Queen Cotton – and a question about armpits


Seeing as how we Brits are poised to celebrate the fact that Betty Windsor has now served 60 years in the same job, I tried ever so hard to come up with an appropriate topic for today’s epistle so I could bill it as a Jubilee Special.  But alas, the only connection I could make between “Jubilee” and “vintage Singers” was Singer’s own Jubilee in 1951, and a post about that would still have been deadly boring however much I funked it up.  So we’ll just have to make do with this, which, if nothing else, does at least have the word “Queen” in common with this weekend’s festivities.  It’s the best I could do.

OK, it might be a bit late now to be making yourself a retro frock to wear to Sunday’s street party, but if you fancy knocking one up later, there’s plenty of inspiration to be had in the fashion show with which this fascinating film finishes.  Somewhat surprisingly for 1941, the whole thing’s in Glorious Technicolor, so not only do we see proof that people in wartime Britain didn’t really live in a black and white world, but also for once we get to see what colour those fabrics were.  Well, more or less.

There’s so much to love about this film right from the very start, with the band apparently playing bits of two or three different tunes in no particular order during the credits.  Check out the bloke with the fag cigarrette at 2.07, and consider how bizarre that must now seem to those too young to have grown up when smoking in the office was practically compulsory.  Warm to the sweetie with the wonderful smile at 3.02, and ask yourself what that’s about.  Note the high-fashion clogs at 5.20, and just imagine the amount of teasing that poor girl would have got from her workmates for wearing stockings in t’mill.  Unless of course it was a very posh mill.

Talking of posh, for once the narrator of this film is not the ubiquitous Alvar Lidell, but whoever he is, isn’t it marvellous how he pronounces necessary “nyecessary” and chemist “chyemist”?  I bet he lived in a nice hice.  And isn’t the woman to whom he hands over at 10.10 well spoken too?  She sounds like just the kind of girl every middle-class mother must have been hoping her son would one day bring home for a nice pot of Earl Grey and a slice of Battenberg with herself and Father.

Come to think of it, that’s a Jubilee connection of a kind – Battenberg cake!  I never did understand why, when Prince Louis (Phil the Greek’s grandaddy) changed the family name from Battenberg to Mountbatten during World War One so as not to upset the locals, the cake didn’t change to Mountbatten cake.  But I digress.  (I do wish he wouldn’t call Her Majesty’s dear husband Phil the Greek, but he always has – E)

When we get to the fashion show there’s many a treat in store, but the lilac creation at 11.57’s a show-stopper for sure.  Can anybody lip-read at 12.07 and tell us what her on the left’s saying to her mate about it?

Finally, when we get to 12.57 and the floor show finishes, note how no sooner has her with the green basket swanned off the floor than the punters are all on their feet and heading for the exit, no doubt keen to get to the pub and start the bitching.

Elsie and I thoroughly enjoyed it – and we enjoyed a lot of the others on that British Council Film site too.  Well worth watching if you ask me, just for the social history – even if the background music to many of them does set your teeth on edge.

Finally, a question about period frocks.  When I grew up in the 1950’s, my grandmother was still wearing many of her 1940’s clothes.  Many of her ideas were still unchanged from when she was a young woman in Edwardian times, so to this day I don’t know if one thing about her summer frocks was Edwardian 0r 1940’s or somewhen in between.  In fact, for all I know it might just have been one of grandmother’s peculiarities.  She had a lot of those.

The mystery concerns the very soft D-shaped cotton pads measuring 3″ or so along the straight edge, which where filled with some sort of soft wadding such that they were perhaps 3/8″ thick.  These were attached by means of two press studs to each underarm of the dress, so that when it was worn, the pads hung down against grandmother’s sides, close up under her armpits.

They were of course worn to absorb perspiration, and they were simply washed after each wearing and dried for re-use.   So, if that rings any bells … what were they called, were they manufactured or home-made, and was anybody else still wearing them in the 1950’s apart from my grandmother?


12 responses

  1. I still use dress shields with my silk blouses! They are ‘pin-in’ that safety pin to the arm hole, sleeve and side seams or another style that has elastic with hooks that attach to your bra straps. I bought them in NYC at a notions/theatre costuming shop, Manhattan wardrobe supply. I also bought some stick-on to try, but they made a dreadful rustle when I moved so I binned them. So glad I found your site–I have a 128k that’s giving me a bit of woe.

