Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Last-Year Reads: Something Wholesale by Eric Newby

Eric Newby’s Something Wholesale takes us into a long gone world. It’s his memoir of working in his family’s wholesale business in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War It was published in 1962 and, even then, Newby notes he is writing about a ‘commercial venture of a sort that is now extinct’.

I discovered this book in a couple of ways. Liz Tregenza recommended it to me on Twitter after I’d finished In The Mink – it’s the business side to Anne Scott-James’ more glamorous, though often no less ridiculous, world. I also went to Peter Carty’s travel writing workshop who suggests this book on his blog, as Newby is far better known as a travel writer. You can imagine how his observance of detail and sense of the absurd translate into excellent commentary. And, for the benefit of this book, you don’t really get more absurd – or possibly comic/tragic – than a family company falling apart, ill equipped to cope with the rapidly changing world of fashion.

Lane & Newby sell ready-to-wear women’s fashions mantles, gowns and costumes to department stores and madam shops. The staff are a motley crew of eccentrics, led by Newby’s father, a man who would much rather be out rowing on the river. There’s the inscrutable Mr Wilkins who governs the mantle department and has a taste for saucy seaside postcards, a line in innuendo and careful eye on his expenses and Lola, the exotic in-house mannequin, who is actually called Topper and comes from Muswell Hill. Out of the showroom, you meet the squabbling external tailors and seamstresses, and the various demands of the buyers who have to be kept sated with a steady stream of tea and biscuits, Dundee cake and gin and tonics.

British Vogue, September 1946, via

The clothes are depressing too, constrained by rationing and patriotic intentions. At this time, high fashion, according to Newby, “had become petrified in a cast that was a vague copy of military uniform. Ordinary clothes were even more ordinary than usual.” Reading his descriptions, there’s nothing sold by Lane & Newby that you’d ever want to buy.

Something Wholesale is marvellous at capturing the immediate post-war mood. Newby conjures up a damp and dark Britain, where even “evening dresses, like the gatherings at which they were intended to be worn, were dispirited.” But it was difficult to be optimistic when day-to-day living was still a struggle. Visitors from outside the capital visit Lane & Newby armed with farm produce, “a reminder that London in 1946 was still a beleaguered fortress.”

At the edges of the story, you glimpse the government efforts to lift business out of its doldrums. This was when The Ambassador magazine were urging businesses to “Export or Die!”, and that phrase is used as the title for one of the chapters. (Lane & Newby succeed in getting on an export list but, somewhat typically, to little success.) Less ambitious attempts to squeeze some enjoyment from life seem to routinely fail: Newby and his wife Wanda ‘enjoy’ a particularly disastrous trip to a dreary Dungeness. 

See magazine, 1948, via

And then Dior launches his Spring 1947 collection. In Britain, the clothing industry greets this ‘New Look’ with “scepticism and plain derision”. Newby is excited by the collection but doesn’t believe the impact will last. The reaction of British manufacturers, “half-throttled by clothes rationing and frightened by the storm of conflicting emotions which Dior’s collections had released” is to play safe and produce for Autumn “what they had been making for the last seven years with a slightly longer skirt.” But, despite not capturing the manufacturers imagination, it has charmed the public. The result is a collapsing market, as customers simply cannot buy what they want. Well, with a few notable exceptions. In London, the “air of illicit romance” attached to a Dior dress was “speedily recognized by the street-walkers of Curzon Street and Bond Street and apart from a few grande dames and a handful of model girls they were the only citizens seen abroad in the new fashion.”

Vogue, March 1948, via

But it’s not the New Look that destroys Lane & Newby: it’s tax, which has been blithely ignored by Newby’s father. They’re forced to downsize, to much less impressive premises and don’t really recover. Department stores start removing the ‘Lane & Newby’ label from garments because of its old-fashioned reputation, as new brands spring up, more suited to the times, with names “redolent of candle-light and high living”.

Despite his self-depreciation, Newby enjoyed an impressive fashion career after leaving the family firm. He worked for Worth Paquin, then John Lewis where he was central buyer of ‘model gowns’ for the partnership. He attended the early Sala Bianca shows in Italy (back in the spotlight due to the Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition), where British buyers took a back seat, literally, to the American, and later also German and Japanese buyers. He even covered the Italian collections for the Observer newspaper under a pseudonym. 

John Lewis fashion show, 1950, via

Newby eventually became the travel editor for that paper, which is where he made his (actual) name as a writer. Despite this switch in career, he never quite left fashion behind. One of the things that makes Something Wholesale so enjoyable is that while Newby is prepared to laugh at the ridiculousness of some aspects of the fashion business, he is also clearly very fond of it. In a later epilogue to the book, he is taken to the couture shows by Vogue, where he admires the collections: “With such high standards, anyone who condemned a couture collection in Paris January 1985 in its entirety was a fool”. Newby defends the worth of fashion, not only from a business angle as an industry that employs thousands, but also as craftsmanship and art. He returns to his memory of the seamstresses, working at Lane & Newby and “the concentration which they gave to their work gave to them too kind a beauty which they would not have had if they had been typists or shop assistants”. Fashion, he understands, is a business that can bring beauty and romance into the world, even from the most unlikely circumstances.

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