Friday, 27 January 2012

These shoes were made for walking...

Shoes are a necessary part of our lives and have been for thousands of years. The earliest known shoe found in Minnesota, US is over 8,000 years old! Early shoes were made for their practicality. The wearer was not particularly concerned with how well the shoes complimented their outfit, the drier their feet were kept was of far more concern.

As time wore shoes began to take on greater importance as they indicated the level of a person’s social and economic status. They were the ultimate accessory to compliment one’s outfit and changed almost as frequently as they do today. The more elaborate and decorative the shoe, the more their practicality and ability to be worn easily diminished. From medieval men’s ‘poulaines’, shoes with such long pointy toes that laws needed passing to limit their size to the ‘platforms’ of the 1970s, shoe styles have significantly varied.

Black synthetic platforms bought in 1974 for £10.99 and worn by a 16yr old Leeds girl

During the seventeenth century the development of a proper heel and arched sole became the shoe fashion ideal. In France during the reign of Louis XVI (1638-1715) high heels became very popular for men. Having shapely legs became a dominant fashion feature for both men and women and having beautifully decorated shoes to accentuate those legs was of the up most importance.

Female silk brocade shoes with pattern, 1730-1740

By the nineteenth century shoes began to differentiate between left and right. Before that shoes had been made as ‘straights’. The fashion mood became more sober and women’s shoes had more subdued colours. The feet were expected to look small and delicate as befitting ‘gentle birth’ and women were encouraged to ‘pinch their feet into small shoes’. During this time shoes also began to be mass produced in factories rather than in small shoemakers’ shops meaning that cheaper shoes were more widely available. Outdoor sports also began to have an impact on the types of shoes produced.

Black patent leather slip on shoes with blue silk embroidery, 1865-1875

Moving into the twentieth century, the wars dictated the fashion of shoes. During WW2 the ‘peep toe’ shoe, considered frivolous and potentially dangerous was banned until the end of the war. The subcultures that appeared in the 1970s such as punk greatly influenced shoe fashions and shoes were produced that reflected this.

Leeds Museums’ collection has examples of shoes made by famous designers such as Walter Steiger and Vivenne Westwood. As well as high street names like Dolcis and Bally. These shoes were bought and worn by Leeds inhabitants.

Red satin shoes made by Dolcis, 1960

Walter Steiger evening shoes bought for dancing, 1980-1985

Nowadays shoes come in many varieties to go with the changing seasons, different outfits and all kinds of activities. How many pairs of shoes do you have?

By Georgie Cash

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Make Do and Mend

Or make do on rations

In 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, fashion critics were returning from Paris with exclaims that ‘Paris has decreed a new women’ who would be ‘veiled and gloved and corseted’. It seemed that tight-lacing was about to return to the world of fashion, replacing the tubular and more practical styles of dress that had swept it away in the 1920s. But the outbreak of World War II in 1939 cut Britain off from Parisian Haute Couture and halted such transformations in fashion.

Shortages in materials made it necessary for strict regulations to be applied to all production. ‘The Utility Clothing Scheme’ was launched by the government in 1941, with the aim to save 15% of domestic fabric production. The use of zips was no longer allowed as the metal was needed for arms production – some cosmetics manufacturers even began re-filling lipstick cases because of metal shortages! Buttons were limited and skirt hems rose as the Scheme specified fabric widths and lengths. Turn-back cuffs, patch pockets and hoods were banned completely as a part of a ‘no fabric on fabric’ rule. An Order in 1942 even deemed it unpatriotic and illegal to spend time embellishing clothes for sale!

The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (ISLFD) - a group of designers and couturiers including House of Worth, Molyneaux, Hardy Amies and Lachasse - was established in 1942 to work with the Board of Trade. Under the war-time restrictions, the ISLFD created 32 clothing designs for mass-production. The garments had to be hard wearing and practical. The emerging tailored, slim silhouette, with square shoulders and a pronounced waist echoed the cut of military uniforms. The CC41 label was applied by manufacturers as a guarantee that the garment met the strict conditions for design and production.

All clothing – Utility Clothing included – fell under the coupon rationing system which was introduced in June 1941. People were given 66 coupons per year, but by 1945, this was reduced to as few as 36. To purchase a suit you needed 18 coupons, and a dress would need 12. With coupons limited and stockings in short supply, many women began to go bare legged, some even painting or drawing lines on the back of their legs to imitate a stocking seam!

Money was still needed to pay for goods alongside the coupons, and some people were simply too poor. This encouraged a ‘make do and mend’ attitude. Women were encouraged to follow the example of “Mrs Sew and Sew”, a character featured in advertisements and propaganda to promote the recycling of textiles. There were also other ways to express fashion; through brightly coloured headscarves, bold hairstyles and elaborate hats (which remained un-rationed).

