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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