  2. I was just reading a 1901 copy of the Sears Roebuck catalog my wife got for me from the library on a whim, thinking that it might amuse me, and found an ad that refers to dress shields, or I would not have known what those were called either. The add is for a “Tades’ Ladies’ Ventilated Dress and Corset Protector”. These devices, the reader is told, “…will take the place of a dozen regular dress shields.” and “Does away with the inconvenience of sewing in and taking out dress shields.” They appear from the photo to essentially be dress shields with straps on them that tie in the back, almost like a bra for one’s armpits. I wish I could provide you with the Gibson Girl style illustration of a woman of the period wearing the ventilated protector, arms akimbo.

  3. I had a dressmaker offer to put dress shields into a bridesmaids dress for me in 1989. I was 19 at the time and knew what they were, so obviously still in use then.

  4. Well, I am certainly bookmarking your blog! Found it via an English member of the online Quilt Board who apparently got some help with a malfunctioning sewing machine found in a charity shop. So I have already read through a number of your postings and am enthralled. Loved the story about the 99K machine and its history and photos of machines. Had a good laugh while reading Elsie’s input about you using the term “Phil the Greek”. And holy moly, look at all that rhubarb!!! Reminds me of how we in the US end up with tons of zucchini as it all seems to ripen at the same time. Maybe that happens to you too? Anyway, thanks for the lovely blog. I will be back to read it again. How could I not do that now that I have started on it? You Brits are always so funny … in a dry way. Hope you got to enjoy the big celebrations going on across the pond.

  5. Oh my! That certainly brings back memories….dress shields. A bit of talcum powder, a bit of a lady’s frangrance, and the dress shield…kept perspiration odor under control and protected the underarm portions of blouses and dresses from discoloring and eventually rotting….older ladies of that era didn’t use or trust deodorants, and apparently rightly so, considering some of the chemicals used in them. Great film! Thank you both for such interesting and entertain blogs. Constance

  6. I do remember dress shields–and I was just a kid; that was in the late 50’s and early 60’s. As I recall, although we all wore deodorant, not all the deodorant was antiperspirants, and a lot of the antiperspirants didn’t do a very good job.

  7. My mother in law introduced me to what was called ‘dress sheilds’. She used them in her better clothing that required dry cleanig. She told me that in better department stores they provided these to try on better suits, dresses and so forth. I had purchased a box of disposable ones with self adhesive on the back from a company called Kleinharts. They also made baby bibs with a water proof backing. If I remember, I couldn’t find them again after that and that was in the late 60’s.

  8. They were called “dress shields” and they were as much to protect the fabric as to prevent the embarrassment of wet armpits. I recall reading an old book on how to care for your clothing that may have come out as late as 1951 in which the author wishes every woman would wear them.

  9. The sweat guards were called dress shields and are apparently still used in couture sewing. Claire Shaeffer mentions them in her book Couture Sewing Techniques (2011 edition) so I presume they are still around, although not in garments I can afford to buy!

  10. Thanks John, I’ll go with your reading of what they’re saying 🙂 Yep, I thought the mystic mixing process was wonderful too. I saw a lot of that kind of thing when I first started work – you know, “Go and ask Albert. He’s been doing that since he was your age and he always gets it right.” Mind you, you can see why women of my mother’s generation were always wittering about how no two rolls of material were ever quite the same …

    Btw, check out http://film.britishcouncil.org/steel-goes-to-sea for some wonderful engineering processes with which Brunel would have been completely at home. He might even recognise some of the machines as the same ones he used.

  11. I believe the comment about the lilac extravagance is ‘thet’s laverley’, to which her sour-faced companion replies, without much conviction, ‘gorgeous’. They are whispering which makes lip-reading a bit more tricky so I could be wrong. Interesting how the mill girls all seem to be prettier than the models, or isn’t it politically correct to say things like that any more?

    I love the huge buckets of dye everywhere – I’d knock one over for sure if I worked there, or put my foot in it in proper comedy fashion. I also love the highly accurate way he mixes the colour with a wooden ladle and a big stick. No doubt a special stick, handed down through generations of dyers and printers, which is now in a museum because our only source of revenue these days is showing tourists what our ancestors used to do to put the Great in Britain and selling bad Chinese copies of the things they used to make.

  12. I really enjoy your blog and do remember/may have used those cotton pads whilst I was growing up in Africa. There is so much of the past that I have forgotten and this weekend is a chance for me to indulge and revisit it. BTW Phil has no Greek blood in him, but you could call him Phil of Greece.