Willo’s Wacky Wardrobe


It somehow seems rather arrogant to think that someone might have any interest in what one wears, but over recent years strangers have been stopping me in the streets, events, art galleries, public transport etc, to tell me how much they like certain garments and ask where they came from (a boost to one’s ego when approaching 72). When they hear they are homemade – or adapted from something else, they are even more interested. (Of course I’m invisible if I’m just traipsing around in my everyday gear).

For all those who like my clothes there are probably many more people who think I’m somewhat eccentric if not bonkers! However, the numerous and varied people who have complimented me seem to be level headed and quite sane, so I thought it might be interesting to share my ‘style’ more widely.

To give you a bit of background, I have mainly had to make do and mend, which is something people of my age and from a working class background will be familiar with – and, as this extract from my as yet unfinished autobiography will illustrate:

The autumn was approaching and it was time to wear a coat for school. To my horror I discovered Mother working away at my grandma’s treadle machine, making me a coat. Although I was only five years old I knew that little girls didn’t wear black clothes made out of a very old grownups coat and I also knew that set-in sleeves are not meant to have puckers around them. I tried to persuade my mum that I would be warm enough going to school in a cardigan, but she would hear nothing of this and off I was sent to school in the hideous coat, anticipating it would be used as more ammunition from the class bullies. I waited till I was out of mother’s sight and whisked it off and bundled it up under my arm. I would rather freeze than wear it. But I still wasn’t safe as I had to hang it on the clothes hooks at school and it would stand out like a sore thumb against the pastel or primary coloured garments in the cloakroom. I had a plan; I would turn it inside out and show the lining. Alas this wasn’t much of an improvement as it was black & white herringbone, so the overall appearance was grey and little girls didn’t wear grey coats, either. My plan failed!

When I was in my teens we didn’t have movements, cultures or trends like Goth or Steampunk; they might have existed elsewhere, but not in my provincial little town of around 6,000 – 7,000 people. As I was at art school I was probably referred to as a beatnik or hippie, but from my late teens I did have a love of everything black – black stockings, black eyeliner and my already dark hair dyed black. Very little money was available so I was unable to go out and buy new things and even when I started work I had to hand over my pay packet to my mum, from which she gave me pocket money. I managed to save enough to buy a brown leather outfit (they didn’t have it in black), which I still have today (or did have till a recent visit form one of my granddaughters, when she went away with the skirt saying, ‘this is awfully short, Grandma!’ She wants the bomber jacket too, but sadly, as yet, I have been unable to find it).

I remember in the late 60s causing a mild sensation when I was working as a draughtswoman at our local planning office. It was all terribly county, all the guys wore suits (or tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows) and ties. The women wore smart skirts, blouses and court shoes. Most of them felt they couldn’t possibly start work until they had read their newspaper from cover to cover – and it was a place where everyone was addressed by their titles – Mr, Mrs & Miss and so on. Our boss was the lovely Lt.Col. Tomlinson (affectionately referred to as ‘T’), whom everyone adored. He had his own office along a corridor and usually had his door open so he could see who was passing. One day I marched by, wearing a black top with black midi skirt and black boots, when I suddenly heard his voice bellowing my name! I heeded the call and went into him, ‘What is your first name – and what are you wearing?’ he harrumphed. He muttered something about the suffragette movement and indicated I should do a little twizzle for him (it was 1969) and then, after some consideration, he murmured his approval. In the whole history of the office I was the only person he addressed by their first name. I felt smug!

 Having originated from a fairly frugal heritage I went off to live in Zambia in my mid 20s and there I learned what hardship really is, not so much for the expatriate (though there were times when we all had to tighten our belts), but for many Africans who, out of necessity, had to recycle just about everything. Even we expats washed our aluminium foil and plastic food bags and hung them on the line to dry. From the Zambians I learned that there is always another use for everything and having spent 17 years in that sometimes harsh, but otherwise wonderful country, the habit of recycling has remained with me – much to the horror of my family who would describe me as a hoarder! That might be true, but my stuff doesn’t just lie around piling up, it does eventually get transformed into something to wear, something to decorate the house or into my artwork (see heading above).

In Zambia we paid little heed to fashion, as choice in clothing or fabric was very limited and our main concern was to buy or make something minimal, light, cool and could be ironed. The latter intended to kill off the larvae of any putzi fly that may have laid eggs in one’s clothing whilst it was hanging out to dry. (Upon contact with human skin the eggs hatch and the larvae burrow into the skin and develop into fully grown maggots).

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One of my favourite outfits of all time (worn here at a wedding in 1972). The feather boa I bought myself, but the skirt and blouse were bought by my first husband when he went on a short course to South Africa in 1971 – and I had asked him if he would bring back much needed clothing. I was astonished when he returned with such lovely garments, as never before had he bought me any clothes (and never since). However, it seemed he had  a brief encounter with a woman he met in the hotel and she had chosen the garments for him. I still have the blouse and  can just about get into it! (although I have had to replace the shirring elastic many times and once whilst ironing I burned a hole in one of the sleeves, which I stitched up and then put a matching seam in the other sleeve!).

Fast forward to around 1991/2 and this is what I was wearing (back to black – or monochrome at least):

Christmas with Paul c 1992
No idea what I’m chewing on, probably a pencil. or paint brush.  Note the short hair (as a result of my chemo).

I always thought I had been born 100 years too late and there was a point in the late 90s when the content of my wardrobe was so dark that I couldn’t find anything! It was then that I made a concerted effort to lighten up.

To return to the steampunk mentioned earlier; about a year ago I was clearing out some of my mum’s old specs and took them along to the recycling bank, only to find that they didn’t want the cases. I went to throw them into the refuse bin, but hesitated as I thought it a terrible waste, so brought them home, pulled them apart and reconstructed them. To complete the task I needed craft felt, paint, laces and a glue gun (all of which I already had). I cut a rough pattern and by trial and error arrived at my steampunk hat.

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Apologies for the poor quality selfies!
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