make me eagerly pick it up each time. I'm getting back into my reading groove with Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Curtesy - about the final season of English debutantes in 1958 (of which she was one).

Finishing off this week's cultural adventures, I went to see the play Tree at the Old Vic. If you like Daniel Kitson and/or Tim Key you'll know what kind of daft but well-observed humour to expect. But you probably won't expect that ending.

Elsewhere
* "Jean Shrimpton now" is by far the most popular search term that bring people to this blog (and hopefully to this post). Here's an update. Her B&B has been converted into a holiday rental. Check out the Abbey in all its glory here.



* It's been a week for fab footwear collaborations. Ashley Williams teamed up with Red or Dead and Orla Kiely has been doing her usual thing just beautifully for Clarks as the above shoe demonstrates.

* An oral history of Laurel Canyon in the 1960s and 1970s

* There's going to be a Mad Men exhibit!


* Over on Fancies, I've written about fab, colourful clothes that are seemingly inspired by Matisse and other bits of modern art.

Oh, and did I mention that I'm now on Instagram? Have a lovely weekend!

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Saturday, 14 February 2015

Live Alone and Like It: Marjorie Hillis' 1936 advice to single women


After the horror of that was the advice offered on how to dress to find a husband, here are some vintage words that might actually bring comfort. They come from Live Alone and Like It, a book intended to be "a guide for extra women", offering tips for solo dwelling. Written by US Vogue journalist Marjorie Hillis, the book became a bestseller on its original release in 1936 – and I think did pretty well on its rerelease in 2005.

That might be because – sadly – the hectoring on what women should/shouldn’t be doing is still very much a part of everyday life. In contrast, Hillis’ advice still seems refreshingly sensible. As she says herself, the book is ‘no brief in favour of living alone’, but it does suggest ways to make the most of your situation, whether “the pleasures of a single bed”, or a “new and spicy book” to occupy an evening in. No sympathy is given to wallowers, or those feeling sorry for their situation. Although Hillis may be kind to the single woman, she is also bossy. While the living alone may not be your choice, the liking it – according to Hillis – very much is.

Here are ten of my favourite pieces of her advice on living alone:

1. “The basis of successful living alone is the determination to make it successful … You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself.”

2. “Do go in for cosmetics in a serious way. Not any old cream, but the right creams. The right coiffure too, and the right nail-polish, and all the other beauty tricks that make you feel elegant. This is the kind of pampering that pays.

 “There are other good kinds: a glass of sherry and an extra special dinner charmingly served on a night when you’re tired and all alone; bath salts in your tub and toilet-water afterward; a new and spicy book when you’re spending an evening in bed; a trim little cotton frock that flatters you on an odd morning when you decide to be violently domestic. The notion that it 'doesn’t matter because nobody sees you’ with the dull meals and dispirited clothes that follow in its wake, has done more damage than all the floods of springtime.”


3. “One of the great secrets of living alone successfully is not to live alone too constantly. A reasonably large circle of friends and enemies, whom you can see when you want to, and will often see you when you don’t want to, is an important asset. Anybody can acquire it, but it takes a little doing … If you haven’t any contacts, put your hat right on and go out and start making them … Be a Communist, a stamp collector or a Ladies’ Aid Worker if you must, but for heaven’s sake, be something.”

4. “It’s a good idea to divide your time intelligently into hours spent alone and hours spent in entertainment. Both should be taken in moderation, and balanced rations are best … Hermits and other self-sufficient people may be geniuses (we doubt it) and contribute greatly to the scientific knowledge of the world, but they contribute practically nothing to its entertainment and have a very dull time themselves. Most people’s minds are like ponds and need a constantly fresh stream of ideas in order not to get stagnant.”

5. “You must keep an open mind about what you read and where you go. Favourite authors and one favourite movie house are all very well in moderation, but they can become old-lady habits if you don’t watch out.”

