However small my wardrobe I always had a party frock. It was an indispensable item, as all the girls in my street had a birthday party every year, and you had to go in a frock. Our everyday clothes were made of cotton and wool, but the party frocks were gloriously synthetic, with net petticoats under the skirt.
The first one I remember was 100% nylon, royal blue, with white lace trimmings. I wore it when I took part in the Sunday School procession as a ‘Flower Girl’. You could choose any flower you wanted and that your parents could get hold of. I chose my favourite – sweet peas. The grown ups seemed a bit surprised by this choice, but my Uncle Bill over the road grew them on his allotment so it was OK. My mother made me a posy to carry and struggled to thread the delicate flowers through my wispy hair. My friend Janet had made the more conventional choice of pink roses to match her party dress. The roses looked lovely against her brown curls, and remained fresh throughout the proceedings. Sweet peas of course were much less resilient. By the time my picture was taken after the procession, both I and the flowers had begun to wilt.
After that I got a pale pink party dress with bows on the waist at the front. I was photographed in it in a ballet pose, albeit a slightly droopy one – in Grade One Ballet I only got 8 out of 12 for ‘arms’, and my ‘adage’ was considered a little unsteady. Despite this poor report, ballet classes on Saturday mornings at Miss Groom’s Dancing School saved me from the emotional desert of Saturdays without my mother. Saturday was definitely the new Monday, as my mother left the house early to go and work in a dress shop in town, Barnett’s. She had worked there before marrying, and they let her go back part-time. It had probably paid for my party dress and even the ballet lessons, but I would rather have had my mother at home. My Dad did a valiant job of looking after me, but looking after a child in those days just meant dragging her along with you while you did what you had to do. So on Saturday mornings we trailed round wood yards while my father had indecipherable conversations with the proprietors. ‘I need a bit of fourbifour. And if you’ve still got that twobitwo I bought last week I’ll have another piece of that as well’. I just hung around, waiting for it to be time to go home for our dinner. It was always the same menu: ‘Do you want cheese on toast or egg and tomato chopped up in a cup?’ ‘Egg and tomato please Dad’.
Ballet was a definite improvement on the wood yards, especially as every year we did a Christmas show at the Grand Theatre. This was as close as I ever got to following in Aunty Rose’s footsteps. One year we had to make big green cardboard shamrocks to accompany ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’, moving them across our faces as we sang to reveal our big smiles. I took to heart the ballet examiner’s comment that I needed to practice more. I would put on my ballet shoes and the pink party dress and pretend to be dancing Swan Lake round the living room. My parents referred to me as ‘Fairy Flatfoot’, but I was not deterred. And the dress was resilient too, being pure nylon. I wore it for several years, until it was far too short.
Then I had a lucky break: Uncle Bill’s beautiful sister Jenny was getting married and she asked me to be her bridesmaid. I was in heaven. Of course I had to have a new dress, made specially. There were several fittings at the dressmaker’s as everything had to be perfect. The dress was a delicate pale blue, with tiny flowers decorating the top layer of nylon. I wore new white shoes and socks, and on the day of the wedding my hair was put up in a bun, with a headdress of tiny rosebuds. Jenny gave me a gold necklace to wear as well, and I could not believe that I got a present as well as being a bridesmaid. There were three other bridesmaids – Jenny’s elder sister Helen, a dark-haired girl called Susie who was a bit older than me, and a tiny girl whose name I can’t remember. Susie and I had the same style dress, while the little one just wore a white party dress and Helen was in pink satin. Helen’s dress was designed to be useful after the wedding for parties and dances, but she was very shy, and didn’t go out much. During the wedding preparations I got to know Susie a bit. She lived on a small-holding, and knew how to ride ponies. In the books I was reading the heroines all had ponies and were always going to gymkhanas, so I was very impressed by Susie. On the day of the wedding we walked down the aisle together and I imagined that we would spend the rest of the day talking and playing. The reception was in the Church Hall, and there was a meal. After that I looked round for Susie but I could not find her anywhere. Several hours later she reappeared – she had been to the airport to see the bride and groom off on their honeymoon. I had never been to an airport so I was bitterly disappointed to have missed that, and Susie. I wondered how it had happened. Perhaps despite the dresses Susie and I were not so alike after all, and perhaps she had just wanted to get away from her annoying acolyte.
