Tuesday, 17 June 2014

1940s Fashion

Although I admit there is a galaxy of difference between the point of view of a married woman and a Single woman when it comes to social life, I have to say that I make an excellent wing-woman. For example, when I attracted various men at an Edinburgh party with my admitted trampy (because double-sided tape doesn't work on me, apparently) dress and can of pre-made G&T, I chatted with them briefly and when I got to the being married part, introduced them to my Single Pal. It turns out it is soooo easy to meet men when you are married and no longer care. Oh, I suppose this does not apply to married women with children and therefore no time or inclination to stand around at parties having wardrobe malfunctions.

I probably should explain that B.A. and I don't always go to the same parties. For example, he is not coming to the Polish Scottish Heritage Festival dance on Saturday night, even though it is called the "Swinging Allies 1940s Dance Party." Guests are supposed to wear 1940s clothing. How much cooler could a party BE? And I am quite sure I will be able to use my wing-woman skills get again, if only because my companion for the evening will be Casimir the Fox Fur Stole. Everyone will want to meet Casimir.

1940 was the best time to be a Single Catholic girl in Edinburgh in the post-Reformation history of Scotland because overnight 30.000 Polish soldiers turned up. Can you imagine having only Michael this and Patrick that to choose from (actually, I'm sure you can, especially if you are a trad) and then suddenly your parish church is packed to bursting with handsome foreigners in uniform paying as much attention to the women as to the solemn gestures of the parish priest? You, the Single Catholic Girl in Edinburgh, have the advantage over all your Presbyterian and Pixie neighbours for the first time in your life, for you get first pick of the invading, er, liberating, er, helpful Polish army.

This thought was floating through my head when, having secured one female friend to join me at the Swinging Allies 1940s Dance Party", I tried to convince another. "Swing dancing," I said. "1940s outfits. Homesick Polish soldiers!"

Actually, I didn't get that carried away. For one thing, this was after a Requiem Mass and the Schola was in earshot. And for another, although there may be homesick Polish soldiers there, they will have been from among those who turned up in 1940, and therefore too old to swing dance. (I suppose if asked to tango by a 90 year old Polish veteran, it would be very impolite to refuse, but regarding swing, it would probably be kinder, yes?) Presumably, though, there may be some cute new Poles. I tried to beam the message "Cute new Poles" to her with with thought waves while she wailed some nonsense about deadlines. Swing dancing! 1940s outfits! Homesick Polish pretend soldiers!

Today I went shopping for 1940s gear. Obviously I am taking this party very seriously. I have already booked an appointment to get 1940s hair, strongly regretting that my mother isn't here to set my hair in curlers for free. Benedict Ambrose drew the line at my plan to paint my legs with self-tan and have him draw a line up the backs (too ruinous to the sofa, he feared), so I bought seamed stockings. I MAY have a dress already but I am not SURE. (You know how it is.) I saw a brown dress, clearly 1940s, in a vintage shop that I really liked, but it was 32 quid, and I never pay more than 15 for a garment if I can possible help it.

While travelling about trying to find an outfit while spending as little money as possible, I came across this passage in The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. It is the first cheerful story in 221 pages, so I will share it with you.:

When the battle of Britain officially ended on 31 October 1940, the Poles were acknowledged as having made a contribution that belied their small numbers. They lost 33 pilots but 34 had become aces - men who had scored five or more kills. 303 Squadron had downed three times the RAF average. The Poles received enormous publicity and gratitude for their daring deeds in the sky. After visiting a Polish squadron in in August 1940, the king was heard to remark: "One cannot help feeling that if all our Allies had been Poles, the course of the war, up until now, would have been very different." The head of Fighter Command, Sir Hugh Dowding, told Churchill, "the Poles in our Fighter Squadrons were very dashing but totally undisciplined." Churchill in response said, "one Pole was worth three Frenchmen, Gort and Dowding said nearer ten!" Having a Polish fighter pilot on one's arm became the height of fashion for young women in Britain in the summer of 1940, and jealous RAF piots sometimes adopted phoney Polish accents to attract girls. The headmistress of a girls' school ended her speech to the school leavers with the warning: "And remember, keep away from gin and Polish airmen."

--Halik Kochanski, The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (London: Penguin, 2013), 221.

Gin! Polish pretend airmen---for my friends! And now I shall decide if I want to look more like Ginger Rogers or Veronica Lake. The thing about long hair is that Victory Rolls may be difficult. When I proposed the idea to a chap at the local (and cheaper) shop, he all but threw me out. "Ooh nae, hen, ah couldnae dae it, ah couldnae, not with yoor lang hairrr. Try next doooor. She's verra guid."


Julia said...

My late Polish grandfather actually spent time in Scotland during the '40s (can't remember whether Glasgow or Edinburgh - I've got his documents but I can't remember off the top of my head). He actually dated an English girl before meeting my Polish grandmother. They were both part of the Polish Army in Exile at Sussex (my grandmother had been in the Polish resistance during the '44 Uprising and my grandfather had been trained as a paratrooper).

They married in 1950 in London and moved to Australia a couple of years later because the damp British weather was no good for my grandfather's lungs (never mind that they moved to pretty much the coldest, dampest part of Australia, but whatever).

