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A case of writer’s frock?

September 7, 2009

Sam got in touch with an fascinating query (and my answer is so lengthy that I thought it would be best as a blog post- and I hope you’ll all feel free to chip in in the comments!)
Sam writes:

I am writing a novel and in this story there is an older woman, a risque woman so to speak, singing around a group of soldiers in a bar during the blackout period in London. What would she be wearing and how would I describe her? I know that lots of hats were worn but being a bloke I am pretty hopeless at describing dresses and would really appreciate some explanation of the style. I figure she would be in her best, despite the shortages of the war. She is around 45-50 and is a very adept entertainer with good sense of fashion. The year is 1940.

What an interesting question, Sam! (Although actually one that’s incredibly difficult to answer without knowing a lot more about the character and circumstances…)

I would assume the singer’s income (or gifts from admirers?) aren’t such that she can afford the ‘Holy Grail’ of fashion- to get her clothes from the Paris haute couture houses? Instead, although of course you could buy ready made clothes in shops in 1940, she’d probably get her dressmaker to imitate the latest designer French fashions, or, if she was short of cash, she’d sew them up herself. The images below and at the top of the post are taken from a French catalogue of patterns for dressmakers from Winter 1940/41 (more in this post here). Our older woman would have gone for the dark, less frilly dresses:


Although clothes rationing wasn’t to begin until 1941 in Britain, on the style front, now the war had started, any outfit that was over-elaborate, frivolous or brightly coloured was generally considered pretty poor taste. Embellishment was used fairly sparingly, although for evening rhinestone or sequin details were popular. The general silhouette had become refined and streamlined. Shoulders were strong in 1940, with shoulder pads. It’s unlikely our singer would be in anything that revealed too much flesh. Nothing strapless or shoulder baring. This still from The Aviator sums all this up nicely (the character, Faith Domergue, has the popular ‘sweetheart’ shape neckline, although hers is quite a daring version!):

If our singer is singing at night in a night club, she would be in a full length evening dress (or even a stage costume) and gloves. In a less formal venue like a pub she might wear a knee length dress. (I don’t think she’d be wearing a hat indoors to perform, but would possibly have some kind of hair ornament or headpiece a bit like a modern day “fascinator”- flowers, feathers, etc.)

But the most crucial question to ponder is our singer’s own personality. Is she sultry, sophisticated and expensive-looking, or more showy and, er, cheap? She’d probably have been in a fabric that draped well, either a shiny attention-grabbing fabric like a satin or a soft taffeta, or a more subtle matte drapey fabric like crepe. The fabric would aim to look like a silk, but would possibly be rayon (much cheaper!) This fabric could be gathered and draped for elegant effect (as in the French pattern outfits above). There’s surely scope for a great description of the sinuous, seductive movement of the fabric (and thus the sinuous, seductive qualities of the singer?).

Marlene Dietrich, the ultimate 1940s singer/entertainer, was in the film Seven Sinners in 1940 (when she was 39), playing an extremely sultry saloon singer (pics above and below from IMDb). Bear in mind that this is Hollywood’s glamourous take on costume, and not the reality that was blackout London, but it gives an impression of how a really stylish ‘older’ woman might have rocked the 1940 silhouette and made it seductive. The trailer is here.

Hope all this helps, Sam, and good luck with the novel! If anyone has any ideas or thoughts, please feel free to share in the comments……..

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam Remington permalink
    September 7, 2009 9:38 pm

    That’s very very helpful and I am very thankful for all your time and effort. I will certainly be returning to this website…the novel spans some 45 years going all the way back to late Victorian times so a touch more scope for fashion detail I think! Much of the story is set in the trenches but a lot takes place at home, in London and elsewhere.

    She’s a difficult character to describe because I want her to be more dignified than when she first appears in the story. She is singing in one of the early chapters as the lads are off to the trenches (1916)and the last chapter she’s there again but a lot older (1940). In both these chapters she is in the background. However, she is also a main character in one other chapter where she plays a prostitute (1920).

    Thanks again and I might be in touch with a few more queries; it’s fantastic to see your absolute passion for the subject. Ta ra for now!

    • glassoffashion permalink
      September 8, 2009 9:30 am

      Hi Sam- the story sounds intriguing! I’m glad the blog’s been helpful :)

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