Land Girls and Lumber Jills

In a year commemorating not only the centenary of women’s enfranchisement, but also the end of the First World War, the achievements of women in wartime deserves recognition, not least the efforts of the women who worked on the land through two world wars. A decade ago, in January 2008, it was announced that former members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) were to be awarded a medal commemorating their vital contribution to the war effort during two World Wars. The badge, bearing the Royal Crown and showing a gold wheat sheaf on a white background was surrounded by a circlet of pine branches and pine cones to indicate the work of both the ‘Land Girls’ and the ‘Lumber Jills’. It was long overdue (sixty years overdue, sniffed the Daily Mail at the time), but it was, at last, official recognition for a cohort of women who had thrown their backs, and their hearts into providing the nation with food and timber during World War II.

Land Girl, Pauline Bell, who used to be a Civil Service clerk, working with plough horses on a farm during World War II

By early 1917, and with an estimated three weeks’ food supply left in the country, it was clear that drastic action was needed. Ronald Protheroe, President of the Board of Agriculture engaged the services of (Dame) Meriel Talbot, a leading light of the Women’s Farm and Garden Association, who became director of the first Women’s Land Army. She set about immediately implementing an intensive recruitment drive.

Women's Land Army WW1. Somewhat idealised portrait of a Land Girl in hat and smock. Pitchfork over her shoulder. Captioned, 'National Service' 'Sunshine on the Land'     Date: Circe 1917

Through both World Wars, the WLA struggled with an image problem.  Other, comparatively more glamorous women’s services such as the Women’s Air Force (WAAF) or the Women’s Royal Naval Services (WRNS) were formed around the same time and offered not only more conducive working hours but an elegant uniform in comparison to the smock and breeches ensemble worn by land girls. Munitions workers of course, earned far more. Farm work meant long hours, physical toil and low wages. Furthermore, many land girls who arrived at farms full of optimism and enthusiasm, found their male employers sceptical about their abilities. The recruiters appealed to the patriotism of the nation’s women, and peppered that with promises of a healthy, wholesome rural idyll. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, quoted in The Landswoman (a magazine launched in January 1918 expressly for WLA members), added his voice to the appeal in June 1918; “…the harvest is in danger…once again therefore…I appeal to women to come forward and help. They have never failed this country yet.” A Times article, reporting on a the 130 land girls who visited London and then Buckingham Palace for a recruitment campaign in March of that year commented enthusiastically on, “the health and happiness, clear skins and bright eyes” of the land girls.

A member of the Women's Auxilary Agricultural Service (Land Army) in hat, smock, shirt, tie and sturdy brogues. Her armband bears the emblem of the crown.     Date: circa 1916

The Women’s Land Army of the Great War, which had recruited approximately 23,000 women to its ranks, was disbanded in 1919 but within twenty years, it would be needed again. Having proved to many doubters in 1918 that women were more than capable of physically taxing work in the fields and forests, the next generation of land girls found themselves facing similar prejudices.

The new WLA reformed in 1939, with Lady Gertrude Denman at its head. Its headquarters were based at her own magnificent country home, Balcombe Park in Sussex where the bedrooms were turned into offices and the stables and squash court transformed into warehouses for storing the thousands of uniforms to be issued to recruits. From here, the Land Girl, a monthly magazine under the editorship of birth control pioneer, Margaret Pyke was produced reaching a circulation of 21,000. Lady Denman was a tireless representative of the WLA. She toured the country, making personal visits to county and regional officers as well as speaking to land girls themselves and was firmly committed to raising the profile and improving conditions for the women under her wing. In 1941, she approached Buckingham Palace to invite Queen Elizabeth to become the WLA patron. The Queen accepted and from then on, took an active interest in the Land Army, attending reviews, subscribing to the WLA Benevolent Fund and throwing an anniversary party for over 300 land girls at Buckingham Palace in 1943.

The WLA’s recruiting slogan was, ‘For a healthy, happy job, join the Women’s Land Army’. Its most famous poster depicted a glowing young woman, pitchfork poised, in WLA uniform surveying with a satisfied gaze, a large, sun-kissed field stretching out to the horizon. For some, it was an alluring prospect. Indeed, in the months leading up to WWII, when the WLA was already beginning to recruit as the storm clouds of war gathered, the fortnight of training given to Land Girls was regularly described as akin to a holiday. The Hastings Observer, writing in July 1939, suggested, “Land Army work is something which girls and women of all types and ages will find interesting and health-giving…The period of training is only a fortnight, and those who would find a country holiday attractive and are prepared to pay £1 for their board should find the training period as enjoyable as it is instructive.”

World War Two, 1940s, Women's Land Army, tractor, horse, harness, girl on dungarees, fields, village. .     Date:

The bucolic idyll promoted by posters and newspaper editorial rarely lived up to expectations. For most girls, some of whom came from cities and were entirely unused to country life let alone physical work, the reality involved endless weeks of strenuous, back-breaking effort. Jobs could be by turns filthy, dangerous, repetitive, or all three. Nevertheless, by 1943, over 80,000 women had gamely turned their hand to baling, ploughing, weeding, ditching, chaffing, milking, mucking out, plucking chickens, picking potatoes, cutting sugar beet and even rat-catching! One former land girl, Dorothy Wheeler, sent to work on farms in North Wales, recalled the field work she was faced with on her very first day – sorting through clamps of potatoes, separating them into one heap for pigs and another for humans. “Oh, it was horrible sometimes, like custard.” Another girl, Hilda Billings from Salford left her job in the Rennies indigestion tablet factory to join the land army and described her typical working week in the Shropshire countryside as, “getting up to bring in the cows at six, washing their udders with icy-cold water, drying and then milking them. Then breakfast and lots of other work until six. Haymaking time, you’d go back after tea and work till it went really dark.” For a forty-eight hour working week, payment was the underwhelming sum of £1 2 s. 6d., and was considerably lower for girls under the age of eighteen. Promotion to a supervisor was, at least, a chance to improve earning power.

Land Girls working as milkmaids milking cows on a farm in Tooting during World War II. Miss Ivy Baldwin (on the left) was a mulitple shop worker).

Members of the Women’s Timber Corps found themselves in an even more masculine world than their land girl counterparts. With timber imports badly hit by submarine attacks on Allied ships, and the need for a specialisation in this kind of work, the WTA was set up as an offshoot of the WLA in March 1942.  Recruits, who had four weeks of training, earned more than land girls with the result that, at one point, women were volunteering at a rate of 250 per week. The Lumber Jills carried out an enormous range of forestry jobs from working in sawmills to labouring in forests, felling trees and lopping branches. They would also take on the heavy work of haulage and transportation. A key aspect of their job was acquisition work, where WTC members would walk for miles daily, assessing, measuring and selecting trees suitable for war production, whether as telegraph poles, as pit props or for wood that would be laid in front of tanks on beach landings.

Most girls were billeted either at farms, or often in hostels where facilities could be spartan, though the camaraderie of communal living was often preferred to the isolation of living alone with a family in a remote area. Nevertheless, home comforts were thin on the ground. Helen Collett, who worked in Buckinghamshire remembered coming back from the fields after a day knee deep in mud and having to share just four inches of bath water with six other girls. The familiar uniform issued to the Land Girls and Lumber Jills consisted of brown, corduroy breeches (an extra pair was allocated to WTC girls), fawn knee-length woollen socks, fawn Aertex shirt, green pullover and green tie. To top it off was a brown felt ‘slouch’ hat, worn at a jaunty angle by the more sassy girls to avoid looking overly quaint. The green beret that set the Lumberjills apart was infinitely more rakish. For many, this uniform was kept for ‘best’ and daily work was carried out in baggy, brown dungarees with a matching jacket.

