As a vintage lover you can get your style inspiration from many places – books, films, paintings. Yet nothing beats chatting to the people who pioneered the styles we are trying to emulate. Vintage fashion blogger Mia Lane, who writes Used and Abused Vintage, caught up with her style icon and grandmother, Gloria Lane.

It’s all well and good loving vintage. I for one have spent hours trying to perfect a Forties victory roll, re-create a swinging Sixties eyeliner flick and searching out the ultimate Fifties prom dress. But when it comes to knowing how to put a look together, and oozing elegance without even trying, you can’t beat our very own grandmothers.

And I’m blessed with not one but two of them. Of course they’re kind, generous, a lot of fun and full of good advice, but they’re also two of the best-dressed women I know. So here’s my thinking – let’s find out all about vintage fashion from the women who really know about it. First up, my Grandma – or Grandmama as she prefers to be known.

Meet Gloria Lane – fashionista, hat lover, fab Grandma and storyteller extraordinaire (she also pens bodice-ripping novels and lyrics for some of 2 Hot 2 Sweat’s songs!). Over Christmas we had a little chat about dressing up, dressing down and dressing to impress. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Mia: As I’m sure you’ve realised by now, I’m obsessed with vintage clothes. It’s become increasingly fashionable to wear items from the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties in recent years. Does it surprise you to see young girls wearing clothes that were fashionable decades ago?

Gloria: No, not at all because it happened in my day too! There’s never anything really new in fashion anyway – it just circles around for twenty, thirty years or so then comes back slightly changed – lengths, widths, descriptive names and the way it’s worn. There are only so many things that can be done so, eventually, that particular fashion is back where it started – only now made more practical for its particular time and space.

4272007863_3061e70504_oMia: What is your favourite era for fashion?

Gloria: Ooh – the late Forties for sure. After the clothes restrictions of the war I was absolutely bowled over by the ‘New Look’. The long skirts inspired by Edwardian times (as I said, we too were trendy in stealing from a bygone fashion age) were so feminine after the short boxy ones to which we’d been restricted for so long. Hats – my most adored fashion passion – made a brief re-appearance looking so much prettier than the utilitarian scarves we’d grown used to wearing. Of course, although almost everyone was into the new fashion, wages were not what they are today and few people could go out and buy new outfits, so instead, we cut the bottom 10-12 inches off our coats and skirts and sewed in some kind of insert to lengthen them.

There were some quite weird combinations, including floral curtaining in dresses, but my favourites were either velvet or fur – neither easy to come by. I remember I had a burnt orange coloured coat which I lengthened in this way with some brown fur which my mother managed to find for me – I had enough to add cuffs too and I thought I looked the bees knees in it.

Mia: Do you have a favourite outfit of all time?

Gloria: Oh yes and more than one. I once spent a half week’s wages on a long black crepe dress with a very flattering crossover bodice and wore it with a black boater hat I’d trimmed with artificial flowers and veiling that I tied beneath my chin – all very reminiscent of the ‘My Fair Lady’ fashion era. I wore it for work because by that time I’d been promoted to deputy manageress and needed to look very ‘with it’.

We were able to buy trimmings and hats at cost price because management wanted us to wear them at all times in order to encourage sales – the more striking they were the better. Unfortunately we were fighting a losing battle because, along with white gloves in summer, they have never returned as everyday wear and that makes me sad. They were so feminine and much of today’s fashion is androgynous by nature.

Another outfit I was fond of centered around a model hat I wore in a fashion parade. It was a large Linden green fur felt – halo shaped with a pheasant feather curling around the front of the brim and down the side to feather out under my chin. My Mum attended the show and absolutely loved it on me, so much so, that she contributed to the cost when I decided to buy it. Even with staff discount it cost over five pounds which was twice my basic wage before sales commission – a very hefty buy for me at the time!

I couldn’t possibly afford the coat that I wore with it in the show but, as I already had a respectable green and tan tweed coat which toned in beautifully with the Linden green which – in case you don’t know- is a lovely soft shade, similar but less bright, than apple, it really didn’t matter. I figured anyway that nobody was going to be looking at the coat in the presence of that hat!

Many years later I moved to a new job and recognised one of my new colleagues as a fellow traveller on the bus I’d taken to work on those days. He spoke then of that hat and said that it had made him notice the difference between girls and boys and decided he was going to ask me for a date the very next day. The request never came because that was the day I turned up wearing a brand new engagement ring and dashed his hopes…. Aah!

Advertisements used to advise men – If you want to get ahead get a hat. Maybe that should have read – If you want to get a man get a hat!

4272009235_5511c96ac1_oMia: Is there one item of clothing from your past you wish you still had?

Gloria: Well nothing from my distant past would fit me these days, but if they did, then the very first suit I bought out of my own earnings would get the vote. It was in a blue herringbone material and the jacket was cut back on each side from the waist down, Regency style and I never saw another like it. It was the first and only one the salesgirl needed to show me and I jumped at it. At that time of my life my stomach was washboard flat of course – it would have looked dreadful otherwise.

