Saturday 28th November would be my beloved grandmother Mary’s 104th birthday. She came from a solidly middle class background; her father worked in insurance, and she grew up in a modest house in Darlington, County Durham. She was not underprivileged in any way, but neither was she spoilt or over-indulged. Looking at what she and her generation owned and the clothes they wore, we would think they were completely deprived.
People didn’t have a lot of clothes back then, and World War II obviously had a major impact. When I was a child in the 1970s, I remember Mary having about 10 day dresses, 5 pairs of shoes, some knitwear (Marks & Spencer’s St Michael label, of course), blouses and two coats. That was it. Clothes were mended and recycled, darned and remade, and worn and worn again.
My grandfather Egan’s wartime letters to Mary reveal a bit about how people really did ‘make do and mend’ and how precious and exciting it was when they acquired something new.
In April 1945 he writes: ‘I read with great interest of all your activities: sun-bathing in an easy chair, dashing about the house, going out in a scarlet frock and black coat – edge to edge style – and looking a perfect picture. Do I get browned off out here, so far away from my pin-up girl, oh boy, do I get browned off!’ (Don’t you just love the language?)
In September 1945 Egan was about to be demobbed, and was facing a bit of a clothes crisis himself: ‘The position regarding clothes-coupons is rather precarious now, isn’t it? I shall have to try and get a suit made for myself as soon as possible, for even with the outfit I’ll get on demobbing I shan’t be too well off with suits: the one I used to wear when on leave is threadbare by now.’
What would they make of our bulging wardrobes, filled with things we hardly ever wear? Is your wardrobe in need of a ‘detox’?