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The Story of a Wedding Dress

Beneath the hum of the traffic on London Wall, the archives of the Museum of London sprawl in identical stacked rows. There are over 100 wedding dresses neatly packed in acid free boxes here; a collection that would excite fashion buffs and brides to be. A wedding dress fashioned from an Indian sari 86 years ago, worn by Dorothy Sybil, a going away outfit from 1943, revealing a note in the pocket ‘bought by mummy at Harrods’, a lace dress worn in 1937 by Kathleen Elsie Clark from Plaistow.  Last year, inspired by the glamorous photos of East End brides between the wars, Author Kate Thompson contacted the Museum to gain inspiration for her new novel, The Wedding Girls and interviewed a panel of fashion curators, a wedding dress designer, a 1940’s bride and the grandaughter of an iconic wedding photographer.  One of the museum’s many impressive features is that it aspires to retain the social history of a future exhibit as Fashion Curator Beatrice Behlen admits ‘previously when dresses came in we didn’t ask for biography information but now we are trying to find out the stories of the people who wore them by process of elimination’.

Glamorous Brides Talk at the Museum of London, May 2017

 

Three years ago the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibited a fragment of the wedding dress collection they have in their 100,000 fashion archive, curated by Edwina Ehrman, she explains collecting the story of a dress is a case of genealogy, finding clues to who the bride was ‘the history is embedded in these dresses. It is intriguing to learn as much as you can without being subjective’. It’s mystifying why a bride would consider donating their wedding dress, today women usually preserve their dresses as a grand memento. One woman donated her dress to the V&A after divorcing her husband. The design was fashion forward and she wanted it to have a life, laughing that the dress had been a good choice in contrast to the was husband who was a bad choice. Photographs from talented 1930’s photographer William Whiddin show off newly wed couples gazing through the lens projecting a calm poise as if they were silver screen talkie idols taking the limelight in their stride. ‘It was William who founded the wedding club to make photographs affordable to all’ exclaims his grandaughter Hellen Martin.

Some of the dresses in their archive boxes from the Museum of London

This helps to explain why post WWII bride Pat from Bethnal Green was able to save for her extravagant photo shoot. ‘We didn’t spend much on the reception, we had a big knees up, the community came together and only gave up when the beer ran out’. When looking for inspiration, wedding dress designer Kate Halfpenny is drawn to the dresses of the 1930’s and 1940’s with their ‘frothy sleeves, insets of lace, bias cut lines’. Her dress designs are individual and she encourages customer requests such as the mother of the bride hand sewing the last few inches ‘That is how important a wedding dress is, it involves the whole family’.

1940’s Bride, Pat Spicer from Bethnal Green

Kate Thompson’s novel ‘The Wedding Girls’ is out now. I’m going to be focusing on weddings and wedding dresses inspired by vintage over the summer. If you have a story you would like to share, please get in touch.

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A Wedding Girls Cockney Knees Up

‘There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover…’Henrietta sings passionately into her toy microphone wrapped up with silver gaffa tape. ‘My grandson sat on it’ she laughs. This was the beginnings of a good old fashioned East End knees up last Friday to celebrate the launch of Kate Thompson’s new novel, The Wedding Girls. We didn’t have a ‘Joanna’ (piano) but we tapped our feet, clapped our hands and tried to keep up with 90 plus year old Henrietta as she crooned into the mic and cocked her leg up in a finale dance. We all clapped enthusiastically and settled back down to hear more stories of the East End in days gone by.

Brick Lane Book shop isn’t the most obvious place for an old fashioned knees up but it is central to where many of the women gathered here had spent their youth during World War II. It is the perfect setting for a book reading and lets face it, Cockneys can create a party atmosphere where ever they are. This is Kate’s third novel set in the East End and she has spent many hours interviewing people in their 80s and 90s who remember surviving through the hard times of WWII. The story centres around a wedding photographer’s studio and the glamour that these places depicted in contrast to the harsh world outside its doors. It isn’t all white silk and tulle, the women in the story also get caught up in the Battle of Cable Street during the 1936 clash with Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and residents of this now infamous East End street. The story is fiction but the events are true life and some of the women gathered in the small book shop on Friday evening can still remember the events on that extraordinary day.

