A self-funded art and research project by Gillian Lawrence, artist and resident in Leyton, east London.
June 2015-May 2016
Exhibition dates March 2016
To investigate why headscarves amongst UK born women, now aged 66 and more, became uncommon.
To pay homage to a generation of UK born women who lived in the UK during the 1950s
To enhance the self-esteem of older women as they participated in the research sharing their personal memories and opinions.
To celebrate 1950s headscarf- wearing with art and photography.
To appreciate the designs and the textiles.
The catalogue of paintings. Acrylic on canvas unless otherwise stated
Nude in a headscarf 60 x 80 cm17/10/15
Nattering in the moonlight 1953 Acrylic on card
Mrs Ernest Saunders nee Peggy Butcher 40x40cm
Coronation 1953 Scarf 30 x 30 x1.5cm
Floral scarf with a.n.other
Housewives queueing. 40 x 40cm
Mrs Dench and Mrs Butcher 25 x 25 x 1.5 cm
Pushing back my hair 20 x 25 x 1.5cm
Words 1 (darning) 40 x 30cm
Words 2 (larder) 60 x 50 cm
Red Lipstick 40 x 40 cm
Floral headscarf plus a.n.other 30 x 40 cm oil and acrylics 12/11/15
The Beverley Sisters 1956 30 x 40cm 12/11/15
Bride in a headscarf 25 x 30 cm 12/11/15
Fish and Headscarves 60 x 80cm 12/10/15
Modesty 24 x 30 x 4cm 19/10/15
Mrs Betty Clayden 74 x 100 cm acrylic on hardboard.
Homeward 20 x 25 cm acrylic on canvas board.
1950 inspired 1
1950 inspired 2
1950 inspired 3 4 5 6
RAGWORKS Woman in a headscarf having cocktails 4ft x 2 ft on recycled cloth
Colours when I was young. 50 x 70 cm
4 x Hessian bags 1950 design inspired.
4 linen bags 1950 design inspired.
Vera Lawrence of Clapton
At my Mother’s Knee. 50 x 70 cm
Summer Holiday aka Euphemia Pitcher nee Drever 30 x 30cm.
Nattering in peach. 41 x 60 cm
How the research was done:-
I posted and emailed questionnaires to women I knew or knew through introducing myself on Facebook at specific sites where I knew older women shared memories and photographs e.g Bethnal Green Memories. They had to be 66 and better and born in the United Kingdom. Once they agreed I emailed the questionnaire as an attachment.
I collated the results and phoned the respondent if I needed clarification.
Use of social media. I joined senior groups’ Facebook pages to find eligible respondents.
Anti-University Now Festival 20th Nov 2015 I invited women I knew to join in an
” Headscarves Chat”
The Claremont Project in Islington, London: community exhibition wall where I am displaying under the theme heading ‘Cultures I belong to’ “Fish and Headscarves.” acrylic on canvas.
No. of questionnaires sent by 16th Dec 2015 34
No. of completed questionnaires received by 16th Dec 2015 19
No. of spoilt or incomplete questionnaires returned 4
By 16th Dec 2015.
No. of unreturned questionnaires (SAEs were provided). 5
No. of unreturned by email 6
Average age of respondents 78
Where the respondents live now
Greater London, Leeds, Westray in Orkney, Norfolk.
Where the respondents grew up.
Greater London, Leeds, Hebden Bridge, Westray. Yorkshire.
Mixed parentage; African-Caribbean and White British.
Out of all respondents 8 wear headscarves defined as a square silk or woollen scarf folded into a triangle and tied under the chin to keep their heads warm and the wind off.
Of all, 7 wore headscarves when younger.
Headscarves were given as presents or bought at The Co-op, Woolworths and market stalls, “stores”.
They were hand washed.
They were worn to the local shops, to the school when taking children, to the markets.
They became less common because….hats became common place and hair was celebrated. Two women answered that they had no idea why women stopped wearing headscarves so much.
Of the respondents 5 thought that mainly working class women wore headscarves.
6 said there was no indication of social class and cited HM The Queen Mother and HM The Queen as having worn headscarves. The Queen still wears them.
I wanted to find out from the women themselves about headscarf wearing.
The main reason given for the demise of the headscarf in some cases was that hats became cheap enough for everyone to buy.. To go to church in a hat was the norm and the headscarf was not considered as suitable on a Sunday.
