Frozen in time: What we wore in the winter

Short trousers till sixth class, second-hand boot, sewing your own garments... JO KERRIGAN recalls the childhood clothes of the 1950s in our Throwback Thursday feature
Frozen in time: What we wore in the winter

HARDY GENERATION: Children in short trousers enjoying a snowball fight at Fitzgeralds Park on the Mardyke in Cork city in 1930

NOW that everyone is arguing about whether they desperately need to buy more clothes this minute, during the current lockdown, perhaps we should remember what clothing, and buying new items, meant back in the 1950s.

For a start, you didn’t trip lightly out and pick up a new frock (or two) at Penney’s just because you felt like it of a Saturday. Nor did you stuff your closet with 17 new pairs of shoes because you felt like it.

Times were harder, and both clothing and footwear were meant to last. As indeed they did.

Back in the Middle Ages, clothing was so valuable that it was common for gowns and cloaks to be bequeathed in a will. It wasn’t that different in 1950s Ireland. A good coat with plenty of wear left in it, you’d hardly throw it out or put it on the scarecrow in the far field, would you?

A stout pair of boots — if Sean has grown out of them, then they will do fine for Padraig. Even for Maire in her turn, yearn as she may for something more feminine.

Most households had a cupboard jammed with old shoes, rubber boots, sandals... now too small for the older members of the household, but still good enough to shield young feet from stones and mud.

Yes, one hears the horrified reactions of today’s young parents. Put my child in a pair of shoes that somebody ELSE has worn? Scandalous thought! Well, things were different then, and money was far tighter. (As were the shoes if you had grown out of them!)

Yes, putting on your older brother’s boots might well mean having to accustom your feet to his shaping, but that was expected.

New shoes weren’t much better. We now expect footwear to fit perfectly and give comfort. Back then, the monsters had to be broken in, with much discomfort along the way.

Short trousers were the accepted norm for all boys up to around the age of 14, when they were deemed to have reached some sort of adulthood and could progress to “longers”.

Skaters in short trousers during a winter cold snap on Lavitt’s Quay, Cork, in 1937.
Skaters in short trousers during a winter cold snap on Lavitt’s Quay, Cork, in 1937.

No matter what the freezing rain and snow of winter, under-age boys wore short trousers — as the photo at the Mardyke from 1930 on the right demonstrates.

“Yes, of course I wore hand-me-down clothes,” says Johnny Campbell. “And I was in short pants for far too long — probably until 6th class anyway.

“Amazing how ‘ire’ (that uncomfortable redness and itching of skin exposed to cold) disappeared along with the short trousers!”

He remembers once being lumbered with a sports coat that had previously belonged to his father.

“It had been ‘expertly’ altered to fit me by this lady who lived in ‘Rockin’ Jerry Fitzgerald’s house on Gardiner’s Hill. Enough said...”

And girls were expected to wear skirts, certainly not trousers. This writer remembers her mother being told off for clapping her children into bib front overalls for weekend expeditions in the ’50s. “Disgraceful” commented the ladies of Cork. (If they had come on some of our mountaineering or canoeing trips, perhaps they would have seen the sense of commando gear.)

If you were unwise enough to come out from Joan Denise Moriarty’s ballet classes on Emmet Place still wearing your black tights, there were tut tuts to be heard on all sides as you reached Patrick Street. Even in the late ’60s, it was still not done for girls to wear trousers to college, and when a student from London strolled into the Rest in bright orange cords, there was a sensation.

She wasn’t expelled though, and, given that encouragement, it didn’t take the rest of us long to follow suit.

She wore them for going ice skating at home, she explained. Dizzy visions of glamour to Corkonians who had never seen an indoor ice rink!

In Mary Holly’s home they wore hand-knitted jumpers in winter. 

“Mum had a special way of drying the ‘good woollens’. She would lay several copies of De Paper in front of the fire. On top of that she would lay a big bath towel. The jumper or cardigan would be laid out on that after it was washed. Another bath towel would be laid on top followed by more newspapers. The hearth rug would top the lot and we would be encouraged to walk on it to press the garment underneath as the moisture was absorbed by the towels and newspapers and the fire helped dry the lot. Complicated, but it worked.”

