I was watching The Great British Sewing Bee the other evening and they were having a special fifties edition which meant the contestants had to use the sewing machines of the day as well as make a dress fashionable at the time. I can honestly say I can’t remember the style of the garment that was the first challenge but I put it down to the likelihood of it being popular at the start of the fifties when I hadn’t even reached my teens and was not fascinated by fashion.
My interest came later with waspie belts, net underskirts, crochet tops and tartan trews which were purchased from various shops in Liverpool. I was never much of a one for sewing, although for the first two years at Grove Street girls only grammar school sewing was on the curriculum. I made a pair of pyjamas, a skirt and an apron all by hand and never touched a sewing machine until years later when I was married. I did like embroidery and I became a great knitter when my boyfriend was at night school in Colquitt Street three evenings a week doing his City & Guilds for Printing. Knitting helped pass the time whilst watching programmes such as Emergency Ward 10 and Dixon of Dock Green on Mam and Dad’s black and white telly.
On the other hand, my sister’s first job was as a sewing machinist, not that I ever remember her sewing much at home but maybe that was because it was too much like work. When the subject of the Sewing Bee came up the other day at a family gathering in the Jubilee Arms, she admitted to never watching it. I was stunned as I find it similar to people watching when on holiday, great entertainment. My sister-in-law who is a brilliant dressmaker as well as maker of fantastic wedding cakes, said she enjoyed it as much as I did.
Knowing something about the fashions of different eras is part of my job as a novelist. Last night I couldn’t prevent my mind from drifting to those evenings when window-shopping in Liverpool city centre was such a pleasure during the fifties and sixties. Many a courting couple saving up to get married would pass the time, gazing in dress shops and furniture shops, book shops and photography shops, not to mention having a gander at what was showing at the six cinemas all within walking distance for that Saturday night out at the pictures.
One of my favourite dress shops was Nanette’s on London Road which in spring always displayed a wedding dress, as well as a couple of bridesmaid frocks in their window. Although I didn’t buy my wedding gown from there, I did purchase two frocks for my trousseau. Do brides bother with a trousseau these days? One frock was made from midnight blue chiffon and had three quarter sleeves ending in frills and there was also a frill around the scooped neckline. I could never have made that myself in a month of Sundays. The material was so sheer and would slip all over the place when it came to sewing it -
just like the material in the third challenge in the fifties Sewing Bee.
Other shops popular with the female sex were Du Barry’s, Etam’s, Dorothy Perkins, as well as the posher dress shops along Bold Street where you went if you had a few bob so I can't remember their names. Then there were the departmental stores, such as T J Hughes, C&A Modes, Lewis’s, Littlewood’s, Henderson’s, Blackler’s, Marks & Spencer, Owen-Owen, the Bon Marche and George Henry Lees -
the later two shops were to amalgamate and when they moved more recently to Liverpool One became John Lewis.
I did do some sewing, of course. As the saying goes A stitch in time saves nine and I would sew up a hem when my heel caught it and I could sew on a button and my mother did teach me how to darn, using one of those wooden mushroom shaped thingies. When I did eventually buy a second-hand Singer sewing machine and tried my hand at dressmaking, my favourite shop for materials was George Henry Lees. It was a magical place taking up part of the basement, it was filled with such variety and colour it was like wandering into Aladdin’s cave. As for their haberdashery department with its buttons, cottons, zips, hooks and eyes and lengths of bice binding and fancy edgings that was a fascinating place as well and I loved wandering through it.
For men there were several shops trying to attract their trade, such as Jackson’s and Burton’s who offered made-to-measure suits as well as the ready made sort, shirts, jumpers, overcoats and the like. My husband’s wedding suit was made-to-measure in black mohair from Burton’s. The jacket was lined in scarlet satin and it looked the gear. He wore it with winkle picker shoes and a dazzling white shirt and a beautifully knotted tie. No one I knew in those days would have dreamed of wearing a morning suit with a topper as so many do today.
I can’t finish without mentioned catalogues, we might not have had the internet and credit cards but we could peruse pictures of the latest fashions and purchase clothes for so much a week. Neither were there any charity shops. Most likely because most of us possessed fewer clothes and only got rid of them when they were suitable for the ragman.
How times change! So thank you Great British Sewing Bee for bringing back so many happy memories.