Shortages continued even after the war ended in 1945, but fashion was already breaking away from war-time styles. In 1947, Christian Dior’s revolutionary first collection was hailed as the ‘New Look’, its signature silhouette characterized by a long, full skirt and a tiny waist. Dior purposefully broke away from war time restrictions, his creations famously using up to twenty yards of fabric. Rationing finally came to an end in 1949, paving the way for a very fashionable fifties! Utility Clothes, are now recognised for their high quality, and you can see examples of those that have stood the test of time at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.

By Shauni Sanderson

Thursday, 5 January 2012

“Did I tell you I was a train driver in Africa…?”

Noticing that the subtitle title of the blog is “Exploring the secret histories of the collections” I thought you might be interested in some of the on-going stories an object collects through its life whilst in the collection but outreaching into the community.

Last year I began running series' of reminiscence sessions at Wheatfields and St. Gemma’s Hospices in North Leeds. I am always taken off guard by the seemingly never-ending ability of objects to get people talking, not just about museums-approved stories but offering the most amazing personal details and memories of past adventures.

Once we get past the initial assumption that the “lady from the museum” (always makes me look round for the lady!) is here to deliver an in-depth lecture on 13th Century Bell Ringing or the complex mating rituals of the common fig wasp, we can get down to the business of “here’s something you might find interesting…did you ever…?” – insert open-ended / humorous question here. People to date have generally contributed willingly - apart from the man who told me it was none of my business after I phrased a question poorly (serves me right for prying).

Unlikely objects which have precipitated good stories have included a 1970s skateboard, alongside which I asked a question about dangerous things people used to do when they were younger. I was bombarded with tales of tree climbing (and falling), rope swinging, “bogey” making (apparently nothing to do with nasal nastiness but making a steerable go-kart out of old pram wheels) and the seemingly ancient Yorkshire pastime of “chumping”.

One gentleman told me with great relish about his group of mates who were paid by a local farmer to gather firewood for the November bonfire. Every year they deliberately piled the wood just a little too close for comfort to the gentleman farmer’s barn wall thereby necessitating another payment to get the pile moved to a safer distance! When asked if the farmer ever got annoyed at this quite transparent money-making venture, the man replied, “Well, he kept paying us!”

During a session on the topic of food and drink, I pulled out a “can opener” from the mystery box of outreach dreams and unwrapped it explaining that it was from our “customs collection” and was made from the tooth of a hippopotamus. I was pontificating about how a whole hippo had died to make what really amounted to quite a pathetic kitchen implement only to be interrupted by a strident voice telling me that I’d got it wrong.
I assured the gentleman that I probably, most certainly was wrong and, offering it as a glaring example of my ignorance, I told the group that my real reason for visiting was in order to fix my highly inadequate “southern” education by soaking up any pearls of wisdom offered by the generous souls I meet. What I actually said was “Well, that’s what it says on the box but I’m not from round these parts so what’s the real answer?” - only to be roundly informed that it was, of course, a can piercer the kind of which one might use to puncture air holes in a can of evaporated milk in order to drink it (apparently a nice thing rather than a punishment) or pour it on your pie.

Imagine then a discussion about people’s cream / custard / condensed milk preferences, tales of hiding food from stern and eagle-eyed dinner ladies, “scrumping” in orchards, making home-made toffee apples out of the caramelised dregs of sugar cane in the corner of a farmer’s field and serving a pint of ale in one powerful pull of the pump (the tiny lady who contributed this little gem spoke so proudly) and then a voice cutting through it all with:
“Did I ever tell you about the time I ran over a hippopotamus with my train?”
The low murmur of conversation around the room disappeared. We searched the room for the speaker who turned out to be the gentleman who had spent the majority of the previous hour drifting in and out of sleep (quite normal for all my sessions).

Tea cups were rattling - a sure sign that I was soon to pack up and leave - but I just got time to hear about the long, heavy cargo trains he had driven across vast areas of sparsely populated, post-war East Africa. He’d seen the beast straddling the tracks too late to stop and the resulting “knock” hadn’t derailed the engine but had left the creature looking “not very clever”. Dead of course - mercifully by the sounds of it!

I feel truly privileged to have heard such an excellent tale! And how bizarre that it was inspired by an object which had been brought to start conversations about people’s food and drink memories.
Seeing the gentleman holding the hippo tooth, telling his tale to an astounded audience and the gentle smile of a good memory remembered was priceless. Call it stolen, call it borrowed but his story has become part of my set of stories I can use to engage people’s interest in the objects I use for outreach. And all good stories should be retold!...