Flashes of 15 Denier

E.S. Turner

  • Forties Fashion and the New Look by Colin McDowell
    Bloomsbury, 192 pp, £20.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 7475 3032 7

The sumptuary laws of Plantagenet times were designed to curb exuberances of attire, among which were sleeves cut so full that they trailed in the dung and shoes with such long points that a cartwheel could pass over them without crushing flesh. Every day, said Holinshed, ‘there was devising of new fashions to the great hindrance and decay of the commonwealth.’ In the matter of clothing, the sumptuary laws of the Second World War were directed at less dandiacal, but still state-threatening, indulgences: double-breasted jackets, double cuffs, turn-ups of all kinds, patch pockets, bellows pockets, belts, yokes, pleats, shirrs, flaps, tabs and all unnecessary adornment (one historian tells us that a West End dressmaker was taken to court for embroidering roses and butterflies on camiknickers). Here was the unusual, and some thought alarming, spectacle of a British government insisting on short skirts for its womenfolk, but it was a government which knew where to stop, and that was at the knee. Vast savings in labour and material could no doubt have been made if Captain Edward Molyneux or Captain Hardy Amies had come up with the mini-skirt, but there was trouble enough on the Home Front without pandering to what Hazlitt, contemplating Regency fashions, called ‘the greedy eye and rash hand of licentiousness’.

The Germans had their own clothing restrictions, which did not extend to those covetable long greatcoats, with opulent revers, worn by military officers. Even the Americans woke up one day to find that the length of their shirt-tails had been regulated by law. Washington’s restrictive edicts lay behind the ‘zoot suit riots’ of 1943, when the United States Marines had to be pulled out of Los Angeles after engaging in ‘slugfests’ with bands of young Mexicans and others whose insolence of attire upset the disciplined mind.

Colin McDowell does not mention the ‘zoot suit riots’ in his survey of Forties fashion, which deals almost exclusively with women’s wear. He does not even shed a passing tear over those uninspiring demob suits which did so little for the morale of returning servicemen. He has ransacked to good effect the files of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Women’s Wear Daily, but has ignored that often trenchant organ, the Tailor and Cutter. Nevertheless, he has come up with a piquant and enlightening social history as seen through the quizzing-glass of fashion. Surprises abound. We learn, for instance, how fortunate in time of war was the slim wife with a fat husband. She could raid his wardrobe for suits and dressing-gowns which could be reshaped to make clothes for herself (she would already have used the bedspread and even the living-room curtains rendered superfluous by blackout boards). There were advertisers who offered to help her in such mischiefs as turning flannel trousers into a women’s suit. Can this be one of the hitherto unsuspected reasons why so many wartime marriages foundered?

When war broke out the Tailor and Cutter had prophesied there would be none of the turning of suits which had been such a melancholy feature of the Kaiser’s war. One who had little to fear in that direction was the Tory Member of Parliament ‘Chips’ Channon who, when clothing coupons were introduced in 1941, noted in his diary that ‘luckily’ he had forty suits or more – enough, one would have thought, to sit out a new Thirty Years’ War. Alert to ‘social imbalance’, McDowell informs us that many young women called up into the Services were able for the first time to wear their own shoes, instead of those handed down by their sisters, and that many a Land Army girl could boast her first decent wardrobe, courtesy of the state.

Clothes rationing was thought to bear more oppressively on women than on men. Oddly, female headgear escaped restriction, which meant that the ‘little milliner’ carried on while the ‘little dressmaker’ passed fretting into oblivion. Until then, McDowell reminds us, middle-class women had held their Madame Renées and Madame Fifis in much esteem, treasuring them as highly as their cooks and, some said, more than their husbands.

