Nobody had much in the way of luxuries when I was growing up. When I was very small there wasn’t much to buy anyway so you could say it was a level playing field as far as items of clothing were concerned. Most children had school clothes which might even be a uniform of some kind like Wendy Maxted and Margaret Snelling who both seemed to own gymslips. We all had something rather smarter for Best or simply for Sundays. A few of the boys in particular had very shabby Saturday outfits long discarded from older brothers that were ideal for climbing up and down the chalk pits at the back of the Springhead Road houses.
None of this mattered much whilst we were under twelve and in any case it didn’t apply to everyone because there were women who were superb dressmakers and in the latter years of the nineteen forties, could make smart Sunday two piece outfits for their daughters out of old coats that with the addition of a simple trim lifted the garment and their wearers to dizzy Parisian heights. Well so it seemed to me at the time. The wearers were girls I greatly envied who wore felt bonnets to school and hand knitted angora boleros on Sundays. The ones who inspired the greatest admiration and jealousy were Rita Jenkins of Shepherd Street and Barbara Scutts of Springhead Road. To add insult to injury these two most fortunate pre-adolescents were often seen wearing shiny black patent leather shoes on special occasions.
My own mother could and did knit and in fact she was quite enthusiastic with wool and needles. Her overall ability, however, was poor and she had an unfortunate habit of ignoring minor hiccups such as needle size and dropped stitches. Consequently most items produced were even to my untrained eye, unwearable. Decades later I was dismayed to discover she was still producing similar garments for two of my cousin Ann’s young children who I could not help noticing also observed the progress of their winter sweaters with fascination and horror.
All in all as I grew up, like most of my schoolmates, I was resigned to being badly dressed. It seemed to be our lot in life. And to be fair the greater proportion of our mothers were equally poorly attired because those were the days when women seemed to be perpetually clad in shape disguising Aprons of indeterminate patterns that could be bought in British Home Stores for three shillings and sixpence apiece or in Gravesend market for two and threepence. Headscarves tied factory fashion around their heads for the most part avoided the necessity for well groomed hair and make-up for every day did not seem to be on the agenda although I do recall my mother occasionally dabbing Velouty For Beauty on her cheeks. A few years later curlers were worn under the headscarves giving a bulky and more awkward look that nevertheless hinted of party time ahead. That was not actually the case, festivities rarely came to pass and mostly the curlers simply stayed in for days on end.
After the death of my father our life of poverty and deprivation sank to a new level and I quickly realised that becoming a local symbol of teenage fashion was not going to happen for me. The advent of the nineteen fifties coincided with a slightly elevated range of goods in the shops and on market stalls such as somewhat frivolous rayon underwear in extraordinary colours like orange and mauve and popper beads in a range of hues that were so enticing I became consumed with owning such items. I would most definitely have resorted to organised theft had I not been so frightened of the consequences.
Post war Britain was looking brighter for most people but generally speaking life was getting worse for our family. When other girls managed to persuade their mothers to buy black ballerina flats from the shoe shop in Gravesend High Street I knew better than to even ask. At that stage I had one pair of shoes, dark brown lace ups that were mended again and again by Mr Hammond in Shepherd Street until I grew out of them when they were put aside in the hope that my brother would grow into them. Even at seven and eight years of age he looked decidedly nervous about this idea.
When I began to earn my own money, shortly before my sixteenth birthday, I headed directly into Gravesend each Saturday morning to spend it at British Home Stores and Woolworths. I thereby accumulated a quantity of orlon cardigans in pastel colours and cotton skirts most of which became limp and unsightly after their first wash. I was not overly concerned about quality because the ability to actually purchase an item of clothing new, at will, made me dizzy with pleasure.
When I was younger most of what I wore had been passed on via cousins on both sides of the family and as the majority were girls by and large I did better than poor Bernard who got very dejected at having to wear a succession of female jackets and raincoats with the buttons always on the Wrong Side. I had no idea how deeply this state of affairs affected him, however until a few months before his death in April 2016 when he revealed to me the Unhappy Tale of the Silver Lurex Jacket with the Black Velvet Collar.
He was apparently in his third year at Colyer Road School so not exactly a new boy. He had long grown out of the school uniform passed on by a Buckingham Road neighbour. Fashions for males were changing fast along with everyday events in the local community. I had already left to find a Fast Life in London and things were definitely not as they used to be! A six foot conger eel had been found at Northfleet Power Station, then in the process of being rebuilt and there was even talk of St Botolph’s Vicarage being demolished. Members of the local Youth For Nuclear Disarmament were about to maintain a twenty four hour vigil at the Clock Tower in honour of the dead of Hiroshima and local teenagers were told the group was an Inspiration but Bernard was in no mood to join them. More pertinent to him was the fact that Colyer Road School was about to trial a period of Mufti and there had been a great deal of discussion between boys and staff as to what constituted Suitable School Clothing. Smart Casual appeared to be the order of the day and during his wanderings past the men’s outfitters in Perry Street and Gravesend my brother had totally acquainted himself with what that particular Look demanded. The only problem was how to secure it, particularly as his available funds did not even stretch to a trim never mind a re-style at Wandings the Barbers or even an after school helping of chips from Lads’ Fish & Chips nearby.
He no longer remembered who had passed on to him the Silver Lurex jacket but he vividly recalled that it closely resembled a much coveted item displayed in the window of a store in Gravesend High Street. His heart missed a number of beats in his delirium of joy when it was bestowed upon him and it mattered little that the garment was several sizes too big for him. Old Nan told him in no uncertain terms that he looked like Some Pearly Bleedin’ King in it and even my mother regarded it with more than a modicum of doubt. However, knowing how unlikely it would have been for her to ever countenance such a purchase, even in the unlikely event of him ever managing to attain the required six pounds seven shillings and sixpence her reservations were completely ignored. In fact so impatient was he to show it off he could not be dissuaded from giving it its first outing by wearing it to school the very next day. He was confident that the Jacket in all its Lurex glory was fundamentally so stylish that all his school mates and probably a sizeable chunk of the staff as well, would be green with envy. For once in his life he, Bernard John Hendy of 28 York Road, Northfleet would be seen as a trend setter in the area of male fashion.
He blissfully contemplated the possible secondary effects of the newly elevated position among his peers the Jacket would undoubtedly ensure. An invitation to join the In-Crowd for Saturday night dancing sessions at the Co-op in Harmer Street? Very likely! He would, of course, first have to learn a few dance steps but clad in Silver Lurex that should not be beyond him. Even his ability to absorb subjects like Mathematics might now be possible earning him unexpected respect from the Maths teacher …… `Applying yourself at last Hendy. I always knew you had it in you….’ The pleasing possibilities were boundless.
The fact that the first wearing coincided with the Headmaster’s Monday Morning Assembly rhetoric on Clothing Suitable for the Schoolroom he felt was fortunate – indeed fortuitous . He was still beaming with shimmering pride and superiority when he was called onto the rostrum as a demonstration of what must surely be Outstanding Schoolboy Sophistication. He obligingly turned a full circle and slightly lifted his arms in order that the full Glory of the Garment should be revealed. It was some minutes before he realised that he was being held to ridicule and that he might possibly be alone in believing that Silver Lurex trimmed with velvet came anywhere close to good taste even within the Colyer Road Schoolboy Fraternity of 1961.
My brother was an exceptional raconteur and we both laughed heartily when he recounted this probably slightly exaggerated story of youthful folly. Even so, it was all too evident that despite the passing of the decades and regardless of the material success that had befallen him in the ensuing years, at the age of sixty seven he was still more than a little distressed relating it.