Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The life of a 1920s model in Clothes Pegs by Noel Streatfeild

Private clients watching a fashion show at Hirsch & Cie department store, 1930s. Via

Back at the end of the July, when I was still marvelling over the 1940s fashions in Dawn Powell's A Time To Be Born, @sarramanning on twitter gave me a tip to check out Susan Scarlett's Clothes Pegs for a fashionable take on a slightly earlier decade. I'm so glad I did as, although the story or the clothes aren't quite up there for me in the same way they were in Powell's book, Clothes Pegs gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of a model in a 1920s London fashion house.

Clothes Pegs came out in 1939. Its author is much better known under her real name of Noel Streatfeild and famous for her enchanting childhood stage stories such as Ballet Shoes or Curtain Up. Susan Scarlett was apparently the name she put to her romantic adult stories, and, in terms of storyline, Clothes Pegs is pure escapist fluff. A lowly seamstress, Annabel, is plucked from the obscurity of the workroom to be a fashion house model and, along the way, defeats various challenges to win the heart of a handsome toff. But, what makes it interesting is Streatfeild's own experience - she worked as a model in the mid-1920s to supplement her wages as an aspiring actress. Her tall and slender figure coupled with her actor's ability to be able to show and present clothes meant she easily found work as a model, as did many fellow actresses at the time.

It's hardly a surprise then that her description of a model's life feels spot-on, albeit romanticised. Annabel works at Bertna's, based in Mayfair's Hanover Square. The widowed Russian owner, Tania, is a kind woman (Streitfeild's biography describes her friendship with the designer Christabel Russell, so perhaps she formed the basis of her character). It's Tania who spots Annabel's beauty and asks her to try modelling. Annabel is trained up in how to walk properly and how to best demonstrate an ensemble, whether that's putting your hands in its pockets or splaying a full skirt (take a look at the photograph of the model in Paris doing this with great skill later on in the post).

Streatfeild takes us behind the scenes to see the fashion house on the staging of their spring show. She describes the four models have over 100 gowns to show between them, shown divided into morning, afternoon and evening gowns, and then into town and country wear. The room is set up with 150 gold chairs and ash trays and cigarettes placed upon each table. Cocktails are handed round between the evening dresses and the court gowns presentations. The lighting is carefully set up to cast a glow on the floor where the models walk. Although Annabel is nervous to step out into the busy room, she appreciates the buzz of being admired by so many in beautiful clothes, and Tania is pleased to see the effect she has on the customers, who are eager to order her outfits.

I was thrilled to discover a parallel in Dodie Smith's novel I Capture The Castle, where Rose writes to describe the process of getting her trousseau to her sister Cassandra. Published in 1949, it's thought the book was based in the mid-1930s, so almost the period of Clothes Pegs: 

"Getting a trousseau is quite hard work. I think you would be surprised at the way we do it. We hardly go to real shops at all but to large beautiful houses. There are drawing-rooms with crystal chandeliers and little gilt chairs all around and you sit there and watch the manniquins (can't spell it) walk past in the clothes. You have a card and pencil to mark down what you like."

Fashion illustrator Francis Marshall's London West (published in 1944) recalls the behind-the-scenes frenzy of these kind of shows, and their reliance on the models themselves:

"It is no easy matter to show from one to two hundred dresses of all kinds in the space of little over an hour without delays of some sort or another, and behind the scenes there is a kind of organised pandemonium. It is hard, exhausting work for the mannequin to get into dress after dress, ranging from elaborate evening dresses to a bathing or ski-ing costume, and each with its correct accessories. She needs something of the agility of a quick-change artist and the poise of an actress."

In Clothes Pegs you do get a real sense of the physical demands of the job. In the case of Betna's, we're told that the house models are lucky because they have their own room, furnished with a large electric fire and a vase of flowers. For most of the novel, day to day this is a place to gossip and squabble (not that Annabel partakes, obviously), to collapse exhausted after the demands of the day, knock back Bromo Seltzer and seemingly spend a lot of their day sitting around in their underwear and dressing gown, waiting to be asked to come out and show clothes.

Behind the scenes at a fashion parade, 1930s. Via

Bernadette, a kindly older model, writes down the basics required for a model's kit - what would require a large outlay from Annabel, then living with her parents on a seamstresses budget. It reminded me a bit of that huge list of what you needed to buy to take with you to stage school, which Streatfeild provided in Ballet Shoes.

Annabel's list consists of beige satin shoes (she's advised that cheap ones can mean corns), very long fine stockings (to be marked against theft from other models), a small suspender belt, step-ins - "as sheer as you can buy" (I had to look these up, they're panties with with wide legs), a backless brasserie and a "dressing gown to live at Bertna's".

