• Announcement from the Trustees

    The Trustees of Free UK Genealogy are delighted to announce that Denise Colbert, currently Engagement and Volunteering Coordinator, has been appointed to the new, full-time position of Chief Operating Officer of Free UK Genealogy. Denise will be starting this work in August, allowing for a handover with the outgoing Executive Director, Pat Reynolds, at the end of September.  

    In addition, Rich Pomfret, Senior Technical Project Manager, will be leaving at the end of August.

    Neither the Executive Director nor Senior Technical Project Manager roles will be replaced with direct counterparts. The strategic parts of Pat’s and Rich’s work will be taken on by the Trustees and other volunteers, whilst Denise will pick up the operational aspects, including as line manager for the other staff.

    Commenting on the changes, Richard Light, chair of Trustees, said:

    “Pat has made an enormous contribution to Free UK Genealogy since joining us as our Executive Director seven years ago. We are very grateful for her hard work over this time and wish her a very happy retirement.

    Denise has made a real impact as Engagement Coordinator since joining us in 2016. The board are confident that we have the right person to take us forward at this exciting time for Free UK Genealogy.”

  • Dating photographs from fashion in the 1950s

    The decade included a coronation, an economic boom and the arrival of the teenager

    We have reached the 1950s in our series on dating photographs from fashion. This decade saw the coronation of our own Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 - the 70th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year. Therefore, it seems fitting to start with a photograph of one of the many street parties held to mark the occasion (this one was in Lockleaze, Bristol), which gives us a fascinating glimpse into the fashions of the day. 

    We see the men are mostly sporting jackets and ties, with short hair cuts, while the women are in dresses or smart coats with curled or waved hair. The girls are wearing their party dresses with a cardigan or coat, while the boys mimic the men with their blazers and ties. It looks as though they were having fun!

    Street Party Coronation 1953

    Coronation 1953, street party

    Golden Age of Capitalism - and the teenager!

    The coronation aside, overall, the 1950s was a decade dominated by the post-World War 2 boom and dubbed the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’. It is also remembered, though, for the emergence of ‘the teenager’.

    In terms of photography, camera technology was continuing to advance with the introduction of the Pentax and Nikon F cameras; but photographs were still printed mainly in black and white. The use of cine film was increasing, too, capturing moving images of family events such as weddings and holidays.

    But whether you have photographs, cine film or both in your collection, dating them can create a challenge. So, let’s dive deeper into ‘50s fashion. With clothes rationing coming to an end in 1949, and the improving economic situation, the conditions were ripe for fashion to flourish.

    Women enjoyed the increased choice and made a special effort to dress appropriately for every occasion. The styles were based on elegance, formality and matching accessories. For men, when not dressing for formal occasions, the momentum continued towards a more casual day-to-day style.

    But, many fashions of the 1950s were heavily influenced by something new: the rise of the teenager. Until now, when young men transitioned from short to long trousers, for example, they would simply dress as younger versions of their fathers. Now, with higher wages and outside influences, young people wanted something new. They watched television, read magazines, bought records and danced to rock music. All of this influenced the clothes they wanted to wear. 

    James Dean Elvis Presley Marlon Brando

    James Dean; Marlon Brando; Elvis Presley (Wikipedia)

    Men: rebels and casuals

    So, let’s focus first on what men wore.

    From early in the 1950s, many young men opted to rebel against tradition by styling themselves on the icons of the time. Think Marlon Brando (‘A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951), James Dean (‘Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), or Elvis Presley (‘Jailhouse Rock’, 1957) – all of whom popularised the white t-shirt, jeans, and greased-back hair look.

    In Britain, many younger working-class men also created their own look with an adaptation of the ‘New Edwardian’ suit. This was a slim-cut suit with narrow trousers and a velvet collar, originally designed by Savile Row tailors for young men of the upper classes. Teenagers teamed the suit with crepe-soled shoes and ‘quiffed’ hair, and the ‘Teddy Boys’ were born.

    Otherwise, formal daywear and eveningwear for men continued along the same lines as the previous decade, with suits maintaining the baggy shape that had started in the 1940s. Small changes crept in, such as the ‘skinny’ tie and an increasing presence of colour in shirts and jumpers.

    For casual wear, men often wore a lightweight sports jacket, a coloured shirt, and a pair of slacks.

    1950s home photos

    Women: from full skirts to pencil skirts

    For the most part, teenage girls were less radical than their male counterparts. There was such a wide choice of stunning fashions that most simply tended to opt for more youthful interpretations of their mothers’ styles.

    Christian Dior's 'new look' (introduced in 1947) of the nipped-in waist and full-skirted silhouette remained the leading style in the first half of the 1950s. This core style was seen in evening gowns, day dresses, and separates. Materials used for day dresses tended to be patterned, while those for separates and evening gowns were plain.

    In the latter part of the decade, the fashions became straighter and slimmer, as ‘pencil’ dresses and skirts became popular, along with straight-cut suits. It also became increasingly acceptable for women to wear slacks for some occasions.

