Friday, 20 March 2015

Last-Week Links: 20 March 2015

It really feels like the year has begun now. At almost a quarter a way through, it really should! But there's something about blue skies that helps with plan making, and something about deadlines that speeds things up, and I've been enjoying both recently.

I've also been doing lots of reading. Aside from Fashion on the Ration, I really enjoyed Tracey Thorn's Bedsit Queen, a gentle, thoughtful book about being a girl in a band. Happiness by Design is the book I keep recommending to people - it's really made me think about what makes me happy and how I can try and introduce more of that into the everyday ... still working on that! You can see all the books I've read so far this year here...

If you are flying off anywhere on EasyJet before the end of March, look out for me in their magazine. At the start of the year I was lucky enough to return to Porto and explore their great food scene for the feature. I highly recommend the eclairs from Leitaria da Quinta do Pa├žo, which do come in colours other than orange!


* The picture at the top of this post is unmistakably the model Bettina, who sadly died earlier this month. I wrote about her influence on fashion here.

* Another of my 'Last-Year Girls' is Marisa Berenson. Love this interview with her - and that they ask her about her Dressing Up book.

* The amazing story of 21 Callot Soeurs dresses.

* There's going to be a TV series about Eileen Ford. Hope they do the 1940s stuff justice!

* A cracking Top Ten books about women in the 1950s. When I saw this list online, I was already in the middle of The Years of Grace, as it was referenced in The Last Debutante (post to follow on The Years of Grace, it's great stuff!). I'm now on the author's own Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes.

* My new favourite internet site is Public Domain Review. It's full of vintage gems such as this 1947 "Are You Popular?" social advice film.

* Know a badly dressed man? This site should help.

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Monday, 16 March 2015

Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum, London

Within the space of a couple of weeks, five different people contacted me to tell me about the Fashion on the Ration exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum. I’m obviously entirely predictable when it comes to 1940s fashions! I was already eagerly prepped, having been racing through the excellent accompanying book to the show by Julie Summers, ahead of seeing the show.

Early 1940s fashions have become an interest of mine over the last few years (see this post, for example, or this one) and what was surprisingly refreshing about this show was that it focuses solely on Britain, allowing the book and show to hone on the detail that – understandably – often has to be omitted in wider reference books. Having come to the period largely through personal stories, such as Love Lessons, I also enjoyed that the first person accounts that can be found in the IWM’s collection of diaries, letters and archives play an essential part in both display and book.

Pupils of a London County Council dressmaking class in Brixton, London, hold a fashion parade to show their friends and family what they have learnt. © IWM (D 12897)

As expected, Fashion on the Ration celebrates the stylish improvisation the lack of materials necessitated – the same inventiveness that has proved inspirational for countless subsequent editorials and collections. What I’d previously overlooked – and is marked in this display – is that about a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform during the Second World War. That’s not just the armed forces, but also factory workers, dockworkers, policemen and women and the like, meaning it became entirely normal to see uniforms on the street. Vere Hodgson described the excitement in London in 1943:

“Piccadilly is such a thrilling place these days. All the uniforms of all the nations jostle you on the pavement … girls too in their service uniforms by the hundred. Few fashionables – because all the pretty girls are in battle dress.”

Even for those women not in uniform, wartime living necessitated adaptation of their usual dress standards. One grandmother, after her first night time visit to the air raid shelter, insisted that next time she would have to be wearing trousers. Other times it was the material that was compromised. This amazing bra and knickers set made from a silk escape map still looks wearable today, but – as steel and rubber became increasingly hard to come by – the millions of corset wearers felt their loss keenly – and loudly.

A display of Utility clothes in a shop. All these clothes were designed by Norman Hartnell. © IWM (D 10727)

Undoubtedly, the female population were more equipped to be able to ‘Make Do and Mend’ than we would be today. Eileen Gurney was housewife and an avid dressmaker. She described her outfits in letters to her husband in painstaking detail. One, on display in the exhibition, features an illustration of how she adapted the line of an old coat to make it look more current. Gurney was an avid reader of Vogue, taking pride in recreating its latest looks on her budget. In fact, when rationing was first introduced in 1941, she was quite pleased as she felt that, finally, her clothes might be able to compete with those who shopped from the magazine’s pages.

