The Dresses in Aunt Clara

Aunt Clara by Noel Streatfeild

published 1952

Aunt Clara dresses 1

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 Aunt Clara dresses 3hair. 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.

Aunt Clara dresses 4

[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.

Aunt Clara dresses 2commentary: 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:

Pretty much lacking from this book – yet it is, I said before, marvellous: a warm-hearted comfort read, yes, but one with a funny, clear, hard line running through it. It is a real find, and I am so glad it is being reprinted.

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.


  1. I think it's interesting, Moira, how a dress, especially a simple dress, can look different if you add different accessories (like a scarf, or the roses, as are in the book). Shoes, bag, hairstyle, and whatnot can make a big difference. Which is why the little black dress is such an important staple of a wardrobe...

    1. Indeed, Margot, and I think it's something we learn and get good at as we grow older...

    2. Somewhere in the mess that is my sewing room, I have an early 1950's dressmaking book that shows the same dress gussied up for half a dozen different occasions, with accessories - turban, sash, collar and cuff set, scarf - that the reader can of course make herself. In the days when a middle class American woman might own only three or four dresses (apart from housedresses), pattern companies pitched their products to this particular market. You could buy the pattern for the dress, and then turn around and buy another one for all the frills and furbelows.

    3. Interesting. Do you think many people did it? I always have a soft spot for those magazine articles 'one dress - worn 6 ways': when I was young I really believed in them, and thought one day I would live a life where I needed to the wear the same dress to work, then 'out to cocktails' (add jewellery, take off jacket) , then 'a garden party! (change shoes)', then 'a big date' (interestingly folded scarf). Truly selling a lifestyle. Still love the articles though no longer with the same belief in them.
      But making them would always have been beyond my capabilities, but would love to see the pattern suggestions... if you ever find the book...

    4. Judging by the availability of the patterns on eBay and such places, they certainly sold well enough. Other than that, I couldn't say - but I imagine the plain lines of the Mod 60's killed that sort of thing off. There's only so many ways you can accessorize a shift dress.

    5. MInd you, at one time there was an idea of weird capsule wardrobes, certainly here in UK. You bought jersey bits and pieces in toning colours, and you could make up outfits with them - the same piece of cloth could be scarf of sash, a long skirt could become a short dress etc. There was an idea you could go away for a weekend with an outfit for every occasion, but tucked into a tiny bag...


Post a Comment