The models exist in a strange limbo state within the house, separated from the rest of the workers, both envied and despised, and the subject of fashion house critique. One of the fitters, working on a dress, grumbles at Annabel: "Nice time we'll have after the show when they want to try on the dresses. Our customers have busts and behinds. Why we show the clothes on you girls, who are flat all over, beats me." A Punch cartoon from 1927, is quoted by Alison Adburgham in her View of Fashion book as being the first appearance of models within its pages, and references a similar concern. A plump lady is watching the leggy flattened figures of the fashion models go by at her show. She remarks, "My dear, I'm positive an inquiry is needed into the working conditions of these poor half-starved girls". From then on, Adburgham notes, models were under constant public critical scrutiny.

I've only dipped into Caroline Evan's new book The Mechanical Smile but it focuses on fashion models in America and France from 1900 to the late 1920s. This strange liminal state of the model is something she emphasises: always seen, always in the public eye, but not fully seen as women, or their contributions properly recorded in history.

One of the things Evans' remarks upon is the naming of models mannequins, taken from the name given to the model dolls used to show clothes before they were put upon human forms. In Clothes Pegs, Annabel tells her mother she's became a model: "A model!" Ethel looked puzzled. Then enlightenment came to her. 'You mean a mannequin?'". Annabel tells her they call them models at Bertna's. I don't know enough about the distinction between the two terms, and the connotations they both carry, but it's interesting this difference is fully drawn and the example of a nice fashion house goes for the slightly more humane sounding term (though the term "Clothes Pegs" itself is less-than-flattering).

On one hand, the models are in an enviable position. As described in the book, "They earned quite a lot of money and went to all the sort of restaurants the customers went to." It certainly sounds like a more glamorous job than that done by their parents (the Bertna's models's family backgrounds feature second-hand clothes dealerships and boarding houses). But, if they're no longer really working class like their parents, what have they become exactly?

Model in Paris, photographed by Willy Maywald, 1930s. Via

For Bernadette, modelling is something she is able to do, despite the high profile of her father's criminal conviction. Although Bernadette hasn't done anything wrong, the modelling world seems to be able to absorb a bit of scandal in a way the rest of society perhaps isn't able to. There was still a question mark in some people's minds, that there was something not quite proper about the job of the model. In I Capture The Castle, Rose notes that Topaz, "knew some of the mannequins at a dress-show - I could have died"; in Clothes Pegs, Bernadette gives a note of warning to Annabel about the intentions of her suitor:

"Models rank with the chorus in lots of men's minds, and they are considered gay. It's a hang over from the naughty nineties, when chorus girls lead the life. I think they still hope we aren't fussy to put it mildly."

The models may go on dates with aristocratic gentleman in the smartest bars, and mingle in their social world. But when they are showing the clothes, they are merely to be looked upon. Francis Marshall describes a model at work: "The mannequin, whatever her trials and tribulations behind the scenes, now appears aloof, disdainful, and removed from all human frailties." At one point, Annabel transgresses this code by breaking down in tears and confiding to a customer that she's worried about the health of her father. It's only okay because the customer is an aspiring actresses, herself still unaware of the correct social conventions.

In afterward to the The Mechanical Smile, Evans's uses a French novel, Lucy Clairin's Journal d'un mannequin from 1937 set in 'Boris', a Parisian couture house. Like Annabel, she experiences the joys of female friendship within the fashion house as well as its bitchiness, and the challenges of difficult clients, but the mannequins here have a much wider definition of respectability - one is virginal, one has a married politician for her boyfriend and another has a secondary career as nude dancer.

Meanwhile, Streatfeild emphasises that Bertna's upholds terribly high standards - a couple of the models get fired after less exemplary behaviour - but is this because it's extra important to defend the sometimes less than savoury reputation of models, rather than merely to enforce a nice fairy tale ending? Or perhaps it's something of the two. Honourable Annabel gets her honourable man, and the more questionable models get their comeuppance. If the first-hand experience of these model girls has gone more or less unreported, isn't it interesting that in Clothes Pegs it's the former model who writes the moral and happy ending to the tale?

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I edited the title of this post on 5 July 2015 from "1930s model" to "1920s model", as it so closely reflects Streatfield's own experience as a model. 


  1. Lovely blogpost! Such an interesting topic, and intriguing to see the way modelling has changed over the years.

    1. Thank you! And thanks for your blogpost about Ballet Shoes, which reminded me of Streatfeild fondness for a good list...


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