Women War Work WW1 Land Army. Members of the Women's Land Army, Forestry Division or Timber Corps, also known as 'Lumber Jills'     Date: 1918

Despite the disadvantages of an unflattering uniform, the land girls still had their fair share of admirers. Those close to RAF or Army bases would cycle (sometimes bicycles were provided) to dances where they jitterbugged with GIs or British airmen. Some went on to marry the servicemen they met while in the WLA. They caught the eye of others too. Many prisoners of war were put to work in the fields and one land girl recalled that while the German POWs were surly yet hard workers, the Italians, unable to subdue their natural flirtatiousness, would spend more time whistling at girls or calling, ‘Bella, bella’.

Most of the Land Girls and Lumber Jills are now in their eighties but still remember their time with the Women’s Land Army fondly – “good years with good friends” as one put it. Peg Francis from Grimsby, speaking in 2010 explained the firm friendships forged out of a shared experience. “I was very young and had never been away from home. I was frightened of cows, but had no fear of hard work. The people I met during those four and half years were full of kindness and generosity and I’m still in touch with some of the girls now.”

Incredibly, it was not until 2000, that the Women’s Land Army was finally invited to march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday – in honour of the work they did for their country. Since then, a memorial sculpture to the WTC was unveiled in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Aberfoyle in Stirling in October 2007, a fitting tribute to the so-called ‘Forgotten Corps’. In 2014, finally, after a fundraising campaign, a memorial to the Women’s Land Army was unveiled by the Countess of Wessex at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The figures, by sculptor Denise Dutton, were inspired by those in one of the original WLA recruitment posters. As the original Land Girls become fewer in number, the focus on women’s contribution to the past becomes magnified, and it seems that finally, their voices are beginning to be heard.

Top Ten Royal Wedding Dresses

What do the names Reville & Rossiter, Handley Seymour, Molyneux and Maureen Baker all have in common?  It’s a quiz question that might stump the most ardent of royal enthusiasts, but add a couple more names – Norman Hartnell, David & Elizabeth Emmanuel or Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen – and the penny might drop.  They have all had the honour of designing a royal wedding dress and, in some cases, such as Reville and Hartnell, they have answered the royal call more than once.  The name of the designer of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress for her marriage to Prince Harry this coming Saturday remains very firmly under wraps though a shortlist of possible candidates has been drawn up to include the Australian-born but London-based duo Ralph & Russo (designers of the gown Meghan wore for her engagement photos), to stalwarts of British fashion, Stella McCartney or Dame Vivienne Westwood.

All will be revealed on Saturday, but in the meantime, here is our top ten royal wedding dresses from history:

  1. Lady Pamela Mountbatten in Worth, 1960.  Not strictly royal, but not far off, the younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten married David Hicks in a snow storm, the ideal backdrop for her fur-trimmed show-stopping satin gown by Worth.
Lady Pamela Mountbatten, younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten, pictured in her superb wedding dress designed by Worth, for her marriage to interior designer, David Hicks at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire in January 1960. Date: 1960
Lady Pamela Mountbatten, younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten, pictured in her superb wedding dress designed by Worth, for her marriage to interior designer, David Hicks at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire in January 1960. Date: 1960
  1. Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II), Norman Hartnell, 1947.  Britain was still in the grip of rationing, but Hartnell’s design, embellished with seed pearls & symbolism, lifted spirits.  James Laver of the V&A declared, “The occasion demanded a poet, and Mr Hartnell has not failed to string his lyre and to ring in tune.”
Group photograph following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh showing the newlyweds with their best man, bridesmaids and page boys. Date: 1947
Group photograph following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh showing the newlyweds with their best man, bridesmaids and page boys. Date: 1947
  1. Princess Alexandra in Mrs James, 1863.  Arriving in England with a gift of fine Brussels lace, the Danish princess was firmly steered towards a gown of English silk and Honiton lace.  The future Queen Alexandra would in time become a style icon, but as a fresh-faced fashion ingénue, she looked perfectly ravishing in this frothy crinoline confection.
The Wedding' Bride in white with six bridesmaids, Groom in blue military costume, two Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) standing guard
The Wedding’ Bride in white with six bridesmaids, Groom in blue military costume, two Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) standing guard
  1. Edwina Mountbatten in Reville, 1922  Ticking all the 1920s boxes, Edwina wore the era well.  With those mitten sleeves and the minimal bouquet of lilies, this society girl injected more than a dash of chic into royal weddings.
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley after their wedding in the church of St. Margaret's in Westminster, pass through the wedding trellis. Date: 1922
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley after their wedding in the church of St. Margaret’s in Westminster, pass through the wedding trellis. Date: 1922
  1. Princess Anne in Maureen Baker.  Magnificent modesty with a cool 1970s vibe, Princess Anne’s dress, with its high neck and trumpet sleeves echoed the medieval splendour of Westminster Abbey, but its modernity allowed her to shine.
Princess Anne, the Princess Royal seen smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. Prince Edward, now the Duke of Wessex, who served as a pageboy can be seen beside the couple. Date: 1973
Princess Anne, the Princess Royal seen smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. Prince Edward, now the Duke of Wessex, who served as a pageboy can be seen beside the couple. Date: 1973
  1. Lady Diana Spencer in Emmanuel, 1981.  Some say meringue, some say romance, everyone says creased, but “Shy Di’s” gown was the fairytale dream every girl wanted.  Shelve your fashion prejudices for a moment: you’ve got to admit that this was an iconic – and unforgettable – dress.
A photograph of Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London for her marriage to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Her dress and train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel is being arranged by her bridesmaids. Crowds of 60000 people lined the streets of London to watch the ceremony on 29th July 1981. Date: 29th July 1981
A photograph of Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London for her marriage to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Her dress and train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel is being arranged by her bridesmaids. Crowds of 60000 people lined the streets of London to watch the ceremony on 29th July 1981. Date: 29th July 1981
  1. Catherine Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) in Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, 2011. Sarah Burton’s take on the precision engineering of the house of McQueen saw it meld effortlessly with the bride’s taste and style: a self-assured, graceful, feminine statement.
Princess Catherine Middleton and Prince William after their wedding ceremony on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Grace van Cutsem and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, page boys William Lowther-Pinkerton and Tom Pettifer, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Pippa Middleton and Prince Harry. Date: 2011
Princess Catherine Middleton and Prince William after their wedding ceremony on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Grace van Cutsem and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, page boys William Lowther-Pinkerton and Tom Pettifer, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Pippa Middleton and Prince Harry. Date: 2011
  1.  Princess Grace of Monaco in Helen Rose, 1956. A gift from her film studio, Grace Kelly’s exquisite, lace gown was a carefully structured and modestly feminine creation that showcased her cool, classic beauty.  A style classic, many saw echoes of Helen Rose’s design in the Duchess of Cambridge’s 2011 McQueen gown.
WEDDING IN MONACO, Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, 1956 Date: 1956
WEDDING IN MONACO, Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, 1956 Date: 1956
  1. Princess Marina (Duchess of Kent) in Molyneux, 1934.  A chic fashion icon, the Duchess of Kent did not put a sartorial foot wrong.  Molyneux could have dressed Marina in a bin bag and she’d looked stunning.  But she didn’t have to:  this dress was an elegant 1930s affair with a definite regal aura.
A photograph of the royal wedding between Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece. Date: 29th November 1934
A photograph of the royal wedding between Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece. Date: 29th November 1934

1.Princess Margaret in Norman Hartnell, 1960.  Breathtakingly simple, a strong silhouette, acres of fabric moulded into shapely discipline.  She’s truly the bridal belle of the ball.

