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The weighty matter of everyday wear back in our Great Grandma's day

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 05, 2014

By Gail Middleton

  • A group of chainmakers show daily workwear for young and old of both sexes around 1900

  • Glum little chap in typical toddler dress

  • Children play in the street in everyday clothes around 1890

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WITH soaring temperatures this summer, keeping cool as you go about your daily business has been a headache. Happily, these days, dress codes are more informal, even at work.

And, modern wardrobes being seasonal, we can easily slip into something cooler when things really hot up.

Yet spare a thought for our forebears. Until well into the 20th century ordinary folk were lucky to have more than one outfit – which had to do come rain or shine. If you were lucky you had an everyday work outfit, plus something kept strictly for "Sunday Best" and special occasions.

In most households clothes and shoes were handed down as the wearer outgrew them. Items were mended or darned until they were no longer serviceable. Even then the fabric could be used in other ways until it was fit only for "podging" into a rag rug for the fireside.

In her wonderful book, Feast of Memories: Black Country Food and Life at the Turn of the Century (Westwood Press, 1986), Marjorie Cashmore explains how even infants were kept well wrapped up, whatever the weather.

"For the first six months babies wore a piece of flannel called a 'binder' wrapped round their middle. Next to this was another flannel garment called a back flannel, then a long nightdress or dress and finally they were cocooned in a warm shawl. After six months it was customary for the baby to be dressed in shorter clothes. This occasion was known as being 'shortened'.

It was usual for boys to be kept in dresses until they went to school when they were able to swap the dresses for three-quarter length trousers. My late father, who was born in 1927, said he cringed when he saw old photos of himself as a toddler.

His doting mother made him wear little "Lord Fauntleroy" type outfits she made from scraps of velvet. When he started school the teacher took a pair of scissors to his long, auburn curls. She was doing poor Dad a favour, but Nan was definitely not amused!

About the boys' outfits Marjorie says the long shorts had a band just below the knee, hand-knitted socks which fitted under the band, and a shirt with an uncomfortable detachable collar.

"These were heavily starched and often cut into the collar of the coats, so the discomfort of the wearer can well be imagined. A short, waist length jacket known as a bum freezer, and a peaked cloth cap completed the outfit."

Thrift was always on the agenda in Black Country households with 'Make Do and Mend' a byword – long before the World War Two slogan was invented.

"Socks were mainly hand-knitted and given a new lease of life when holes appeared; the worn-out part of the foot was unpicked and re-footed with remnants of wool, irrespective of colour.

"When the socks were beyond repair the part below the heel was discarded leaving the upper section and the welt to be made into cosy mittens to wear during the winter months."

Young girls wore a standard uniform of pinafores with deep frills edging the bottom and shoulders. Marjorie said: "These pinafores also had large patch-pockets on either side, referred to as 'tay party pockets', so called because they were roomy enough for the wearer to take home for the rest of the family any leftover food from Sunday School or similar parties." Resourceful or what?!

To complete the outfit girls had thick, black stockings worn over the knee and secured with one inch wide garters. Some girls were the proud possessors of kid button-up shoes, but many wore strong boots with heavy nails or studs in the sole, similar to those worn by boys.

"Girls always wore their long hair loosely and tied with ribbon. The girls with straight hair suffered the discomfort of having it wound up with 'rags' or twists of paper in order to have curls which were more fashionable at that time." Even in the early 1960s when I was a young girl, my Nan always told my Mom to put my hair into 'rags' overnight – especially when special occasions loomed. In those days women seemed to wear curlers day and night! I still can't believe how many women simply tied a headscarf over their rollers and went out to do their "messages".

Back in Great Grandma's day Black Country women wore "very drab clothing" on weekdays, as Marjorie explains. "Long, black, full skirts made from alpaca cotton which rustled as they moved, a plain, high-necked, tight-bodiced blouse with leg-o-mutton sleeves, and over this an apron with large patch pockets. Often, another waist apron known as a 'baggin apron' was worn, made from hurden – 'erden' cloth, usually obtained from sugar bags."

When temperatures rose it must have been unbearable, especially on washing day. It was even more uncomfortable with all the restrictive undies! As Marjorie says: "Underwear was in the main homemade and heavily starched, but the most uncomfortable must surely have been the crocheted brassiere, tied at the back, which some women painstakingly made."

After the age of 18 Marjorie says that women's long hair was scooped up into a neat 'bun'. Hair nets made of chenille held these buns in place and were called 'snoods'.

But about this time it was fashionable for women to frizz their hair by thrusting curling tongs into the fire until hot, and then twirling them around strands of their hair, often with disastrous results."

I'll bet! For those who wanted smooth, straight locks, it was equally dangerous, involving the use of a red hot flat iron!

Women also made their own hair products and cosmetics. To get a good set, Marjorie says: "A mixture of half a pint of boiling water, a piece of soap the size of a pea and one tablespoon of borax was used to dampen hair before frizzing, as this held the shape of the curl longer."

On their feet women wore elastic sided or, more usually, button-up boots. The latter requiring a button hook to pull the fiddly buttons through the holes.

Older women always wore shawls. "Sunday Best" was usually a sober black outfit, finished off with a cap embroidered with black beads. Alternately, a black bonnet with feathers on the side and ribbons tied under the chin, was de rigeur for Church or Chapel.

Some older women seemed always to wear black, and were often seen wearing men's peaked caps and smoking a clay pipe. Today we still love our little black dresses. But in those days, apart from its practicality, black was also worn for mourning.

Marjorie says: "When a death occurred ... women went into 'first mourning', for the first nine months when only black clothes were worn, followed by a further nine months in 'second mourning' when a less severe outfit was permitted together with jet and feather trimmings on bonnets. The next six months, known as 'half mourning', permitted women to wear more jet trimmings, to remove veils on bonnets and to replace with mourning flowers or feathers. It was two years before colours could be worn, and then only grey and purple gradually re-introduced. "

By which time, as Marjorie notes, "another death had probably occurred in the family."

So, back to square one, then!

With all those dark, heavy outfits, they must have been "as dry as a lime-burner's clog" when the mercury began to rise!

More next week.

Have you any family memories of fashions from Great Grandma's day? Write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk

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