Something Wholesale by Eric Newby


published 1962



Something Wholesale 1



[Eric Newby is trying to sell his line of clothes to Scottish shopkeepers, and has shown them georgette gowns]

Miss McAndrew said ‘Our customers for the most part spend their time in outdoor pursuits. They need fine checks for indoors and really thick tweeds for the hills.’

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There was not a moment to lose. I picked up one of Mr Wilkins’ swatches of suit patterns. They were fine saxonies intended for men’s suits and because of this they were three times as expensive as the materials I would normally have used.

‘That’s what we want, Mr Newby,’ one of them said instantly. ‘Now all we need are three simple styles in which they can be made…. We could also have the dresses made with jackets. But no padding in the shoulders.’

Something Wholesale 3‘And horn buttons,’ said her sister.

Two-pieces. Our ladies require them for shooting.’

For a moment I had an insane desire to ask what.

‘This is the kind of material we need’ she went on, looking through a swatch of 21 ounce tweeds intended for gamekeepers.

I calculated that two thicknesses of the 20-ounce tweed would be almost bulletproof.



Something Wholesale 5


commentary: The selling trips are one of the great delights of this book – young Mr Newby falls into all kinds of trouble, dealing with the buyers, handling the baskets of clothes and at one point taking part in a fashion show.

This book is an old favourite because of the clothes theme, and my friends Lucy Fisher and Daniel Milford Cottam have both reminded me several times that I must re-read and blog on it… and of course they were absolutely right.

Something Wholesale 4

Newby wrote on many other subjects, travel books and war memoirs included, and in this one – subtitled My Life and Times in the Rag Trade –young Eric comes back from WW2 (where he spent some time as a prisoner-of-war) and, it is assumed, will go into the family business of wholesale ladies’ clothing. The book relates his adventures, and is very funny, but also has a note of melancholy as you realize the business is obviously on the way out: the world is changing. It’s a stunning picture of a certain kind of London life, small Dickensian offices, cramped premises, rickety wood staircases, cellars and basements. He portrays that beautifully – in fact this is something he has in common with crime writer Margery Allingham of all people. Both of them could bring a small London street or alley alive, with grotesques and romantics and dusty old men and sharp young women.


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It is an absolute treasure trove of clothes descriptions – ‘a nice bit of crepe’ here, a beautifully-made but hideously over-decorated outfit for Eric’s poor wife there, Persian lamb coats and hats on the buyers. And in the most symbolic way possible, it is all going to be wiped out with the arrival of Christian Dior’s New Look: the final nail in the coffin of Lane and Newby’s. Eric will have to find something else to do with his life.

He writes a lot about his family life, and although it is as amusing as all his writing, his great affection for his father is not shared by the reader. Mr Newby Sr sounds like a complete piece of work, and one who would’ve brought his business to a standstill without even the help of Dior…

I found all kinds of lovely tweed clothes for this post: once I started looking I couldn’t stop. Most of them far too smart and fancy for the Scottish ladies out shooting of course.

Top picture from the Ladies Home Journal in the late 40s.

Tweed suit from the NYPL.

Twinset and tweed on a bicycle (a picture that for some reason blogger has picked out to be forever on the right hand side of this blogpage) is from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.

Tweed coats are on race-goers in Queensland, from the state archives.





















Comments

  1. Just from this little bit you shared, I can see how you'd love all of the clothes descriptions, Moira. Lots of great stuff there! And going on buying trips - that really sounds like a fun, interesting part of the novel. It's a part of the retail world I know little about. And the setting helps, too. Little wonder this is one you've liked for a long time.

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    1. It is a lovely book, and I think anyone would find it funny and entertaining, but obviously special opportunities for me to enjoy it with all the clothes...

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  2. This does sound very good, Moira, for a look at the time it portrays. I haven't read anything by Eric Newby.

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    1. He mostly wrote travel books, that's what he was famous for, and has a lovely style. You would like the post-War London setting I think.

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    2. Great piece and yes, it must be one of the most atmospheric and detailed books about England just after the war. I have never forgotten the description of Wanda in her new outfit looking like 'the wife of the oldest man in the world, in the Anatolian mountains'.

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    3. It is the funniest book. He has a great way with characters and clothes.

