When I arrived in my Oxford college in October 1971 I owned exactly six outfits including my blue and white school uniform, which fortunately could pass for ordinary clothes, and my blue paisley interview dress. The gold buttons dress had long since lost its shine. Although my wardrobe was small, it was perfectly coordinated: there were two ‘cords and skinny rib jumper’ outfits, one in dusty pink, and one in black. Then there were two more jumpers given to me by a German family I had stayed with that summer. One had purple splodges and went well with the pink cords; the other had turquoise and black stripes and was perfect with the black cords.
The cords and jumper outfits turned out to be very practical for cycling down to the Taylorian Institute where the Modern Languages lectures were held, or down the Cowley Road, where I visited an old lady, Mrs Pratt every week, after my tutorial. I had joined the University’s TOC-H group, a Christian social work organisation, and after a scary afternoon at an adventure playground in Blackbird Leys decided that visiting old ladies suited me better. That post-tutorial time of the week was a moment of glorious freedom, with several free days ahead before the next essay and inevitable crisis loomed, and I celebrated by cycling down to Mrs P’s at top speed. I hit it off with Mrs Pratt and her grandson, who I also visited occasionally during his sojourns in Oxford jail. He was very amused that his grandmother was getting visits from an Oxford student, and asked me more than once if my college had much silver. Mrs P. just laughed and told him off. She was disappointed that I did not wear my gown to visit her, so once, after exams, I went down there in full academic dress, and she was tickled pink at having a real Oxford student to tea.
In college I was making friends too. One evening I was having coffee with my new best friend Sarah when the girl from the room next door, Angela, popped in. She looked me up and down (I was in the black outfit) and said in a very posh voice ‘Do you always wear black?’ The tone was rather approving, and I realised that the outfit my mother had got out of her Grattan catalogue might actually be quite cool. I didn’t know much about existentialism, but Angela’s admiring gaze somehow transported me to a smoke-filled café on the Left Bank. I finished my cocoa, trying hard to keep up the impression of sophistication I had quite accidentally created, and went back to my room thinking I should perhaps wear the black combination more often.
Despite this success, it was not long before I realised that my clothes really were not adequate for the requirements of Oxford. I started meeting men and being invited to their colleges for dinner, and then invitations to sherry parties started to appear in my pigeonhole. I had no idea why I had been invited or who had invited me, and I was amazed by the questions students from other colleges asked me at these ‘dos’. ‘What are your plans for your Oxford career?’ When I said that I just wanted to pass my exams so that I would not be thrown out, I knew it was not the right answer. Even worse – ‘What are you going to do after Oxford?’ I thought about my afternoons with Mrs Pratt and said I wanted to be a social worker. The riposte ‘Are you a Christian or a communist?’ threw me into further confusion. I wasn’t sure, perhaps both.
My paisley dress with its white collar and home-made look really was not helping me with these interrogations. I rang my mother, and she said she would get my Aunts (both tailoresses) to make me a long skirt. A length of material with purple and black swirls was purchased on the market, and my Aunts soon had the skirt tacked up. I went home for the weekend for a final try-on, and it fitted perfectly. My mother was worried that winter was coming and I did not have a warm coat, so she took me up to town, and in a tiny little shop we found the perfect one. Well, almost perfect – it was a little tight, but I was not going to let that stop me getting it. It was purple, full-length, and it had a hood. My first and only maxi-coat. It was the ideal coat for wandering the still gas-lit, cobbled streets of central Oxford, or for a romantic rendez-vous by the river.
When I got back to Oxford with my new coat and skirt, I decided to splash out on a top to complete the outfit. I went to a shop called Campus on the High Street, and after spending some time gazing longingly at the romantic long dresses and ball gowns, I found a white blouse with leg of mutton sleeves and a mandarin collar, all decorated with lace. I spent what seemed to me the massive sum of six guineas on this blouse, but I knew that it was what I needed for Oxford socialising, and that I could wear it over and over again.
