Harnessing all your memories of clothes... including school uniforms

JO KERRIGAN resumes her reflections on the fashions of yesteryear for children, including school uniforms, and how parents used to rein kids in
Harnessing all your memories of clothes... including school uniforms

The Glasheen NS 4th Class at Cor Fheile na Scoil in 1956 with Mary O’Leary second row, third from right. 

WE got a big response to last week’s Throwback Thursday article, which featured the clothes we used to wear (or endure!) back in the 1950s and ’60s.

Everybody, it seems, has a memory of garments and shoes that they were forced to put up with, as well as a few treasured items that were loved literally to tatters.

Last week, we shared Mary Holly’s mother’s technique of washing and drying those winter jumpers. Readers in the U.S (yes, the Echo spreads far and wide online) commented that among expert knitters this method is still used today.

Well, perhaps not laying the whole bundle under the hearthrug and then jumping on it, but in all other aspects, it’s still the best and safest way to deal with those thick knits. (Anybody ever make the cardinal mistake of tossing a beautifully-crafted Aran sweater into the washing machine?)

Frank Desmond wrote to express his surprise at this writer using the term “airing cupboard” when it should have been “hot press”. Indeed, that is the name used in Ireland, but it is unknown elsewhere. Given our global readership, it’s best to be clear. When you come to think of it, a hot press could well describe an iron, couldn’t it?

He also queried what exactly was meant by child harnesses. Did we mean papooses or baby slings, which only came in around the 1980s?

No, we didn’t. And since a picture speaks louder than words, here we have not just one but two excellent examples from those long ago days.

Mary Holly in Patrick Street, Cork city, aged 2, wearing a harness or reins. These were once a very popular way of holding onto a sometimes wayward child!
Mary Holly in Patrick Street, Cork city, aged 2, wearing a harness or reins. These were once a very popular way of holding onto a sometimes wayward child!

In the picture above, Mary Holly is in Patrick Street in Cor city at the age of two, properly kitted out in her harness or reins; and renowned photographer Richard Mills is pictured on the right at a similarly early age, wearing his.

No chance of a toddler wandering off when a parent held the reins...

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Any female readers remember wearing the strangely-titled Liberty Bodices in the winter?

White, sleeveless, and several layers thick, they fastened with awkward rubber buttons, and were worn over woolly vests.

These, after all, were times when there was no such thing as central heating, and chilblains and chest colds were frequent. Careful mothers took no chances.

Who can recall that dash from the warmth of the fireplace at night up to an icy bedroom, where you hoped to find a hot water bottle in your bed?

If you look at that photograph of Mary Holly wearing reins, you will see she is wearing ‘pull-ups’. “They were wool, they sagged, and I suppose they were the precursors of thick tights, which were still far in the future,” Mary comments.

Did you love your school uniform? Hardly, one would imagine. They must have been a boon for parents in one way, because they cut out choice, but they were a major expenditure as well, and must have caused many a financial headache.

And was there ever a design more unbecoming than the girl’s gym slip of those days? Heavy pleating, shapeless line, scratchy wool fabric...

St Angela’s and St Aloysius’ both favoured green, but of different shades, instantly distinguishable to the lads waiting hopefully outside the Savoy or under Mangan’s clock as the girls’ schools broke up for the afternoon.

In fifth year, the St Angela’s girls were allowed to convert their hated gym slips into skirts, and never was a new style more welcomed. Was it the same at St Al’s? (Mini skirts had not yet made an appearance, and they would have received short shrift from the nuns if they did.)

Those boys’ blazers too, expensive, yet grown out of with monotonous regularity.

And the all-important school cap, so often snatched and thrown into the path of a passing bus by a class enemy. But there would be trouble if you weren’t wearing it next day, so it had to be rescued and brushed down.

The tie, which took so much time to get neat first thing in the morning, the shirt which must always be tidily tucked in. (Have you noticed how economically shirts are made these days? No tuck in at all. Perhaps that is why one sees so many youths with their shirt-tails flapping in the wind.)

