CLOAKS, BOATERS AND JOLLY JAPES
Writer Julie Welch recalls a school uniform untouched by the 1960s fashion revolution
Ican remember so clearly everything that happened to me at Felixstowe College in the early 1960s, when the world was quite different to how it is now. When school was a place of weird and wonderful rules and happenings that seemed perfectly normal at the time; when the headmistress and the head of science raced each other on public roads in their sports cars; when fire practice involved abseiling down the walls; when having meringues for your birthday tea instead of plain cake was branded ‘disgraceful’.
Felixstowe College was a beautiful school set by the sea on England’s east coast. It was based in the Old Town, where retired colonels and rich widows lived – the sort of characters who get murdered in Agatha Christie whodunnits. Along the seafront and clifftops were vast luxury hotels as well as privately owned villas and mansions that, by the time I joined, had been taken over by the college. While the world beyond its borders was exploding into a starburst of pop music, fashion and sexual freedom, we played local lacrosse derbies against St Felix School, Southwold, attended compulsory classical music concerts and wore thick Nora Batty stockings. We were taught how to hold a plate and a glass and an umbrella. Each week there was a set period for public speaking – because one day we would be the women who gave votes of thanks at church fêtes and, if we met someone important, we’d know what to do.
In this extraordinary world of jolly japes with your chums, terrifying prefects and twice-a-day chapel, we were taught by spinsters, made intense, passionate friendships and learnt how to curtsey to the Queen. We were forbidden by ‘Jonah’ – Miss Jones, our formidable headmistress – from wearing satchels on our backs because that was what day-school girls did. Jonah was absolutely adamant that we should never be mistaken for day-school girls. We were better than that – we wore boaters, not berets, and cloaks instead of coats. The boaters were made of stiff grey straw with a flat, shallow crown – and were completely useless as a hat. You might as well have stuck a pile of LPs on your head. If you tried wearing one at a fetching angle, a house mistress would yank it straight. FELIXSTOWE COLLEGE, SUFFOLK, 1961 Trunks to be dispatched two or three days before travelling if sent by rail or British Road Services. This list to be sent back on top of trunk.
Everything must be marked by Cash’s woven name tapes and returned to school in good repair. Shoes and regulation uniform to be obtained from Harrods Ltd, Knightsbridge, London. Parents are earnestly requested to place orders for uniforms as early as possible so that every pupil arrives at school fully equipped.
My uniform list ran to four pages. I had never known you needed so many clothes. Everything was required, from ‘gym to hymn’. The undies were multitudinous. Five vests, three brassieres and two suspender belts. Two white petticoats. Three pairs of nylon grey crepe stockings – they concertinaed around your ankles and the North Sea wind always found the gap of bare flesh between their tops and your pants. On which subject, six pairs of white cotton linings and three pairs of grey gym knickers – known as ‘grey bags’, they were worn over your white linings at all times.
The accessories took up a whole page. Two pairs of winter gloves – leather for Sundays, grey wool for the rest of the week. One linen bag, one brush and comb bag and contents, two face flannels, one sponge bag and toilet requisites. Six coat hangers, one school satchel, one music case (‘if music taken’), one Bible (‘prayer and hymn book combined, purchased at school’), one well-equipped work case for mending, one clothes brush. God knows how many hats and squillions of shoes – you’d need to be a centipede to get proper wear out of them. But I was entranced. I was going to have my own umbrella.
There were things on that uniform list I would wear only once, or never: black wellies, a white sun hat, a grey flannel coat for chapel in summer – and white cotton gloves to go with it. Not to mention stuff I thought only old ladies needed: one writing case and contents; a bed jacket.
Off we went in Mummy’s Ford Anglia to Knightsbridge and parked in Hans Crescent behind the store. The uniform department was under the control of Mrs du Cann. Her status was too elevated for her to appear on the shop floor, but she would traipse up to Felixstowe every year to measure us up for the next tranche of uniform, because not only would we all have grown but something new was always being introduced. Even the bog-standard Harrods assistant was quellingly posh. Our accents went up a couple of registers as she laid all the clothes on the counter like precious bounty.
Everything looked so expensive and felt so nice – wool, cotton, gabardine, Harris tweed. My house tie was striped grey and red, patterned diagonally to brand me as a Ridley [one of the boarding houses]. I had a grey tunic and three cream blouses. I had a grey afternoon dress – to change into for dinner, like an aristocrat in a stately home. It was made of fine wool and pleated from shoulder to waist. Girls with big busts opened them up like an accordion. Despite this, the effect (obviously intentional) was to make you look completely sexless. The dress featured a white Peter Pan collar that had to be attached by tiny buttons. You had to make sure that every button the laundry removed was sewn back on after cleaning. There was always somebody at supper with their collar hanging by a couple of buttons because all the rest had come off. The dress fastened at the side with hooks and eyes. These often fell off too, partly because Cawley (one of our house mistresses) would rip the dress open to check that you were wearing a vest.
