"Shop Girl", Kensington, London, 1906. Photographed by Edward Linley Sambourne. Via
“Jane took a pride and joy in her collars; and Lily ironed them secretly and carefully for her.”
Jane is the heroine of Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages. This novel was published in 1930, but set around the First World War, making Jane another interpretation of that well-known early twentieth century type: the shop girl. But unlike many of her fictional counterparts, Jane is going to work hard, rather than relying on her looks to capture a fictional husband. Surviving on a low wage, Jane knows it is details such as collars that matter.
Her later, real life successor is the 23-year-old typist from Liverpool, quoted in Catherine Horwood's Keeping Up Appearances, who in 1939 has also learnt that the collar is a quick fix for smart and economical dressing. She says, “it's always a source of amusement to me to watch the reaction of the men in the office if I wear an old dress coupled with a white collar. They don't notice the dress - the collar does the trick! Give me a white collar!”
Types of collar, Harper's Bazar, 1872. Via
But the collar isn’t just the concern of the younger working woman too: just think of Nora Ephron meeting with her female peers and discovering they’re all wearing more age-friendly turtlenecks or Mandarin collars, as she notes in the piece that her book the name I Feel Bad About My Neck. On Women’s Hour last week Celia Birtwell was praising the collar as a pretty detail for the older woman’s daily uniform.
Christian Dior was well aware of the transformative affair of a good collar. He counselled: “If you want to look young you will choose a crisp material too - like piqué. If you want to look sweet you will select a fine piece of lace.”
Collar styles, as illustrated in Christian Dior's Little Dictionary of Fashion.
Collars, as a fashion accessory, are back perhaps because it’s such an easy way to add a touch of prettiness to a basic T-shirt or sweater (again, nothing new: my Practical Home Knitting book – written at the height of Make Do and Mend – advises: “wear little pique collars with the classic jerseys and transform them into the smartest French models.”). I wrote about a selection for Domestic Sluttery here – I especially love the Cleo Ferrin Mercury trapeze design. What’s more, the dickey seems to be making a mini comeback too, under a variety of different names: take a look at Mr Start, or this one from Cos. Perhaps tellingly the rationale given to them this time around is about not adding bulk to your figure, rather than reasons of economy.
Deciding on what collar to wear is not without its potential pitfall. Dior cautions in the Little Dictionary of Fashion: “The famous 'little white collar' is, of course, very nice and youthful; but don't use it too much because it may sometimes look cheap.” And he continues with a golden rule – one that Jane already obediently obeys – “never wear a white collar twice - it must be spotless.”
Who knew a simple collar could carry so many different connotations? As Janey Ironside wrote in her Fashion Alphabet (and quoted in this blog post about the Peter Pan collar), “Only hats, when they are in fashion, can do as much to help a woman or to kill her looks.”