CLOTHES - Part One

Changing fashions in dress have always reflected changing moods in society, or shifts in morality and behaviour. Economic prosperity is often mirrored in the way people dress, and the skimpier the fashion, the harder the times.

Big cities have always been the first to observe change in fashion, with London at the helm, but it was never long before the country dress makers and seamstresses were in hot pursuit, busily copying what they saw in the periodicals of the time, especially in a district like the Lakes. Although it was as far removed from high society as it possibly could be, the area had more than its fair share of wealth in the big houses and estates of the Victorian second home owners and newcomers, and a big party or ball held somewhere like Ambleside Assembly Rooms would cause a lot of excitement locally, with plenty of onlookers to catch a glimpse of the carriages as they arrived with their wealthy, well dressed occupants.

Fashion has always been fun, and a rising hemline or padded shoulder often added a little spice to ordinary, everyday life especially for the parlour maid or laundry girl. This month, "The Way We Were" takes elderly people back to childhood and youth to ask what they wore years ago, and how their clothing and shoes were made.

One lady, now nearly 80, remembered in detail the clothes she wore as a child and how they were made:

"Our clothes were made for us when we were little, and the dressmaker would come about once a month or so. She did all the mending as well, and she sat all day in the dining room working with my mother's old treadle sewing machine. She was always given her dinner, and plenty of cake for tea, and my mother made sure she always went home with a parcel of food for her children too. I think she must have been a very nice lady fallen on hard times, probably."

The fashion for dressing little boys as well as little girls in long dresses, shawls and bonnets persisted throughout the early years of this century, which makes it difficult to tell from old family photographs exactly who was who at an early age!

This is what one three-year-old girl wore around 1914:

"We wore vests, and two flannel petticoats and my best dress was white, embroidered, and tied with a blue or a pink sash. We had winter bonnets, with satin strings, and we always wore white socks, and ankle strap shoes. I can remember when I had just learned to walk having a little soft pair of what must have been kid shoes, and getting in to such trouble with the maid for walking across the backdoor step she had just scrubbed. My mother laughed, and said, 'Well, its only a doorstep the child's walked over, its not that bad!'

By the time this little girl was eight years old, the continuing fashion for bundling children up in layers of wool and flannel had begun to feel irksome. No doubt it was the only way to keep warm in unheated houses, but woollen combinations allowed little freedom for energetic children:

"We sometimes wore itchy woollen combinations, which were really uncomfortable, with sleeves down to the wrist, and our Liberty bodices were fastened with buttons to our knickers, so that meant unfastening them every time we went to the lavatory! On top of the petticoats we wore cotton frocks in summer, or kilts in winter, and sometimes these long shapeless jersey dresses. I had a navy coloured reefer coat and we had to wear laced ankle boots because my mother believed they helped to strengthen the ankle. But my older sister made such a fuss about them, we stopped wearing them in the end. I had a straw hat for summer and a velour winter hat."

Many young teenage girls were still hooked into corsets in the 1920s:

"It was before roll-ons and corselets became popular, and when I was 14, I had corsets that hooked up at the side. We wore two pairs of knickers, with navy blue bloomers on the outside and a white cotton 'liner' on the inside and at school we wore a black alpaca tabard pinafore over our uniform dress. We had house shoes for indoors, and lace-up shoes outdoors and on Sunday we wore patent leather house shoes.

"At home we wore these ghastly knitted dresses, they were absolute horrors with a belt threaded through round the hips, just where we were fattest, at a time when we were at our least shapely anyway. These dresses were knitted for us by somebody, and they had absolutely no shape whatsoever, and we hated them. Thankfully, though, my best dress was velvet, with lace collars and cuffs.

"As we got older we had great fun making French knickers out of crepe-de-chine which was very cheap at only about 2/11d a yard, and we always decorated our petticoats with lace which we thought very expensive if it was more than two shillings a yard."

Fashion had really started to influence life by the time a girl was 17, and in 1927 crepe-de-chine and silk happily replaced the layers of flannel and wool:

"I had my first silk stockings and court shoes, and my first long dance frock. My coming-out dress, which was beautiful, had a white net top and tulle skirt; and there were no more vests! Silk and crepe-de-chine were very cheap for making nighties and petticoats and knickers, and for embriodering them.

"The fashion was still for shapeless dresses, but summer dresses had rather more shape, they were sleeveless and made of prettier colours. Chiffon dresses were very pretty in pale greens and yellows, and we wore satin dance dresses as well. By this time, the dressmaker had stopped coming, and we wore clothes which we bought off the peg, as it were, from shops. My father discovered a little shop down in London and we went there and bought a lot of clothes once or twice a year.

"For important balls, we had white elbow-length gloves, and we bought white satin shoes which we dyed to match the exact shade of the dress.

"The fashion for winter coats was flared, with fur edged hems. I bought a black coat with a lovely matching halo hat with a turned back brim. I felt very smart in this, but the black was disapproved of for somebody of my age!"