They kept very many of their War-era documents, and it's fascinating stuff. I've got everything from their Australian naturalisation papers to my grandmother's military driver's licence, her Nazi-era school ID card and my grandfather's 1940s Polish passport.

It's odd because to me, WW2 is pretty much a totally different planet. Different continent, different era. Sure, Australia got bombed by the Japanese, but nobody really cares about that anymore. It's not really that big a part of the national psyche. Yet in my house are genuine article Nazi-issued documents. It's out of this world. It's actually quite a moving experience to see those papers.

Shiraz said...

Julia, that is such a cool story! How brave both your grandfather and grandmother were.

And Seraphic -- pretend Polish airmen, frocks, and GIN? It sounds like your own personal Paradise. Have fun!

Seraphic said...

I am sure it will be fun!

Julia, that's very interesting about nobody in Australia caring about WW2 anymore because both World Wars are firmly lodged in the Canadian psyche--not to mention the British!

Some Canadians, especially vets and their children, remember the Japanese death camps for POWs with resentment. (And Japanese Canadians remember Canadian internment camps with resentment.)

When I was growing up, WW2 was always on TV in one film or another, and November 11 assemblies were a BIG DEAL at my elementary school. As children, my brother Nulli and I gobbled war stories, especially about the air forces.

I wonder if it is a generational and ethnic thing? I can't imagine my Toronto nephew's majority-Filipino classmates being that interested in the Allied experience of the Second World War.

Seraphic said...

* By "not caring anymore" read "not having WW2 as part of the national psyche."

What about Gallipoli, by the way?

Heather in Toronto said...

Haha, this reminds me of the stories my roommate's grandmother regaled me with at Christmas, about growing up in the North of England during the war and the dashing Polish officers who would take her dancing. It sounded like great fun.

Shiraz said...

On Australia and WWII: I disagree that no-one in Australia is interested. It's just that the physical scars aren't there in the same way (whereas in my neighbourhood in London, there are a number of newer buildings mixed in with Victorian structures that are the result of bombs dropped in the Blitz). The narrative of the Australian war experience in the Second Word War is quite different to dominant narratives in Britain and Canada in that there is a much bigger focus on the war in the Pacific. (In this sense it might have more in common with some of the ways people talk about the war in the U.S.) Approximately 1/5 of Australians who died in WWII died as prisoners of the Japanese, so it is probably more difficult to maintain the sorts of heroic narrative you find around, say, the Battle of Britain or D-Day.

The other thing I would say about Australia is the First World War is much more culturally important than the Second. There were significantly more deaths, for a start. So this is where Gallipoli comes in: I would say that on that front, as a nation, Australia is obsessed. To the point that some people seem to forget that we actually LOST in the Dardanelles! Australia is spending something like (I may have forgotten the number so apologies if I'm a bit off) more than 100% more than what Britain is on events surrounding the centenary of the Great War. And the government advertising surrounding the centenary and centenary events is significantly more triumphalist than anything you would find about similar events in Europe.

Shiraz said...

PS. What I mean about not sustaining a heroic narrative re: POWs. I mean that you'd hardly hold a themed dance for that, much like a Holocaust-themed dance would be in extremely poor taste. Also lots of the soldiers who came home having being captured felt - well, emasculated. Like they had failed at being your stereotypically bronzed Aussie soldier heroes. They also had really really high rates of mental illness and such, but families were actually encouraged to NOT talk to them about it as they thought it would be easier for them to move on that way. It's all very sad.

Anonymous said...

Ha! We had WW2 riots in our capital city when resentful Kiwi lads decided to show some 'hospitality' to the visiting Yankee soldiers who were ever so popular at dances with 'our' local lasses.

Like Shiraz said, Gallipoli is by far the most important military cultural event for Anzacs (Kiwi + Oz). Julia's comment shows the generational shift occurring though.

Have a nice time at the party Aunty!

Southern Bloke.

Cojuanco said...

Depends. I remember as a Filipino my grandparents talking about how they grew up during the war, and the severe rationing. Also the schools back there teach extensively about the War (there is still resentment against the Japanese for their treatment of the population during the War, and also for, along with the Americans, turning Manila into a state simiar to postwar Warsaw (the Old City is still in ruins from the War)).

Julia said...

Shiraz, you nailed it.

In my defence, I never said that "no one in Australia cares about WWII anymore" or that "WWII is not part of the national psyche", I just meant to suggest that it's not as huge a thing for us as it is for, say, the people of Warsaw or Dresden. Or London.

For example, there is no longer any animosity against the Japanese, save amongst those very few remaining vets and their wives, perhaps.

Again, for a much more nuanced explanation, see Shiraz. And yes, Gallipoli is still a massive thing here, but that's WWI. They carry on about that like you wouldn't believe. It was on "60 Minutes" last night. Anzac Day is becoming a bigger deal than it ever was before.

Seraphic said...

Thanks, Southern Bloke!

Yes, I figured Gallipoli must still be a big deal in Australia. It is with my mother, too, and when some poor fan of Winston Churchill asked her what she thought of him, she gave it to him with both barrels. Not a lot of British remember who was responsible for that slaughter, but my mother sure does.