British Vogue September 1944, via

What’s apparent in Fashion on the Ration is just how influential Vogue and other women’s magazines were in this period. When “woodies” were introduced – shoes with wooden soles to replace hard to come by rubber – The Lady gave advice on how to walk in them: “If you find yourself walking a bit duck-footed in the first few days, concentrate on placing your toes in a pigeon position and you’ll find your muscles will soon co-operate and you’ll be walking the right way once more.”

In another example, when there were concerns about the safety of women with long hair working with machinery, Whitehall called in Vogue. And, following their spread that featured the “trim heads” of Deborah Kerr and Coral Browne and proclaimed the joys of shorter hair “for neatness, easy cleanliness and good looks”, Eileen Gurney, for one, wrote to her husband telling him that she’d restyled her hair into a short bob.

British Vogue, June 1941, via

British Vogue had to adapt its material to changing needs. Another feature, for example, featured a diary of a war bride, proving how it was possible to prepare for your wedding in only five days. One of the most moving objects in the exhibition is a tiny cream wedding dress, made from pre-War silk, that was worn by fifteen different women for their weddings during the war.

Another champion enabling the white wedding was Barbara Cartland – then working as an advisor to young women needing new support in their new lives in the services – helped establish a ‘wedding dress pool’ at the War Office. Its purchases were frequently supplemented by her own income, as she “understood that those dresses were made of more than satin and tulle, lace and crepe de chine; they were made of dreams, and one cannot sell dreams cheaply.”

Two models on a rooftop in Bloomsbury, London, wearing wartime fashions in 1943. © IWM (D 14818)

Never before had the government exerted so much authority over its citizen’s wardrobes. As well as corsets and stockings, the austerity regime meant everything from men’s trouser turn-ups to skirt pleats were scrutinized. Utility, introduced in 1942, aimed to produce designs of affordable good quality, with minimum wastage.

With designers such as Molyneux, Norman Hartnell and Edward Molyneux all producing designs for the scheme, it was the first time ‘designer’ dressing was open to all. Looking at their clothes in the exhibition, they remain pretty desirable – mainly because of their lovely use of colour and pattern. Even that’s controlled cleverly, employing fabric using smaller repeated patterns so less fabric is wasted in the cutting.

At a YWCA mobile club, members of the ATS crowd up to the counter to buy cosmetics, tissues, sewing kits and notepaper. © IWM (D 13493)

Having a well-dressed population was seen as being essential to morale, but it became harder and harder to achieve as the war drew on. Women were encouraged to use make-up (“Beauty is Duty”) but even that involved battling shortages. Vogue changed tack and encouraged its readers to use “four fundamental cosmetics … which don’t come out of jars and bottles”. These were sleep, a proper diet, exercise and relaxation – all easy to come by, no doubt, when you’re a women struggling to look after your family, probably working too as well as partaking in regular voluntary work.

Even after the war ended, rationing stayed in place in one form or the other until 1949, with new items remaining hard to come by. One 1946 advert for Church’s shoes shown in the exhibition proclaims how their new shoes are “just arriving. We wish there were more”. After all this restriction, it’s easy to see how scandalous but thrilling the swathes of material used for Dior’s New Look must have looked. And what a death knoll it must have seemed for the likes of Eric Newby’s family wholesale business after struggling through the war years.

While I am unconvinced by the exhibition's conclusion of the parallels between 1940s and today’s fashions, both the Fashion on the Ration exhibition and the book are a brilliant insight into everyday British lives in this period, and the important role that fashion and appearance can play in the every day.

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Sunday, 8 March 2015

Talking Vintage with Nzinga Russell

After my chat with vintage collector Nicky Albrechtsen, I thought it would be interesting to talk to more people who make their living through vintage clothing. Nzinga Russell is the entrepreneur behind a subscription service with a difference - signing-up to Style by Portobello, means you'll receive a box filled with vintage accessories picked by Russell directly from London's Portobello market each month. Let's find out more...

