Dressed for success back in the ship-shape days
I joined the newly-named P&O-Orient Lines (the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company had just merged with Orient Line) in January, 1961 after completing a four-year cadetship on a shipping magazine. It was a dream job. I spent the next seven years travelling around Australia promoting sea holidays on the company’s splendid ships. Himalaya, Arcadia, Iberia, Oriana, Canberra, Orsova, Orcades and Oronsay were household names.
There was enormous competition in the industry. Chandris Lines, Flotta Lauro Line, Lloyd Triestino, Matson Lines, Messageries Maritimes and Shaw Savill were all sailing in and out of Sydney. First class at the time was exactly that and going to sea meant having the right outfit for every occasion, from smart-casual resort wear for lunching on deck to glamorous long gowns for formal nights.
This led me to compere fashion parades across the country and some of the venues included the old Farmer’s store in Sydney and Boans in Perth. Catwalks were decorated with mock ship’s railings and lifebuoys, a ship’s horn announced the start of the parades and ladies in the audience wore hats and gloves.
I wrote a pamphlet called A Woman’s World at Sea that was handed out when I spoke to ladies’ clubs, including many branches of the inestimable Country Women’s Association of Australia. One of my helpful hints in that pamphlet would upset many today: “Don’t forget a little fur wrap or woollen stole for after-dance deck-strolling.” There was lots of fur then and lots of romantic deckstrolling.
Wherever I went on the job I was interviewed by local radio and television stations. However, following its policy not to name brands, the ABC would only introduce me as “a lady from a well-known shipping line”. Was it Matson? Or Shaw Savill? The solution was simple.
Hardy Amies, official dressmaker for Queen Elizabeth 11, from her accession to the throne in 1952 until his knighthood in 1989, had designed a smart uniform for P&O FAPS (female assistant pursers). Amies, a member of the Special Operations Executive in World War 11, who was knighted in Belgium in 1946 for his work with the Belgian resistance, had his own British Army uniform tailored on Savile Row.
P&O is moving away from starched uniforms for food and beverage staff with the introduction of The Pantry, an international food court replacing traditional buffets. The big Pantry aprons remind me of being in a New York deli. The bureau, or hotel, uniforms remain the same.
My measurements were sent to Amies in London and back came a navy skirt and blazer and crisp white shirt -all a perfect fit. Years later when I was editor of Vogue Living I interviewed Amies at his elegant four-storey 1880 house in Kensington. I mentioned I was the proud owner of one of his designs. He was horrified.
“I am so terribly sorry,” he apologised. “I always remember my clients.”
He was greatly relieved when I told him I was just one of hundreds who had his FAPS uniform.
For me, the most important part of that uniform was the navy and white hat. It had the company’s large and distinctive badge on the front.
When I was to be interviewed by the ABC I wore my Amies creation and when “a lady from a well-known shipping line” was introduced, I would lower my head so that the emblem was in full view of the camera. Then I would peer up from under the brim to speak to the presenter. The art of dipping one’s head and coyly looking up was perfected, much later, by Diana, Princess of Wales.