I bought my first second hand dress in the summer of 1967 whenI was studying art on a foundation course at the Worcester technical college. The only affordable clothing stores at that time were Woolworths, Marks and Spencer’s and Littlewoods and there was nothing for teenagers at all. This was also the ‘ Trevira Era ‘ with synthetic fabrics galore, Bri -nylon sheets and nightdresses which crackled with static and stuck to your body. Many older ladies wore the dreaded Crimplene dresses which looked like they could stand up on their own.
I used to look at Vogue in W.H. Smiths and see that there was another world of fashion out there but it did not seem to exist outside of London. Growing up , we had old 30′s and 40′s films on t.v. all the time and I adored the clothes. The fabrics were very lush satins and crepes with lovely drape and texture, there was all kinds of fur and glitter and every garment however simple was cut beautifully.
I had been wearing a school uniform for many years which saved me from the dilemma of finding something to wear every day. My mum came to the rescue with a catalogue called Traffords which had some decent clothes in it. The catalogue carried a line of clothes by Cathy McGowan and they were not bad at all. Cathy McGowan was the ‘ Queen of the mods ‘ and used to host a pop music show called ’ Ready Steady Go ‘ which was a rival to ‘ Top of the Pops ‘. I picked a yellow dress with tiny flowers all over it and a matching hat it was A-line and had bell sleeves, I did not have the courage to wear the hat. There was a decidedly hippy feel to music and fashion that summer , flowers and phsycedelic swirls were appearing everywhere, boys and girls were growing their hair really long.
I found the old dress hanging up in the back of a second hand shop when I was looking for books. It was a shirt waisted 1940′s design in a creamy yellow linen with a rust brown design and lightly padded shoulders. It was the same design as my school uniform summer dress which I had always loved. The school dress was a hand me down when I inherited it in the early 60′s so it was older than that and I am sure the design had not changed since the 40′s. It was made from a fine linen that had faded from powder blue to a pale chalk blue over the years, and was worn like old denim at the seams. The cream dress cost one shilling and fitted perfectly, it was in great condition but I had to take the hem up. Maxi dresses were still a year or so away.
The dress had avery odd label inside which I was to encounter again, in fact I began to look for it and found it on many more garments. I did not know it then but it was a wartime utility symbol, it had the number 41 next to it representing the year of introduction and showed that the garment was made to strict regulations. Utility meant that the garment was cut using a certain amount of cloth and had very little embellishment. My mum was not very happy , she liked the dress well enough but the fact that I had bought it from a second hand shop was not cool back then.
The art department I attended was in the Victoria Institute , very stuffy old Victorian museum . We were taught art history for A-level, figure drawing and painting, and a young fashionable female teacher taught us fabric printing. I was torn between applying for a fine art course or fashion design, in truth I wanted to do it all. I finally opted for a course in Graphic Design, this did not please my tutors who assumed I would do fine art. I applied to Leicester College of Art because I heard that the Graphic design Department had a great reputation. I got in and was on my way, I knew nothing about Leicester or the fantastic outdoor market there. I was in for a treat.