Tell me a little about the concept of Style by Portobello
Style By Portobello is a vintage accessories subscription service. Every month, for £35 our subscribers receive a Bello Box containing up to three unique vintage pieces, all of which are sourced from the fab vintage traders at Portobello Road market.

I adore vintage and the shopping process of uncovering those one-off gems so I have a real passion for getting as many people to try vintage as possible. Style By Portobello allows those that already love vintage to receive pieces they know they'll love every month. The concept also serves as a great entry point into vintage for those who love the high street but are really keen to try vintage but just don't know where to start.

By subscribing they get to benefit from the great style that vintage offers without the task of having to find the pieces themselves. I like to think that I have a bit of a knack for spotting a hidden gem amongst the clutter. I love that feeling when you know you have found something amazing. I want our subscribers to feel like that every month when they open their Bello Box. I also adore Portobello Road itself so this venture allows me to open up Portobello to the rest of the country, especially to those who don't live in London and don't get to visit.

What's so special about Portobello Market?
It is simply the best place to find amazing vintage pieces. The place has a great atmosphere. The diversity of the local people, the stall holders, vintage dealers, the great off-beat restaurants and bars, the homegrown talent in terms of new designer boutiques. It's such a melting pot. The place oozes cultural and fashion history.

Each market day has a different atmosphere as well as different parts of the market itself. My favourite days are:
- Friday is for the serious vintage hunters. Prices range from great bargains to sky high for designer finds. It's great for those who know their vintage but it's still totally accessible.

- Saturday is the busiest and biggest market day. Along with the locals you've got tourists who flock from the world over and spread their sense of excitement. You can shop vintage as well as new up and coming designers. Music is blaring and the cafes are packed. Great buzz all round. Perfect for people watching. I love seeing how the locals style their looks.

- Sunday is a real locals day. You may find more second hand bits as opposed to vintage and it's more of a smaller, intimate affair. Everyone knows everyone and there's a real relaxed community feel.

How did you discover/get into vintage?
My very stylish mother was the first to introduce me to vintage just by virtue of the fact that I would raid her wardrobe and nab her original 1970s Butler & Wilson earrings or borrow her original Biba pieces. She only ever buys quality so everything lasts. Thus her wardrobe was a real treasure trove for me with her vintage denims of all shades and washes and the amazing Italian leather belts and bags she collected on her travels. I found it all so exciting because with vintage it was so easy to be stylish and original. She even had some of my Grandmother's special pieces so I was able to experiment with gorgeous bags and jewellery from the 50s and 60s. I then had a wonderful friend who is still very much like my older sister. She would go vintage hunting every weekend and I would tag along. Whenever we meet the first thing we do is go vintage shopping, down the 'Bello of course!!

How big is your personal vintage collection?
I would say that it's embarrassingly large. This is probably the same for most vintage lovers as there is always something original to buy on the rails. I never throw anything away so my wardrobes are bulging and I also have a lot in storage. Vintage never goes out of fashion which is just marvellous. You can literally keep pieces forever. So I try to rotate my wardrobe and do a clear out every six months where I go through what I have at home and what I have in storage and then swap things over. I never get tired of vintage bags, belts, jewellery and shoes. With any of these pieces you can revolutionise a pretty average outfit. It's a quick fix way to give your look that 'stand out' factor. However I also can never have enough vintage jackets, dresses, coats and tops. Even in terms of the eras I love, I'm quite eclectic. I have a lot of 60s, 70s and a good amount of 80s.

How did you decide to turn this into a business?
When I'd wear great vintage pieces I'd always get friends and strangers asking where I had found my pieces. When I'd say Portobello Road, their faces would light up. They'd say how much they love Portobello but don't have the knack for finding those special pieces that they know are there. Or they'd say that they love the market but live too far away to be able to go more than once in a blue moon. It struck my how great it would be if, no matter where you lived or whether you loved the thrill of the chase or hated rummaging, you could always have access to beautiful vintage pieces. 