    Overall, the fashions leaned towards femininity and formality. Indeed, this was the decade when the ‘cocktail dress’ became popular. These dresses were the length of a day dress but embellished like eveningwear. 

    The full-skirted dress remained the mode for evening wear throughout the decade, and a new strapless bodice was especially popular, as the pared-down bodice balanced out the wide skirts.

    Women had different shoes for different occasions, ranging from closed-toed pumps to stiletto heels, and from wedges to sandals. While hats continued to be fashionable (such as the iconic pillbox, the veiled fascinator, or a large-brimmed straw hat for summer), women also tied colourful scarves over their hair instead. Their outfits were usually accessorized with a pair of gloves, a handbag or clutch purse, and jewellery (whether costume or real).

    Coats were usually either very fitted, semi-fitted, or full and swingy. Full coats had wide sleeves, a triangular shape, large cuffs, collars, and usually large buttons as well. They came in long (to mid-shin) or short (to the hip) lengths.


    Children’s wear

    Children’s fashion in the 1950s mirrored the adults’ trends. Young girls wore dresses with full skirts, and young boys’ clothes became more casual.

    In previous decades, young boys had typically worn collared shirts, ties, and blazers with a pair of shorts, until they were ‘old enough for long trousers. However, in the 1950s, as for teenagers and young men, it became increasingly acceptable for boys to wear jeans for most occasions. It became rare throughout the decade for young boys to wear ties and collared shirts were abandoned in the most casual settings. Colourful and patterned short-sleeved, collared shirts were popular options for everyday wear. Knitted jumpers and cardigans continued their popularity.

    In contrast, young girls’ wardrobes consisted mainly of formal dresses with natural waists, full skirts, and puffed sleeves. Styles became more varied as the decade progressed, and included dropped waists, smock dresses, and pinafores in bold colours and patterns. White ankle socks and shiny black patent leather shoes completed the look. Girls also wore blouses and skirts, with a matching jacket or cardigan, with slacks becoming popular later in the decade. Hair was adorned with ribbons and bows.

    Looking ahead

    Next time, we’ll take a look at photography and the fashions of the Swinging Sixties: a decade where anything could happen and probably did – though we’re reliably told that if you could remember it, you weren’t properly partaking!  The way people dressed was an obvious sign of shifting attitudes. In the 1960s, many chose, very publicly, to start looking different from the norm. We’re looking forward to exploring this one!

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    We believe that the survey below will help us to better understand our volunteers so we can support you better and remove potential barriers to volunteering with us. We also believe that understanding the impact of the pandemic on our volunteers will be useful to support current and future volunteers.

    You can access the survey using this link: https://forms.gle/BeztnHMBxqTBcaZg9 or complete it below.

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  • The 1940s and the explosion of female fashion

    In this blog, we are moving on to look at the fashions associated with the 1940s. Unlike during the first world war, when fashion development slowed down, female fashion developed rapidly during the second world war. Men’s fashion coincidentally did not change much at all.

    International Fashion in the Forties

    There were many glamourous female figures who showcased these fashion trends, such as Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn and Doris Day. They particularly highlighted the American trends, but Britain developed its own style. 

    Image of Ava Gardner

    Ava Gardner (Flickr, Lexinatrix)

    The development of British fashion mainly occurred because the French fashion houses were inaccessible to Britain under the German occupation of France. The French fashion houses kept going because if they closed down they could be taken over by the Germans. But they were only able to sell their clothes to the Germans.

    Utilitarian fashion designers

    At the start of the second world war, strict rationing on fabric was introduced. Clothing had to be bought with rationing coupons. What made this such a success was that the British Government got leading London designers involved with creating the clothes for people to buy. 

    What this effectively meant was that everyone wore a very similar style and it was all based on designs by the leading Saville Row fashion designers of the time. These were people such as Norman Hartnell (who designed Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress for her marriage to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947), Hardy Amies and Edward Molyneux.

    The designs were submitted through the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (also known as Inc. Soc.). The clothes the designers came up with were utilitarian pieces, known as Utility clothing, with bright colours. This is not always obvious from the black and white pictures of the time (see above) but the clothes were often in rich blues, pinks, yellows and greens.

    The clothes were a simpler and more democratic approach to fashion. They were meant to last for years (which is why there is a market in ‘retro 1940s clothes’ and they can still be bought secondhand and worn). They were high-quality and very well-made despite the rationing. A British Utility dress could be bought for 7 coupons.


    Changes in dress design

    The dresses of the 1940s were shorter: knee-length instead of the mid-calf length of the 1930s. They created a much more masculine appearance but with an hourglass silhouette. The details included:

    • shoulder pads (extending just past the edge of the shoulder); 
    • puffed sleeves, gathered at the top, extending down to approximately the elbow;
    • boxy/square neck-line/shoulder angle;
    • nipped-in high waist; and 
    • knee-length A-line skirts. 