Mia: How did you get into millinery and what did your job involve?

Gloria:I passed the shop every day on the way to my previous job and loved the window displays of gorgeous hats. Most young people hadn’t returned to wearing them after the scarf wearing of the war years, including myself, but they were all so pretty – rich velvets, tulle, flowers and feathers and so feminine that I longed to give them a go; however I wasn’t sure I’d have the courage to wear them so never went inside. Then one day I plucked up courage, opened the glass door and asked to see the manageress.

When she appeared, I told her I absolutely adored hats and asked her to give me a job. She invited me in to a back room for a little talk – asked a lot of questions then offered me a position as a junior saleswoman. I was over the moon until I heard the salary; it was less than half what I was already earning! She agreed to give me time to decide whether I was prepared to take such a cut so I left and went home to give it some thought.

Regretfully I wrote her a letter next day saying that I couldn’t take the job, thanked her for her time and thought that was it. I must have impressed her though, because the return of post brought me an offer of an extra ten shillings a week if I trained to become a window dresser as well. Now – darn the cash – I was really interested, said ‘Yes please’ and started there two weeks later.

She turned out to be a real old biddy who worked her staff to death, but she was usually kind to me, I think she liked my enthusiasm and taught me a lot and eventually allowed me to alter trimmings on hats which weren’t selling and add individuality to others by slashing into the felt and altering the style completely. I look back on those times in wonder at my daring; the only experience I’d had was watching my mum, who felt the same way about hats as I did, doing just that. Her hats rarely looked the same for more than a couple of days running and I thought she always looked very smart.

4272751342_ff81192afc_oI really enjoyed helping brides and their mothers with their choice of hats and was pleased to find that they usually took my advice when I suggested we changed a trimming to make the hat that little bit more perfect. And my most satisfying moment was when the first sales asked me to make her wedding hat, she’d been a bit apprehensive about my being allowed to interfere with stock designs – a teeny bit jealous perhaps?

I covered a circle of felt with flowers in sweet pea colour interspersed with loops of tulle and fastened velvet ribbon with an insert of elastic to keep it firm. It was to be worn on the front of the head tilted towards the forehead, with the ribbon strap pulled over the hair to lay low on the back of her head. She was delighted with it and so was I.

When a keen new manageress took over after the first one retired she hired a trained milliner to effect any necessary alterations so I thought my design days were over, but as long as I was still there with my hats, I wasn’t bothered and I was creeping up the sales scale and was now second sales.

I continued my usual practise of trying on every new hat that came into stock and one day my new manageress watching me doing this during a quiet moment decided to use my photograph for a newspaper advertisement. It was a successful venture so then I was asked to take part in fashion parades to be put on by the company’s clothes shops and that was huge fun.

When the first sales left I moved up to take her place and was made deputy manageress. That was the limit I reached in that particular career because eighteen months later I married your grandpa and left to give birth to your dad later that year.
weddingMia: Have you ever made your own clothes? If so, what sort of things did you make, and what was your proudest achievement?

Gloria: Oh yes, My father bought me a sewing machine from his gratuity money when he left the army and I made nearly all my clothes for several years. I made several evening dresses based on a simple shift pattern and added my own extras. I was usually satisfied with the end product, but was proudest of all of the two Nehru jackets I made for my sons. It was during the Beatles era and I think they were pleased with them too.

Mia: What about fashion disasters?

Gloria: I can think of one. It was a mac in an acid yellow colour which reflected off my sallow complexion making me look jaundiced. That’s the only one I can readily recall although I’m sure there must have been many, my brain has probably shut them out in despair.

Mia: Tell us about your wedding dress

Gloria: It wasn’t only my wedding dress, it had travelled down the aisle many times before my big day.Clothes were still rationed at that time so I borrowed it from a neighbour’s daughter-in -law so I could use my coupons on my trousseau.

It was made of lace, slim fitting with a skirt that flared slightly from the waist with a small train at the back. It was slit centre front from waist to hem – opening to show a satin skirt beneath. The sleeves were long and finished in a point over the top of the hand. There was a sweetheart neckline held back by orange blossom sprigs which matched the head-dress which held a veil made of pure silk.

Mia: Who do you think were/are the best dressed celebrities – past and present?

Gloria:As an older woman I very much admire Judy Dench’s evening wear. She always seems to get it right – no mutton dressed as lamb here. The skimming coat styles in very soft shades she favours are beautifully cut and are so elegant. From the younger celebrities I’d choose Angelina Jolie – but with that figure she could hardly fail could she?

4272750800_7b4225ef04_oMia: Do you think men used to make more of an effort with their appearances than they do now?

Gloria: Not really,because men appear to be buying more clothes and hair and skin products nowadays but, just as do women, they don’t always go as far as they could.