The most interesting response as to why headscarves were worn was “for modesty.” The word was not explained so I phoned the respondent and was surprised at the explanation. She’d been told as a young woman to wear a headscarf out of doors or she’d have “bedroom hair” meaning she would be like a seductress, a film-star with alluring hair.
One other respondent who still wears a headscarf in 2015 told how her Victorian father refused his daughter to wear headscarves as they “lowered her”.
Less than half of the respondents’ mothers wore headscarves in the fifties .
The results of Headscarves Chat at Hackney Museum 20th Nov 2015
5 women attended and I led a group discussion in the vein of the Anti _University Now ethos. That was that everyone could lead the discussion or abandon it physically at any time.
To allow my guests to freely talk about their herstories I prompted with postcards of my art work, my poem and summaries of my questionnaire which all but one had answered.
We learnt from each other and probed statements. I was aware that there was a strong leaning towards the herstory of the working class woman and a nod to HM The Queen who “wears a headscarf when she’s amongst horses and dogs”.
Working class women shopped every day because they didn’t have fridges. They walked everywhere so headscarves kept their heads warm. They always wore coats too in winter or in summer. With a headscarf they were respectable. They belonged in the fifties to the class of women who would “Make do and mend” who were members of “the deserving poor”. When they got together outside the shops they “nattered” or “jawed” or were “calling”, never “talking” as men did.
If they had had a home perm, a Twink or a Prom, the women used a headscarf to keep it intact for their going out or business outside the home. Sometimes they’d be “all dolled up and nowhere to go”.
We enjoyed the art of May Ayres with drawings of Lesney miniature metal models factory workers and the image led us on to talk about safety in factories and workers wearing scarves for protection from machines. We continued to talk briefly about 1930s mining and the Pitman Painters.
One participant questioned the wearing of headscarves as being a note of fashion as “there was no fashion”. We reminded her of duster coats, utility clothing during WW2 making way for fresh designs and fabrics.
“Who made the headscarves?” was a major question for me. I was contacted by a local historian Bill Bayliss through FaceBook who gave me a short history of the textile mills in the UK immediately post-war. I researched and found out about Bernat Klein in Scotland who took his scarves literally to Woolworth stores in the late 1950s.
At Headscarves Chat we talked about the mystery of the production of headscarves because there weren’t imports immediately post war. No one from the east end had first hand knowledge of scarf manufacture in Hoxton for example because they were too young. “It would be easy for a market trader to stick on a ‘Made In Italy’ label on any scarf” was a light-hearted observation.
“FASHION designer Bernat Klein, who almost single-handedly revived the flagging textiles industry in the post-war Borders, died in 2014 at the age of 91.
One of my first contacts was Julie Hubbard
“Looking back and taking stock of many black and white memories of mother and our way of life in Armley during those hard up times, there were certain things that were steadfast, like fish and chips, mother raiding dads pockets on Saturday night when he came home drunk, mother “calling” at the end of the street and the ever present headscarves that wrapped the varied heads of women, old and young alike.
These headscarves were like rites of passage and had many uses, from keeping mums curlers in place, to a makeshift sling or for sending us girls off to school in when our heads were covered with foul smelling yellow nit lotion… god the humiliation of having to sit in the classroom with mothers silky headscarf wrapped tightly round my head, damp and smelly all day long.
Mother had an array of them.
Thick silky ones, usually for wintertime, cotton ones with a fringe round the edge for summer and later on, chiffon ones… these were pale pastel colours, some had a glittery thread running through them.
Mum usually wore these when her hair was done…those see through squares kept her hair from being messed up by the breeze, all of them smelling of hair lacquer and midnight in Paris.
She had deep auburn hair and wore it short but very high up and apart from hot sunny summer days, she never went out without a head scarf.
My mother was born in 1922 in Leeds to an Irish mother and a British father. Her life was spent in the small back to back houses in Holbeck.
Growing up then, meant that men, women and children stayed firmly within their class, they married within their own circles and aspired to nothing that may have been thought “above their station”.
I remember mother telling me that clothes followed the same theme, depending on age and marital status.
Grandmother wore a shawl to cover her head and as the decades went by, the good old headscarf replaced it.
To me it was a symbol of growing older. My three older sisters who were born in the 1940’s all wore headscarves, just like mother. I remember queuing at the Western Bingo hall in Armley with mother and seeing a sea of headscarves bobbing about in many different guises.
Mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters… I can’t remember those generations of my family without them, out in full force picking children up from school, shopping, in fact any outdoor activity possible.
