Aunt Clara by Noel Streatfeild
The lady high school rider [a fellow circus performer] had told Julie that if a gentleman asked you out, and said he wasn’t wearing evening dress, you couldn’t go wrong in a nice black dress under your coat. Charles did not know that night about the lady high school rider, but without knowing it he backed her taste. The utility copy of a model chosen for Julie suited her beautifully. It outlined her figure and toned down her brassy hair. The lady high school rider had told Julie that by changing accessories you could make the same dress look different each time you wore it. For these changes Julie had a sash with roses attached, for one occasion, and matching green beads, earrings and chiffon handkerchief for another.
It was chance she left these adornments for another night, and so Charles first saw her as he had dreamed she would look.
[later] the lady high school rider had stated that blue was sweetly pretty as well as classy for a young girl’s first evening dress. So Julie had bought a utility frock in taffeta, the original model of which , though this was not known to the lady high school rider, had been outstanding for its simplicity of line.
commentary: I concentrated on circuses in my first post on this book yesterday (here for more about the plot and characters), but it wouldn’t be a Streatfeild book without clothes discussions. Julie has grown up in the circus, and is now a performer, but has to come to London and start running round like a woman of fashion. What could be more a Noel S situation? She is also going to have to learn a few more lessons – to stop dying her hair blonde, and to try to talk in a more upmarket way. Her accent has to be smoothed out, and her vocabulary improved:
She had seen pain on Clara’s face when in a teashop she had called the waitress “miss”, and later Clara had said “You say ‘waitress’, never never ‘miss’.”And there’s also serviette, cruet and pardon to avoid. Though we’re pretty sure Julie is one of nature’s ladies, and will make it through all this. Unusually there is absolutely no mention of how much clothes cost, or how they will be afforded - a disappointment, because that is one of the things Noel Streatfeild does so well. As I said once:
Here is a list of things Noel Streatfeild does better than anyone else:
(and be sure to see special entry on clothes panics last week) Misfit children
The finances of clothes
The finances of clothes
And then it only turned out that there is a film of the book, and one starring Margaret Rutherford what’s more…. So naturally I got hold of a copy (with some difficulty) and watched it. The film, released in 1954, simplifies and softens the story: Sadly the whole circus connection disappears. Aunt Clara is much less innocent, not so bothered about gambling and drinking, and Rutherford actually does a very nice job. There is a magical scene at a church concert where for about a minute we get a glimpse of a troupe of child dancers who could almost be Wintle’s Wonders… The film isn’t as varied as the book, but the final scenes – with the prostitutes and after – are equally touching. It is claimed that Aunt Clara was Margaret Rutherford’s favourite role.
The top picture is from a treasure trove of photos of utility clothes, taken by the Ministry of Information and collected by the Imperial War Museum.
Second picture, a black dress with added embellishments, from Kristine’s photostream, from a few years earlier, 1945.
The blue dress photo is also from Kristine’s photostream.
The drawing of an evening dress is from an information poster, also in the Imperial War Museum collection.