The marriage of HRH The Princess Margaret (1930-2002) to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1930-). The couple pictured on the balcony of Buckingham Palace acknowledging the cheering crowds after their wedding ceremony on 6th May 1960. Date: 1960
The marriage of HRH The Princess Margaret (1930-2002) to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1930-). The couple pictured on the balcony of Buckingham Palace acknowledging the cheering crowds after their wedding ceremony on 6th May 1960. Date: 1960

Do you agree with our top ten?  Do let us know your opinions – and enjoy the royal wedding celebrations this weekend.

http://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=42719

 

Suffragettes on the Road to Democracy

In 1817 Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher, argued that women should have the vote. It would be another 101 years before they got it. Increasing the number of male voters was controversial enough. In 1831, when the House of Lords rejected a reform bill, there were riots in British cities, buildings were set on fire, and the effigy of a bishop was burnt in a Huddersfield street, before the First Reform Act was passed the following year resulting in a very small increase to the male franchise.

In Bristol, where only 6000 of the 104,000 population had the vote in 1830, a crowd protest against the House of Lords defeat of the Reform Bill by burning 100 houses Date: 31 October 1831
In Bristol, where only 6000 of the 104,000 population had the vote in 1830, a crowd protest against the House of Lords defeat of the Reform Bill by burning 100 houses Date: 31 October 1831

In the 1860s, John Stuart Mill, another utilitarian thinker and MP for Westminster, began to champion female enfranchisement, the lack of which he considered in his 1869 essay ‘The Subjection of Women’, a severe impediment to the progress of humanity. His plan was to change just one word in the legislation of the 1867 Second Reform Act, from ‘man’ to ‘person’, but he lost this vote by 194 to 73. The 1867 Act gave more men the vote as did that of 1884, but women were still excluded.

Punch Cartoon depicting, 'John Stuart Mill's logic, Franchise for females; "Pray clear the way for these- Persons" Date: 1867
Punch Cartoon depicting, ‘John Stuart Mill’s logic, Franchise for females; “Pray clear the way for these- Persons” Date: 1867

By the end of the 19th century, women, some of whom had earned university degrees and entered various professions, and many of whom were fulfilling valuable roles in society, were still being treated like second-class citizens. To add insult to injury, they were expected to pay their taxes just like men.

In 1903, frustrated by the lack of progress, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. After a few years of campaigning, little progress had been made, and the government under Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith were dragging their feet. Women taking part in peaceful deputations to the Houses of Parliament were arrested, and matters quickly escalated, with members of the WSPU resorting to window-breaking, painting-slashing and other subversive activities. The 2nd April 1911 census night saw suffragettes all over the country sleeping rough to keep their names from being recorded. If the votes of women didn’t count, then they themselves shouldn’t be counted either, they reasoned.

Emmeline Pankhurst speaks in Trafalgar Square, 13th October 1908; suffragette prisoners released from Holloway in a procession of WSPU carts, 31st July 1908; suffragettes Edith New and Mary Leigh in an open carriage after release from prison for breaking windows at 10 Downing Street, 22nd August 1908
Emmeline Pankhurst speaks in Trafalgar Square, 13th October 1908; suffragette prisoners released from Holloway in a procession of WSPU carts, 31st July 1908; suffragettes Edith New and Mary Leigh in an open carriage after release from prison for breaking windows at 10 Downing Street, 22nd August 1908

By 1914 things were at a stalemate, but the First World War became an unlikely ally in the fight for the female vote. Most women patriotically put their campaigning to one side and turned their energies towards the war effort, nursing the wounded, working in factories, on public transport, on the farms, and generally keeping the country going.

Women working in traditionally male roles during the First World War: cleaning casks at a brewery, driving a tram, and at a gas works
Women working in traditionally male roles during the First World War: cleaning casks at a brewery, driving a tram, and at a gas works

As if in reward for their wartime work, in early 1918 legislation giving women the vote at last went through, while the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament, Nancy Astor, did so in 1919. Restrictions which gave the vote only to women over the age of 30 who were householders, married to a householder or holder of a university degree prevented all-out celebration, but this was remedied in 1928, when the qualifying age was brought down to 21. Political equality with men was at last achieved.

Property-owning women over 30 voting in the general election, 14th December 1918; women aged 21 to 29 voting for the first time in the UK on 20th May 1929, finally achieving equal voting rights to men
Property-owning women over 30 voting in the general election, 14th December 1918; women aged 21 to 29 voting for the first time in the UK on 20th May 1929, finally achieving equal voting rights to men

The Tango Craze

With a new series of Strictly Come Dancing on our screens, we’ve taken an in-depth look at the original tango craze of 1913.

“Everybody’s doing the Tango, learning the Tango, talking the Tango or watching the Tango. Never, perhaps, has a dance become of such universal interest so quickly…” Thus opined The Sketch in November 1913, reflecting upon the incredible international popularity of ‘tango tea’ dance fever.

An illustration of the Tango in action

The craze for the Argentine tango in its latest incarnation began in Paris in 1912 as the thé dansant, so named from the practice of taking tea as a refresher between dances. The tango tea was rapturously embraced by Parisians of all classes, causing the caricaturist Sem to re-christen the capital ‘Tangoville’, and it wasn’t long before the trend had swept across Europe and beyond.

It’s difficult to over emphasize how enormously popular the tango tea had become by 1913. The prodigious coverage on all aspects of the craze in the illustrated magazines in our archive reveals a world in the throes of tangomania. Whether it was tango teas held at fashionable hotels, the latest steps explained or mocked, reviews of tango ‘exhibitions’ at the theatre or novelties such as tango dancing on roller skates,  the tango was everywhere.

WETFOOT TANGO 1913

Manufacturers embraced any opportunity, however tenuous, to ally their products to any aspect of the lucrative craze. Tango-legend has it that one enterprising dressmaker found himself with a glut of orange fabric, and taking advantage of the mania, re-named the colour “tango”, making it an instant hit. Adverts in the press plugged tango lessons, gramophone records and sheet music –and even tango boot polish.

An advertisement for tango lessons

However, the craze brought much more to the world than just a great merchandising opportunity: it also brought liberation. The new ‘tango’ corsets that offered increased flexibility, and skirts and even trousers that left feet clear for dancing, were designed to give women the freedom of movement required for dancing the tango properly. The physical liberation offered by the tango dress was a stark contrast to the constriction of the fashionable ‘hobble’ skirt, a big trend of 1910. Though women’s liberation would take more drastic forms in 1913 (in the same year, imprisoned suffragettes went on hunger strike, and Emily Davison threw herself under the king’s horse at Epsom Derby), the subtle changes wrought by the tango echo those elsewhere in society at that time.