In February 1972, in my second term, life took a more romantic turn. I became the secretary of TOC-H, and the President asked me out (I’m no longer sure of the order of these events). The miners were on strike and regular power cuts became a feature of daily life. Candles were placed on all available surfaces to light the gloomy corridors of St Hugh’s. Living in a candlelit Oxford college just added to the sense of unreality I often felt about the whole Oxford thing. Despite my proletarian origins I thought very little about the miners and rather a lot about candlelit trysts with my new paramour. When North Oxford had light, south Oxford was in the dark, and vice versa, so it was sometimes quite expedient to have a boyfriend in a college on the other side of town. On one of the nights when we were plunged into darkness, I was invited to a special dinner at my new boyfriend’s college. I struggled to apply purple eye shadow and pale lipstick by candle light, and put on my new plumes. I had learnt that crucial Oxford skill of cycling in a long skirt, and I almost floated down South Parks Road, with my hood up, and one hand manoeuvring the long coat and skirt. At a quick glance, as I lent my bicycle against the railings outside Merton college, I could have been taken for a medieval monk, rather than a 70s slave to fashion. As I sat on the balcony above the dining hall, and was served tournedos steak and wines I had never heard of, I was lost for words, but at least I knew that in my white Campus blouse and swirly skirt I looked the part.
With Mrs Pratt, wearing the pink cords and purple splodge jumper.
Christina Daniels says
The colour purple was around then in our different worlds. Can feel your excitement in your new world. Easy to remember the time your are writing of, as I married September 1971 the week I turned 22 in my world . That Christmas needing an outfit for my husband’s work dinner dance I spotted a cut out Victorian looking blouse and purple velvet maxi skirt in a magazine . Arrived in the post with cotton and just needed someone to sew it together. My mom wasted no time on her singer sewing machine. How could I not remember the power cuts as we would be off at work most of the day and when I got home, wanting to cook my new husband’s tea it would be our turn then gr! Fine dining when eating out at the local restaurants became much more interesting also. Invitations to Sherry Parties in your pigeonhole now that’s what I call romantic. I was easily intimidated in my world though but University would have given you the confidence I lacked for years. Every time I hear the Faces singing Maggie May I am just back from my honeymoon in Torquay in my mind.
Lyn Thomas says
Glad to hear you were wearing purple too in the early 70s! Maggie May – yes! Somebody asked me what I was dancing to in Gold Buttons. I don’t really remember but maybe should try listening to some music from the time. The music and the clothes are in both our worlds, as is early marriage (coming soon!).
The whole post thing at Oxford was very romantic, I have to admit. A colleague is hopefully going to make a film with me reading this one which will include images of some of the messages. As for confidence, I think Oxford was a bit two-edged, but it was an amazing experience.
Christina Daniels says
Yes it must have been amazing especially as not many even made it to University in those times. So many left school at 16 after the 5th year and started work. Very two edged I would think. All the different colleges and meeting children who had arrived there full of confidence I would think because of their backgrounds and education, at very different schools. If you were going to University though you might as well have started at the top ha! Well done you !! xxx
Imogen Taylor says
Well, you got me thinking about what clothes I took with me when I made the trip from Sussex to Manchester University in 1964. Regrettably there are next to no photos and my memories are not clear. I do remember two skinny rib jumpers (navy and white), a short blues denim skirt ( but certainly no jeans), black patterned tights, and a blue and white tweed pinafore dress which I wore over the jumpers. At some point I too acquired a purple wool maxi coat with a hood edged with fur which I was very pleased with, and the outfit was completed with some boots. Later in my stay at Manchester I also acquired a dark green PVC raincoat which I loved and was really upset to lose. I don’t remember much differentiation between my day clothes and what I wore to weekly dances at the Union. Magazines were just starting up such as ‘ Honey’ and I cut out fashion photos and made a collage to decorate the noticeboard in my room in my first term – but I do not think I ever imagined I would be one of them.
Barbara Edwards says
These were the days of grammar school with the highest state school intake ever. I came from a divorced, very unusual, middle class home in Surrey and I got teased a lot for what we would now call a ‘toff’ accent. None of us had very many clothes in those days, only one or two outfits and finding something for the interview was difficult. I worked in the holidays because with a divorced mother I had to finance myself and was so proud when I bought my first ball gown. I think we can rather overdo the ‘working class’ background. I was also the first girl in my family to go to university as opposed to being a secretary or nurse.