Mary’s grandmother knitted socks for the family, although they all switched happily to machine-made ones when these became generally available.

“There was poverty in every school,” recalls Mary. “I remember pupils who wore rubber boots all winter and had ‘Rubber Dollies’ in summer.” (Does anybody know how the canvas shoes got that unusual name?)

“We didn’t have a car and always had to walk to school, but always wore wellies then with navy rain coats and sou’westers to match.

“On a very wet day, there would be absenteeism because some children simply didn’t have suitable clothes to wear going out in the rain.”

SHORTS AND SWEET: Children from the Marsh area of Cork at the Coal Quay in 1930
SHORTS AND SWEET: Children from the Marsh area of Cork at the Coal Quay in 1930

Can anybody remember their mother carefully folding away the summer frocks and shorts into an old sheet and storing them in the airing cupboard as autumn approached?

The dresses were mostly home made in the Holly household, and when winter was over and Easter near, the bundle would be taken out again to see what still fitted, what could be altered or passed down, and what more would be needed to get four little girls through the summer.

“Hems were let down, and if every inch was needed, the hem was ‘cased’. That meant that bias binding was sewn on to the end of the garment and that was turned up, thus making use of every last bit of the original length.”

If the mark of the original hem still showed, a bit of rick-rack binding worked wonders. Are there readers who can recall this handy trick. Or even where you can still buy rick-rack binding? (Hint: try the Button Shop on the North Mall.)

And young girls then were taught the basic skills of dressmaking at school.

“We made knickers that would fit Finn McCool in sewing class,” recalls Mary. “We also made slips, the pattern for which must have dated from the 1920s!”

Katie O’Brien also recalls sewing classes and how frustrated she felt using a needle and thread when at home she had been working on her mother’s Singer for years.

“It seemed so pointless to be doing all these stitches by hand. I used to wonder how they managed before sewing machines were invented!”

Today, it’s quite normal to see toddlers happily shopping with their mothers while sporting sparkly ballet skirts and tiaras or Superman outfits, more appropriate to the party scene than the freezer aisles.

Babies have bright headbands and tight (stretch) jeans. Back then, new arrivals wore knitted bonnets and matinee jackets in white or pastels, provided by competent aunts and grannies, while small children were respectably attired in little coats and leggings.

Oh, and harnesses. What has happened to the indispensable harness? It kept the kids under control, rescued them when they toppled over, and made sure they didn’t wander off and get lost.

That was one habit we could well do with keeping up today.

We now take lightweight super-warm and comfortable anoraks and fleeces in bright colours for granted, and can buy them at amazingly low prices.

But back in the day, a good coat was a serious investment, and its weight was often as challenging as the price.

Remember the Crombie overcoat? Dry, it made a man’s shoulders sag; soaking wet after a good old Cork Particular, it was like carrying the troubles of the world on your back going home.

Even those trendy leather coats coming into fashion in the late ’50s weighed a ton and had no flexibility whatsoever. Dark colours too, black, navy, gloomy brown. Modern, man-made fabrics have made life so much — well, lighter.

As Mary Holly has pointed out, raincoats —which didn’t always keep out the rain — were essential if your family could afford them. Remember running home from school at dinnertime — it was always dinner then, not lunch — and hanging the dripping raincoat near the fire in the hope it would be wearable when you had to go back?

Soaking heavy shoes to be miserably pulled on again and the laces tied as you faced out the door? (That’s if you even took them off when you got home.)

This writer always envied school friends who seemed able to leave home on the wettest of days, airily clad in light blazer and fashionable shoes, while our over-careful mother ensured we were well covered in raincoats and sometimes — horror of horrors — rubber boots, which had to be hastily discarded on arriving at school and shoes, carried awkwardly in a bag, put on instead before anybody laughed at us.

Inevitably on such days, lunchtime brought sunshine and we had to lurk home in that hated rain gear.

In winter (whisper it), knitted wool stockings were mandatory, not lovely light white nylon kneesocks. Hated them. Ungrateful, that’s what we were, no doubt about it.

Got some memories of your own childhood clothing? How about that school uniform? Did you hate it or feel smart in it? Come to that, it’s about time we caught up with your school stories, and whether your memories are happy or wretched.

We would love to hear them. Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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