Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Noel Streatfeild and fashion modelling in the 1920s


One of my favourite posts I've written is this one, about how Noel Streatfeild used her experience of modelling in the 1920s to create an accurate - albeit romanticised - picture of life inside a fashion house for her book Clothes-Pegs. I’ve been revisiting Noel recently (as evident from my 51 books in 2015 list) and one of the most noticeable things about her books is how she reworks the same themes over and over again, all drawn from her own experiences: her stories are stuffed full of sisters, vicars and stage school children. Her first book, The Witcharts, is essentially Ballet Shoes, with a few more out-of-wedlock pregnancies! Given this, I couldn’t believe she didn’t revisit the setting of the fashion house at some point.

After a bit more reading, I discovered she does, at least three more times. It’s the setting for another “Susan Scarlett” story (Streatfeild’s pseudonym), Peter and Paul (1939), where Petronella (Peter), a vicar’s daughter, becomes an in-house model. Susanna, a vicar’s daughter, goes off to London, still stunned with grief after the First World War, and becomes a model in Parson’s Nine (1932). And, in Away from the Vicarage (published as On Tour in the States, 1965), a “fictionalised biography” of Streatfeild’s life - you may well have guessed it - Vicky, a vicar’s daughter, becomes a model.

This makes it even more amazing that this experience is given so little attention in what’s been written about her life. It wasn’t as if Streatfeild was ashamed of the experience. In her Desert Island Discs, she admits outright, “I was always a fashion model between jobs. I was very tall … and in those days I was very slim and there was plenty of fashion work going in the west end.” But perhaps that honesty only came with time. Vicky, in Away from the Vicarage, doesn’t tell her father and fears someone from her drama course spotting her at her modelling work.


As backed up by the detail given in Clothes-Pegs, Streatfeild described herself as having a “blotting-paper memory”. That means it’s possible to eek out a few more details about a model’s life in the 1920s from these books. For starters, it’s obvious that models were in demand, as Streatfeild says above. Vicky is lucky because “it was the beginning of the period when mannequin parades were all the rage. Clothes were shown all day long – to the trade in the morning; at thés dansants in the afternoons; in the intervals of musical comedies and variety shows and at nightclubs.”

The 1920s - when Streatfeild modelled - was a boom time for fashion modelling, although perhaps it didn't happen in the way we’d think of it today. It was the decade the mannequin parade really took off, and the parades were held regularly within department stores - sometimes several times a day - as well as put on by the fashion houses. As Vicky’s experience suggests, they were a form of entertainment as much as presentation. In 1928, The Times reported how “There has been a big call on the mannequins and some firms have experienced considerable difficulty in supplying their needs.” No wonder Vicky/Streatfeild found it easy to find work.


Vicky’s favourites are the mornings, because “usually only two or three models were used, and they would sit in their underclothes eating sticky buns, waiting for the various groups of buyers.” They get given port or wine to “put colour in their cheeks.” That’s also what happens at “Reboux”, the house where Peter models. Eloise sits around, dressed only in her “brassiere and panties” and pesters Pauline (Peter’s sister, also known as “Paul”) to go out and buy them choc-ices. Other than when seeing clients or being fitted, the “models never went out unless they had a date. They had fearful meals in their own room of such things as sardines and cream buns.”

Yet, for their mollycoddled appearance, it’s apparent that the models do have to work hard. As Streatfeild writes from experience, “only a girl who has done it knows how it feels to have to look exquisite to order any time between nine and six.” And then there’s that strange anonymity that’s thrust upon models that I’ve written about before. Susanna certainly experiences that. In one show, a men grabs her by the wrist to look at the hat she’s wearing before remarking, “these brims are nearly perfect for line; it’s difficult to see what I mean on this girl, as she has a hopeless profile for them, but on anyone else it would be divine.” No wonder Susanna feels numbed by the whole experience: “I felt as though I didn’t exist, that I was just a machine. I don’t think I was even expected to be able to speak. I had to pinch myself to remember I was alive at all.”

Models are secondary to the clothes, convenient ciphers for the client’s desires. Peter is too beautiful to be a successful model.  While she’s has plenty of gentlemen admirers and is known as “a figure in the night-clubs and restaurants”, she can never make a sale when she’s showing for “mothers of plain, rather-difficult-to-marry-off daughters.” Those mothers, we’re told, “sniffed and started at once to run down the clothes, subtly suggesting the fault was Petronella’s.”

Modelling is never presented as a career for life. Streatfeild doesn’t feature it as a possible career option in her 1950s Years of Grace book of advice for teenage girls, despite it being at a peak in popularity and respectability in that decade. Susanna and Vicky use it a way of making ends meet, to be given up when stability returns. For Susanna, it’s a profession associated with a depressing period in her life when, we’re told, she allows herself to go into bedrooms with men at parties. Peter is pawed at and ogled by men constantly too. Streatfeild might write that it’s a way to earn “an honest penny”, but you sense she doesn’t quite believe it. Susanna, for example, is told, “All this mannequin, cinema, photographing rubbish was so many hours filled in till you got on the right track.”

As that last sentence suggests, these books also illustrate a period in modelling that was evolving to encompass more than simply mannequin parades. Susanna also makes money from being a photographic model, showcasing a “painfully suburban-looking home” and a film extra, while Petronella is Reboux’s first photographic model.

But, perhaps the main difference is the coming of the movies. By the time Streatfeild was writing Peter and Paul in the 1930s, the beautiful girl doesn’t want to appear on stage, and in no way is modelling considered the pinnacle of her career. Peter talks and dreams of Hollywood as being the embodiment of glamour and, indeed, that’s where she ends up, clearly too beautiful for Britain or modelling. If you don’t snag the husband (which is the fairy-tale conclusion to the model’s life in Clothes-Pegs), a decade on, you can at least get yourself a Hollywood contract.

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