Harry Enfield recently had a spoof exhortatory filmlet in the manner of fifty years ago featuring a woman mishandling a car, accompanied by an appeal along the lines of ‘Women! For pity’s sake, don’t drive!’ The wartime government never quite got round to saying ‘Women! For pity’s sake, don’t shop!’ but that was the unspoken message. The Director-General of Civilian Clothing (a job description to relish) told Harper’s Bazaar: ‘Our policy should be ... to encourage everybody to avoid purchasing clothes. By making do with the dress she has, a woman can free labour urgently required for making munitions or for other war purposes.’ The President of the Board of Trade echoed his words. Sir Kingsley Wood, an unloved Chancellor of the Exchequer, tried to launch a cult of scruffiness. The day would come, he said, when people seeing a man in a shabby suit would say: ‘He is a patriotic man carrying out the Chancellor’s idea.’ This drew withering fire from the Tailor and Cutter, which said the shabby man would simply be setting an example of slackness, something to be abhorred in wartime. However, McDowell insists that neither the Government nor its civil servants had any wish to see people let themselves go. ‘The last thing government officials wanted,’ he writes, ‘was for female sex appeal to be subsumed by the masculine jobs they could increasingly be expected to do as the war effort dug deep.’ It was pretty decent of those chaps to think of such a thing at such a time. Magazine editors, against all their instincts, judged it politic to support the Government’s clarion call of ‘Make Do and Mend’, with Mrs Sew-and-Sew teaching how to rout the Squanderbug. (Even in garrison cinemas, one remembers, soldiers were taught how to darn socks, with a bright needle performing hypnotic feats of ducking and weaving between alternate fibres.) Advertisers continued to show elegant styles which, it turned out, were only for export. A sleek Berlei model poses patriotically at the salute, not only capless but dressless. To buy a chic foundation garment like hers, the copywriter said, would involve some ‘pretty extensive’ hunting, but any delay and inconvenience would be repaid with victory. Advertisers seemed to think it wonderful that Britain could make it but could not provide it and readers were invited to admire the manufacturers’ versatility and patriotism. Yet there were women who lamentably failed to see survival as a choice between tanks and knicker elastic.

The Government’s fuss-free Utility styles were well conceived and, as the illustrations show, favoured the woman who could boast a ‘narrow silhouette’. Servicewomen could dazzle in uniform too. Betjeman has an unkind reference to ‘beefy ATs without their hats’, but the leaner ones could cut a dashing figure. This reviewer, who spent two years of war entirely surrounded by young women, remembers the punctilious contortions with which they obeyed the mirror-borne injunction ‘Are Your Seams Straight?’ as they left camp on local leave. McDowell has unearthed a rather dreadful photograph of a scene in a shop where a plumpish matron stands with skirts raised to allow her legs to be painted. A sign beside her reads: ‘No more ladders. We paint your stockings on your legs.’ The prewar ‘stockingless creams’ designed to give a Riviera tan were scarce and costly, so substitutes were necessary. These were unreliable. Skin painted brown, we read, could turn bright yellow under dance-hall lights and other tints dried in blotches. The favourite lotion, if McDowell is right, was gravy browning, with cold cocoa as second choice. That fake seam drawn down the back of the leg was largely a newspaper stunt. ‘It is easy to allow this bizarre piece of social history to get out of hand,’ warns the author: throughout the war stockings were usually obtainable, in limited quantities. But an equally bizarre phenomenon was to be seen at the war’s end, with women in queues up to a thousand strong clamouring for such nylons as American soldiers had been unable to provide on a one-to-one basis. ‘It was almost as if nylons had a miraculous power to make women sexually attractive,’ writes McDowell, ‘and “15 denier” became two of the most erotically arousing words in the language.’ Let no one doubt that a flash of 15 denier could serve as a powerful turn-on for the returned warrior, as he supposedly uttered those four even more erotically charged words: ‘Get up them stairs!’ With the nylon craze was born the invisible darner, a skilled young needlewoman who sat in the front of the dry-cleaner’s window to catch the light, and the catcalls, as she repaired ladders at one-and-threepence a time. In due course she was replaced by the older woman who sat in the same place replacing new-fangled and unreliable zips in trousers. A modern Mayhew should have done a round-up for posterity of these transitory trades, not forgetting Mesdames Renée and Fifi.

But back to the war. What, it may be wondered, was the part played in the struggle by Captain Molyneux and Captain Amies? Irish-born Molyneux had won the Military Cross and been wounded three times in 1914-18. With the one good eye left to him he had built up a fashion house which enjoyed high repute in Paris, London and New York. After Paris fell he caught a coal boat from Bordeaux to London and was soon a rallying-point for British fashion houses. These were courted by the Government as prime dollar-earners. American women, who like the British had been taking their fashions from Hollywood, now clamoured for the styles of Molyneux, who in one period of 12 months pulled in two million dollars. Here is the answer to those who would ask why haute couture should be spared a second’s thought in times of national peril. It was not just a question of exporting a few dresses on the transatlantic Clipper; high fashion was a trigger for mass manufacture in other lands. We learn that in 1941 a fashion mission was sent to South America and that motor caravans toured North American and Canadian universities in the same cause. By such means fashion mobilised itself to prevent rather than contribute to the hindrance and decay of the commonwealth.

