I am actually quite proud of my Jane Shilton bag, one of only two authentically vintage items I possess. I attend quite a few vintage fairs but rarely buy anything. Partly this is because there is often not a lot to buy, particularly when it comes to clothes, and sometimes you wonder whether some of the traders have just bought their stock at charity shops, such is the dearth of real vintage pieces. Partly it is because I am eternal procrastinator and turn a piece of, say, costume jewellery over in my hand three times before deciding not to buy it. Mainly, however, it is because I don’t like to haggle.
It was a vintage scene friend who helped me over this hurdle, at Bletchley Park a few years ago. I showed her the handbag I was looking at and she examined it.
“How much is she asking?”
“Fifteen ” I answered.
“It’s probably worth that. Why don’t you offer her ten and bite her hand off if she says twelve.”
I plucked up my courage and did precisely that. For twelve pounds the bag was mine.
It was at my next vintage fair, in Birmingham, a few months later that I saw the Jane Shilton bag, in leather and crocodile, with a strap that can be removed so that it can be use as a clutch. It was priced, coincidentally, at fifteen pounds. This time I had the confidence to ask
“Will you take ten?”
“You are so pretty darling, and look so lovely in that dress, you can have it for ten.”
A lovely new bag and a compliment. Wow! No wonder I am so fond of the bag!
Lockdown prevented me from seeing my friends for a long time. It also gave me a lot of time to think. And I thought a lot about the things I have that one belonged to someone else and how a shared enjoyment of those things can create bonds across generations, across decades. It is not only clothes and accessories. I have an old hardback, Gothic print edition of the poems of Goethe published in Leipzig in 1898. A label in the inside cover proclaims that the book was awarded to Hilda Cornes at King Edwards’s Grammar School for Girls, Aston in December 1901. Hilda was the best in the school at German. I thought about Hilda too.
She must have been born around the mid 1880s. Was she still alive when I was born? Did she ever visit Germany? By the time she retired the country had fought two wars against Germany. How did these affect her? In 1901 it was by no means inevitable that we would end up at war with a country whose royal family were close blood relations of our own. Indeed the British royal family was still proud of its German heritage, its members still spoke the language. And if I had ever met her our common love of the language and of the poetry of Goethe would have given us plenty to talk about. Maybe we would have bonded over Kaffee und Kuchen? In any event I admire anyone who can read that old fashioned Gothic print without difficulty.
I know a little about Hilda, and can surmise other things. About the original owner of my bag I know nothing. Yet I feel closer to her. I put my lipstick in the same bag, mirror, powder compact. When I touch up my make up part way through an evening out, I do exactly what she did. This feels almost like a physical connection.
Statistically she probably married, probably had children, may have had a career, may have been forced to leave her job when she married (it happened back them). Almost certainly she had struggles and frustrations that I never will. She had only limited ways of controlling her fertility, she suffered discrimination. For all the occasional glamour of a night out in a circle dress, clutching the Jane Shilton bag, hers was surely not an easy life.
The 1950s are something of a lost decade. They defy easy categorization. On the one hand, there is the early 50s, Barbara Goalen modelling Dior, tweedy chaps in Jaguar XKs, there are coffee bars and circle skirts in the late 50s, rock and roll and Teddy Boys trashing cinemas, the influence of American pop culture, there are race riots, peasouper fogs, the hanging of Derek Bentley, the persecution of gay men, suffocating social convention, mass protests against the Suez intervention, the Aldermaston marches, in fact a kaleidoscope of contradictions. 1950s Britain was a country undergoing rapid change against the background of a long economic boom whose effects did not reach everyone. In the inner cities many poor people lived in slums until well into the 1960s. Mass vaccination programmes had not succeeded, even by the end of the decade, in eradicating old and feared diseases. The Birmingham City footballer Jeff Hall died of polio in 1959.
This was a confused world, a changing world, a world in which progress and reaction walked together, a world in which a woman bought a Jane Shilton bag and treasured it. . A woman who, I guess, enjoyed her femininity but was acutely conscious of the disadvantages in life those two X chromosomes had given her.
Her life was real. Her struggle was real. She did not live in a vintage theme park. We should all be aware that women stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Our struggles may be different, although many are the same. But they helped make us who we are.
When I pop my lippy and my compact in the bag and head out for a night out with the vintage girls, she is there with me. I reach out to her in sisterly love.