“There was a school coat for St Angela’s,” recalls Katie O’Brien. “It was a depressing green gaberdine (though not as dark as the St Al’s one), and my mother was most reluctant to buy it because it was so expensive and she knew I would grow out of it. I think my grandmother may have helped out.”

Richard Mills, aged 2, wearing harness or reins on the beach
Richard Mills, aged 2, wearing harness or reins on the beach

Possession of one of these fashion items was essential though for any girl hoping to join the December carol singing organised by the school to raise money for the missions.

“We had to wear them, and the green and fawn school scarf plus green beret, when we went out in the week before Christmas. It was very organised, very well behaved, and made very little money.”

Far more was raised, she says, by the carol singing evenings organised by the Legion of Mary and led superbly by Frank Duggan (the Chah side of Chah and Miah).

“As St Angela’s girls, we had to stand in a tidy group at a corner, sing sweetly, and hope politely for contributions.

“The Legion, on the other hand, would strike up a song, and then send collectors up and down streets, knocking on doors, making sure everyone put something in the box.”

The best bit, says Katie, was returning to the Legion hall on the Grand Parade late at night and having hot tea and doughnuts.

Remember those wonderful circle skirts in felt of the late 1950s. asks Eileen Barry.

“My oldest sister made one in bright pink and then carefully cut out black jiving figures in felt, and glued them on. It looked wonderful to my young eyes, especially when she wore it with one of those full taffeta petticoats.”

Apparently, the sharp nylon edges of those petticoats played havoc with stockings though.

Anne Horgan, from Castledonovan, near Bantry, says her mother had a great idea back then.

“Two coats on a wet day, the one that didn’t fit any more being worn over the head like a cape, keeping your schoolbag and shoulders dry. I never remember getting too wet, and actually I still think today that it would be more effective than an umbrella in windy weather.”

As the eldest of seven, Anne felt privileged, since she usually got any new clothes while those she had grown out of were handed down.

Leather boots were bought at Atkins/Connolly’s of Dunmanway or Murphy’s in Bantry each August.

“They were more sturdy and lasted till May when the weather allowed us occasionally to walk barefoot the mile and a half to school. If it was wet, then light canvas shoes.”

And the Horgans were one of the lucky families who got parcels from America.

“Boxes of beautiful dresses arrived from New Jersey every few years. My favourite one handed down was green velvet one with embroidery on top. After all these years it still stands out in my mind, and it definitely survived to sister No.3!”

Clothes, she remembers, were stored in a huge tea chest in a press near the range in the kitchen “and it was a case of dig in!”

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We always got our summer sandals for Easter, and went into ankle socks on Easter Sunday,” recalls Mary O’Leary.

“Sandals were always t-bar, brown, toes-in. We never got the fancy open-toed white ones, on the basis that stones got into them when you walked and they were more trouble than they were worth.

“By the time August came and the sandals had suffered from sea water, sand, the stony roads of West Cork and our growing feet, it was a challenge to make them last until we went into our school shoes in September.

“If they were getting too small, dad would take a one-sided razor blade and carefully cut the toes out. That made them last the extra few weeks.”

Mary’s mother favoured a dressmaker who lived off Magazine Road, a Mrs O’Brien.

“She made our First Communion dresses and occasionally ones for other special occasions like the Cor Feile. Her front room was full of half-made wedding gowns, bridesmaids dresses and adult coats and dresses hanging from the picture rail.

“I was fascinated by her huge horseshoe magnet covered with pins, and her big cutting shears.”

When exactly did it stop being a rule that men must uncover their heads for Mass, while women had to shroud theirs? Headscarves gradually replaced hats, and then came the rather thrilling introduction of a black lace mantilla, in Spanish style. Always seemed an odd one, that regulation.

Almost as strange as the custom in crowded country churches of the women obediently squashing into the pews while their menfolk stood out in the porch or the yard, swapping gossip and paying scant attention.

As long as their wives and daughters were inside, that was all right.

Next week we are going to feature some of your recollections of early schooldays. Send your memories to jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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