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  3. I enjoyed this book but found it as sad as it was funny. I read it before "Love and War in the Appenines" which may have influenced my outlook.

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    1. I know what you mean - I had remembered it as just entertainment, but on re-reading it was surprised by the melancholy air. And by how much I disliked his father...

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    2. Yes, he's so irritating! Detached from reality in some ways - keeping ALL copies of all publications he reads, in the cellar, and refusing to modernise. But at the same time he knows the business - ripping through Eric's first collection and telling him which dresses will be too expensive to manufacture - "Mark them off and sell them to madam shops".

      I'm sure I've mentioned "Madame Dalgleish" of Haslemere...


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    3. yes, anyone being truly, perfectly knowledgeable always makes for great reading. More info on Madame Dalgleish always welcome.

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    4. There is info on madam shops in my book Fashion in the 1950s!

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    5. Another reason to enjoy, Daniel.

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    1. Yes, do if you can, I can recommend it unreservedly. I think you would love it.

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  5. I remember loving this book - and Wanda's awful costume stands out in my memory. Does anyone wear tweed suits now? I expect the Queen does! Where would you buy one? I expect you'd have to have it made. I love the idea of one being practically bullet-proof.

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    1. It's an interesting question, given how universal they were back in the day. When I'm looking at old photos I am often struck by the way everyone is in a tweed suit at some event - and there are pictures of the Mitford sisters and the Kennedy girls all in a line at, say, the races. (not that they would've called it a suit - a 'costume', or a 'coat and skirt'). Maybe those old-fashioned outfitters that sometimes have a Royal warrant - mostly men's clothes but will do some women's. Or in Scotland...

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    2. "Tailor-mades". Expensive to buy, but they were meant to last for years, worn with cashmere or lambs' wool sweaters and silk scarves.

      My mother had us made one each, that we quickly grew out of. Emma's was brown and orange, mine was lilac and had a beautiful striped "shell" blouse to go with it. Early 60s.

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    3. As late as that? I remember Nancy Mitford's young marrieds knitting sweaters to 'go with but not to match' their tweed skirts. The lilac sounds lovely. Mind you, we still had an 'interview suit' when I was going for my first jobs... A few years later I was wearing a vintage dress for interviews.

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  6. Susanna Tayler24 May 2018 at 16:07

    I enjoyed this a great deal (particularly the terrible trip to "Throttle & Fumble" in Sheffield) - it is very funny but also captures the grimness and griminess of post-war Britain really well. Mr Newby senior does indeed sound utterly exasperating, but I do like his preferred epithet "SILLY KITE".

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    1. Yes, it combines humour and entertainment with a real picture of the world, he is a very clever writer. I think we must be glad that he went into writing rather than clothes! And yes Mr N Sr did have his moments.

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  7. Yay! Always a treat to be reminded of this - which is possibly one of the most remarkable resources for dealing with this particular aspect of British fashion at a time of history in which not an awful lot has been recorded, falling as it did between the War Years (with LOADS OF RECORDS) and the New Look upheaval (VERY DISTRACTING). I love this book for the valuable insights.

    While I'm here - just wanted to say - I have a third book due out in October, so keep an eye out for Fashion in the 1970s! I'm particularly pleased about that, because there's not been an awful lot written about 1970s fashion from a serious(ish) general perspective. Lots of specific focuses on designers and movements, less so on general overviews....

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    1. Just a quick reply to make sure I get notified of new replies!

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    2. Yes, there are details here that you couldn't make up or work out for yourself, a real treasure house.
      I JUST found your previous book, tucked away on my shelves, and was thinking, have you got time to do a guest blog on it....? Any time!

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    3. Is that the 1950s book? I would be very happy to do something for you, I'd love to know your take on it too and what you thought of it. Edwardian Fashion has had a lot of lovely feedback, and I think my favourite review (from Amazon US) was the six-word epithet "Slim, but intelligent and well-illustrated."

      Any particular aspect you'd like me to approach or write about? Drop me an email if you still have it and let's discuss.

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    4. Great. I have a Yahoo address, will email you on that.

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  8. What a nice surprise. I found it at my library, dated 2010.

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    1. oh good for you! I am confidently going to assert that you will love it.

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