All lectures will be in the Emeleus Lecture Theatre, Lanyon Building.
Abstract: If girls' names are an index of their mothers' desires, then the textile towns of the 1930s crackled with a thirst for glamour. Between the mill and the Methodist chapel, a generation of Mays, Elsies and Marthas imagined a life of silk pyjamas and cocktails for their progeny. Clarice, Sylvia, Linda, and Valerie -- the little girls of the 1930s were named for the heroines of streamlined romance. But these girls grew up to be women in industrial towns, not some cosmopolitan cruise. These lectures aim to recreate their romantic careers and imaginative universe. Their objective is to map the contours of working-class and lower middle-class women's lives and longings between the 1940s and the early 1970s. They are anchored in the Northwest of England, but range further afield to every corner of Great Britain.
A surprising set of sources lie at the heart of my new research project. By serendipity, I discovered the massive archive of the Miss Great Britain contest, 1945-1982, in the papers of the Publicity Department of Morecambe County Council in the Lancashire Record Office in Preston. Tens of thousands of photographs and application forms document the bodies, occupations, ambitions, heights, hobbies and ‘vital statistics’ of every single entrant for forty years. The details of tens of thousands of young women, along with a vast organizational correspondence were filed away by the council with bureaucratic enthusiasm. Using them, I can map the changing female labour market, the post-war economy of leisure, the shifting boundaries of decency, the fluctuations of heterosexual fantasy, shifts in fashion, and the investment of the state in female exhibitionism, male looking and ‘a harmless bit of fun’.
The Lectures will be on:
1. Beauty (22 May, 5pm)
The post-war beauty contest was not a bizarre spectacle remote from ordinary people’s lives. It was interwoven in the leisure and parochial culture of the working and middle classes, an unexceptional part of a vibrant post-war competition culture – from dog and flower shows to fancy dress, bonniest baby and knobbly knees contests – expressed at fetes, fairs and tournaments, in church and town halls, staff canteens, school playing fields, provincial ballrooms and holiday camps nationwide. However sexist, the parades were not that sexy. One councillor remembered ‘in truth the contests were closer to glammed up Rose Queen coronations than soft porn spectacles for voyeurs.’ The goal was seaside glamour with a dash of cheek.
Miss Great Britain was a commercial brand rather than a formal qualification. There was no national authority, no British Beauty Board, regimenting rival contests. It was down to the organizers to sustain their claim. In 1949, the council established a relationship with Mecca Ltd who staged heats in their ballrooms nationwide – from the Palais in Ilford, to the Ritz in Manchester, the Kennard rooms in Cardiff, the Locarno in Glasgow, and the Plaza in Belfast. Six heat winners from competitions at Butlins holiday camps in Skegness, Pwlheli, Filey, Ayr, and Clacton also converged on Morecambe. In parallel, The Sunday Dispatch ran a photographic competition to find Miss England, Miss Scotland, Miss Wales and Miss Ireland to go forward to the final. Any opportunity to stress the regional and national reach was taken. As the judges’ foreword smirked in 1949: ‘I doubt whether members of Morecambe and Heysham Corporation… will ever forget the first of these heats held in Belfast last January. Crossing the Irish Sea in an 80-miles-an-hour gale is no joke: it tends to take one’s mind off beautiful girls.’
The Miss Great Britain contest was a highly visible performance of ideal femininity, hall-marking that which was desirable and normal for post-war women in every country in Great Britain. The contest spotlights national and provincial attitudes to physical appearance, sexuality and sensuality, as well as women and men’s accepted roles. The very title ‘Miss Great Britain’ raises a key issue for this project – that of national identity, ethnicity and race. Against a back drop of anti-Jewish riots in the north-west in 1947 and successive waves of immigration from the Caribbean from 1948 and Pakistan in the 1950s and 60s, Miss Great Britain sustained highly specific conventions of femininity: white, Anglo-Saxon and ladylike in the 1940s and 50s, graduating to white, Anglo-Saxon dolly birds in the 1960s and 70s. Despite the presence of black musical celebrities and Jewish variety performers on the judges’ bench, the acknowledgement of non-WASP ideals of attractiveness was very late and grudging. The consistent feature was the universal acceptance of an extreme gender asymmetry. ‘Mr Modern England’, a muscle competition on the central pier, did not catch on. The contests expose just how thoroughly accepted and unproblematic was the transaction between female beauty and male power – even in its banal local council manifestation.
