Between the echoing brick walls of a chilly studio in south-west London, four women are travelling through time. One is spinning in a crinoline in 1860, one is demonstrating a dance in 1965, one is pouting in the middle of the English Regency, and one is gliding ladylike through medieval courts. And all they’ve done is get dressed.
The women, actresses from the Royal Shakespeare Company, are playing with a rack of clothes from different periods, dug out of the bowels of the RSC’s historically completist costume department. I’ve asked them to pick a dress, try it on, and describe how it makes them feel.
Being performers, they tend to show rather than tell: Sarah Belcher, the most compact of the four, with a tidy black bob and a quick laugh, slips on a red a-line minidress with capped sleeves and not a lot of give. Her smile disappears; she slumps her shoulders. “I feel, ooh, I don’t know—it’s like I’ve got to do this…” She makes a few robot-shapes with her arms, before gyrating, frowning, on the balls of her feet. When I point out that within seconds of putting on a 1960s dress, she has unconsciously struck a classic photographic pose from the period, then done The Twist, she pulls a face. “That’s how this dress makes you be,” she says. “It’s not me, though. I’m just not Sixties.”
Ask any woman which decade suits her and odds are, she’ll have an answer ready. A lifetime of staring glumly at changing-room mirrors, however painful, does give you a clear picture of your own proportions—of which bits of you are long, or round, or short, or high, and which period of female fashion you feel you fit. I’m late-era Edwardian: the particular distance between my feet and my waist, my collarbone and my face is right for the high necks and long skirts of immediately before the Great War. Our editorial assistant (small-waisted, with elegant calves) says she’s mid-1950s; our associate editor (straight-backed, straight-haired) is 1960s-going-on-1970s.
Actresses have a further insight. While most of us might have gone in fancy dress to the odd party, they regularly hop about the centuries, squeezing their bodies into wasp waists and crinolines, under shoulder pads and bustles. So it was actresses we chose to answer the question: what era are you? And why?
We start with Amie Burns-Walker, a slight, serene 25-year-old in jeans and a striped matelot top. She nearly explodes my theory by apologising and saying “I feel I’m still discovering things like that,” but then gathers courage and says: “It’s the 1940s. I love the cut of the dresses, and the whole mannish high-waisted trouser thing. And the stockings and suspenders. They take you to a different place.”
I mention that Emily Taafe, another young RSC actress, e-mailed me to say something similar—1940s tailoring “suits everybody”.
“Yes. It’s the cut of the dresses. They’re swingy…”
“And they’re a nice length, aren’t they? Just below the knee.” This is Kirsty Bushell—low-key good-looking, in her mid-30s, with an easy confidence and a dancer’s control of posture. I ask which is her decade. She’s adamant: “Seventies. The fashion then was quite sexy, but quite flowy. Long, lean lines—like these flares I’ve got on today.”
She stands up so we can inspect her. She’s not over-tall, but there seems to be a lot of distance between her hip-slung belt and the floor. All she’s wearing is a black, close-fitting polo neck and red cords—but yes, they are a bit flared at the ankle, and slightly high-waisted; and while still being resolutely modern the effect is subtly reminiscent of a Barbara Hulanicki fashion illustration. It’s Biba, but not quite as she drew it.
“I suppose I’ve always been aware of line,” Kirsty continues, turning out a foot and putting a hand on one hip. “I’m relatively boyish so I like to dress quite sleek, and I think the Seventies had that. Sleek, but sexy and feminine as well. Also, there’s a certain sense of liberty about the Seventies. I like the freedom.” She shimmies her hips, and laughs.
“Drape yourself over that, love: stretch out, kick back, relax. That’s the message you get from clothes in the Seventies.” It’s a week later, and I’m talking to William Banks-Blaney, the eponymous owner of a discreetly fronted vintage-clothing store in Marylebone, London. William stocks only the highest of high fashion from the 1930s on, and his customers, he tells me, “range from supermodels to members of the royal family, and everybody in between”. It strikes me that that isn’t a lot of in between, but he’s so polite it would be rude to quibble.
Over the space of an hour, he tells me—smoothly, practically, with a smattering of fashion-speak, talking through the changes fashion has demanded of women for the past 90-odd years. The 1920s, “not user-friendly, up and down”, required an “a-cup bra size, no hips or bum”. The 1930s were about “the healthy curve”—which suited the just-invented curve of the bias-cut dress—and “the beginning of exaggeration at the shoulder”. The 1950s “made women glorious” with its gorilla-signal, out-in-out silhouette; the 1960s “are all about the straight line; futurism, androgyny”. And in the 1970s “you get a lot of new, man-made fabrics that you could cut new shapes with. The technology was freeing, so you get this lean, louche and languorous feel.” I could imagine applying most of these adjectives to Kirsty: I wonder if it is really her body that fits the styles of the 1970s, or her personality?
Certainly as the interview goes on, every time I try to unpick the decades and shapes thing, William bats me back, insisting that women’s bodies are all much the same; with the right underwear, anyone can look good in anything. Shorten your bra-strap so “the breasts become higher”, and you can wear a 1960s mini-dress; “tuck a bit of extra tulle under the skirt” and even a size 24 can cheat the nipped-in New Look. At one point he pulls a flowy, “Abigail’s Party”-ish peach maxi-dress from the carefully co-ordinated rail of what he calls “pieces” and holds it up. “A size zero can wear this, or a beanpole, or a curvy girl,” he insists. But just as I’m beginning to think it’s all about maximising the customer base, he says this: “Not all of them will, though. That’s the psychology of clothing. I’ve got customers that could rock this in a heartbeat and look stunning; I’ve got others who wouldn’t wear it in a million years. Because it’s absolutely not who they are.”
