Guest post by Lucy Adlington of the History Wardrobe
Lucy is appearing at Fabulous Fifties at the National Museum of Costume on Sunday 22 July. Her costume-in-context presentation transforms a domestic drudge into a domestic goddess.
Harold Macmillan may have been telling her, “You’ve never had it so good!”, but the reality of life for the 1950s housewife could be far from glamorous. The position of women in society was changing rapidly in the 1950s. In contrast to wartime, women were giving up paid work outside the home to concentrate instead on their roles as homemakers. Fashion reflected that shift.
The Fabulous Fifties event is particularly apt in this Diamond Jubilee year, with its dazzling coronation images of a glamorous young Elizabeth II. Television programmes such as the BBC newsroom drama The Hour, and the US series Mad Menabout Madison Avenue advertising executives have helped fuel our fascination with the decade that dazzled.
This fascination is also a dialogue with austerity Britain. In the 1950s the country was emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. Ration books were not finally torn up until 1954. With its yards of fabric, Dior’s New Look, revealed in 1947, was in direct opposition to post-war textile rationing.
Fast-forward to 2012 and perhaps we are all in need of a dose of 1950s glamour and optimism. The Cinderella transformation for our Fabulous Fifties event is achieved with the help of bullet bras, sugared petticoats and sterling advice from the ‘Experts’. That advice includes how to stiffen your petticoat using a solution of sugar dissolved in warm water – whilst distracting your mother, as sugar rationing only ended in 1953 after all. The next challenge was how to dry the petticoat. One contributor to our popular online memory bank, My Life in Clothes, recalls setting it over the bath to drip dry, but forgetting to remove it before her father found himself submerged in a bathtub of syrupy suds.
Clothes can evoke the past and hold many memories. Whilst our talks are based on a wealth of academic and textile research, it’s the stories associated with clothes that really bring the history to life. People send us items of clothing, with a note sharing their memories their mother getting dressed for an evening out, recalling the scent of Evening in Paris perfume. When I bring out the liberty bodice, just about every woman of a certain age in the audience has something to say – I can’t get a word in edgeways! This is the real joy of these events.