The spread of the tango:the arrest of a militant suffragette
Everyone may have been talking about the tango, but it wasn’t all praise. Boycotted by some religious groups, the tango’s enemies saw not liberation, but moral degeneration. Unlike the more traditional dances of the period, the tango hold was an intimate embrace, which was perceived by some to have a corrupting influence. For an “unnamed peeress”, who wrote to The Times in disgust in May 1913, the dance was full of “scandalous travesties”.  The Illustrated London News cheerfully combined extracts of this letter with a retrospective on the polka, a dance which was also greeted with disgust in 1844, but went on to be widely adopted, and by 1913 was regarded as thoroughly tame.

As 1914 progressed, the passionate fervour for all-things-tango had begun to cool. Even before the First World War had begun, the dazzling magnesium flash of the tango tea had, almost as suddenly as it had burst onto the scene in Paris, burnt out. It was to survive, albeit in a different incarnation, to dance another day.

Tango Festival - London

The Last Curtsey – Debutantes & the London Season

If you’re passing through Bexley on the south-eastern fringes of London, then try to find time to seek out Hall Place, a Tudor hidden gem with extensive gardens a couple of minutes from the A2.  We’ve had connections with Hall Place for some time through Bexley Heritage Trust, whose archive we represent, but more recently we’ve collaborated with them on a new exhibition that opened just a fortnight ago, The Last Curtsey.  Inspired by one of Hall Place’s 20th century inhabitants, socialite Baba D’Erlanger, the exhibition aims to recreate the vanished world of that upper class phenomenon, the debutante.


Debs 1

Debutantes are something of a specialist subject here at the library. The magazines of the ILN archive, specifically The Tatler, The Sketch and The Bystander, were the bibles of the beau monde and consequently are filled each spring with every conceivable highlight of the ‘Season’ from the Royal Academy and Fourth of June to Ascot and Henley.  Alongside these delights were published photographs of the annual crop of ‘debs’ that were to be launched into society together with adverts for court gowns, hair stylists, West End couture houses and catering companies.  Source material doesn’t get much better.

DEBUTANTE PRESENTED

Debutantes of the Year, 1957

And we have form in terms of writing on the subject.  Some forty years ago, Mary and Hilary Evans were authors of  ‘The Party That Lasted 100 Days’, a highly illustrated and wry look at the late Victorian season and more recently, in 2013 I wrote a concise history in, ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ for Shire Books.

Debutantes about to be presented at court

The London Season, vestiges of which remain in some of today’s summer sporting and social fixtures, was the dominant feature of the social calendar, a three-month bonanza of events and parties during which the daughters of the upper classes made their ‘debuts’.  The girls and their families descended on the capital from country piles all around Britain to take part in an elaborate and protracted marathon of social interaction that culminated in them being presented at court where they would make their carefully-practised curtsey in front of the King and Queen.  Today, it’s a ritual that seems terribly archaic, and at times rather comic; an outmoded phenomenon that pandered to rigid class distinctions and judged the youthful participants purely on looks and breeding.  And yet, it is also rather glamorous, romantic – and terribly British.  After a modernising drive at Buckingham Palace in 1958, the last debs made their curtsey in March of that year, meaning 2018 marks the 60th anniversary.

"THE SUPREME MOMENT"

Their Majesties' Court by Sir John Lavery

Debutante queuing in the Mall by Rex Whistler

At Hall Place, the exhibition rooms, painted in soothing and elegant tones of lilac pink, take visitors through the debutantes’ typical first season and introduce us to a few key debs from the past including Baba but also the ravishing Henrietta Tiarks, fabulously wealthy Mary Ashley, sister of Edwina Mountbatten and the rebellious Nancy Cunard.  There are some exquisite gowns including a wasp-waisted example from the 1890, a cascading 1920s number and a glamorous strapless gown of mustard satin belonging to Elfrida Eden, one of 1958’s debs.  Curator Kirsty Macklen, who showed us around last week told us that Elfrida’s dress was bought from America, in order to avoid the ghastliness of turning up at a party in the same dress as someone else.  As well as the advertisements, magazine features and portraits lining the walls (50 of which come from Mary Evans, others from the archive at The Lady), there are some fascinating debutante accoutrements such as glove stretchers and papier poudre books (to keep a shiny nose at bay) as well as dance cards lent by Mary Evans and a couple of books from the inter-war period celebrating the debutante from my own collection at home.  For the full deb experience, you can try negotiating the complicated array of cutlery that might face an Edwardian lady sitting down to dinner, or squeeze into a ballgown and practise your curtsey to the Queen.  After just two weeks, the visitors’ comments at the end of the exhibition reflect a deeply felt nostalgia for this long-gone era, though no appetite for its revival in the 21st century.  Like many aspects of history, it is fun to learn more but it should remain exactly where it was left – in 1958.

Debs 3

Click here to see a selection of images from our archive on the subject https://www.hallplace.org.uk/events/debutantes-london-season/

‘The Last Curtsey – Etiquette and Elocution, the life of a debutante’ at Hall Place, Bexley, runs until 18th March 2018  https://www.hallplace.org.uk/exhibitions/

Luci will be giving a talk on ‘Debutantes and the London Season’ at Hall Place, Bexley on 10th October at 7pm. Further details here https://www.hallplace.org.uk/events/debutantes-london-season/

Further reading:  ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ by Lucinda Gosling, Shire Books 2013

Debs 2

Debs 4

Fashion Fantasies – Elspeth Phelps, artist in dress

The Great War was an unexpectedly dynamic period for fashion.  While extravagance was frowned upon, there was also a social dislocation where for the first time women took the place of men in the work environment, and fashionable silhouettes changed in response.  Skirts shortened and widened; military details proliferated and there was a new found confidence in clothing as it moved away from the winsome, restrictive styles of the pre-war era.  But austerity in dress did not entirely eclipse luxury and one of the places where fashion fantasies could be played out, and where the leading designers of the day could showcase their creations was the stage.  To dress leading actresses in high profile West End productions led to coverage in magazines such as The Tatler and The Sketch, generating the oxygen of publicity and ensuring a stream of well-heeled clients eager to sample such styles themselves.

Elspeth Phelps was a designer whose profile was one of the highest during this time and whose designs frequently ended up being admired by theatre audiences, and yet her fame has now faded to obscurity.  She first came to my attention when I discovered an extraordinary series of advertisements for her brand published in The Tatler in 1920.  They are unlike any other advertisements, fashion or otherwise, appearing at this time.  Drawn in a spidery and occasionally sinister style reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and Kay Nielson,  the adverts feature a parade of fictional aristocratic and society types bearing names such as Lobelia Lobb and Priscilla Brinvilliers.  Engaged in typical upper class pursuits, they are clad in the perfectly appropriate ensemble designed by Elspeth Phelps.  Apart from their striking design, they are witty, playful, faintly acerbic and surprisingly self-deprecating.  They gently poke fun at the advertiser and at the advertiser’s clientele, and they’re all the more brilliant for it.

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps fashion house, one of a series of highly stylised and witty adverts designed by Lady Eileen Orde (daughter of the 4th Duke of Wellington), all featuring upper class characters in various situations wearing a Phelps design. Date: 1920
Elspeth Phelps advertisement, 1920

Intrigued by this audacious promotional approach, I wanted to discover more about not only Elspeth Phelps but also the designer of the adverts, Eileen Orde.  In fact Eileen Orde was Lady Eileen Orde, nee Wellesley, fourth daughter of the 8th Duke of Wellington and wife of the artist Cuthbert Orde. Eileen’s credentials as one of the leading arbiters of style can be in no doubt.  A photographic portrait of her by E. O. Hoppe appeared in British Vogue’s debut issue, the first photograph ever published by the magazine.  And her reputation is given a further boost with the knowledge she had an affair with the Adonis-like Rupert Brooke (she afterwards sold his letters and bought a car with the proceeds).