6. “A reasonable amount of travel ought, of course, to be listed among the necessities. (An unreasonable amount if you can manage it.) If you don’t agree with this, there is something wrong with you, and you should see a doctor or a minister or at least read a few travel books and folders. All normal people should get wrought up now and then over the fact that there are wild orchids in Brazil that they may never see, and temple bells in Mandalay that they may never hear, and beautiful Balinese maidens and incredible Tibetan Lamaseries that they are likely to miss altogether.”

7. “Your setting, if you live alone, matters much more than if you had a husband or even a lover. And your standards of living should be about ten points higher than if you lived with somebody else. The woman who treats herself like an aristocrat seems aristocratic to other people and the woman who is sloppy at home inevitably slips sometimes in public.”


8. “Of course, the civilised place for any woman to have breakfast is in bed … For you and me who live alone and whose early mornings are uncomplicated by offspring, farm-hands and even husbands, bed is the place.”

9. “We are all for as much glamour as possible in the bedroom. The single bedroom as well as the double one. If the most respectable spinsters would regard their bedrooms as places where anything might happen, the resulting effects would be extremely beneficial … We can think of nothing more depressing than going to bed in a washed-out four-year-old nightgown, nothing more bolstering to morale than going to bed all fragrant with toilet-water and wearing a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing.”

10. “You probably have your bathroom all to yourself too, which is unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings. You don’t have to wait till someone finishes shaving, when you are all set for a cold-cream session. You have no-one complaining about your pet bottles, no one to drop wet towels on the floor, no one occupying the bathtub when you have just time to take a shower. From dusk to dawn, you can do exactly what you please, which, after all, is a pretty good allotment in this world where a lot of conforming is expected of everyone.”

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Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Vintage advice on dressing to find a husband

“You have to take an enormous amount of trouble to catch a man permanently”
Poppy Richard, in The Intelligent Women's Guide to Good Taste, 1958

Wedding dress, photographed by John French, 1960s. Via

The dreaded day is approaching – that’s Valentine’s Day, of course – when, if you’re single like me, it can feel like a forced examination as to where you’ve managed to get your life so wrong. Normally in times like this, I turn to my vintage style guides for a spot of soothing consolation.

In February 1952, Ladies Home Journal offered a “quick inventory for bachelor girls” (as quoted in the wonderful Bachelor Girl book):

“What about your … hair, complexion, clothes? Are you are good talker, dancer, listener? Do you have a sense of humour? Outside interests? … If anything is lacking you must go to the hairdresser, psychiatrist, whatever is needed. Only then are you ready to face the world.”

Cripes. It’s clearly time for me to take action.

FIRST, IDENTIFY YOUR TARGET

Edith Head devotes a whole chapter in How To Dress for Success (1967) to ‘How to Dress to Get a Man … and Keep Him’. One of her first pieces of advice (completed by the thrill of italics)

‘Count the available men you see every day – at the office, at church, at the railroad station, at the skating rink, the country club or the beach. One of them may just be for you.’

(My count, seeing as I work from home most days = 0)

The delights of the Little Black Dress, as demonstrated in Charm is Not Enough by Mary Young (1965) 

THEN DECIDE WHAT TO WEAR

Once identified, according to Head the next step is to “ask yourself if you measure up to the challenge of attracting him with what you wear every day.”

Other designers offer some vague pieces of wisdom on this. Dior, for example, who councils “I would not advise anyone to wear big jewels and expensive furs before marriage,” in the Little Dictionary of Fashion (1954).

The Intelligent’s Women’s Guide to Good Taste
, meanwhile, is more particular in its advice – but trickier to pull off:

“Dressing to please men is an art not quickly mastered. Men like women to look smart but are alarmed by anything too avant garde. Furthermore, their natural appreciation of clinging lines and diaphanous fabrics is tempered by their anxiety for your reputation in the eyes of their friends. One must learn to walk the tight-rope between these two sets of conflicting ideals. On the whole, it is better to be under- rather than over-dressed by day. At night, all men expect you to take trouble – that is, put on your lowest frock – but soft-pedal on the Marilyn Monroe stuff even if you have got the curves. It is a waste of time consulting men about clothes. Only one in ten thousand knows the first thing about them. Decide for yourself. It prevents argument.”