“I loved the feeling that those clothes made me able to celebrate what I am—a woman. It was sexy.” Back in the studio, Cecilia Noble—a big, smiling presence in clashing prints with a flower tied in her hair—is telling me about the first time she wore a corset and bustle. “Because I’m more shapely, it kind of emphasised what I had. It showed off my bust, and emphasised the shape of my bum, and I just felt like yes, this is it. This is what I’d wear. I never wanted to become one of those actresses that was always obsessed with their weight, I wanted just to kind of love what I am.”
Fashion is strangely reluctant to love what women are. Imagine one of those little cartoon books that you flick with your thumb. This one animates how our bodies changed, if they’d filled the fashions of the past 250-odd years without any help from padding, lacing or M&S bodyshapers. The results would go from hips jutting out at right angles to the spine, and extending horizontally for up to three feet on either side, c.1750, to Schwarzenegger-pumped biceps in the 1820s, to a bum travelling backwards like an oceanic shelf in the 1890s, to giant conical breasts in the 1950s, to what Banks-Blaney calls “the disappearing arse” of the 1990s.
Why on earth did we bother with all this inflation followed by deflation? Perhaps it’s just one generation defining itself by rejecting the fashions of its pre-decessors: if your mother did hips, you’ll do hats. But flip through any decent book of fashion history, and the way women express the Zeitgeist through their clothes leaps off the full-colour plates. After the revolution, French women rejected the elaborate, wealth-displaying panniers and encrustations of the Versailles court so entirely that they barely wore any clothes at all: instead they floated about in gauzy, uncorseted columns of cloth that evoked the liberated dress of the ancient Greeks—who, as well as not wearing an awful lot, invented democracy. The “angels in the house” of the 1840s and 1850s, on the other hand, used horsehair and whalebone and heavy, heavy skirts to force themselves towards the submissive pose demanded by the poets of the day: they pinioned their waists towards snapping-point, and hid their faces behind winged bonnets.
As the corset seems such an embodiment of pre-suffrage restriction, I had expected our actresses to hate them. Yet here’s Cecilia relishing every minute of it. Another actress I spoke to, Isla Blair, also had good things to say about them. Isla (“short, into my 60s; I’d have been good in the fin de siècle because I have a curvy bust and small waist”) wears them in period plays not just because they help her achieve the historically correct, upright posture, but because they make her feel supported. “You get less tired in one—in fact I asked a dressmaker I know to make me a slightly softer version of an Edwardian corset, which I wear under certain of my real clothes.” William Banks-Blaney said much the same thing: a good corset “held a woman in place”.
Or did it, in fact, keep her in her place? This is Kirsty on corsets: “I’ve noticed you get very emotional in them. Your breathing is restricted: you can only breathe high in your chest. And when you try to take a deep breath, your diaphragm hits straight into your corset so you can get really emotional really quickly. It’s a piece of piss to cry in a corset.” No wonder Victorian women had a reputation for being weepy.
Emotional or not, by this point, the studio tally stands at one 1970s, one 1940s and a bustle. I turn to Sarah (“five foot three, early 30s, always done the boyish thing”). She’s another who feels she belongs somewhere in the second world war.
“I love the fact that women worked, and that they wore more utilitarian clothes as well as sassy stockings and dresses. Maybe too it’s because I’m short—classic Irish short. There are just some looks that only look good on one type of person. The rock-chick look, for example…I could pull it off, but not very well. That skinny, Kate Moss fashion is very specific, but the Forties, you know—I can see a larger woman in a great Forties dress and looking amazing.”
What 1940s clothes do you think would suit you?
“High-waisted trousers, a nice blouse, flat shoes. I played a Forties army nurse once: the shoes weren’t particularly attractive, they were blocky lace-ups that stopped at the ankle. But the underwear that she wore, the stockings and so on—there was something really sexy about that time.”
So when you played that character you felt the tension between being hard-working and being sexy?
“Massively, yes; it’s very sensible on the top, and then you’d go to a dance and suddenly there’s this kind of release.” Sober on the surface, a seam of sensuality beneath: it’s a neat description of a sturdy woollen skirt and jacket, a pair of French knickers and some parachute-silk stockings. Or of a person.
Afterwards, I found myself wondering why it was that three of the women I talked to found such a sense of freedom and adventure in the 1940s. Was it that the clothes don’t have a particularly extreme silhouette—just a hint of manly capability in their slightly squared-off shoulders—and that makes them wearable? Was it their practicality—they’re made for Land Girls to dig in, for housewives to keep the home fires burning in? Was it their lack of extravagance: fabric rationing meant that designs of the period could only use a limited amount of material, with few seams?
Perhaps the best explanation lies in something William Banks-Blaney told me, near the end of our meeting. Though he said that the 1940s was a decade “without a body shape”, though he said it is a period “that can look very contemporary, that a lot of women can wear”, he doesn’t stock many pieces from the era. Why? “Well, for four years during the war, there were no shows, and the great houses didn’t produce very much. There wasn’t really any fashion.”
In the end, I suspect women say they belong to an era more because of how well it expresses their inner life, their sense of who they are, than how closely it fits their outer shell. If so—on this evidence at least—the decade that expressed them the best was the one in which no one told them what to wear but themselves. So set the time machine to 1940, and get travelling.
Amie, Cecilia, Kirsty and Sarah all appear in the RSC’s “What Country Friends is This?” trilogy—“The Comedy of Errors”, “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest”—playing in rep at Stratford and the Roundhouse, London to October 6th; rsc.org.uk. Isla Blair appears in “Steel Magnolias”, on tour until June 16th; seesteelmagnolias.com. WilliamVintage: williamvintage.com
Additional research by Kassia St Clair