[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.’
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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
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.