Lady Eileen Orde and daughters by Madame Yevonde

Captain & Lady Eileen Order in their Chelsea studio
An artistic couple – Eileen and Cuthbert Orde in their Chelsea Studio

Lady Eileen was frequently referred to in our archive magazines as ‘a clever artist’ (‘clever’ being the catch-all adjective of praise in society magazines of the early 20th century).  Yet she did more than dabble, seeming to make quite a career as an artist and designer. The Sketch ran a page of photographs showing Eileen and Cuthbert, who were married in 1916, at home in their Chelsea studio, together with their two daughters, Doonie and Jane.  There are also other references to her creative endeavours.  One photograph from The Bystander, 1931, shows her at work on wallpaper designs, and she seems to have specialised in painting fabric.  There is a reference to the wedding train she decorated for her sister-in-law in 1922, and another mention, in The Tatler’s fashion column of October 1918 gives a rather dismissive critique of a dress she painted for Doris Keane to wear in ‘Roxana’ at the Lyric Theatre.  The fashion journalist M. E. Brooke complained that, ‘However charming the gown may appear in the dressing-room, from the stalls it is a very ordinary affair and not nearly so effective as the cerise evening dress assumed by this clever actress in another scene.”

 

Lady Eileen Orde working on wallpaper designs

Lady Eileen Orde at work on wallpaper designs, 1931.

Lady Eileen Orde and Elspeth Phelps no doubt frequently came into one another’s orbit – it’s likely Lady Eileen was a client of Phelps.  Phelps, who had launched her business in 1906, had by this time established herself as one of the leading dressmakers in London.  Located in Albemarle Street in the heart of Mayfair, she was favoured by the well-to-do and mentioned in the same breath as Worth, Poiret and Lucile.  Mrs Jack May, the fashion columnist for The Bystander, waxed lyrical on Miss Phelps’s talents in its 30 May 1917 issue:

“Elspeth Phelps is a name to conjure with.  Nowhere are there to be formed more exquisite clothes, distinguished by taste above all criticism.  The soft picture-frock is very dear to the heart of this fine couturiere, who is just now having a succes fou with some charming gowns or demi-toilettes.  They fill an important gap now that evening dress en grande tenue is seldom required, while some would not be out of place for the smarter afternoon functions that now and again come along.”

 

Mrs Morrison-Bell as Oak for Nymphs of Forest tableau

Lillah McCarthy (left) and Mrs Morrison-Bell (right) in costumes designed by Elspeth Phelps for the Nymphs of the Forest tableau at the Petticoat Lane fundraiser at the Albert Hall, 1917

Evening dress by Elspeth Phelps

Her creations were escapist fantasies, confections of tulle, chiffon, soie de peau, embellished with lace, sequins, beading – perfectly suited to the pages of the smart, society magazines of the day, and to delight theatre audiences when worn by the prettiest and most popular actresses.  Among the women in the public eye who wore her designs were Binnie Hale (in 1920’s ‘The Kiss Call’), the dancer Madame de Kurylo and socialite Paula Gellibrand, pictured in ‘an effective headdress in The Tatler in 1920.  The actress Shirley Kellogg was photographed wearing a magnificent ‘diamond dress’, designed for her part in ‘Razzle Dazzle’ in 1916.  The following year, Kellogg was dressed by Lucile for the show ‘Zig-Zag’ (one cannot help speculating about the rivalry between these two fashion houses – one suspects it was fierce).  For the ‘Nymphs of the Forest’ tableau performed at the Petticoat Lane Bazaar, a wartime fundraiser held over several days in December 1916 at the Albert Hall, she designed costumes for a selection of society’s most beautiful women including Sheila, Lady Loughborough, a love interest of the future George VI.   Another client was Irene Castle, the dancer and unrivalled style icon, for whom Phelps designed her entire wardrobe for a trip back to America.  “It is the exception, nowadays, to find the name of Elspeth Phelps absent from a theatrical programme.  She seems to be carrying all before her in the theatrical work of dress, as she has for so long done with those of the haute-monde,” wrote Mrs Jack May in 1917, clearly something of a fan.

Lady Loughborough as Weeping Willow - Elspeth Phelps
Lady Loughborough (formerly Sheila Chisholm, and later, Lady Milbanke), considered one of the great beauties of the day, dressed by Phelps for the Nymphs of the Forest tableau, 1917

Paula Gellibrand

Mme de Kurylo wearing designs by Elspeth Phelps
The dancer, Madame de Kurylo modelling a variety of Elspeth Phelps designs in 1920

Mrs Vernon Castle with Rasmus
Irene Castle, dancer and style icon posing with her pet monkey, Rasmus.  Elspeth Phelps designed her entire wardrobe for a tour of her native America in 1917

The Queen of Diamonds - Shirley Kellogg in Elspeth Phelps
Actress Shirley Kellogg posing in the magnificent diamond dress designed by Phelps for her to wear in ‘Razzle Dazzle’, 1916

Elspeth Phelps would also have had a prestigious client list, providing wedding dresses, trousseaux for the Season and, every top designer’s bread and butter, court gowns.  She was renowned for her ability to take the latest ideas from Paris and to add her own original twists and to tailor them to individual customers.  She was not only an assured dressmaker, but she was an adept publicist.  In addition to those extraordinary advertisements created by Eileen Orde, whenever one of her designs was published in the press, the accompanying caption featured her name printed prominently in capital letters.  Any misattribution it seems was swiftly dealt with.  On more than one occasion, apologies were printed including one in The Tatler which had managed to attribute the stage costumes in ‘Maggie’, playing at the Oxford Theatre in 1919, to Poiret of Paris.  “We are informed, however, that they are made by the famous dressmaker, Miss Elspeth Phelps of 29 Albemarle Street.  We beg to sincerely apologise to her for giving the credit of these beautiful costumes elsewhere,” the magazine grovelled.

Court gown by Elspeth Phelps
Exquisite beaded court gown by Elspeth Phelps, 1923

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps, WW1 fashion
It doesn’t take much to imagine Miss Phelps marching into The Tatler’s office and reducing the sub-editor responsible to a gibbering wreck.  Certainly, if a portrait of Elspeth, published in The Bystander in 1916, is anything to go by, then her appearance suggests a shrewd, steely and redoubtable personality.  Other pieces of evidence hint at her forthright views and pioneering approach.  In 1920, The Tatler credited her with being, “instrumental in annihilating the superstition against green,” and in 1925 she spoke out against the worrying trend for increasingly thin models.  The Tatler quoted her as saying, “we ought to have some nice, plump girls in the mannequin profession…but no monstrosities”.  Not a woman to mince her words then.  Ever the canny businesswomen, she set her sights on the American market in 1920, travelling on the Aquitania and touring the major American cities where she gave mannequin shows of her exquisite designs.  Not until Edward Molyneux shipped British fashion to America during the Second World War did a British designer do as much to woo the wealthy American market.  Naturally, news of this expedition was reported widely in the press.

