The twenties and thirties were the golden age of wedding portraiture. Glamorous weddings were a reaction to the horrors of the Great War and that, combined with the emergence of Hollywood, meant that women were determined to sprinkle a dusting of glamour and escapism over the most important day of their lives.
These were the days when few people owned a portable camera, and formal studio portraiture was de rigueur across all classes.
But surely in a place as impoverished as the East End, and many other working-class towns and cities across Britain, survival, not style, was the order of the day? Not so…
East End women are a proud, self-respecting tribe and to own a beautiful wedding portrait – in a time when no one owned a camera, much less a selfie-stick, was a badge of honour. No matter that the framed portrait more than likely covered a nasty patch of damp, a beautiful wedding portrait was a sign that you had arrived.
I spent the most absorbing week in Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives looking through the wedding announcements in back copies of the East London Advertiser from 1936.
Buried amongst news articles on outbreaks of Tuberculosis, fascist demonstrations and a scorned woman from Whitechapel who was awarded £300 damages after she sued her philandering fiancé for breach of promise (good on you Annie Aaronson) were more romantic offerings.
Page-after-page of captivating young brides smiled back at me. One bride was so lusciously beautiful she could easily have passed for Rita Hayworth and her handsome bridegroom, Clark Gable. The caption revealed them to be Rene and Brian, a shop girl and council worker from Stepney.
It was difficult to distinguish shop girl Rene from screen siren Rita, and perhaps that is the point of a wedding gown? In stepping into a flowing white dress, a woman can transform herself into anyone she wants for the day.
At the risk of rhapsodizing, never did women look as elegant and poised as they did back then. Perhaps it was because every photo is in nostalgic black and white or sepia, but in truth, I think the clue lies in their strength of character and their unassailable spirit.
I was so touched by the immense care each married couple took to look their absolute best and the hope, resilience and pride shining out from their faces.
In 1936, the Second World War loomed darkly on the horizon. How many of these dashing bridegrooms I wondered, went on to fight and indeed survive that war? The knowledge of what fate awaited these newly weds, leant a deep poignancy to their stunning wedding portraits.
Back then a wedding was a community event to share. People didn’t give two hoots for all the trappings that some modern brides obsess over. Favours, canapés, hen-dos and far-flung honeymoon safaris, were unheard of. For young newly weds, the most they could hope for was a few days in a seaside-boarding house before returning to work. It mattered not. These weddings were about love, commitment and family, not sugared almonds and selfies.
Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and author of The Wedding Dress, stressed to me the importance of community to a bride.
‘In the 1930s, divorce was never really a seriously considered option, so you married firmly in the belief that it was for life. Marriage, especially in the East End, was a right of passage and the wedding service a deeply significant ceremony, a public statement of your commitment.
‘Many young brides were leaving their family home where they enjoyed a close bond with their mother and sisters, to join another woman’s home, their mother-in-law’s! Because of this the bride’s family would do their very best to ensure that the wedding day lived up to the expectations placed on their family. The bride would want her new husband’s family to be proud of her and respect her and her family.
‘The East End lived collectively so sharing your wedding day with the entire community was normal. The size of the wedding reflected a family’s status, so you better be prepared to put on a good show.’
Former machinist Edith Myers, 88, from Stepney agrees. ‘In my day, weddings used to go on for weeks, or at least until the beer ran out.
‘Sometimes they’d take the window frame out to get the piano through it and onto the street. All strangers were welcome and everyone from the neighbourhood brought something to the party. What little you had, you contributed.
‘My cousin Bertie lived down the same street as me, Spencer Street in Stepney. When he married a local girl called Bertha we celebrated for three weeks! A piano was a treasured musical instrument and during their wedding at least three were rolled out onto the cobbles, my dad was on the accordion and my mum May, who had a beautiful voice, sang. People were so talented back then and the street was alive with music for Bertie and Bertha.