2. Work (23 May, 5pm)
The social and economic history of women in the twentieth century has been grounded in the study of household and employment structure, based above all on analysis of the census. From this invaluable source, historians have mapped the regional variations of paid women’s work (almost non-existent in 1911 in areas of mining, shipbuilding, iron and steel), the rise of the young female worker in light factory industry in the Midlands and the South-East between the wars, the clear emergence of the bimodal pattern of female employment by 1961, and the mass movement of older married women into part-time work after 1945. This lecture offers a slightly different vantage – a case study of female employment in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, by analysing the occupations of the tens of thousands of young women who entered the heats of the Miss Great Britain contests from the 1940s to the 1970s. These cohorts are compared to the entrants of more niche Morecambe competitions of the 1960s Miss Sunshine ‘for young ladies in afternoon frocks’, Grace for the over 40s, and the rakish Best Dressed Gentleman.
Cumulatively the entry forms testify to the physical confidence and ambition of an expanding cadre of young working women in the white blouse sector. The majority of the unmarried entrants in the 40s, 50s and 60s were in jobs that called for clean clothes, neatness, grooming and pleasant manners. Heading up those with formal qualifications and respected skills were the teachers and nurses, however they were a minority – something of a female aristocracy of labour. Clerks were the largest single occupational category to grace Morecambe’s Super Swimming Stadium. This sector embraced an array of workers, whose precise designations were doubtless very important to them, from secretaries to shorthand typists to stenographers, cashiers, receptionists and junior clerks. The next largest occupational category was retail. Even more front facing were the contestants who described themselves models or mannequins, women who made a living from their figures and deportment. After the models, came the hairdressers. A brave minority described themselves as dancers, ‘ex-dancers’, and even show girls.
Given the number of mills and mill girls in the northwest, the comparatively small number of contestants listing factory work is striking. On the other hand, the majority of mill workers went to Blackpool, not Morecambe. Blackpool had hosted the final of the Cotton Queen beauty contest since the 1930s. On the other hand, the dwindling number of mill girls probably represents an absolute trend. The Ministry of Labour was sufficiently worried about labour shortages in 1949 to establish a ‘Textile Prosperity Queen’ contest to boost recruitment.
Women in white-collar work accounted for up to a third of all paid female workers in 1911, but 65% by 1961. From our perspective, the narrowness and homogeneity of female occupations is striking. There was a high level of sex segregation in post-war employment, and women were usually in junior or intermediate roles. Doubtless many young women considered their occupations to be temporary - what Vera Brittain dubbed ‘mean time jobs’. It is also possible that young women saw skilled and semi-skilled white-collar occupations as a route to a better class of husband. Certainly there were enough doctors & nurses, secretaries & bosses romances to give them the idea.
Nevertheless, there is no evidence that women at the time thought their clerical and retail jobs were uniform and lacklustre. Many felt they occupied positions of prestige within the hierarchy of working women. The typists in the head office at Horrockses in Preston felt a definite cut above the mill girls next door – and had nothing to do with them. The beauty contests attracted aspirational upper working-class and lower middle-class women, who wanted to have fun and make the best of themselves. What is most striking is their buoyancy and confidence.
3. Everywoman Glamour (24 May, 5pm)
Clothes rarely impinge on the narratives of mainstream history – one of the only fashion moments that interrupt political history is the introduction of the New Look in February 1947. The history of fashion has been scorned as mere ‘hemline history’, the trivial story of tinsel adornment. In the main twentieth-century social and gender history is untouched by the recent studies of artefacts and dress that have emerged from museums, design history and historical geography. Fashion history has an important contribution to make here, but when it has strayed from haute couture it has wandered no further than Carnaby Street, to celebrate the subcultures and styles of the ’50s and ’60s. Hence we have a detailed knowledge of the Teddy boy suit, the Mod parker and the Mary Quant mini, yet only one study of Horrockses ready-to-wear sundresses, and almost nothing on the more affordable M&S, C&A & the Coop, or the homemade cotton dresses worn by housewives galore. Fashion history, moreover, has been fascinated by surfaces, rarely looking beyond modish performances and identities to the rhythms of everyday practices and household constraints.
There is consensus among historians that the years from 1945 to 1973 saw unprecedented improvements in prosperity and living standards in Britain. The post war decades saw high growth, low unemployment and low inflation, rising real wages – and an equalizing of class differentials – in favour of the skilled and semi-skilled working class and the clerical sector. Greater disposable income and the falling unit cost of clothes brought shop-bought fashion within reach of the working and lower middle classes. When Simon Marks (of Marks and Spencer) died in 1964, his obituary in the Daily Express, 9 December 1964, reported: ‘He brought high street fashion within the reach of every typist and shop assistant and filled the streets of Britain with prettily dressed women.’ Cheaper still than M&S, was the Dutch giant chain store C&A which prided itself on producing ‘attractive, affordable, ready-to-wear clothing for everyday people’. Last but not least was the Coop.
Nevertheless many female consumers were convinced that they could make clothes that were more dashing and individual than anything they could afford ready-made from a shop. Working-class and middle-class women alike adapted patterns from Vogue, Butterick, Simplicity, and McCall’s, buying 3 yards or so of dress fabric for a frock. The difference between a shop-bought and home-made dress could be £4 or £5. Northern women’s memories abound with tales of buying cloth on the market on Saturday morning and wearing it out to a dance that night. Sometimes still with the pins in.
