Forgotten Treasures: words of the past ring true today by Colin McDowell

Since first learning to read, I have been in love with the printed page. Reading has been a passion all of my life. Apart from ephemeral things like the newspapers, I hardly ever throw anything away. And even with newspapers, I cut out things to read at a later date that I know will never come in our fast-paced world. It may seem a bit of a sad case but it brings great and unexpected pleasures – not least, finding something which you didn’t know you had. Always when you are frantically searching for something else, of course.

I’ll give you an example. It happened over Christmas. I was looking for a small pamphlet that I knew I had somewhere. After about an hour of looking along what always seems miles of bookshelves in my house – bookshelves which, of course, are in no order at all – I came across half a dozen little booklets published between 1951 and 1958 by the Wool Education Society. And that changed my tack as I had no idea when or how I acquired them but I knew that, rather like finding an old love letter going years back from somebody whose signature could not be deciphered, I had to stop searching and start reading.

Each one was the written version of a speech given at The Royal Institute in Albemarle Street in London by a variety of high profile speakers before an invited audience. Their names are a roll call of London’s top designers and academics, including the costume historians James Laver and C Willett Cunnington, whose books, even today, long after their deaths, are still considered essential reading for anyone interested in the history of dress. The designers included the crème de la crème of London’s couturiers: Hardy Amies on “Wool in Fashion”; “Wool in the World of Fashion”, by Owen of Lachase; and “My Way with Wool” by Ronald Paterson. It was a serendipitous cache of marvellous things I had forgotten about.

In each volume, the transcribed text given by the speaker points out what makes wool unique as a fashion fabric whilst also making it clear why top designers loved working with it in those days when designer fashion was still formal and a good coat (of Merino wool, of course) was the starting point of any fashionable woman’s winter wardrobe, followed by a suit (also wool, either Tweed or Worsted, according to whether it would be worn in the country or in the town) and several fine wool dresses.

Of course, these designers and the clothes they talked about, worked at the highest levels of tailoring and the age group they were designing for was between early thirties and 65. Younger women were largely excluded as not knowing how to be chic – which is what fashion was all about then. Fashionable dressing was to do with glamour, style and the confidence of understatement as well as the pleasure to be had from something perfectly cut in a beautiful fabric, of course. But it was equally about dignity – something the young quite rightly never want to have.

But, if young women in the 50s looked at their mothers and older sisters and felt excluded from fashion, it would be true to say that, when their daughters grew up in the 70s, they had their revenge as the age of fashion tumbled, a result of the fact that retailers had realised that the young, free of most financial responsibilities, were the women who had not only a burning desire for fashion that talked about their generation but also the money to make it happen exactly as they wanted it. As young women everywhere burst out of their mother’s closets with a loud cry of ‘Freedom!’ it was obvious that fashion would never be the same again. And it hasn’t.

Historical lectures of the Wool Education Society can be found at Oldham Local Studies & Archives.

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