Women like mother didn’t wear hats, hats were for posh people and headscarves were for “us”.
On refection, these scarves seemed to define the women who wore them and gave them respectability.
For us children, they smelled of mum. Mother gave me one to take with me on my first day at school as a comfort and when she died, I was five again, as I held her scarf up to my face and buried my salty tear stained face into it, trying to find comfort again and hoping she would come hold my hand.
These wonderful headscarves were part of working class life, just as net curtains, donkey stoned steps and tick at the corner shop were.
And of those of us who are lucky enough to remember them, they evoke warm thoughts of mother and a way of life that has long gone, the feel of an involuntary tear tumbling down your cheek as the recollection sucks you in and stings our senses in ways that lodge hard in the memory.”
In October, I interviewed Mrs Betty Clayden who was born in the 1930s at Glenarm Road in Clapton E5. Daily she wears a headscarf and has a beautiful collection from over the years. She offered much information such as the headscarf wasn’t particularly warm as a piece of clothing and showed me the trick she used to double up the layers of cloth on her head. Inside a triangle of headscarf she placed another folded, smaller headscarf to keep her crown warm. She had kept headscarves for years and was proud of a scarf she showed me which had been given to her in Malta by a sailor in 1953. She still has woollen scarves too. Mrs Clayden was an inspiration for my project and in a comfortable home setting, we took photographs of her in various head positions. She gave her time and expertise freely.
The women who wear headscarves now are in their eighties and nineties.
Whilst many women want to contribute they did not want to fill in a questionnaire. I attempted to make meet-ups at community centres but the managers offered me inconvenient times or failed to respond to my requests for time with older people. However I plan to continue with the project until May ending and will collect more views and experiences from the women themselves. And the weather will be warmer for older women to come out to centres. Sometimes it’s difficult to find UK born women who are now senior and able to join in the research.
Women are extremely cooperative about being interviewed informally for example in a supermarket and about having their photo taken. Many do not use emails and the internet (many do) and so I had some difficulty in making second meetings except by chance.
It was sheer happiness to hear women talk about their times when they wore headscarves daily or remembered mothers and aunties doing so. One eighty year old woman reminded me that her own mother was born too early to have been a 1950 headscarf wearer. One woman hated them and so never wore them. Another respondent, too young to be in the target group, wore headscarves to secondary school.
It was very interesting to watch as women re-considered their memories and separated what was second hand material and what they knew and experienced. I had thought for a long time that Silvikrin shampoo in the fifties killed the headscarf. It did not. I had to ask people who knew and not rely on my ideas or Internet.
For me, I was immersed in the project and painted furiously. I was given a book all about 1950 designs. I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum many times and found very little to help my project. I watched 1950 films “Made in Ealing” and through the BFI to catch glimpses of film stars sporting headscarves.
I have never worn a headscarf in my life. I have a collection. My mother Euphemia Pitcher always wore headscarves in the fifties and I kept some of hers and used them as neckscarves in the sixties. My daughters wore them as head wraps in the nineties. I never saw her washing headscarves and they retained her perfume until the end.
During my research my 98 year old Auntie, Margaret (Rita) Townsend who had all her faculties died on the day she received my questionnaire. She was ten years older than my mother and so I missed stories.
I contacted Coldfall School which in the 1950s served the huge working class Coldfall Council Estate and am in touch with older residents. It was wonderful to list the family names of the 1950s but difficult to contact people for many reasons, one being that it is an hugely emotional experience for me. It is a slow process as I have to arrange meetings, travel across London and make contact “out of the blue” with North London residents via Facebook. My father was chairman of the Coldfall Tenants Association at the beginning of the 1960s and probably before that and so seniors may remember his name which allows me to enter their territories.
My grandfather was a Westray born man and I lived on the island from 1999 to 2005 where I met many senior women who wear headscarves and have drawersful of them. They also wear wrap-around pinafores and roll-on stockings.
Some photographs, research notes, paintings (some to be added and all to be credited here yet)
It was proving hard to find photos of housewives in 1955 but gradually people posted post war photos on Facebook sites which accidentally showed women in headscarves. Dr Julia Hubbard, an email correspondent, was an inspiration too and encouraged me to keep researching as women wanted to share wonderful connected memories to their days as younger women and children in in the 1950s.