This lecture offers a case study of two garments: the summer dress and the swimsuit. The printed cotton summer dress was the epitome of colourfast pleasure for working girls, the New Look on a budget. It had a distinctive silhouette - a full skirt, a tailored bodice, and a defined waist – which endured throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s. Top of the Ready to Wear Range was the Horrockses day dress – woven in Preston, printed in Manchester. In 1953, when the Queen toured the Commonwealth, she packed several distinctive Horrockses frocks, which were inevitably well covered by the press, reproduced in photographs and newsreels. After a suitable delay, the same designs were subsequently made available to members of the public for £14.4s. 6d, with the press trumpeting ‘You can wear the Queen's dress’.
Horrockses typical day dresses were expensive - priced between £4 and £7 in the 1950s. However the dresses held by the Harris Art Gallery in Preston were not all purchased by the upper middle class. A student nurse Gill Jones purchased an Iris print evening dress from Chanelle in Oxford to attend a summer ball in the mid 1950s. A young teacher Jean Moffat bought a rose print full-skirted summer dress from Brown and Muff’s in Bradford, to wear at the school garden party in 1959. Her salary was £37 a month, so it was a stretch.
Parisian in inspiration, the typical summer dress was ladylike and feminine, desirable but respectable, bright but sensible. Kurt Lowit, a technical advisor for the firm, once said that you could tell an English woman abroad by her Horrockses’ frocks. Or as the advertisers put it ‘So crisp… so cool… so typically English.’
By contrast, the birthplace of the most desirable swimsuits was much further West - the Pacific Coast of America. Jantzen of Portland, Oregon, built international success from its dual policy of promoting healthy swimming, while flattering the female form. By 1932, Jantzen’s diving girl logo was reportedly the seventh most known trademark in the world. Coles of California and Catalina also competed for market share by promoting the fun in the sun California lifestyle. Synthetic fibres had transformed the design possibilities for swimwear. Lastex introduced in 1931 was a yarn with a rubber core that could be woven or knitted. It spawned a new generation of stretchy, clinging fibres. When Hollywood costume designer Margit Fellegi was hired as a designer at Coles in 1936, she developed Matletex by sheering cotton onto lastex yarn. Thereby she could make moulded swimsuits in any fabric ‘with the snap that gives support’ fusing swimming, high fashion and filmic glamour. The Hollywood dream factory fuelled the allure of swimming and swimsuits, showcasing the unbeaten Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan in the 1930s, and the competitive Californian swimmer Esther Williams in aquamusicals in the 1940s and 50s. Press photographs of filmstars lounging poolside in their California playwear were poured over in greyer climes.
Achieving the requisite athletic glamour in chilly British summers took commitment. In August 1945, Windsor Water Woollies sent five ‘Satin Lastex Swimsuits’, for the five Miss Great Britain finalists. ‘Our supplies are very short’ complained the company. ‘We have only a few of the satin Lastex Bathing Costumes’ which were still rationed, ‘on coupons, three each being required for bathing costumes’. In the 1940s, most working-class girls had to make do with a homemade swimming costume knitted from wool – droopy and leaden when wet, smelly while drying. A far cry from Esther Williams.
Nevertheless, the contestants who braved the Morecambe Swimming Stadium in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, reveal how British women domesticated All-American glamour, striding out in their white heels and reinforced, elasticated one pieces, weathering the driving rain off the Irish sea in the ‘Naples of the North’. If Horrocks dresses propelled Lancashire’s staple cotton industry into the summers of a bright, post-war future, American swimsuits heralded a glossy, streamlined modernity combining filmic glamour, science, and leisure.
4. Homes (25 May, 11am)
Bomb damage, the priorities of the war economy, and the inadequacies of pre-war housing stock, combined with demobilization and baby boom, ensured housing shortage was an urgent keynote of political debate in the 1940s & 50s; Tories and Labour competing in promises of numbers of houses. Yet housing shortage was felt well into the 1960s.
There were three major housing options in post-war Britain – home ownership, private rental, and social housing – the council house rented from the state. There were only one million council homes in the UK in 1946, accommodating just 10% of all households. They were built to exacting specifications and typically accessible to the respectable working class, not the poor. As the sector rapidly expanded, ‘council housing’ came to cover much more varied building situations – from the ever-desirable traditional house, to experiments with multi-storey housing, to hybrid estates of both flats and houses, built in the inner cities, the suburbs and the first new towns. In 1953, funding for local authority homes was again tightened and subsidies were tied to slum clearance programmes. The exigencies of quantity replaced the post-war emphasis on quality. Inexorably the standard and status of social housing slipped.