When the Government announced its Utility styles, Molyneux, whose rule had always been simplicity, had no difficulty in falling in line. As Sir Hardy Amies says in his Introduction to this book, ‘we both laughed. “We have been making utility clothes for years,” we said.’ Amies left Lachasse in 1939 for the Intelligence Corps (a full-page photograph shows him looking devilishly handsome). Soon afterwards he was borrowed for six weeks by the Board of Trade to help with a clothes collection for South Africa. Later, while serving at the headquarters of Special Operations Executive, he was given afternoons off to design clothes for America; Victor Stiebel was granted a similar dispensation from camouflage duties. It sounds a droll sort of war, but lucky the serviceman who can pursue his own trade while in uniform, and lucky the Government to have such talents at its disposal. In similar fashion, actors were plucked from their units to appear in films and then returned to take part in lesser heroics. Notoriously, Evelyn Waugh was given extended leave to write Brideshead Revisited, not so much with any idea of raising the nation’s morale as to get him out of the way; yet that book must have pulled in a tidy haul of dollars.

In Occupied France the Germans’ idea had been to switch high fashion from Paris to Berlin and Vienna, but their efforts were brilliantly undermined by Lucien Lelong, then president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. One of the first Frenchmen to win the Croix de Guerre in the earlier war, Lelong knew he had to negotiate with the Germans to protect the fashion industry. By using all his Gallic wiles he was able to save a surprising number of the Paris fashion houses. If all French ‘collaborators’ had shown such obstructive finesse it would have been a happier story. The villain of the piece is Coco Chanel, who lived openly in the Paris Ritz with a German officer of high rank. When the city was freed she was lucky to be able to withdraw, head unshaven, into Swiss exile. At the end of the Occupation, we are told, Parisiennes went to great lengths to tease the Germans with preposterously ornate hats, the revenge of the milliners.

When Christian Dior launched his New Look in postwar Paris, Nancy Mitford was suitably excited. ‘You pad your hips and squeeze your waist and skirts are to the ankle it is bliss ... and people shout ordures at you from vans because for some reason it creates class feeling in a way no sables could,’ she wrote. In the Britain of 1947 people did not shout ordures, but the initial reception was sniffy. This affected style was seen as an insult to the new woman proposing to live a free and active life. A Labour woman Member of Parliament was certain that sensible women would give it a quick quietus. In Picture Post (which had a curious zest for women in corsets) a writer thought that fashion was trying to take Britain back to the indolent, privileged years before 1914. However, the women of Britain, tired of austerity, were more than ready to welcome a curve-flattering style. The Dior cut had to be slimmed down appreciably, since what looked fine on the Champs-Elysées was a potential disaster on the Circle Line.

The illustrations in Forties Fashion are calculated to make survivors of those years purr, sigh and drool. Suitable credit is paid to the Thirties, when women of ‘understated elegance’ strove to match the glory of their Lagondas, Delages, Bugattis and Hispano-Suizas. Standards unknown to the present age were observed. Those of us who sailed to and from America packed four or six in a tiny cabin, all strangers, fought into our dinner jackets every night, even in tourist class. Compare the noble scene in the tourist dining saloon with the disgusting sights on view as one walks the length of a jumbo jet at feeding time. Chic lingered on, even in the days of gas-masks. Teenagers had not yet been invented; in this picture gallery are no baleful wraiths, no filleted spit-kittens. The only youth on display are in uniform, which suits them singularly well, especially in the recruiting advertisements. Incorrigible in war as in peace, Cecil Beaton shows us a svelte Digby Morton model appraising a well-bombed building, enabling Vogue to claim that ‘fashion is indestructible’ (a message more recently reinforced by universal pictures of designer jeans worn by an equally svelte model in a Third World minefield). Hollywood’s Veronica Lake earns a place, if only because her famous long mane was denounced as just the thing to get a factory girl whirled round the shafting. There is a down-to-earth picture of the compacted masses relaxing on Blackpool beach in 1947, none of them influenced by the New Look or tainted by any form of elegance, but the abiding impression in these pages is of poised ton and controlled allure, with never a lapse to inflame the ‘greedy eye’ and ‘greasy imaginations’ dreaded by Hazlitt.