There was Sunday best, of course. It included a squishy felt hat and tweed coat to be worn over the A-line dress of carmine-red wool, which would turn out to be itchy and on hot days would dye your armpits pink. A grey mac, too. There were games socks, a cardigan. A thick V-neck sweater. An overall for art – ringing the changes by being a good plain green. Grey flappy shorts called ‘divided skirts’ for games.
For everyday wear there was a splendid cloak – grey with a scarlet flannel lining and a hood. I tried it on and was completely shrouded, with my feet sticking out at the bottom.
‘I look like someone hiding behind a pair of curtains,’ I complained.
‘We have to allow for growth, don’t we,
We played lacrosse, wore thick Nora Batty stockings and were taught how to hold an umbrella
dear,’ said the assistant. ‘How does it do up?’ I asked, after flapping the sides for a few moments. ‘Where are the buttons? What happens when the weather gets cold?’
‘I could sew a zip in,’ offered my mother.
‘Oh, you mustn’t do that,’ said the assistant. ‘It’s against the rules.’
Amazingly, in 1960, our uniform had been featured in Tatler, in an article called ‘The New English Schoolgirl’. ‘Felixstowe College has had a complete change of outfit since the war,’ and, golly, ‘most of the uniform was designed by the art mistress’. That was Mrs Holditch, who might have been quite a girl in her day but, when we were there, was old, stout and tetchy. She tottered around in baggy tops and skirts to hide all the pendulous bits. Who knew she was a secret Schiaparelli?
Our red dress featured in the Tatler article, along with our winter games kit, which included a natty cricket-type sweater: ‘Long red socks provide a splash of colour. For swimming they can choose their own costumes (bikinis barred). Felixstowe is go-ahead and democratic [if hollow, incredulous laughter sounds in your ears, that would be mine]. Senior girls receive make-up lessons from representatives of famous cosmetic firms and the school employs three permanent hairdressers.’
The star turn was a tussore silk dress. I gawped at it. It was the kind of thing you dreamt of owning – although perhaps not with quite so many tucks, frills, darts and flounces. Frightfully old-fashioned. Almost heritage. Felixstowe College girls had worn tussores since 1929, when the school was founded. The tussore had been through the rise of Nazi Germany; it had celebrated VE day, the Festival of Britain and the coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II. It was still on the uniform list when the Rolling Stones brought out their first single in the summer of 1963. The Stones wore T-shirts and their trousers left nothing to the imagination. We were still stuck in our frilly, sashed tussores. Would they never go? At last they did – to be replaced by a grey and white striped shirt-waister. Now we all looked like 1950s housewives. At least we were only ten years out of date.
Around the same time the panama hats – dreary in the extreme – went, too. Good riddance. We danced on the lawn, snipping them to pieces. We cut holes in them and pulled our hair through. Instead we had our boaters. They weren’t nearly as comfortable to wear, but ‘ il faut souffrir pour être belle,’ as our French and Spanish teacher Miss Sanford advised us.
We loved our boaters. When we went on a coach trip we’d wait until we reached the first roundabout and then someone would shout ‘Hats off !’ and everyone hurled them in the air. And they made our school very distinctive – no way could we have been mistaken for state-school girls. Soon Jonah got a call from Mrs Oakley, the headmistress of St Felix, our big rival just along the coast, with a view to introducing them there. ‘Are those boaters any good?’ asked Mrs Oakley. ‘Complete waste of time,’ barked Jonah. ‘Keep having to send the boatman out to fetch them when they blow into the sea.’ So St Felix carried on with the dreary panamas. One up to Jonah.
* * * * *
After the uniform had been tried on and paid for, my mother and I took the lift to the restaurant on the fourth floor. It was time for the main event: a smorgasbord in the Hans Buttery. Our first ever. Up until then a mushroom omelette in the restaurant on the top floor of DH Evans had done us nicely. But the woman and her daughter who lived next door had been swanking on for sodding months about the Harrods smorgasbord, with tales of smoked eel, mortadella sausage, cold salmon (real, not tinned) and coronation chicken, with mayonnaise, not salad cream. It was the hugest, laden- est buffet in existence. It was wonderful. I went for a second helping. And then another. And there was still pudding to come. I ended up so stuffed with food I could barely move. But my mother was happy, and therefore so was I. We were now on an equal footing with the house next door. And their daughter only went to Wycombe Abbey. Which hadn’t been in Tatler.
This is an edited extract from Too Marvellous for Words by Julie Welch, published by Simon & Schuster, price £14.99*
My uniform list ran to four pages. The accessories took up a whole page
One of Julie’s fellow pupils at Felixstowe College, putting her uniform through its paces during the ‘big freeze’ of 1962-3
The Felixstowe College uniform in a 1960 issue of The Tatler & Bystander, above. Julie, with her parents, in 1961 on her first day at college, left