Remembering the Fifties: Needles and Pins

By Lindsey-Jane, 70. Adelaide, SA

Back in the fifties, many people were home sewers. Department stores and drapers’ shops were chock full of rolls of beautiful fabrics in a vast array of colours and designs. One of the best sewers was my Nanna. Ever since I was old enough to remember, she’d made dresses for me and my two girl cousins. She embellished our frocks (remember calling them frocks?) with intricate smocking, the finest feather stitching and perfectly applied braids. I always took great care of my dresses, even when I’d long since grown out of them. One or two of them I was even able to dress my daughter in, when she was of equivalent age. I’m not sure whether my cousins had theirs for so long, but I took great pride in looking after all my belongings: clothes, shoes, books and toys and I was able to enjoy them for a long time.

At some stage, my Nanna was living with my Mum’s older sister, Auntie Mary, and their house was only a mile or so away from ours and within a comfortable walking distance on a pleasant day. Nanna and my Auntie Mary shared a sewing room, which I loved as it always seemed to be filled with lengths of crisp cotton fabrics and I’d just revel in their feel, smell and colours. Paper patterns were displayed across the table too, alongside the trusty Singer sewing machine which hummed busily when in use. Besides the fabrics, cards of rick-rack braid and Broderie Anglaise were strewn across the table.

My auntie was also a good sewer and for that matter, so was my Mum, who also used to make some of my dresses. But Nanna was the absolute best and the go-to person for a special outfit. However, she was a noisy dressmaker, as she frequently managed to jab her fingers with pins or needles and she’d yell out Ow-Aah, bally thing! at the top of her voice. This was as close as she ever came to swearing. I think you could have heard her all over the house; maybe up the street as well. My cousins Rosemary and Margaret and I used to giggle at this, until Nanna had to fit something onto us and then we’d get accidentally jabbed by a pin. That soon made us stop giggling.

1960s paper patterns. (Image courtesy of Witness2Fashion)

On some occasions, Nanna would be making a dress for all three of us at the same time, for a family occasion such as a wedding or Christmas. The fabric was usually identical, but the style varied according to our individual tastes with the addition of a collar, sleeves or even a different colour. Nanna used to get into a bit of a ‘tiz’ and would call us by name to come inside for a fitting, but she’d forget who it was she needed and yell out each of our names — Ro (Rosemary), Marg (Margaret) or Linney-Jane (me) — so we all came running. You didn’t keep Nanna waiting when she was ready to do a fitting. She always worked it out in the end and each of us had a lovely dress to wear. How we loved to show off our dresses to envious friends. These paper patterns, although early 1960s styles, were very similar to the designs of the late fifties.

Talking of clothes reminds me of the little Betsy McCall cardboard cut-out doll in the McCall’s magazine, which was available on newsstands at the time, I think from 1951 to the eighties. My Mum often bought this magazine to read in the train if she’d been coming home from the city and if I was with her, I’d always make her turn to the Betsy McCall page first for the latest additions to Betsy’s wardrobe, which was enviably vast. There was usually a theme. For instance, a sailor dress, a party dress or a flower girl dress for a wedding. I loved cutting out her clothes and carefully folding the tabs onto her cardboard frame. Betsy McCall was very pretty in  a little girl way and never made to look like a teenager or beauty queen with inappropriate make up or hair. Betsy was just Betsy and little girls loved her, as did I. I fell in love with her sailor collar dress and so much so that I told my Nanna, who said she’d make one for me. My cousins then wanted one, too.

I also enjoyed other aspects of McCalls magazines; scenes from family life in America, featuring food, houses and holiday spots. It made me wonder about lives in other parts of the world, which later I was fortunate enough to sample in reality. My book titled Here, There and Everywhere: Memoirs of an Air Hostess reflects lifestyles in other parts of the world.

I was delighted when at about the age of seven or eight, my Nanna discovered a new dressmaker, a
French-Algerian lady called Mrs Cabelli. I guess there were times when my Nanna liked to have someone to sew for her, too. Mrs Cabelli lived in a nearby suburb and she had a handsome son, Andre, who I had a secret crush on, even at seven. My Nanna and my Mum both had dresses made by Mrs Cabelli and one day I was allowed to have one made, too. I remember it well. The fabric was a white background with fine red vertical stripes and an absolutely gorgeous big white organdy collar with a frill around the edge. It made me think of a carnation. I recall standing in front of Mrs Cabelli’s long mirror, swishing the skirt of my new dress and Mrs Cabelli smiling indulgently and remarking that I was a lot like a little French girl — a bit vain and with a love of good clothes. I remembered that for a long time, savouring the idea that I was like a little French girl. I just loved the Cabellis and thought they were fascinating and exotic.

To this day, I think that my Nanna’s sewing, Betsy McCall, and Mrs Cabelli — and of course my Mum’s sense of fashion and style — shaped the part of my character that loves clothes and fashion. I’m thankful to every one of them.

Recently, my Mum showed me one of her early dresses made for her by Nanna when she was ten or eleven. It’s a floral dress and exquisitely smocked. It’s now eighty years old and, of course, my Mum treasures it. I also saw a photo of her wearing it and she looked beautiful.

My cousins and I were quite competitive, as many little girls are. Whenever they came to our house, the first thing they did was to open the doors of my wardrobe and check out my dresses. I think they thought, being an only child at the time, I was spoilt and that I had lots of extra clothes that they didn’t know about. I thought they were a bit cheeky and so did my mum.

The white dress I’m wearing in the photo to the left isn’t one which was made for me, but bought at my then- favourite children’s wear shop on Unley Road, Unley. It was called Bambi. I fell in love with this dress when I saw it in the window and my mum and dad, bless them, as they didn’t have much money, purchased it for me. It was nylon with tiny stars embossed on the fabric, lacy tucks across the bodice, puff sleeves and Peter Pan collar, and a sash at the back. I still have it and my daughter, now 35, wore it to the baptism of my son when she was six.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Lindsey-Jane’s ‘Hands Up — Who Remembers the Fifties?’ series entitled “There’s a Hole in Our Airbus”. In the meantime, enjoy some of the author’s other stories, below.

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