Sunday, 8 November 2015

1950s bohemian London in Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons


“Nell studied Davina’s long and voluminous black skirt, dusty black sweater with a high neck, and the various huge pieces of metal hanging from her wrists, ears and throat, and remembered seeing Gardis similarly festooned. Evidently this was Fashion.”

Stella Gibbons’ Here Be Dragons was published in 1956 and, like all my favourite books, offers a visual snapshot of the time in which it was written. Here we are in 1950s London bohemia. Teenage rebellion is begin to stir, but the movement is fuelled by coffee shops and jazz, rather than the imminent rock n roll explosion.

A change in family circumstance takes Nell from her sleepy village and thrusts her into the heart of Hampstead. Although Gibbons is most famous for Cold Comfort Farm, many more of her books are set in Hampstead, where Gibbons lived for many years. In the 1950s, it seems, it was facing an invasion of the bohemians:

“Hampstead showed increasing signs of being given over to Bohemia; the pavement echoed with flapping sandals and the clapping of Continental clogs there were tights and striped blue and white jeans to be seen loitering around the Underground station.”

Bohemian style idol, Eva Barok. Image source

Nell arrives in a respectable suit, but is swiftly given a sartorial lecture from her layabout cousin John. She needs to buy a beret and “if you can’t afford proper clothes, long full skirts and low heels and metal jewellery, you should copy Eva Bartok. She knows how to make horrible little suits like the one you’re wearing and old raincoats look marvellously romantic.”

John himself dresses in what’s described as “an extraordinary collection of clothes “. One ensemble includes an immaculate striped blazer, blue denim trousers, a gaudy American shirt.” I love this sense of improvisation, which reminds me of the improvisation of Ken Russell’s teddy girls. But, as with any subculture, en masse the bohemian dress and habits turn out to be no less strictly governed that those of their parents they rebel against. They party, dancing with naked feet in pools of cider while candles burn in – of course – Chianti bottles.

Enter one of their café haunts and:

“There they sat: the large calm, dirty girls in flowing skirts and lead jewellery, and the dreamers in drain-pipes and duffel coats, the spinners of fantastic plans for making fortunes brooding silently over newspapers, with unwashed hair falling across (in the case of the girls, who believed in living naturally) unpowdered faces.”

The Troubadour cafe, London, 1950s. Image source

Gibbons is seemingly quite fixated on their cleanliness (or lack of), perhaps the most evident characteristic they were rebelling against the “cleanliness is next to godliness mantra” of previous generations. In another café, Nell encounters the “dirty faces of the Espresso drinkers, set off by brilliant checked shirts, white jackets fastened by wooden links, black ‘jumpers’ (as Nell called them) and, in the case of the women, exaggeratedly severe or flowing manner of arranging the hair. Coiffures and beards played a large part in the exhibiting of their personalities, and did not always look quite clean.”

It’s not only ‘jumpers’ that need an explanation, but the whole notion of separates. When Nell tells her mum she needs some to look modern, her mother responds “need what?” And she’s even more surprised when Nell tells her she’s spotted a top “for less than a pound and a skirt for less than 30 shillings” on Oxford Street, because “No ‘top’ or skirt costing as ridiculously little as the sums Nell had mentioned could be anything but bad style.” Not only are the ways of dressing and shopping on the cards, it’s obvious that there is a shift in generational styles – perhaps something that’s usually more closely associated with the 1960s. Here Be Dragons captures these transitions, and revealed some of these details that normally would get overlooked in a survey of how fashions, and even teens, changed postwar. 

Leon Bell and the Bell Cats and some hand-jivers. Image source.

Over the course of the book, Nell comes ‘chic’ and, in a real sign of the times, moves from tea shop to running her own espresso shop. How her business survives the Swinging Sixties remains unknown.

Here Be Dragons is full of wonderful details that make you feel like you could be living in London in the mid-1950s, and it’s perhaps a better book if you read it for these details, rather than the plot itself. But what vintage fashion nerd could resist a book that includes the following description of Cecil Beaton’s Glass of Fashion (first published in 1954)? It comes straight from the mouth of Nell’s debuntante school friend: “It’s all about pre-1914 tarts, with drawings of them in saucy hats.” Quite.

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