Elspeth Phelps and Reggie de Veulle, 1917Elspeth Phelps featured in The Bystander in 1916.  Inset is a photograph of her designer Reggie de Veulle, who was implicated in a scandal in 1918 for supplying drugs allegedly leading to the death of actress Billie Carleton.

In 1923, it was announced that Elspeth Phelps, offering ‘original gowns specially designed for each client’ was amalgamating with the famous Parisian fashion house of Paquin.  Paquin bought her out, used her name and she was retained on a handsome salary, continuing to design her bespoke gowns for clients.  With new showrooms in nearby Dover Street, the Paquin-Phelps partnership launched with a splash, placing new advertisements in the press and holding a  ‘soiree dansante’ – the dresses on display described in mouth-watering detail by the papers.

Paquin Phelps advertisement, 1923
Lovely gown worns at the Paquin Phelps soiree dansante
Things unfortunately turned sour only a few years later.  A rather public court case saw Elspeth Phelps (described as Mrs Fox-Pitt; she had married Lionel Fox-Pitt in 1920) suing Paquin for breach of contract.  Meanwhile, Paquin claimed there had been some underhand dealings by Mrs Fox-Pitt who had engaged apprentices for a fee of £50 while pocketing £20 of the money herself.  It is significant that, during the course of the hearing, Elspeth Phelps’s argument that her reputation and skill was an asset to Paquin was boosted by the fact she had no fewer than fifty press books full of cuttings.  It was undoubted proof of her PR wizardry, even if her business dealings had taken an embarrassingly awkward turn for the worse.

The Great War and the 1920s marked the zenith of  Elspeth Phelps’s career.  She re-launched her business and continued to design into the 1940s, but, as is the caprice of fashion, there is scant mention of her after the late 1920s, at least not in our archive of magazines.  There were younger, brighter new stars on the scene – Hartnell, Molyneux, Victor Stiebel – Elspeth Phelps was no longer the fashion pioneer she had been.   Lady Eileen Orde died in 1952, aged 65.

 

I like the idea of these two women, these creative forces, joining together almost a century ago to create some advertising magic.  It is intriguing to imagine their conversations and to think how such a strategy was dreamt up.  Who knows what happened to the original designs but in their absence, I’m ordering one of Eileen Orde’s fantastic advertisements as a framed print, and each time I look at it, I’ll be reminded of two fascinating women and a creative partnership far ahead of its time.

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps, 1920s fashion

With thanks to Randy Bryan Bigham for providing additional source material on Elspeth Phelps.

 

To order prints of Elspeth Phelps advertisements follow this link.

 

Wedding Lore

Married in month of roses – June- Life will be one long honeymoon”.

The month of June, and the mind meanders towards thoughts of summer; to exotic holidays, to chaotic family day trips, and frequently to weddings, and all that they entail.

I recently had the pleasure of perusing the pages of ‘Every Woman’s Encyclopedia’, c. 1912, a magazine very much of its time, when many considered that a woman’s place was in the home and her abiding concerns and interests were all things domestic. The articles within this volume are overflowing with information on, amongst other things, home furnishings, table decorations, cookery, embroidery, fashion, children, and last but certainly not least, marriage. The magazine contemplates all aspects of the lead up to matrimony, but principally focuses on wedding tradition and lore, which seemed an interesting subject for a blog.

A bride getting ready for her wedding day

The magazine is a wealth of information on how one can actively enhance one’s chances of a successful marriage, divulging all manner of scenarios which should either be sincerely welcomed or avoided at all costs by the bride-to be. Who knew that if the bride came across a spider in the folds of her wedding gown she would never lack for money, or that if she was awoken by a robin on the morning of her wedding, or saw swallows come to the eaves for the first time on the big day, she would be eternally blessed?

kitsch / souvenir, swallow with loveletter, Germany,

It was considered good practice for the bride to step over the Church threshold with her right foot to safeguard her future happiness.  Any jewellery could be worn except for pearls- which symbolise tears- and the wedding ring must not have been tried on prior to the ceremony. Orange blossom was a popular flower at weddings and had, since the time of the Crusades, been regarded as an emblem of prosperity (owing to the fact that in the East, the orange tree bears ripe fruit and blossoms simultaneously); the flower being white was also regarded as symbolic of innocence and chastity.

Citrus sinensis, orange tree
Bride Enters Church Followed by Bridesmaids

With regards to when to marry, June has always been considered the month for weddings, and Roman maidens preferred it to any other, because it was the name month of Juno, the goddess who took love matters, and all feminine interests especially, under her protection.

Front cover from Britannia and Eve.
Mother-of-Pearl Fan Blessing of Juno

There is a paragraph on when not to marry too, which marks out May as the worst month of all: “So ancient is the dislike to May marriages that Ovid refers to it as the evil month of May”. The church forbade weddings between Rogation and Whit Sunday, pious and nervous folk originating the familiar adage, “Marry in May, and you’ll rue the day”. It was also considered indecorous to marry on a Sunday, the day of worship, and in England the prejudice against a Friday marriage may be traced to Good Friday, a most sorrowful and unfortunate day. And finally, spare a thought for those intending to marry in April, who would have had to live with the following ‘poetic’ line haunting them forever more: “An April bride will be inconstant, not very intelligent, but fairly good-looking”. Charming.

A few other bizarre rituals explored include the drawing of a piece of wedding cake through a ring (preferably a wedding ring) and placing it under the pillow three nights in succession, and the inquirer would then be rewarded by a vision of their future spouse. If no one appeared in their dream, they would need to resign themselves to life as a singleton. There was also an unusual custom in connection with the youngest daughter, which decreed that all her elder sisters must dance at her wedding without shoes in order to counteract the bad luck which would otherwise befall them if they married in “wrong order” of age. Another custom recounted was the throwing of a plate (full of bride-cake crumbs) down from an upper window as the bride alights from her carriage. If the plate reaches the ground unbroken, it was an unfavourable omen, but if it shattered in pieces (the more the better) good luck was sure to attend her.

DANCE IN A MEADOW
GIRL DREAMS OF WEDDING
The colour of one’s wedding attire was also under considerable scrutiny. Wearing red was frowned upon at this time, “Married in red, you will wish yourself dead”, whilst the traditional colour of white was very much the favourite, “Married in white, you’ll be alright”, though in fact, frugality meant that many brides would simply marry in their Sunday best frock.  It was Queen Victoria’s unusual choice of a white lace gown for her marriage to Prince Albert in 1839 that was to set a trend among Western brides that continues to this day.

VICTORIA MARRIES ALBERT
QUEEN VICTORIA
WEDDING DRESS 1926

The familiar saying, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” is also mentioned and an explanation is given for each line: something old in order to retain the love and affection that was the bride’s in her old life; something new, for success in her new life; something borrowed so that friends may ever be helpful and faithful, and something blue, an emblem of loyalty and constancy.