Having had a stall at the market years ago and still having maintained those great contacts and relationships, I knew I'd be able to source wonderful things for a wider audience. We all know that subscription services have taken off so when I started exploring the idea as a business more thoroughly I realised that there wasn't anything like Style By Portobello on the market. So it's great to be the UK's first vintage accessories subscription offering. On top of all this, the concept is a great way of supporting the market and the traders.

Do you have a favourite vintage piece in your collection?
It's extremely hard to choose a favourite: my favourites change every few months! I will be obsessed with an item for weeks and then there'll be a new purchase or something else that I'll discover anew in my wardrobe. I would say, however, that there is a belt that I have had for years. It's a fantastically high quality brown leather belt from the 70s with a worn bronze ram's head as the buckle. It's amazing and I have never seen anything like it since adding it to my collection. It's definitely a wardrobe staple of mine. The quality of the leather goes without saying as it has definitely stood the test of time. The more worn and aged it becomes, the better it looks. The bronze ram's head it heavy and sturdy and never tarnishes

Another firm favourite is a pair of gold, 80s leopard head earrings encrusted with diamante. They are just so over the top. I wear them all the time. In terms of clothing, my favourite dress right now is a 70s floral piece (the one I am wearing in the photo above). The colours are just so bold and outrageous and the oversized collar is fantastic. It looks great in a/w or s/s. It's so versatile and unique. I love truly it. Who knows what my favourite will be next month.

What's the easiest way to include vintage into a contemporary wardrobe?
I love this question and I think it is a really important one. I think combining amazing vintage pieces with high street staples is the key to keeping your look contemporary and unique. The easiest way to include vintage into a contemporary wardrobe is with accessories. With one statement piece you can turn an outfit from average to outstanding. So I would say that a gorgeous vintage bag is a necessity. Each decade has some great shapes to offer so you'll always be able to find something that suits you. 

Next, I would say that finding a statement vintage necklace will really stand you in good stead and take a high street look to the next level. The 60s is a great era for jewellery as well as the 80s. If you're not a vintage novice and are already sold on the benefits of vintage clothing then sourcing a statement dress or jacket will do wonders for your wardrobe.

Ever seen a piece of vintage you've been sorry to pass by/let slip through your fingers?
No, not really. If I didn't buy it then it must have been because I didn't love it enough. There's so much amazing vintage out there that I have to be quite philosophical when it comes to missing out.

What is a typical day's work for you?
As I have two children, a typical day's work for me from Monday to Thursday starts before they wake up. I furiously work through as much basic business admin as I can before they wake up. Once I have got the children off to nursery I go back to my home office. The first part of the day involves continuing with the more mundane side of running your own business such as more admin, replying to routine emails and phone calls and having meetings. I'm currently pregnant with my third child so missing lunch is not an option! 

After lunch I do the fun stuff that lies at the heart of why I love running my own business. I brainstorm marketing ideas, continuously think of ways to delight our subscribers and then the most important time for me is what I call 'inspiration time'. I really believe that on a daily basis one needs to step back from the day to day tasks, get out of the office and experience the world outside. This is where the really great ideas come from. There's so much in my local area of Notting Hill and Portobello Road to inspire me so I max out on local galleries, exhibitions and culture. This time can also include reading a really interesting article or meeting a very inspirational person. It's then pick up time from nursery. Family dinner time with my husband and the kids is very rarely compromised, then once the kids are in bed I usually do another two to three hours work. 

Then Friday and Saturdays are pure indulgence. I am down at the market as soon as I can be, touching base with my favourite stall holders and sourcing amazing stock for our subscribers' Bello Boxes. I catch up on local news, pop into my favourite eateries and just soak up the atmosphere. It's hard work running your own business but it gives you a freedom and flexibility that can't be beaten.

What advice would you give to someone beginning to experiment with vintage?
I would say have fun and always buy quality pieces as they will last. When it comes to accessories, be as adventurous as you dare and when it comes to clothing, completely ignore size labels. TRY IT ON!

Thanks Nzinga! Feeling inspired? You can find out more about Style by Portobello here or follow them on Twitter here.

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