‘It all started with a question’ Kate tells the audience when she can get a word in edgeways. ‘How did women cope with weddings in between wars’. Kate had seen photos in the Tower Hamlets archive from East End studio photographers Boris Bennett and William Whiffin and admired how the brides looked like stars from the silver screen, not the machinists, waitresses and shop girls that they were.  Kate started researching her novel at a library but her journalist background made her question this method and she says ‘visiting an archive is not the same as speaking to real women’. The animated stories these women narrate bring the events to life for Kate. ‘I start with the events, such as the Battle of Cable Street and  I go away and think about the characters, I weave in the women’s real life stories around the events, bringing in as much social history as possible. I spend many hours listening to these incredible women . The book is fiction but I want the stories to be authentic and representative of their East End.’ Chatting to the women who lived through these challenging times helped Kate understand the disparity of hardship and glamour. ‘A wedding was a way of escapism for the day and a wedding portrait was a symbol of hope for a brighter future’.

Kate with Pearly Queen Doreen proudly showing off her parent’s wedding photo from 1930’s

Not only did Kate interview these engaging women, she was also lucky enough to visit the archives of the Museum of London who hold over 100 wedding dresses in the basement of the museum’s Barbican home. Fashion curator Beatrice Behlen explained to Kate the importance of the social histories of the dresses that have been donated to them. It isn’t only about the style of the dress that is symbolic of the era and Beatrice spends many hours researching the history of the women who wore the dress and their families.

one of the hundred wedding dresses in the Museum of London archive

As this is Kate’s third book about the East End of London I wonder what draws her to the area. ‘I’m not from the east end, it is my spiritual home. You meet one person then another, everyone knows everyone else, all the great stories are like gold dust to a writer, I can’t let these stories go untold. I hope I put as much of these into the book as possible.  The residents always make me feel so welcome, people open up and tell me their tails. Over the years I’ve made so many amazing friends. I come away on a high and full of admiration’.

In life imitating art, actress Anita Dobson is in the audience. She started life in Stepney to a machinist mother and cutter father. Anita starts chatting to our singing entertainer, Henrietta and they discover that they lived in the same street. Anita kindly offers to give a reading of the prologue to Kate’s book. The party atmosphere changes and everyone listens intently to the experienced actress narrate the story and simultaneously change into her infamous cockney accent straight from the Queen Vic as she enters into the dialogue on the pages. Everyone is engaged in the story and as she finishes, we all clap loudly but with heavy hearts as it symbols the end of the evening.

I’m giving away a signed copy of Kate’s book, The Wedding Girls. To be in with a chance of winning, like the Olive Road Facebook page and comment below the post pinned to the top of the Facebook page. Alternatively, sign up for our newsletter and you will be entered into the competition. Closing date is 31st May, only one entry per person.

 

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A Little Piece of Eastbourne

‘I found them in a carrier bag’ Jinny says to me as she proudly shows off the bright floral curtains hanging in her otherwise white walled studio. ‘My mum was helping my auntie Rose move into a sheltered flat and I couldn’t stand the thought of them being thrown away, they are a little piece of Eastbourne’. Jinny goes on to tell me more about her auntie Rose, the original owner of these fantastically flower power curtains. Rose isn’t Jinny’s real auntie, she met Jinny’s dad when she was working as a nurse at Stoke Mandaville and Jinny’s dad was a Junior Doctor. Jinny’s family had moved near the hospital for her dad’s job, her mum didn’t know anyone so Rose and her husband Bert took them under their wing and they soon became known as auntie Rose and uncle Bert. They retired to Eastbourne and Jinny remembers her and her sisters spending long hot summers in the large bungalow of their garden. ‘Auntie Rose recently turned 100 and when she moved into her sheltered flat, she recreated her bungalow from the dark green carpet to the 1960s furniture’. Luckily for Jinny there was no room for the curtains so now they hang pride of place in her small studio space in Hackney Wick. Jinny is a product designer and produces intricate designs for her collection of bone china from delicate mugs to egg cups. Jinny’s studio has a warm and inviting energy helped by the golden glow of light shining through the fabric of the curtains. The shelves are adorned with samples of her designs including a red Chinese dragon curled around mini espresso cups that she made for wedding favours when she married James. Jinny tells me the other designers she shares the studio with have white or grey walls and are very minimalist but Jinny is proud of her auntie Rose’s bright printed curtains as they remind of her of happy times with her auntie And uncle in Eastbourne.

Jinny sells her designs at markets around London and on Etsy.

Olive Road is an online vintage store selling vintage clothing and accessories.