It was considered unlucky for the bride to break anything on her wedding day; such an unfortunate act would almost certainly lead to a lifetime of discord with her in-laws. The magazine also underlines the importance of feeding one’s cat on the wedding day (should the bride have one of course); in addition, one must not read the marriage service prior to the wedding taking place, and if the bridal party should encounter a pig (or several) en route to the Church, they must turn back with immediate effect and begin their journey again.

kitsch / souvenir, balloon ride of a love couple,

On marriage etiquette and protocol, the magazine is also a rich source of information. When relating details of the man’s proposal, it suggests that for some, writing a note may be the best option, “When courage to speak is utterly lacking, a proposal by letter is a good way out of the difficulty. Even though much note-paper and brainwork may be wasted on the document, at least it may be counted on to do the business; and after several failures to manage it by speech, there is consolation in this reflection.” The female recipient of the proposal is given the following words of wisdom, “A girl does not wish to appear too ready with her “Yes”. She thinks that this may cheapen her in the eyes of the person whom she would like to value her more highly than anyone else in the world”.

Focus then turns to the wedding itself. The bridal bouquet should be small and elegant as “the huge bouquet with which brides in the end of last and the beginning of the present century were burdened was not at all a graceful adjunct, for several reasons. Its bulk obscured the outline of the figure. It interfered with the pretty folds of the wedding veil. It hid the front of the gown, often very charmingly trimmed with lace or embroidery, and its weight tired the arm of the bride, already quite tired enough with the arduous work of the previous weeks in connection with the trousseau, the correspondence with regards to presents, and other preparations”.

CRANE, A FLOWER WEDDING

The bride-to-be is offered advice on the cutting of the wedding cake, which at this time, was the sole duty of the woman: “There is occasionally a little difficulty in cutting through the sugar icing, but the bride should not let anyone help in her task. A straight, downward thrust, the knife held perpendicularly, will manage the business and the rest is easy”.

CUTTING WEDDING CAKE

The tossing of the bouquet, very familiar to us all, was already firmly entrenched in bridal ritual at this time: “The bride must not forget to distribute sprays of her bouquet among her bridesmaids and other girl friends. There is an idea that this may lead to other weddings”. It goes on to describe how the bride must toss the bouquet high above the heads of wedding guests and the one who caught hold of it was destined to marry within the year.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE

Amusingly, the best man’s prime duty is as follows: “If his friend should be nervous in anticipation of the coming ordeal, it is the business of the best man to inspire him with courage and to infuse into him that spirit of resignation which is his best armour against tribulation”.

GROOM & BEST MAN

In summary, if you had been hoping to get married in 1912, you would be wise to avoid marrying on a Friday or Sunday, especially in May; best not to wear red, and a good idea to keep one’s head down on the journey to Church so as not to chance upon a pig! The final paragraph on wedding lore in this volume concludes very eloquently indeed and  is a fitting end to this blog: “Let the cynics and pessimists sneer and declare what they will, they will never convince the world that Love is not the light of life, its crown and completion, and God’s highest gift to man”.

A vivid and eclectic lightbox of wedding imagery from our archive can be viewed here.

A Snapshot in Time

In 1946, photographer Jean Straker formed a short-lived photographic firm known as Photo Union at 12, Soho Square in London. It specialised in the photo-essay, a form of pictorial journalism undertaken mainly with miniature cameras with lots of detailed images and bridging shots. Four years later, in 1951, the agency went into receivership when Straker sank capital into colour photography, which was to prove too costly. The archive, now at Mary Evans, consequently documents a particularly brief period of time but in many ways, it is all the more fascinating for it.

Woman on London routemaster bus, 1940s

Ley-On's Chop Suey Restaurant, Soho

Jean Straker was born in London in 1913 to an émigré Russian father and English ballerina mother. He began his career in journalism during the 1930s, specialising in film and launching ‘The Talkie’ magazine. A conscientious objector during the War, he combined duties as an ARP warden with working as a surgical photographer in London’s hospitals. But it was in the 1950s, that fame—or perhaps infamy—finally found a foothold. With the failure of Photo Union, Straker abandoned commercial photography to pursue personally satisfying projects. He set up the Visual Arts Club and as part of this, organised nude photography sessions for members. In 1959, ‘The Nudes of Jean Straker’ was published by Charles Skilton Publications, one of the first art photography books of its kind. Despite his activities being pretty similar in practice to life drawing classes, sensibilities were shocked and he was prosecuted in 1962 under the Obscene Publications Act. Arguing that there was nothing depraved or corrupt about the naked human body, Straker spent the rest of the decade refusing to curtail his activities or compromise his artistic integrity leading to a continuous cycle of prosecutions and appeals. By the late 1960s, Straker had given up photography but continued to campaign and lecture on censorship until his death in 1984.

Nude Danae by Jean Straker

Though Straker’s Photo Union collective was a commercial venture, whose subjects were necessarily more conservative, some of the images seem to hint at Straker’s background and personal interests. There are backstage shots of showgirls and candid shots of jobbing musicians, evocative images of Soho streets and long-gone West End restaurants while guileful London girls are pictured on dates with American GIs. They hint of freedom and a certain type of seedy glamour in an age of rationing and austerity. There are other pictures too, which project a more innocent nostalgia: apprentice carpenters, Kentish apple pickers and the 1947 Royal Wedding. But occasionally, the odd, artistic nude reveals the agency founder’s true, fleshy metier. The Photo Union collection is an eclectic and evocative picture of post-war Britain, and particularly London.  To see a selection of images from the archive on the Mary Evans website, click here.

VE Day Celebrations - Piccadilly Circus

Ballet dancers training

A Brief History of Underwear

The first publicity slogan for underwear appeared in the window of a London corset-maker during the 18th century, promoting the efficacious results bestowed by her latest model of corset claiming it, ‘controls the large, supports the small, uplifts the drooping.’ Almost three centuries on, a quick stroll around the lingerie section of M&S suggests that we all still want pretty much the same results from our foundation wear, although admittedly, a medieval or even 18th century drapers would not have sold many pairs of knickers. Most people simply didn’t see the point of wearing them.

Undies Blog 1

Legend has it that the corset as we know it–the type that shrinks a woman’s waist to doll-like proportions with the aid of whalebone, lacing and no small amount of discomfort–was first introduced by Catherine de Medici during the 16th century. She decreed that any of her ladies with a waist wider than 13 inches would not be welcome at the French court. Rather than face banishment, they breathed in, visited a stay-maker and politely said, ‘Non, merci’ to proffered sweetmeats. After the medieval fashion for rounded, feminine stomachs, suddenly the tummy was tucked away and the waist accentuated, a trend that endured, save for a short breather (literally) during the Empire line fashions of the Regency era, until the First World War. Over the centuries, corsets or ‘stays’ changed along with the vagaries of fashion from the sharp, flat-fronted bodices of the Tudor period to the wasp-waisted fetish of the Victorian era and the exaggerated S-bend shape of the early 20th century. The wealthier the wearer, the more restricted she was likely to be, but mobility was only necessary for those who had to work for a living and as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire confessed, although she was pinched and sore, the soothing quality of admiration made it bearable. Corsetry was not limited to the female market either with dandies of the 18th century particularly fond of the garment’s figure-transforming qualities. In 1834, the increasingly plump Prince Regent was told his stays would be the death of him if he continued to wear them.

Undies Blog 2

Undies Blog 3

Just prior to the Great War, fashion suddenly became more daring–looser, artistic, diaphanous. In 1913, a New York socialite called Mary Phelps Jacob passed into the annals of underwear history when she was awarded a patent for her invention of the first modern brassiere. Frustrated at the lumpen artifice of her whalebone corset underneath a particularly sheer evening dress, Jacob fashioned a makeshift bra out of two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. This charming creation quickly became popular, with its inventor opting to sell her patent to Warner Bros. Corset Company for $1500. Warner’s went on to make $15 million from it.