‘And we never left anyone out, even the vulnerable members of our street; blind Rose from next door, poor old Jimmy who used to suffer terrible fits and warhorse Kate, who looked more like a man than a woman and had a few problems shall we say, all were invited because that’s how community was back then. We cared for one another through good times and bad.’
A sentiment echoed by 92-year-old Doris, whose marriage to a sailor involved half of Poplar. Doris was a ravishing 18-year-old milliner when she fell in love with a tall, dashing stoker who wolf-whistled at her down the high street.
‘Ernest and I fell head over heels in love, but then war broke out and we were torn apart,’ Doris confides. ‘Ernest joined the Royal West Kent Fusiliers and was posted to Greece, but despite this we wrote to each other every day. “My dearest, darling Doris, I’m fighting this war for you, so I can come home into your arms,” Ernest wrote. And he did. On a blustery March day in 1944 Ernest did return to the East End and we married in Christ Church on the Isle of Dogs.
‘We didn’t have a penny to our names, but thanks to our neighbours and the whole community we didn’t go without. Everyone pitched in and the street raided their larders and pooled their rations so we had a table heaving with sausage rolls and sandwiches. We had the reception at my mums and she only lived in a tiny two-bed terrace, so we had to have two sittings.
‘It was such a shambles,’ Doris laughs, ‘but it weren’t half a lot of fun. Mum thumped out the tunes on a piano. Everyone kept handing her glasses of Guinness and as the afternoon wore on the windows got steamier, the singing louder and everyone did a conga up the street. The whole street rejoiced in our joy and it was a real event for everyone to enjoy.
‘Back then, the wedding day itself wasn’t so important, it was the rest of our married lives, which meant something,’ Doris concludes, echoing a sentiment I heard again and again.
In common with Doris and Edie, most East End brides worked in the clothing industry, as court dressmakers, piece-work seamstresses, milliners, cutters, finishers, passers and pressers, everywhere from large factories, to front parlors.
‘Because of the dominance of the clothing trades in the East End,’ says Edwina. ‘Wearing smart, fashionable clothes was important to men and women, professionally and personally, even in the troubled economic times of the 1930s.’
Pat Spicer, 86, from Bethnal Green who worked as an apprentice court dressmaker for West End department store Bourne & Hollingsworth agrees. ‘As a dressmaker it would have been shameful if I didn’t look my best on my wedding day. I felt I really ought to be well turned out. I also wanted a really glamorous wedding. There was so much poverty in those days we all wanted escapism on our big day, our chance to feel like a star for the day.’
To that end, Pat employed the services of legendary Jewish East End photographer Boris Bennett, whose Whitechapel studio was the place to go for glamorous weddings. Boris, who I mention in The Wedding Girls, was famous for bringing a touch of Hollywood style to a wedding shoot. Using exquisitely painted backdrops and beautiful lighting, he could transform the most ordinary looking bride into a sophisticated showstopper. He even employed a uniformed commissionaire to meet and greet the newly weds. Eager on lookers would gather outside his studio on the Whitechapel Road to catch a glimpse of the bride, including dressmakers who would wait, sketchbooks in hand.
‘We went for the complete set, nine framed photos and a book at 16 guineas. It was expensive but I had to have it and my family had saved for my wedding for years,’ says Pat. ‘Boris was charming and helped me to look stunning. We posed against a beautiful cream archway with dreamy lighting. He arranged extra tulle around the bottom of my dress and taught us how to pose.’
All these years on, Pat’s eyes still sparkle at the memory, and though she admits she struggles with her short-term memory, she has no problems recalling her dress.
‘I wore a white satin gown with a sweetheart neckline with an inlet of lace, cathedral sleeves with a loop on the finger, twenty-two satin buttons on the back, a fluted train and a lovers knot embroidered into the veil. Local dressmaker Hetty Dipple made it and we had four fittings in her front parlor. Hetty sewed a strand of her hair into the seam, her signature finish.’ A trick Edwina says legendary East End born designer, Alexander McQueen used to employ.