Head, however, gets specific. She decides that “men fall readily into five categories or types” – that’s the ‘Outdoor Type or Sportsman’, the ‘sophisticated Man-about-town’, the ‘Shy Conservative Man’, the ‘Far-Out Intellectual’ and, ‘everybody’s dreamboat’, ‘The Successful Executive’. Once you've found out all about your target, “you can easily decide which group your man fits into and dress accordingly. Instead of shopping madly for a lot of new clothes selected without plan, buy with him in mind.”


YOUR HAIR AND MAKE-UP

Successful dreamboat Executive in mind, it’s time to think about the finishing touches. For this, I’ve turned to Mary Young’s Charm is Not Enough from 1965. At first her advice is comforting: “the young man in our life is much more likely to prefer to see us looking (and behaving) naturally … Men don’t seem to mind what you do to the colour of your hair, so long as it looks quite natural, simply styled, well cared for, and shining”. But, before you dare to leave the house barefaced, she continues with the dire warning: “This doesn’t mean that we can lower our standards in any way with regard to grooming, dress and make-up.” Okay, right...

Advert for Chlorodent toothpaste, via

HOW TO ACT

Sorry, no let up here either. According to Head, the formula for success is simple: “If you can make yourself interesting to look at and interesting to be with your attraction for the opposite sex will be more than satisfactory.” Easier said than done, especially when you consider that her advice for women on search for a husband while travelling is “your costume must be impeccable, your luggage interesting and your reading matter carefully chosen to invite conversation.”

And there’s an inevitable amount of surrender too. A 1945 US Government “readjustment” guide (again quoted in Bachelor Girl) advises “Let him know you are tired of living alone … You want him to take charge. You want now to have your nails done.” Lilly Daché’s chapter ‘How to get – and keep – a husband’ in her Glamour book (1956) offers more of the same, subscribing to Burt Bacharach’s “Don’t send him off/With your hair still in curlers’ Wives and Lovers type of philosophy. “This is the thing that every successful wife must learn”, she concludes. “Happiness is to be tended and cultivated just as carefully as a plant which you value in your garden.”

Dishes Men Like cookbook, 1952. Via

SO THANK GOODNESS FOR ELIZABETH HAWES

As I was beginning to despair of both myself and the chore that seems to be husband hunting, I was delighted to discover Elizabeth Hawes' Anything but Love, a satire on exactly this kind of advice that's freely offered in books, magazines and advertising, and the seeming mission, post the Second World War that “Every American girl must get a husband, a home and children. Any other program for life is worse than death.”

Her words nicely spear the advice of Head et al, noting that, apparently, “the husband is acquired by titillation; falsification of appearance; and permitting him to believe anything he wants whether it be true or false, except in the matter of religion.”


Life Can Be Wonderful, magazine illustration, via

It also is a reminder – then as now – that the beauty and fashion industry have a big a role to play in making us feel just as bad as they make us feel good:

“Five out of five men are said to look twice at any girl in a black dress. Whether or not the same number would look at any girl in any colour dress is not important. For They would like to get every woman into black and keep her there. This is because black washes a woman out as not colour does and therefore necessitates more and more make-up as you get older.”

A depressing thought, however, is that Anything But Love was published in 1948 to counteract the deluge of propaganda encouraging women to leave the workplace and get back to being wives and mothers postwar. All the other texts quoted date from after the 1940s, showing this attitude simply didn’t go away. And, some of the advice quoted is probably still familiar if you pick up a teen or women’s magazine today. So, I’m choosing to try and keep a straight head, channel Elizabeth Hawes, and dismiss it all. At least, except for this final, vaguely sensible-sounding piece of advice from Edith Head:

“Don’t masquerade in clothes that you hate just to attract a man. Be sure you are really, deep-down his type of girl. If you aren’t – find another man.”

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