A year later I wore the bridesmaid dress to my tenth birthday party with one of Aunty Maud’s cardigans on top – white this time. This was an altogether happier occasion. Wine and cheese parties were all the rage, so my Dad decided it would be a wine and pop party. All the bottles of pop were lined up on a table outside, and my Dad pinned a notice on the fence with a list of all the different types – dandelion and burdock, cherryade, orangeade and lemon. I think there was only one type of cheese – cheddar – but we did have it on sticks, with pineapple, as well as in slices, with cream crackers. And of course there was jelly, and cake. After we’d eaten, my Dad organised games – we threw table tennis balls into jars to win sweets, and he even made a treasure hunt for us in the garden, with real buried treasure, a jar of sweets. My little cousin Stella was a bit young for all this and kept getting in the way, but my Dad was very patient. In the photograph I am looking at Stella with a bemused smile, while my other cousin Karen is still looking a bit cross.
As they left to go home my friends asked me if they could borrow my Dad for their parties. On that day, in my bridesmaid dress and cardigan, I was definitely the luckiest girl in the world.
Christina Daniels says
I so wanted to be a Ballerina but I never even had a lesson. Then my dad died in 1959 and my mom had to find a full time job. So I know about how hard it was not to have your mom around for a whole day or in my case 5 days as I was sent to live with my Aunty Nancy Sunday tea time until Friday after school. This was for 2 years but ended up being 5 and half years. Eventually I went for ballroom lesson Mrs Darling bottom of Darlington Street but the best bit was when we had our drink break and she would put on records that we could take…:-)
Lyn Thomas says
That sounds tough Christina, I hope Aunty Nancy was kind….
Christina Daniels says
Aunty Nancy was my mom’s sister and she had married my dad’s brother and followed my mom down to Wolverhampton. That was family in those days all pulling together.
Imogen Taylor says
This posting confounded me and I felt compelled to check with my younger sister ( by 2.5 years) and we both searched for photos. We remembered having a ‘best’ dress but could not remember party dresses – your frothy silky dresses were definitely of a kind I would have aspired to. We remember our own birthday parties and the favourite chocolate blancmange made in a rabbit mould but no special dresses. I was born soon after the war when rationing was still in force, we lived in a working class village, money was scarce and we conclude we did not have such dresses. Our Mother did not believe in wasting resource, and she did not believe in dressing us in white or pale colours that would ‘show the dirt’. Washday was a huge chore for her.
I did however briefly go to ballet classes when I was primary school age. My Mother loved music and the ballet and I remember the excitement of going to London on the train from Ashford to see The Nutcracker, a huge Christmas treat. In contrast, my own ballet lessons were very dull and disappointing – we were expected to pretend to be rabbits and other animals and I wanted to twirl on point and wear a tutu. I soon gave that up.
I longed to be a bridesmaid but it wasn’t to be until I was an adult. I was about 7 when I thought my opportunity had finally arrived as Aunty Pat, my Mothers older sister, was getting married – but Grandma, the epitome of respectability with aspirations to gentility, made sure that not only would I not be a bridesmaid, children would not attend the wedding. I was bitterly disappointed, Pat often looked after us and had the same Celtic colouring as I did but any thoughts of a special relationship did not make a difference. I remember being left at our Grandparents house with the help. Pat was the first person in the extended family to have attended university, she was a botanist and spent the war years in South Africa. She was marrying a Catholic and perhaps that was enough of a battle for her to fight with her Mother.
Lyn Thomas says
Sorry to hear you missed out on party frocks Imogen! And being a bridesmaid – though both of course bittersweet and laden with the codes of femininity so perhaps you had a lucky escape!
I am suddenly remembering a crips pale yellow confection of a dress I must have worn when small – how amazing that your writing has opened that drawer in my brain after so many years. It was definitely synthetic and stood out a bit, had tiny white dots and the skirt was layered and the layers came back on themselves. I loved touching it. Now, is there a photo somewhere? I must have a look. Would have been in the early 1960s.
Lyn Thomas says
Yes those party dresses were quite something! So synthetic but so much loved! I hope you find the photo, and I am so glad that this has allowed you to retrieve the memory of that special dress…