‘After the photographs it was back down to earth with a bump,’ Pat continues. ‘The reception was at Bill’s mums in neighbouring Bethnal Green. She did her best bless her, clearing out the rooms and setting up Salvation Army trestle tables, but it was so packed I had to clamber over the table just to sit down. We had mashed potato, cold roast beef and beetroot, followed by a weekend in Canvey Island. All top show, nothing underneath as my Mum would say,’ Pat laughs, revealing not just her cockney humour, but also her family’s innate sense of thrift and resourcefulness.
‘Cold beetroot aside, thanks to the experience of posing for my wedding portrait, which I still treasure, I felt so special. Bill called me his pocket Venus,’ Pat proudly reveals.
With her 22-inch waist and gleaming wavy hair, Pat wouldn’t have looked out of place on the silver screen, which is of course where she looked to for inspiration.
Between the wars, Hollywood was at the heart of popular culture. Sixty-five per cent of the public saw at least one picture a week in the 1930s, in the days before television, and films provided good entertainment for working people. Nearly every film contained the obligatory kiss at the altar. 1939 film The Old Maid, starring Bette Davis, contained four weddings, and The Gay Bride, shown in 1934, starring Carol Lombard pulled out all the stops, with more bridesmaids, orange blossom and tulle than you could shake a stick at.
As Edwina says in her essay for Michael Greisman’s book, ‘Vintage Glamour in London’s East End’, ‘Many Hollywood films included wedding scenes, even when the plot did not necessitate them, and elaborate bridal portraits were used as publicity shots for the films. The studios had in house photographers, designers, florists, make up artists and large budgets to create extravagant wedding gowns and sets.
‘Film studios published magazines with gossip, photographs and features about stars and their clothes, which working women would use as inspiration for their own gowns. Women could buy imitations of these from department stores, but more often East End women would patronize a good local dressmaker, who might have made generations of her own family’s gowns, or simply make her own.
All of this fuelled the belief that all good happy endings, ended at the altar. What bride of that era didn’t yearn to look like Lana Turner in Marriage Is a Private Affair, or Ginger Rogers dancing into groom Fred Astaire’s arms in the 1928 movie Carefree?
Hollywood certainly made its mark on wedding day fashion; such was the seductive power of the silver screen.
‘There were two distinct trends for bridal wear in the 1930s,’ says Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London, when I went to visit their treasure trove of vintage wedding dresses deep underground.
‘Slim-fitting, draped Grecian style dresses, cut on the bias and made from lame and rayon, or romantic gowns with lots of volume. The pleated and ruffled organdy dress worn by Joan Crawford in the 1932 film, Letty Lynton, sparked hundreds of thousands of copies as did Vivien Leigh’s wedding dress in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind.
‘Slinky bias-cut wedding dresses were very unforgiving so women wore slips or cami-knickers with a girdle underneath to hold up their stockings. Gowns were precariously suspended from the thinnest of shoulder straps so they used to sew in tiny straps with poppers to secure the dress to the slip underneath, to stop them slipping over the shoulders.
‘A lot of women were slim back then – either by necessity or virtue - with 22 inch waists the norm.’
With that, Beatrice carefully peeled back layers of acid-free tissue paper to reveal an exquisite off-white lace dress with a pink tulle veil, pink satin petticoat and pink satin knickers worn by a comptometer operator from Plaistow, East London in 1936, all made for her by her friend, who worked for a court dressmaker.
What struck me, aside from the eye-wateringly tiny waist was the fact that a comptometer girl, who wouldn’t have earned much money, married in what was essentially a haute couture gown.
‘It looks like it’s been sewn by a tiny invisible hand, and the quality of workmanship is exceptional,’ agrees Beatrice, ‘which just goes to show what talent and skill working women had at their fingertips.’
