Austerity Orange?

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During my first exploratory rummage through the Museum of London costume store, I am struck by the diversity of items held within its unpromising rows of uniform rolling stacks. The store is a great leveler, treating examples of home dressmaking with the same care and attention as couture items, allowing the hand-painted Norman Hartnell ball gown to hang next to a shirtdress made from an old bedspread. Less easily differentiated at first glance, but no less fascinating, are the variations in quality and design between ready-to-wear items. It is easy to assume certain uniformity in items that comply with wartime Utility regulations, but the Museum of London collections imply that within Utility, huge variations are present in both quality and design. These variations strike at the heart of the prevailing narrative of post-war London as a uniformly drab and austere landscape, its people characterized by shabby dress in various shades of grey. In doing so, they exemplify how dress can play an important role in re-examining the past.

Garments, viewed as a stitched medium through which we interact and make sense of our environment, offer a unique perspective on what it was like to live in a certain place and time. The discovery of item 66.12/3 reminds me of the import role played by the material object in narrating place; its ability to challenge and change the discussion extending far beyond its usual use as a mere tool to support preexisting dialogues. Item 66.12/3 is a pair of orange corduroy trousers, purchased from mid-range department store D.H. Evans in the mid to late 1940s. The cut is high waisted, fastened with two rows of buttons to ensure a snug fit, and wide legged. They show signs of extensive wear in the hems, as well as in the thinned fabric, and some evidence of mending. I cast aside the immaculate example of a bespoke Hardy Amies ‘New Look’ style coat that has previously caught my eye, and lay these trousers carefully on a sheet of tissue, excited to discover their story.

The existence of a pair of bright orange trousers, purchased in London and worn extensively throughout the late 1940s, challenges our preconceptions of austerity. The trousers remind us of the complexity of lived experience, so rarely distilled into one simple cultural aesthetic, however tempting this may be to tellers of history. They are undeniably leisurewear; both the cut and colour confirm their status as an item for pleasure, raising questions of what it meant to have fun in the 1940s city. The style contains echoes of the past two decades—of the sailor trousers that emerged from Chanel and the Riviera set, of the liberation of 1930s beach wear and the growth of American leisurewear. But here in Austerity London, the light linens and crisp cottons are adapted for the dirty and hardwearing city, demonstrating the spread of leisurewear from the privileged few to the middle classes. The muddle of influence continues; these trousers speak of practicality, their buttoning and pocket structure familiar to any wartime land girls, but they also nod towards Hollywood, where actresses such as Dorothy Lovett, Jane Wyman and Ginger Rogers had helped to popularize these wide legged, tailored shapes.

While there is certainly diversity, there is no contradiction in this mixture of influences; the post-war Londoner embodied all of these different cultural figures and more, playing out their multiple meanings in the city street. The worn hems, discoloured by pavement dirt, root the garment in the 1940s landscape and act as a poignant reminder of the power of dress to bridge the gap between imaginative desire and reality in a way that transforms the experience of both. When Hollywood is brought to suburbia, it, in turn, infuses the meaning of Hollywood with the physicality of London.

The bridge built by these trousers between desire and reality encapsulates the true excitement of the Museum of London costume collection; it is not just a collection demonstrating design trends, but one that gives a real insight into how individual bodies lived, fully immersed in both the physical and cultural city. As such, I suspect these trousers have many more tales to tell.

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