With the colourful visuals from the stunning Beatles film Yellow Submarine still in my head, I started Leicester College of Art in the Autumn of 1968. The animated Beatles film was to influence graphic designers well into the 1970’s and was seen in a lot of advertising and editorial illustration.
College tuition was free back then and students even had grants to live on. I found accommodation with a doctors family, they already had two fashion students living with them and it was these girls who introduced me to the Leicester market.
At the college I felt very out of depth for a while. Most of the other students had already spent a year away from home in an art college working on a foundation course. My course at the technical college still felt like school. I did not have much idea about graphic design and how it applied to advertising and publishing so I floundered a lot in the first year. There were some very talented students at Leicester, some already working professionally , they were a great inspiration and taught me a lot. The head of the department Jerzy Karo was Polish like my father and scared all of us a bit , he took no nonsense and threw students out frequently. The tutors were all well known working graphic designers , Andre Amstutz, Barbara Jones, Edward Bawden, to name a few.
Design and fashion were beginning to have a very retro feel with Art nouveau, Art Deco, and 194o’s influences, Art Deco in particular was everywhere.
I have never been quite sure who started the fashion for old clothes, whether it was the fashion designers or the students who loved the plentiful cheap clothing. Leicester market was a few minutes walk from the college and the first time I went there I was hooked. It was the same as most city markets, dating from the middle ages it was in a square with a covered part for food produce. The more open part sold old clothes, lots of them. The stalls were a maze of trestle tables with huge jumbles of clothes piled onto them, strings of naked lightbulbs pierced the dreary Leicester gloom. The stallholders had no idea that these clothes were sought after, in fact some of them felt a bit sorry for students ‘forced’ to dress this way because they were so poor. We were not about to tell them otherwise.
I soon became expert in identifying 1930’s and 1940’s designs in clothing and fabrics. Garments in great condition were usually displayed on hangers but it always paid off to dig deep into the great piles of unsorted clothing on the tables, sometimes you could spot a beautiful piece of fabric and pull out a treasure. There were many crepe de chine dresses some being cut on the bias which gave a wonderful drape.
All clothing had to be checked out for damage, moths in particular were a big problem on woollen articles. Gross staining in armpits was unacceptable, but parts could be salvaged, for example the skirt of a dress could be saved especially if the material was beautiful. I started a collection of lovely art deco buttons this way. Warm clothing was a must, Leicester was very cold in the winter and many of us lived in places with no heat at all. Old fur coats were abundant in various stages of decomposition but at five pounds each a bit too expensive. I remember the most beautiful red fox fur jacket with big square shoulders and in great condition being displayed and not being able to afford it only to see it on a girl in the year above me the next day, in a miniskirt no less! A cheaper alternative was the ‘ teddy bear’ coat, this was a very common coat or jacket from the 1940’s that was made from a thick warm woolly teddy bear fabric. The coat had big square shoulders and even the boys would wear them, they wore fur coats too.
Long silk scarves were plentiful and popular, some of them had wonderful art deco designs on them and there were many with polka dots, in fact polka dots were everywhere in 1940’s clothing dresses, blouses, and skirts, usually white on a navy background. The boys were very fond of big overcoats, I always remember these being a predominately gingery colour. They also loved the ‘grandad vests’, these were hand knitted fair isle and could be exquisite if they had not fallen victim to the moths. I had a friend who bought tons of them and took them down to Kensington Antique market in London where he sold them at a great profit.
The craze for retro clothing was well under way down there. Now and again boxes of buttons would show up, amongst were these were pieces of jewellery. They were very odd art deco shapes made from bakelite an early form of plastic.
Now that the clothes were sorted out I turned to shoes but with not much success. Some of them were nasty and seemed to be worn until there great holes in them. I did find a great pair if silver wedge heel dance shoes though, great with jeans but they turned my feet black. Some girls bought Anello and Davide tap shoes and took the metal taps off.
They were ‘Mary Janes’ and Marc Bolan used to wear them. I finally bought a new pair of plum coloured suede shoes in Stead and Simpsons, they were lace up granny shoes but had quite high heels.
One day, a girl in the fashion department came to college in the most beautiful maroon suede knee length boots. Somebody told me they were from a shop in London called Biba and that the clothes there looked old and they had the most wonderful makeup. She had brought back the Biba catalogue and this passed around the fashion department and then made it’s way down to us in graphics. We loved the look and the logo. The photography by Helmut Newton was sepia tinted and had a strong nostalgic feel.
All this retro began to influence my work a great deal and I started drawing in the art deco style, I loved fashion drawing and practiced line work with the dreaded rapidograph.
I also started taking apart old clothes to understand them a bit more and made patterns with some success from old newspapers. This was how I came across the wartime utility symbols in some of the dresses. One of my last finds that year was a big box full of liberty bodices.
They were very old but never worn and in perfect condition, they looked great with levi’s and I dyed some of them . Leicester was a big garment manufacturing city , the college was near the ‘ Pearlustra ‘ sock factory and odd things turned up from time to time on the market. A consignment of new Harold Ingram 40’s style sweaters turned up on a stall one day, they had no labels but we knew they were his. Maybe they were samples or rejects. There was a great pile of pink velvet jeans I remember too, also with no labels.
Some of the boys at college did not get the look at all. They would ask us why we all wanted to dress like grannies, in fact the look became known as ‘ granny chic.’ Anyway, some of them hated it, maybe it was the whiff of mothballs that hung around us.
Apart from the market, I began to supplement my addiction with the many junk shops and jumble sales that were around. I am still amazed by the sheer amount of clothing and Art Deco artifacts that were around in the 70’s. I have friends who started serious collections and managed to fill their houses for next to nothing.
I just concentrated on the clothing , and with the hope of finding something fabulous the thrill was in the treasure hunt, and I have never felt that buying clothes since.