Dresses as beautiful as these weren’t designed to be relegated to the back of the wardrobe after the big day.
‘Dresses were often adapted and always used again,’ says Edwina. ‘The sleeves would be cut off and the dress turned into an evening gown, or into a christening gown when the bride started a family, or even worn to celebrate milestone anniversaries. It would have been considered a terrible waste not to reuse your wedding gown.’
If restraint was shown in a slinky wedding gown, it wasn’t when it came to the rest of the wedding party.
‘Bridesmaids dresses tended to be over the top and inspired by films like Gone with the Wind with flower covered muffs and mittens, baskets brimming with flowers and halo head dresses,’ says Beatrice, ‘and even page boys dressed as shepherds, complete with staff’s or in blue and white satin sailor suits!’
None of this can have come cheap and left me wondering, how on earth could they have afforded it, during a period of such poverty and unemployment?
Hellen Martin, granddaughter of iconic East End photographer, William Whiffin, sheds some light.
‘My grandfather ran a studio from the East India Dock Road from 1911 until it was destroyed by a V2 rocket during the Second World War. He was passionate about his local East End community and believed everyone had the right, no matter how poor, to own a studio portrait.
‘To help those who couldn’t afford it, he ran clubs for groups where members paid an amount each week, sixold pence or a shilling, so they could have their portraits taken in turn. Clubs like these were popular then and were a good way of saving up for things that couldn't be afforded straight away.
‘William was a mild-mannered man, determined to serve his people, often not charging people or charities at all. He was twice offered jobs with Fleet Street newspapers, but turned them down as he didn’t want to turn his back on his community.
‘One story goes that he was taking photos at a local Christmas event for children. At that time he used flash powder and on this occasion the flash went wrong and ran down his hand. Although he was badly burned he didn’t want to panic the children and didn’t let on to them that anything bad had happened.’
As I gazed at her grandfather’s photos, I couldn’t tear my eyes from one. A long line of ragged children queue up to pass under a wooden arch, in scripted with the words ‘Enter Now Ye Children Small; None Can Come Who Are Too Tall’.
If the child could pass through without bending, they would pay a farthing and receive a small bundle of humble toys. There was nothing more elaborate inside than some marbles, feathers or a piece of chalk, but from the looks on the children’s faces you would think they had been given bars of gold.
William’s photographs of bundles and brides speak volumes of the compassion and love he felt towards one of London’s poorest districts. Little wonder I used this big-hearted man as inspiration for the character of Herbie. Gladys’ character was conjured from interviews with many East End seamstresses who fondly recalled their apprenticeships under formidable dressmakers.
Glennys Illand, who made wedding dresses for thirty years for the son of Jewish seamstress, Ada Ellis in Whitechapel, remembers the exacting nature of working for a firm who created bespoke dresses for London’s aristocracy.
‘We were scrupulous about the studio and my first job of the morning would be to lay down brown waxed paper so if material draped on the floor it wouldn’t mark. My hair was always tied back in a head-scarf to stop it getting caught in the wheel, and no lipstick otherwise when you have a mouthful of needles, the lipstick could go on the dress and smudge.
‘The bosses would insist on tiny invisible stitches that couldn’t be seen inside or out and if it wasn’t right, woe betide. “Clean that neckline out”, or “Seam’s not straight” was often heard. It was hard work and if you had a particularly elaborate dress, it would take weeks of pain-staking work. Two things were guaranteed. Back ache and a mouthful of pins, but that training set me up for life.’
The image of Glennys, delicately plying her needle in a Whitechapel workshop conjures up a by-gone world, but luckily these sewing arts are being revived.
Marilyne works as seamstress for Halfpenny London, who make vintage inspired wedding dresses. Decades separate them, but her working day is remarkably similar to Glennys’.
‘We finish everything by hand,’ says Marilyne. ‘When you’re working on the fiddly embellishments like delicate beading, lace flowers, applique and motifs you can get dreadful headaches. We are constantly striving for perfection in our little studio. To be a seamstress you have to be a perfectionist, it’s in your soul.’
