The forefront of fashion in Coley.
It made no difference that the hard working land girls of WW2 wore trousers. In our street, like wearing bright red nail varnish, it was still something we didn’t do, and it wasn’t until 1959 when I was fifteen and had started work that I treated myself to a pair of fashionable tartan trews and felt comfortable enough to wear them out and about.
No-one could say that the ladies of Coley were at the forefront of fashion, but in those early days after the war, shortages and lack of money took “make do and mend” to another level.
Most of us wore hand me downs and didn’t think twice about it, but if you were the eldest and hadn’t reached adult size or only had siblings of the opposite sex, there was no-one to pass clothes on to you, and that was when you ended up at the second hand clothing shop.
We were lucky. The people that owned the shop before Bert Bristow were the Pragnells. They had two granddaughters who were a year older than me and my sister. Once a year they’d make up a bundle of outgrown clothes in good condition and sell them to my mum.
I particularly remember the pyjamas. After mum had given them a wash – just in case [mum was a great one for – just in case] putting them on after my Sunday bath and feeling like a million dollars. Not that I had a clue what a million dollars was in those days.
The only fashion magazines to be found down the side of the chair in our house were gran’s pre-war copies of Women’s Weekly, featuring useful knitting patterns.
Granny Gaines who lived with us was a great knitter and could turn out a pair of men’s socks in no time. Gloves she wasn’t so keen on, all those fingers were a bit too fiddly, so my other grandmother made the gloves and always knitted my sister and I a pair each for Christmas.
Wool was expensive which meant knitted garments were never thrown away when they were either outgrown, beyond darning, or shrunk because they’d been washed in too hot water. Instead gran unpicked them. Patiently winding the wool around an oblong of cardboard, once every bit of useable wool was unpicked with short lengths carefully knotted she would slip the wool off the cardboard, tie off the top and bottom, wash the skein in lukewarm water with a generous handful of Lux Flakes and then peg it on the line with something heavy tied to the bottom of the skein. This helped straighten the wool out and made it easier to knit the next time. You always knew you were wearing something made from re-cycled wool by the amount of knots you found on the inside. Any bits of wool left over would be cut into short lengths and hooked into a piece of sacking to make multi-coloured throw rugs for in front of the fire.
The boys wore the same grey flannel jacket, short trousers and long socks all year round with the addition of a sleeveless Fair Isle pullover when the temperature dropped too low. They were a hardy lot.
We girls were a little top heavy compared with the boys. In the winter sis and I donned warm knickers with elasticated legs, a white cotton vest, a fleecy cotton liberty bodice with rubber buttons, a white fleecy petticoat and then a dress and cardigan, or jumper and skirt. From the knees down though, we froze. Although I’ve seen pictures from the twenties of little girls wearing snug leggings or long black woollen stockings, Kedge’s and Tutty’s didn’t sell anything like that, and who wanted to wear brown or grey boy’s socks? So ankle socks it was. Our legs went blue, but at least our chests were warm.
Boots were a luxury item and rare to find, especially for children, so when it rained or snowed we wore Wellingtons. In those days Wellingtons were not a colourful fashion statement for trendy gardeners or sports people and worn with chunky thermal fisherman’s socks. Ours were black, hard wearing and cheap; they were also waterproof — except when we were playing in the snow. No matter how careful we were, snow always found its way over the tops and melted. By then if you were wearing ankle socks, the Wellies had dragged them down so they ended up as wet, icy cold lumps around your toes. Our feet went numb faster than if we’d been wearing shoes, and promised a great deal of pain when we were thawing out in front of the fire.
Following the old saying ‘ne’er cast a clout ’til May is out’, we discarded our many layers as May wore on, but no matter how hot and sunny the day we girls never wore shorts, so you can imagine the reaction when a girl on holiday from the USA arrived to stay with Mrs McGuinness? [Irish] who lived across the road. Mary wore shorts and a sleeveless blouse wherever she went. We didn’t know whether to be impressed or shocked but whatever our feelings it was glaringly obvious how backwards we were compared to America. However, there was no doubt she caused a sensation amongst the boys!
In those days we were a long time growing up. We had to wait until we were fifteen or had left school before we could wear makeup and we wore those blessed ankle socks right up until the day we left. But then it went from bad to worse because if we were going out, we had to wear stockings. Bare legs were ‘common’, but if we complained because stockings were hugely expensive and the means to hold them up were torture, on reminding our mothers and grans of the wartime standby of legs browned with gravy powder, and stocking seams drawn up the back of the leg in pencil, the older women in our street used to say that was wartime and needs must. In peacetime there were standards. Those standards seemed funny to me. My gran would nip down to Bert’s in her wrap around overall, but always put her hat on…Which leads me nicely into curlers.
Most of the women in our street appeared to wear them permanently, being seen with your head bristling with metal curlers was classed as bad manners, but keeping them covered with a jauntily tied scarf was acceptable for a quick visit to the corner shop or answering the door to strangers. I assume they wore the curlers to bed and only took them out when going into town or to the pub for a couple of hours, but I must have missed those occasions. All that discomfort they must have gone through for a couple of hours sporting curly hair never ceases to amaze me, but it was cheaper than a perm, and remembering the burns my gran used to have on the back of her neck after a visit to Parkes hairdressers in the Butts, for a permanent wave, I’m not surprised they stuck to the curlers.