London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

published 1945   Chapter 39

Because she wanted to do things properly she took the bus straightaway to Oxford St. There were other shops south of the river that would have done quite as well – Brixton and Clapham, for instance, were full of small, select dress-shops called Yvonne and Sybille St Clair and that sort of thing. But today Mrs Josser wanted to be sure of a real West End cut. Sometimes the little shops skimped you under the arms, or tried to get away with a false hem if the stuff had been running a bit short. She was taking no risks and went straight to Bourne and Hollingsworth’s….

But even at Bourne’s it wasn’t easy. There was such a selection. The assistant unhooked a likely half-dozen and then, when Mrs Josser was still undecided, went back for more. The little alcove of mirrors in the fitting-room revealed Mrs Josser in a variety of guises – as a very elderly schoolgirl, as a young matron, as a rather skittish dowager. In the end Mrs Josser decided on the first one that the assistant had shown her. It was a simple little blue two-piece

observations: This is indeed an important moment, because Mrs J is preparing to meet her daughter’s future in-laws. Doris is engaged to Bill, and neither set of parents is truly thrilled, and the meal out could be a minefield. In the end, the two mothers will turn up in the same outfit – seen as a disaster, though not much is then made of it, and at least it would suggest that both women pitched their choice of garment just right.

This is a hugely enjoyable book – 700 pages of life in south London from 1938 to 1940, following the varied occupants of a lodging-house through a range of life experiences and the outbreak of war. It is very funny, and absolutely fascinating as a sociological document. It was published not long after the years in which it was set, but it is chockfull of details which you would expect more in a well-researched novel written 20 or 30 years later – Collins tells us how much things cost (3-guineas for Mrs J’s outfit, for example) and what the streets look like and what people wear and do. Family budgeting arrangements get full attention, and make riveting reading. (Honestly.)

Links on the blog: The Chaperone goes shopping in New York, and this picture of a corset shop is a perennial favourite with blog readers. A mother-of-the-bride outfit is described here.

The picture of some proper clothes-shopping is from the Florida State Archives.


  1. Moira - Oh, I really enjoy novels like that, that show us as much as anything else what a society is like. And if you can say that a novel of 700 pages is hugely enjoyable and also has riveting elements, that's saying something! Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the look at shopping when one went to dressmaking establishments instead of ordering online. ;-)


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