Because of the war, during my party days most men were in uniform so always looked smart and clean, therefore I suppose it’s inevitable that any comparison I make would be in their favour. Although I like the longer hair worn just above the collar by men today, it can look nice as long as it’s clean and has been within rage of a brush at least once for the day, anything longer – to my mind at least is treading the girlie path.

And excuse me, but haven’t jeans become the uniform of the day for the majority, despite the assertions of the hordes who profess a hate of conformity or uniform? Is a Tshirt or baggy jumper that unusual?

OK. I know they’re said to be comfortable for everyday wear, but I’ve seen those people pictured lying on the floor and using a coat hanger to zip them up over their tums so hold serious doubt as to the truth of that! The fact also exists that because of the tough nature of denim, they were originally the wear of workmen employed in dirty jobs so don’t necessarily leap to my mind when fashion is mentioned

I know it’s an old-fashioned view but, surely to be considered truly smart, the outfit should suit the occasion?

nowMia: What do you make of modern high street fashion?

Gloria: Very mixed feelings here. Most of it I think is okay, because so much of today’s fashion is reminiscent of clothes I once wore myself. Having said that though, I’m not at all taken with the awful boxy squared off hip line that I’m seeing in the shops lately. That’s one style that will certainly bring a resounding ‘Yes!!’ to the question ‘Does my bum look big in this?’.

I’ve always loved sparkle, so I’m pleased there’s plenty of that around. After seeing a famous film star in a black sequined sheath dress when I was about nine years old, I resolved to have one just like it when I grew up. Unfortunately the war intervened and sequins were few and far between for a long time, so I never did get the dress of my dreams when I was young.

The nearest I got to it was the dress I bought to attend Rebecca’s [that’s my little sis, fact fans – Mia] ‘Young Woman of The Year Award’ ceremony. That had a midnight blue, sequined lace bodice topping a floaty skirt – not quite the elegant sheath I’d longed for, but a step in the right direction, and it covered the lumps and bumps which had been mysteriously collecting around my hips over the years more kindly than any shift would have done. Now I have loads of sparkles in my wardrobe but only a few occasions when I can show them off! Ah well – such is life.

Sad to say, I don’t think the majority of people make the most of themselves often enough and are content to slop around in jeans and shapeless tops or jumpers, no make-up and scarcely bothering with their hair during the day. Fine for the house to my mind and I’m as guilty as anyone on that score, but hardly good enough to venture forth in every day for work and certainly not for the theatre!

I don’t know quite how it has happened but, although people will dress up for clubs and restaurants, the theatre seems no longer to warrant the suits and pretty clothes it did in the past when the audience added glamour of its own to the occasion. Nowadays it’s not unusual to be seated beside someone who could have arrived there straight from their workplace, scruffy jeans and all! And if that makes me sound an old fashioned prig – then so be it.

My thinking is that we owe it to the people we encounter during the day to look nice; after all they’re the ones with little choice but to look at us and what they see is the person we present to them, so in all fairness it should be an agreeable presentation.

Mia: Is there an essential fashion item you think all stylish girls should own?

Gloria: An absolutely plain shift dress in a fine woollen clerical grey material was the basis of dozens of outfits for me. Accessories made it look different every time I wore it.

9 Responses

  1. Emma Louise

    Great interview! I completely agree that the vast majority of people just don’t put the effort in these days. I wish we could go back to a time when everyone dressed up every day!
    Your Grandmother sounds like a very stylish lady.

  2. Rebecka

    What a fantastic interview! Wish I had my grandmothers left to share their experiences and views with me. Thanks for sharing, Mia.

  3. Catwalk Creative Vintage

    A most interesting read! How lucky to have such a wonderful (and super-stylish) grandma. I totally agree with Gloria’s comments about modern day girls not making the most of themselves. Spending just 10 minutes on yourself can make a huge difference. 🙂 A fascinating read. Thank you.

  4. Lilac

    Great interview. Can’t wait to hear what the other grandma has to say! And totally agree about the sad lack of proper dressing for the theatre… sadly it’s even worse in Australia than the UK!

  5. Melony

    I enjoyed reading your interview very much. I would love to see hats come back around in my life time. Your grandmother describes them so beautifully, and they seemed to add such femininity and class to any outfit. Here in Texas, men seem to wear the hats…ballcaps and cowboy hats…but sadly, girls just aren’t seen in hats that much.

  6. carley

    Realy enjoyed this interview, thank you. I also long for the day that hats, gloves and dressing to suit an occasion’ become ‘the done thing’ once more. Its a shame more people don’t take the time to learn direct from their grandparents about their life and the world they grew up in.

  7. Tarah!

    Your nan rules! Our grandparents lived through such a hard time, yet always managed to stay incredibly stylish. Some of my most treasured belongings came from my Nana and great grandmother, I wear these items with pride.