I never have and still do not like anything on my head. Even just a few years ago my mom would ask me ‘ aren’t you going to put a scarf on?’ when it was windy or raining. Umm…no…didn’t she remember I had a convertible?. She was just aghast that I would want my hair blowing in the wind. LOL
So no hats for me. A cute visor at the fair,…..maybe.”
“Fashion history shows that styles and garments of the fifties and sixties were revolutionised by new fabrics. Many of the 1950’s fabrics were synthesised from petrochemicals. They were promoted for their easy care wash and wear qualities which often meant a quick rinse and drip dry with minimal or no ironing required. Initially they were novel, but expensive materials. Crimplene at first could only be bought in high class Madame shops.
Nylon (Polyamide), Crimplene (Polyester) and Orlon (Acrylic/ Polyacrylonitrile) were all easy to look after and were soon affordable. Crimplene enabled everyone to wear white and pastel colours because they could be washed easily as polyester does not yellow like white nylon does with age and sunlight. The fabric also tailored well and could be made into button front, double breasted, wide collar dresses and retain a crisp appearance through washing.
In the early fifties, America had easier access than the UK to really attractive man made (synthetic, my word) fibre goods. Many UK people had their first nylon goods from America in parcels sent by American pen pals. I recall receiving beautiful silky lemon nylon pyjamas one Christmas and being so excited about them. But best of all, I received the following year a beautiful lemon nylon, tiered party dress even better than the PJs. I will never forget how wonderful that frilled and very pretty dress seemed – Sheila Sapp of Oakland Avenue, Ohio if ever you read this I thank you.”
. Photographed the Ebay scarves and my own precious ones
Barbies waiting for their headscarves…
There you go. I made the cloth fit. Edged the headscarves in blue and painted acrylic onto fabric probably polyester with a) a silky feel and b) thicker cotton/wool mix feel. Note the Kirby Grip. 281215
Elizabeth on w16 bus 050915 89 years old
Mark 2 Nattering in Headscarves 070915
acrylic on canvas 50 x 70 cm.
New hessian bags with acrylic designs influenced by 1950 designs and textiles.
****************************************************************************************** Mrs Clayden’s 1953 scarf .
Mrs Clayden and her woollen scarf.
Experimenting with light and net curtains.
Transformation from an Audrey Hep type image on a jumper circa 1990 to “The Aul Wife” complete with headscarf tied under the chin and the cross-over apron still worn in Westray.
She has the obligatory safety pin on her bosom.
Liked the fabric on my dressing table stool……..
The Poem by me
Time Was When by Gillian Lawrence 2011
In times when trees remained rooted in kerbs
when factories stood boiler-suited on industrial estates
and hooters and sirens began the day
when housewives slammed doors and met
on Marsh Lane corner
each one ring-fingered and triangle head-scarved
each one with pencil and shopping list
a prescription for scraggiest end of mutton
and cheapest marg
we sniffed the lilac and hot black tar.
Our mothers seizing the day
swathed in floral fish finger stain dirt pinafores
brushed us out to stand by working men
We breathed in furnace fumes
to ward off TB
and played Five Jack on paving stones.
Those precious beings, sentries
with their worn-down teeth
and folded cabbage hewn arms
shared our days passed in library vans and playground bells
and stilettoes clip- clopping through alleyways
to hair-wash nights
and corner shop hang-outs
from home-sewn skirts to Press Button B.
Time was when.
Vintage Patterns 1950s published by Batsford 2013
from Marnie Fogg “1950s Fashion Prints” 2010
With thanks to
Leopold Naessens. Photographer and technical support.
Mrs Betty Clayden of Hackney E5.
Vera Lawrence of Upper Clapton.
Emma Winch at Hackney Museum.
Elma Hewison in Orkney.
Mrs Davies. Coldfall School London N10.
Mr Kevin Petty. Site Manager, Coldfall School N10.
Bill Bayliss. Historian
Colin O’Brien Photographer.
Credits. All the photographs here of my work and respondents/participants are my own. Mr Léopold Naessens has kindly photographed professionally all my work and some respondents which will be in a later catalogue.
Conclusion I achieved what I set out to do, to find out about the wearing of headscarves in the 1950s by women who were UK born and are now glorious in their senior years. I enjoyed hearing all their stories and salute them all for these are the same women who brought up families on pennies, who were the anchors in homes and the mothers of all. Bit sentimental and why not? I appreciated all the encouragement and only had to ask for help and it was given. I raised the self-importance of women who have herstories to record and share. I met many women who live alone and we enjoyed chatting over supermarket shelves and laughing together.