CLOAKS, BOATERS AND JOLLY JAPES

Writer Julie Welch re­calls a school uni­form un­touched by the 1960s fash­ion rev­o­lu­tion

The Mail on Sunday - You - - News -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.