The major change in housing tenure in the twentieth century was the rise of home ownership. At the end of the war, just over a quarter of all houses in England and Wales were owner occupied, while 58% of housing stock was let by private landlords in 1947. By 1966, 47% were owner occupied. Home ownership financed by building societies came within reach of the more affluent working classes by the later 1950s.
What did people want? Unsurprisingly, 49 per cent of those surveyed in 1943 by Mass Observation would ideally have liked to live in a small house with a garden; 10 per cent wanted to live in a bungalow and a mere 5% ‘would by choice inhabit a flat’.
Post-war surveys confirm that most young women aspired to marriage and a home of their own. As late as the early 70s, the vast majority of working-class areas saw young people still living respectably at home with their parents until marriage. Young working women tended to give their entire pay packet to their parents until 21, thereafter paying board and lodging, but still subject to family rules. Lucky the working-class couple in the 50s that did not begin married life in the back bedroom at their in-laws.
There were institutions that cantoned the young and single for a period. The majority of healthy young men aged 17 to 21 experienced 18 months to two years in barracks fulfilling National Service between 1948 and 1963. Privileged boys and a tiny minority of girls experienced college rooms or university halls of residence. Teacher training colleges were often residential; many women’s ones still had a boarding school atmosphere in the 1940s and 1950s, with regulations and moral surveillance. Unmarried nurses were often required to live in dormitories in or close to the hospital, even if they had family nearby. Curfews, room inspections and a ban on male callers were typical. Rotherham nurses remember that all new boyfriends had to be vetted by the formidable Matron before they were allowed to be invited to a formal hospital occasion. The nurses’ home remained the focus of male fantasy.
If ordinary men and women wanted to escape the family and institutional surveillance then they had to take rooms in a boarding house and eat what the landlady dished up, or manage in a self-contained flat, or more likely bed-sitting room. It is no coincidence that the definitive play of 1956 Look Back in Anger, was set in an attic bedsit in the Midlands.
Katherine Whitehorne’s Cooking in a Bedsitter (1961) offered some dashing recipes for the gas ring –Tripe Catalan and Shrimp Wiggle – evoking squalid rooming houses, with a whole section on ‘Landladies; the Horror of’. By 1961, living alone in a bedsit could be a witty lark – for a while. However by then Whitehorne herself was a newly wed, married to a thriller-writer and settled in a house in Hampstead.
Home Sweet Home was synonymous with adulthood. Advertising targeted the housewife in her easy-care cotton dress, her frilly pinny, and even in slacks, helped by her ‘servants’ the hoover and washing machine. In 1953 Marks and Spencer imagined its typical family as the Barleycorns who ‘live in a quiet unpretentious house in a north London suburb. They are very happy, moderately prosperous and a typical of a large slice of British working people. They have a radio & would like to be able to afford a TV, do the pools every weekend worry about the same things as thousands of other families do’.
The vast majority of beauty contestants in the 1940s, 50s and 60s exhibited impeccably domestic credentials, and the papers rewarded them for doing so. When Mrs Eira Roberts of Barry in South Wales won the Miss Camay 1960 competition, the South Wales Echo reported that the bride ‘decided the £100 cheque would be much more useful to a newly married couple than a holiday in Paris – the alternative prize’. Wendy George, the 1969 Miss Great Britain used her £2000 winnings to put towards ‘a nice bungalow in a secluded little estate at Standish near Wigan.’ A Bristol woman who lost her local Miss Great Britain heat in 1960 was nevertheless the star of a local paper article under the headline ‘She’s ambitious. To be a successful housewife’. The paper reported that ‘dark haired Mrs Marlene Harding (18) was narrowly beaten by Miss June Smith.’ The runner up ‘says that her ambition in life is to remain a successful housewife’. Whereas the winner ‘Miss Smith plans a stage career.’
Doubtless the contestants tailored their answers to the imagined sympathies of the judges and the audience. The relentlessly domestic orientation may have been confected. However we would be short-sighted to underestimate the satisfactions women drew from the keys to their own front door, and the possession of what they considered a home of their own. Sylvia Pollard, a gregarious secretary who had met her husband at chapel and married in 1958 remembers: ‘My house was everything to me’.
Amanda Vickery is Professor of Early-Modern History at Queen Mary University of London. She is a social and economic historian with research interests in the history of men and women; love and power; consumerism and fashion; material culture, art and architecture; Georgian lives and Post-War British society and culture. Her publications include The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England (Yale University Press, 1998), Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (Yale University Press, 2009), and the edited books Women, Privilege and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present (Stanford University Press, 2001) and Gender, Taste and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830(Yale University Press, 2006). She has extensive broadcast experience in radio (A History of Private Life and Voices from the Old Bailey for BBC Radio 4) and television (including At Home with the Georgians, The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen, The Story of Women and Art, and Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power, for BBC 2.
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