    These features appeared in the shaping of all suit jackets, blouses and dresses. 

    The exception to this was the evening dress, which was either spaghetti-strapped or halter topped and revealed the chest and shoulders (with mild amounts of cleavage on show). The skirts of these dresses started long and sleek, but were much fuller by the end of the decade.

    Alla modelling a dress from Galitzine's collection at her showroom. (Kristine, Flickr)

    The introduction of trousers into mainstream feminine fashion

    Up until the 1940s trousers had been mainly worn by men. However, when they started working in the factories women needed clothing that was safe to wear around machinery and that would not get caught in the moving parts.

    To start with women wore men’s trousers, but fairly quickly manufacturers started making trousers specifically for women. The design still looked masculine, but it was also:

    • fastened with a button or zip down the side;
    • wide-legged with wide cuffs at the bottom; and 
    • made out of cotton, denim or wool blends. 

    Trousers soon became homeware as casual clothes and were acceptable for a woman to wear in public.

    Suited to work

    Due to the shortage of fabric, the popularity of two-piece suits increased. These suits were popular because the skirts, jackets and blouses could be mixed up, they did not need to match. Women could therefore have a ‘new’ suit to wear every day using the same clothes. This type of suit was called the Victory or Utility Suit. 

    After the war, these suits remained popular because they were comfortable and practical to wear. The skirts of the suits were A-line meaning they flared out gradually from the hip to the knee. In the early 1940s, there were no pleats or gatherings to the skirts because of fabric rationing. Later in the decade, pleats started to appear and a wider A-shape. Some skirts even had pockets!

    The suit jackets were made from the same material as the skirts but they could also be mismatched. As with the dresses, the jackets had wide, padded shoulders, a high neckline and a nipped-in waist, that flared out slightly at the bottom. The lower edge of the jacket reached down to the mid-hip. They were worn buttoned with variation in lapel widths, some had points or were shaped. It was not necessary to wear a blouse underneath the jacket but it was more comfortable to do so.

    A different style of jacket was the Bolero jacket. This was shorter with a rounded edge and long, narrow sleeves. It was worn over a blouse and rarely buttoned-up at the front. Leaving it to hang open showed off the blouse. 

    Blouses were either worn plain or with a light cardigan or jacket. They could be a solid colour or have a fun, striped pattern. They were either short or long-sleeved with puffy gathers and tight cuffs. They had buttons at the front and either small v-necks or a round collar neck opening.

    A Swimming Success

    Swimsuits in the 1940s were either one or two-piece affairs. The one-piece had a tighter fit than swimsuits in the 1930s. It also had a padded bra for support and either thin shoulder straps or a halter. The neckline was in the shape of a ‘v’ but with little cleavage on show. The halter-style was particularly popular. The bottom of the swimsuit came down to the top of the thigh and was either skirt-shaped or was in the form of slightly looser shorts.

    The two-piece swimsuit was like the one-piece suit but with the middle section removed so the shorts came up over the belly-button leaving a 4-inch space between the top and bottom piece. The Bikini was invented in 1946 and was a similar style but tighter with a lower waist. These were too revealing for most women at this time. Incidentally, the word ‘bikini’ comes from the Bikini Atoll where the USA detonated two nuclear bombs in 1946.

    Three young women on a beach in swimwear, mid 1940s (Family photos of Infrogmation" CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

    Another popular item of holiday clothing was the playsuit. This was a beachwear dress for wearing over a swimsuit. It was a buttoned, loose-fitting, light, cotton dress. Some also had high-waisted shorts or a swimsuit halter top. These were popular with teenagers and younger, single women. 

    Fashion for a distinguished age

    It was in the 1940s that plus-sized clothing also developed. Catalogues and department stores developed ‘stout’ clothing ranges for the more mature women. These ranges included dresses, tops, coats and shoes. They were designed to be more flattering to the fuller figure, which was not really suited to the hourglass style. There were also longer beachwear ranges that were more conservative for older women.

    After the war, and Christian Dior

    In the late 1940s rationing ended, and there was more fabric and more choice available. This was quickly taken up and designs became more colourful with patterns and contrasting trims. A newly invented fabric called rayon was introduced. Teenagers were particularly fans of the skirts which came in a range of designs – plaids, stripes or the latest style. These were easier to move in and so were good for swing dancing.

    In 1947 Christian Dior launched his “New Look” fashion line. The “Corolle” line was the main range in this style. It had rounded shoulders, a cinched-in waist and a long, full skirt. At the time it received a mixed reaction: after the war, some people thought it was wasteful (the “Cherie” dress had lots of tight-pleating), others felt it was a setback in the progress of women’s clothing because it was so blatantly feminine. But it became, and remained, popular.

    The post-war relaxation away from utilitarian fashion continues in our next instalment in the series, where we take a look at the fashions receding hemlines of the 1950s.