Sunday, 3 May 2015

Last-Year Reads: Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson

When I read Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out a few years ago, the story of the 'surplus women' of the interwar period, it not shifted the way I thought about that time, but also about the associations that come with the word 'spinster'. I know a lot more about the 1950s than I did the interwar years, but I was certain that Nicholson would find enough stories to make reading Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes a worthwhile read, especially after I'd enjoyed Rachel Cooke's Her Brilliant Career so much.

Although Nicholson does feature a few 'excellent women' herself, in the main it's a reminder of what was going on with the majority of Britain's female population while a trailblazing few forged ahead, how a generation of women were raised and educated to conform to the faithful ideal of being wives, mothers and consumers. Their aspirations were supposed to be limited to providing a well-kept, peaceful home and children for their husband. There was also the promotion of an ideal 'look' of loveliness and femininity: this was the decade that saw the launch of 'Miss World' and a boom in the popularity of modelling and grooming schools, such as Lucie Clayton.

Although the amount of working women was rising - in 1951 22% of married women had jobs and it would increase by almost 10% over decade - the work they were doing was extremely limited. In 1955, one poor woman working for a gas board was tasked with adding 33 and a third per cent profit on every estimate that came in. Every day for a year.

There are plenty of stories that make you howl with frustration, such as Lorna Arnold, who had an amazing career in the Foreign Office during the Second World War but stepped down straight after, simply because it didn't occur to her to stay on in a 'man's job'. Or the unplanned pregnancies and, sometimes unplanned marriages, that resulted from a refusal to talk about sex.

Nicholson builds her themes - and gently but persuasively argues her point - through the use of many different case studies. In Singled Out she admits her reliance on diaries and biographies did skew her story slightly as the diary keepers and the published authors are more likely to come from the middle to upper classes. Because the 1950s is still relatively recent, in this book she's been able to accompany these written accounts with her own interviews. One of my favourite case studies was Rose. A teddy girl in the 1950s, Rose recently came under the spotlight because she features in an early set of photographs by Ken Russell (which I wrote about here). Rose is quoted describing how they decided to dress a certain way to capture the attention of the teddy boys:

“We turned up wearing the turned-up drainpipe jeans. Plastic belts round them. And blouses buttoned up with a wing collar. Then we added in cameo brooches, and a scarf, tailored jackets with wide lapels and velvet collars, white ankle socks and flat black shoes with a little bow on the front. Envelope bag.”

Despite what must have been their somewhat shocking appearance, Rose insists: “We weren’t bad girls … We never broke the law. We weren’t drinkers and we didn’t go to pubs.” She did end up marrying her teddy boy, however, and remembers the 1950s as the happiest time in her life.

In the midst of the other depressing statistics, there are other glimmers of happiness in the book. Fiona Calder is a young woman who comes down from Glasgow to work in the art department of a women's magazine and lives the fun and bohemian dream.

And there are other examples of people who put their unhappiness and dissatisfaction to good use. Maureen Nicol, an intelligent woman, finding herself alone and unfilled, established the "Liberal-Minded Housebound Wives Register" (today the "National Women's Register") connecting like-minded women in similar situations.

Mary Quant's Bazaar, as captured in 1955. Via

There were also signs that suggested things were changing - albeit still slowly - be it Mary Quant's Bazaar boutique opening in 1955 or at even more of a grass roots level. Betty Stucley started a youth club for East End of London tenement dwelling teenagers. Their look was certainly not the one being promoted in the magazines: “The tough girls wore blue jeens, with the names of their favourite rave, screen fan, embroidered down the legs, dazzle socks, satin blouses, duffle coats, earrings and make-up." It was, she noted, "particularly interesting" that they "have spread their influence upwards, so that Dior and Hardy Amies gave Teddy touches to some of their women’s clothes." She concluded, "It is a good sign that that new young have the enterprise to design their own clothes, and the courage to wear them.”

Would it be this same mixture of courage and enterprise that helped London swing in the sixties? And to what extent did those changes trickle through to the rest of the country? I'd love it if that was what Virginia Nicholson decided to explore next.

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