Saturday, 8 November 2014

Early 1940s fashions in Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham

Joan Wyndham, via

Last year I wrote about the early 1940s fashions depicted in Dawn Powell’s novel A Time to Be Born. Powell cleverly uses descriptions of clothes – descriptions of clothes so accurate they could be lifted straight from the pages of a period Vogue – to shape her characters. I was thinking about early 1940s fashion again as I was reading Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons.

#3311009 / gettyimages.comFemale ambulance drivers pictured waiting for an emergency call on a pile of sandbags outside a Chelsea garage. 23 September 1939.

Though both books are slyly funny and extremely smart, they are also very different. Wyndham’s book is based on the diaries she kept as a teenager, kicking around the bohemian corners of Chelsea, London. It chronicles those teenage obsessions of boys (of course!), food (trips to Lyon’s Corner House or the pastry shop figure heavily) and clothes in such glorious detail that until the bombs start falling and conscriptions papers turn up you actually could forget you are reading a book set in the war at all.

12 October 1939
“Yesterday was my seventeenth birthday. I got Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and a beautiful pale-grey coat with a hood, which I think makes me look very appealing! Also a scrummy cream cake with seventeen candles from Deschuyter’s pastry shop on the corner.”

Art students decorating the shop hoardings on the shattered shop fronts of Oxford Street, 1940. 
Photograph by George Rodger, via

Shopping for clothes isn’t described in the same way as shopping for cakes is but Joan describes getting a new “very smart” plum corduroy coat from Harrods (happily noting: “Luckily, my bedroom hasn’t been destroyed by the bomb so I could try it on"). She came from a wealthy background and, reading the passage below describing her getting ready for a party, it sounds like she also used a private dressmaker as well as, at 17, being well practised in make-up application:

Saturday, 4 November 1939
“I washed my hair, and kept it done up in pipe cleaners all day, so it looked really nice and curly when I brushed it out. I also tried a new parting, sort of slanting across from the left and held back on one side with Kirbigrips. I think it looks sexier than my snood.

“I took a lot of trouble over my make-up, putting on Max Factor pancake with a sponge and two layers of the new cyclamen lipstick I’d got in Woolworth’s – I also wore my best black dress (what am I talking about, my only black dress!) for the second time. It’s the one Miss Mannery made for me with the V neck and ruched shoulders. I really looked pretty hot stuff, if I say so myself!”

#3142251 / A student at Chelsea Art School, c. 1940.

Joan’s style subtly changes through the course of her diary. She enrols in art school, noting carefully the “flat feet … dirndls and brightly checked blouses” of the older students. She also meets Prudey, an older artist, who Joan admires enormously. On 6 April 1941, Joan describes how:

“Her toilet is simple in the extreme – she wears no underclothes, summer or winter, except for a thin pair of flowery cotton pants. Over that go her violet jersey and scarlet dungarees, red socks with black shoes, and a blue sheepskin coat with a scarlet lining. All the reds are just slightly out of tune with each other.

“Today her hair was brushed straight across and fastened by a slide … She covered her raddled boy’s face with Ardena powder, painted her lips scarlet, and said, ‘I wish I knew how to make up!’ Prudey is thirty but you’d never think it. I don’t know why I love her so much.”

Harrods News, 9 October 1939, via

At the start of the diary, Joan admits she’s nervous about going out wearing trousers; by the end of 1940 she receives pair of green trousers for Christmas (along with cold cream and stockings). But it’s hard to believe the women she sees around her don’t influence her choice of clothes. Those scarlet dungarees of Prudey are mentioned admiringly in a few diary entries. It’s also apparent that Joan is mixing in very bohemian circles and what these women are wearing can’t be seen to represent the rest of London, let alone the rest of Britain. On a visit to Tunbridge Wells, Joan realises “what didn’t look right were my feet on Lalla’s neat gravel path, the scuffed leather sandals and the red I had put on my toenails so as to look good when sitting for Leonard.” I also love the thought of her art school friend Susan, dressed in “emerald green corduroys and a cerise blouse”, wearing shells around her neck, declaring: “Hell, I’m so sick of being arty! I think I’m going to marry a stockbroker.”

British Vogue, 17 May 1939, via

Perhaps one of the most striking things about the clothes in Love Lessons are their colours. From Susan’s emerald green corduroys and cerise blouse to Prudey’s scarlet dungarees and many other items including that delicious sounding “blue sheepskin coat with a scarlet lining”, it’s a vivid reminder not to see the 1940s simply as the colours of its black and white photographs.

Outside a Soho nightclub, 1942. Photograph by Bill Brandt, via

There’s one character in Love Lessons who definitely stands apart in terms of her style, and that’s Squirrel. Squirrel is Joan’s rival for the attentions of her beloved, handsome Rupert. According to Joan, she “looks like a Vogue cover with black hair tied back in a snood. She is very small and fragile, with a beautiful short nose like a Pekinese, and eyes like small black cherries.” In fact, Squirrel sounds like she could have come straight out of the pages of A Time to Be Born, dressed in her fur coats with “long red nails, and her brown wrists clinking with barbaric silver bracelets.” No wonder Joan simply states “I hated her on sight.”

Squirrel is a glimpse into another, more glamorous side of 1940s style. Joan writes:
“She and her sister Bosie live in a typical glamour-girls apartment with stockings and suspender-belts drying everywhere and the radio playing jazz. When we arrived Bossie was sitting at her dressing-table putting oil on her eyelids. She is v. glamorous and native, and was wearing plaid trousers and a transparent white shirt through which her breasts stuck out like spears.”

Recruitment poster by Laura Knight, c.1940. via

A no-less formidable rival eventually replaces Squirrel, but Joan’s diary entries only go up to the beginning of 1941 meaning that (in Love Lessons at least) we don’t get to read about what happens about her relationship with Rupert. We also don’t know how Joan copes with the hardest of the war years: not least the difficulties she’d face in obtaining cake, clothes (Utility clothing didn't start being introduced until the end of 1941) and even men! But Joan does go off and join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Here, clothes become a leveller, albeit perhaps not always a welcome one:

9 April 1941
“Modesty is thrown to the winds are we are drilled by male PTOs in our ‘blackouts’ i.e. black service knickers and no stockings. All of us – long thin housemaids, huge fat cooks and outraged debuntants – hop up and down in our underwear. We are a macabre sight, everything that can shake or wobble does, and everything that can come loose, comes loose.”

Wyndham’s experiences in the WAAF have their own devoted book Love is Blue and I really can’t wait for it to arrive to find out what Joan did – or what Joan wore – next.

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  1. A fair reminder that we see this era at a distance-- with a tendency to romanticize both the horrors and the delights. But it's good to hear a tale of women as actively engaged in all parts of life, as surely they were, and to feel the different ways that they managed the hard realities they faced.

    1. Absolutely. And a reminder how the regular features of life, whether dating, the pleasures cake or falling out with your friends, don't simply disappear because there is a war on.


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