If a wedding marks the first day of the rest of your life, then the story starts with the dress.
‘Dresses evoke so much emotion. We get asked a lot to sew in tiny sentimental keep-sakes,’ Marilyne confides. ‘I once sewed a bride’s late grandmother’s tiny leather doll into the veil. Some mothers insist we leave a small section of the hem, so that they can sew the last five stitches in, it is deeply symbolic that the mother be the one to finish her daughters dress.’ Proving without doubt that the creation of a wedding gown truly is a labour of love.
So as our trip down memory lane draws to a close what can we conclude about the glamorous nuptials of the 1930s? Thanks to the talents of some ingenious photographers, resourceful neighbourhoods and scores of talented parlor dressmakers, East End brides could marry on a shoestring, looking like a film star and feeling like a princess.
Do I wish I had been alive then to witness these glorious and vibrant community weddings?
Every photo tells a story, what’s yours?
I love that the winner of the Secrets of the Singer Girls competition to win a Singer Sewing machine was a man, but it’s not that surprising either. For the first time there were more men than women finalists on the 2015 Great British Sewing Bee. Matt Chapple broke through the patchwork quilt ceiling and wowed the judges with his avant-garde dress. Since then, Singer Sewing manufacturer is rumoured to be launching a contemporary machine pitched at men, which – in keeping with the iPhone and other modern boys’ toys – will come in a smart, black exterior. The nations’ men are itching to get stitching! Mick Stewart, a 39-year-old IT support worker, scooped the Singer Sewing machine in the Mummy’s Little Monkey run competition. Keen sewer Mick, lives in Ware, Hertfordshire with his wife Jane, a full-time mum, and their 7-year-old daughter Leia. ‘We were all gripped by latest series of Great British Sewing Bee and I found it really inspiring that a man won it,’ says Mick. ‘I’ve never tried my hand at sewing, despite the fact that I grew up watching my Mum machining, and now I can’t wait to get started.’ Mick might have a fight on his hands though. ‘My wife and daughter can’t wait to give it a go but they’ll have to get in line,’ he laughs. Congratulations Mick!
Fifty Shades of Grey has been hailed as a publishing phenomena and there is no doubt it has turned a whole new generation of women onto erotic fiction – but women reading steamy books is nothing new. Just ask the women of Doncaster. They’ve been reading raunch for years and the South Yorkshire town now holds the highest number of orders for romance and erotic fiction. From full on erotica to bodice ripping escapism, they love it all. As a result of this Amazon survey the Sun asked me to find and persuade five brave Doncaster lasses to strip off and reveal all (save for some strategically placed copies of 50 Shades) I am constantly amazed by some people’s willingness to cheerfully pose naked in a national paper.
Their chants filled the air, growing steadily louder.
‘Don’t close the door on battered women and children…’
Doctors and lawyers wives stood shoulder to shoulder with coal-miners wives and charladies.
They were women from vastly different backgrounds with not a single thing in common, except their refusal to live in fear. Some chained themselves to railings, others marched up and down the famous cobbled street with placards, small children peeking out nervously from beneath their skirts.
The atmosphere outside 10 Downing Street was thick with tension and disbelief.
The year was 1973. Edward Heath was in power, Britain had been brought to its knees by industrial disputes and the three-day week was in place.
I recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Botswana for the wedding of my cousin Harry. Aside from the staggering beauty and buttock clenching proximity to wild animals I was struck by the family dynamics. Present at the wedding was my mum, who helped to raise my cousin Harry when he moved from Botswana to England to be schooled here, Harry’s own mother Elizabeth (pictured) and his other auntie, who also had a strong hand in his upbringing. It must be the only wedding where the groom had three mothers in attendance! The poor bride, imagine having three mother-in-laws? The unconventional family connections didn’t stop there.
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