But women were never truly truss-free; restrictive underwear still moulded and shaped women’s figures according to style edicts of the 20th century. Twenties’ lingerie was lovely to linger over: silken and suggestive, but the slim-line fashions of the following decade required a sinuous figure to carry them off. Underwear firms such as Kestos offered girdles and corsetry-inspired foundation garments to ensure a lean silhouette under everything from one’s bias cut Molyneux evening gown to a flying suit. The war years required more practical solutions and warm woollen undies together with a scarcity of stockings meant that only pin-up girls emerging from an artist’s brush, unencumbered by ration coupons, could afford the silk fripperies that her flesh and blood sisters so desired. After the war, Dior’s New Look returned once more to the hourglass outline and cinched waists of the 19th century; waspies, corsets and conical bras gave the desired look with advertisements in women’s magazines posing questions that would provoke a public outcry today. One, for Au Fait, insists, ‘What’s the fun of being a woman if you don’t have a good figure?’

Undies Blog 4

In riposte, some women burned their bras in the sixties, but most inevitably still felt the need for some support. Hip, youthful fashion began to eclipse the ladylike styles of the fifties and underwear followed suit. In the 1970s, Janet Reger was an underwear trailblazer, combining comfort, luxury and sex in silk, satin and lace for discerning women – and men who could rely on the store’s dubious policy of maintaining absolute discretion when someone might be buying for a mistress rather than a wife.

Undies Blog 5

The choice of underwear on display today would bewilder even the most seasoned Victorian courtesan, but the current vogue for the derivative, early 20th century burlesque styles pedalled by high-end boutiques such as Agent Provacateur shows that lingerie designers are continuing to plunder the past for inspiration. Thankfully, bloomers have yet to enjoy a revival. Pants to that!

Ladies to Love – A Valentines Top 10

Those who remember our Valentine’s Day blog post of Handsome Chaps from History from last year (if not, refresh your memory here), will recall that we promised a similar list of ladies the minute we find an excuse. Well, that excuse has finally arrived, so on Valentine’s Day 2017 let’s kick off our Top 10 of Charming Chapesses with…

10. Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Born in Paris to a courtesan mother and unknown father, Sarah Bernhardt rose to become the greatest star of the 19th century theatre, earning the nickname ‘The Divine Sarah’. Although not a conventional beauty, she had talent and charisma in abundance, and was equally at home in both tragedy and comedy. She didn’t shy away from roles such as Hamlet usually reserved for male actors, and was not averse to scandalous productions either, performing in John Wesley De Kay’s ‘Judas’ in New York in 1910. Mary Magdalene, a lover of Pontius Pilate, then of Judas Iscariot, moves on to Jesus whereupon Judas betrays him to the Romans in a fit of jealousy. Even more shockingly, Bernhardt was cast in the title role.
9. Annette Kellerman (1887-1975) Australian professional swimmer Annette Kellerman was once dubbed ‘The Perfect Woman’ for her body’s closeness to the measurements of the Venus de Milo. She discovered a love of swimming in childhood when taken by her parents to the local pool to help the muscles develop in her painfully weak legs, and rapidly progressed to giving swimming and diving exhibitions. Her prowess did not go unnoticed by Hollywood, helped greatly by her provocative championing of a new tight-fitting swimming costume for women. It was so shocking that in 1907 Kellerman was arrested on a beach in Massachusetts for indecency. In 1916 she scandalised further by appearing fully nude in ‘A Daughter of the Gods’, the first million-dollar film production.
8. Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (1837-1898). Elisabeth stands out in the roll call of European royalty as unusually beautiful. At 5’8” she was tall, and maintained a strict exercise and beauty regime. She was an impressive horsewoman, riding for hours every day, and drilling on balance beams in front of huge mirrors. Her beauty cult transformed her into an icon. Unhappily, Sisi’s life with the Emperor Franz Joseph was a tragic one. She was stifled by rigid court rules and tyrannised by her mother in law who prevented her having any say in the care of her own children. Her only son died in a suicide pact, an event Sisi never recovered from. She was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist, ensuring her place in the myth of doomed beauty.
7.Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) Intense, dynamic, radical and beautiful, militant suffragette and women’s rights campaigner Christabel Pankhurst inspired complete devotion from her followers. While this no doubt sprung from a shared desire to bring about a state of female emancipation, Pankhurst’s striking good looks and passionate nature can’t have been too much of a turn-off.
6. Cleo de Merode (1875-1966). Cleo de Merode combined talent as a ballet dancer with glamour and stunning good looks to become one of the most famous and imitated women of the Belle Epoche. Born in Paris, she was painted, sculpted and photographed by the pre-eminent artists of the day, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Giovanni Boldini and Felix Nadar, but her reputation was sullied by the public admiration of King Leopold II of Belgium. Salacious gossip spread that she’d become mistress to the 61-year-old, unwanted rumours which Cleo was never able to shake off.
5. Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000). Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian and American film star, was not only exceedingly beautiful, but also a brilliantly talented inventor. On screen her sparkling sexuality riveted audiences. Off it, she helped to develop a method of transmitting radio signals by frequency hopping that many years later became an important element in modern communication technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Brains and beauty – what more could one desire in a dinner companion?
4. Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond (1647-1702). The great 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys called Frances the greatest beauty I ever saw. While at court as lady-in-waiting to King Charles II’s new bride Catherine of Braganza, she caught the eye of the Merry Monarch who became infatuated with her. To avoid becoming another of Charles’s mistresses, she eloped with the Duke of Richmond, an injury that wounded Charles deeply. He forgave her, and later commissioned a medal of Britannia modelled upon her profile that came to adorn British coinage for centuries.
3. Lily Elsie (1886-1962). Edwardian singer and actress Lily Elsie caused a sensation with her starring role in operetta ‘The Merry Widow’ in London in 1907, and became one of the most photographed women of the Edwardian era. Once again, the Venus de Milo was invoked as the perfect standard of beauty with whom Elsie compared admirably. The Atlanta Constitution newspaper writing in 1915 went on to say that, “everyone agrees that Lily Elsie has the most kissable mouth in all England”.
2. Louise Brooks (1906-1985). Compared with some, Louise Brooks’ film acting career was relatively short, lasting from 1925 to 1938 with four of those years absent from the screen. Her early retirement from film preserved her sleek, glamorous, stylish image as an icon of the Jazz Age. Today, her role as Lulu in German silent film ‘Pandora’s Box’ in 1929 is her most well-known. The film is a dark, lurid tale of seduction, murder and downfall with a lesbian fling thrown in for good measure. Although poorly received at the time, it was rediscovered in the 1950s to great acclaim, with French film archivist Henri Langlois famously commentating that, “there is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks”.
1. Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Actress Anna May Wong had star quality in abundance but as a Chinese American woman in the overtly racist climate of twenties and thirties Hollywood, she was never going to be allowed to play the happy romantic lead opposite a white actor, and discriminatory casting denied her major roles even when the characters themselves were Chinese. But she had an exquisite, elegant beauty and a screen presence in which she radiated exotic sensuality, outshining Gilda Gray in ‘Piccadilly’ (1929) and matching headliner Marlene Dietrich in ‘Shanghai Express’ (1932) arched eyebrow for arched eyebrow. Our top Valentine’s Day date.