Let the good times roll again
There was Hitler and rationing - but also the thrill of swing music, of womanly curves and manly suits, and Hollywood at its most glamorous. Because of, or despite, the War, the Forties have an excitement rivalled this century only by the Sixties. A revival of Forties music, clothes and dance is now in full spate. Happy days are here again, says Sandra Lawrence, herself a Forties-style singer.
Saturday 25 January 1997
This is the Broadway Club in Silver End, Essex - not during wartime but earlier this year - in a scene which is replayed every week at clubs up and down Britain, from Ronnie Scott's in Birmingham and the jump-jive of King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys, to the annual Swing Weekender in Hemsby, Norfolk, which regularly attracts visitors from Japan and the States.
The young couples dancing represent a submerged but growing fascination with the pop culture of the 1940s - a fantasy of swing music, Hollywood glamour and film noir. There are men in their twenties with the bespectacled appearance of Glenn Miller, and girls who are Veronica Lake, Greer Garson, or Barbara Stanwyck reincarnated. There are double-breasted suits with big shoulders and crossover pants, and silk ties which scream at you; and seamed stockings and natty little cocktail hats, worn with snappy high heels and hair in blonde peek-a-boos or elaborate rolls - the Gloria Grahame look of girls from the wrong side of the tracks.
Revivalist shows such as the West End hit, Five Guys Named Moe, have helped promote Forties styles, as has the recent publicity surrounding Madonna's Evita; but people were interested long before either, maybe obsessively so. Ashley Elliott, for example, an 18-year-old modern history student at London University, drives to lectures in a "Highline" Ford Consul, wearing a shirt, tie and double-breasted suit, and admits: "I get mixed reactions." He's been collecting Forties memorabilia since the age of six, when he wrote to Santa saying that what he really wanted for Christmas was either a Nissan hut or a bike - as long as it was a bike of World War II vintage. He and his brother Jacob always travelled to their East London school in a Jeep. "While other kids went to see West Ham play," he says drily, "we got to go all round France in vintage military vehicles."
This was the influence of his parents, Terry and Marion, who have been collecting and displaying Forties militaria since the 1970s. Their road show and combined disco, called "Sentimental Journey", travels throughout Britain and Europe. "We take over the whole hall," says Terry, "wherever we are, with vehicles outside, flags, posters, memorabilia."
He and Marion were mods in the Sixties, when he ran a Jamaican sound system playing ska. "But after 12.30 at night, everyone used to listen to whatever they could pick up from New Orleans on short wave radio - people like Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris." He has been DJ-ing to Forties music ever since: at first, in the 1970s, playing "frankly corny stuff" in working men's clubs, and now the swing and jitterbug that entrances his sons and other young people. "I'm back playing the music I was into in the early Sixties."
At the 100 Club in Oxford Street, an assortment of computer programmers, lawyers, teachers and Soho waiters are learning how to Lindy-hop, a dance born on the louche streets of 1940s Harlem whose more favoured practitioners were then whisked off to Hollywood and movies such as Hellzapoppin. Some of them have progressed to the Lindy-hop from dancing a less challenging French jive called "Ceroc". Their teacher, Simon Selmon, who gave up his job as a gemologist six years ago to become a "professional jitterbug", wears an outsize zoot suit and is sceptical of earlier attempts by bands in the 1970s to revive Forties music: "They played so-called Glenn Miller music and killed it. They were so square."
Many of his pupils, professional people themselves, are happier with track-suit bottoms and T-shirts than zoot suits, but there's no doubting their enthusiasm. They are attracted by the period glamour and by the aerobic force of what amounts to 10 Jane Fonda workouts. Classes for the London Swing Dance Society are packed. People stay on to watch The Jive Aces, Tiger Lily and the Jitterbugs, and Ray Gelato and his Giants of Jive.
Gelato resembles a cross between Robert de Niro and Tony Bennett. He and his group, The Chevalier Brothers, helped start the revival in the mid-Eighties, and now he talks about "the junk that's pumped out by the pop stations". Another band leader, Sugar Ray Ford, a performer in the verbally frantic Cab Calloway mode, with slicked-back hair and pencil moustache, says he, too, tries to keep as closely as possible to the original music. "We take the excitement for the music from the past and create something new. You can't pin it down to just one style; it's like a tree - it branches out in all directions. It's a kind of lost ingenuity."
The chronicler of this scene is a freelance photographer named Gordon Ayres, a New Zealander whose sharp, theatrical appearance, and spiv's toothbrush moustache, belies his day job as a social worker in Southwark. Ayres, himself an accomplished jitterbugger, takes photographs which, apart from the odd PVA window or tubular steel chair in the background, could be 50 years old. "It's like an echo that you keep seeking," he explains.
For him, the buzz is the careless quality of people who just want to dance. "When I first came to England in the early Eighties, there were all kinds of different, almost tribal cultures. Looking cool was a big thing. Everything was underground - the media didn't have anything to grab onto. There's been a narrow-mindedness since the rave culture began in the early Nineties. The problem Forties people now have to try to address is how to keep their individuality."
Especially as next month the Imperial War Museum is launching a major exhibition entitled "Fashion in the Forties", ostensibly to mark the 50th anniversary of Dior's New Look. Even before it has opened, Angela Godwin, the organiser, says she has been astounded by the public interest. "We appealed for costumes and accessories of the era during the VE Day celebrations - and put on some fashion shows which were amazingly well- attended." A subsequent appeal brought in more than 300 costumes, of which 100 will be on display at the museum.
Goodwin says that the appeal of the Forties is heightened by the dramatic context of the War: "We will have everything from haute couture to make- do-and-mend." What comes across is that people, however poor, wanted to look good, and, in aspiring to the appearance of their favourite screen idols, they were forced to be inventive.
"It's simply the most flattering style," says Hilary Wili, a freelance costume designer who specialises in Forties classics. "People couldn't handle The New Look - waists were just too small. But women look great in Forties suits, and a man in Forties gear - those strong shoulders, those silk ties - well... Next did some pretty good copies, but you can't beat the originals."
Wili has 2,000 original Forties patterns from which she creates authentic copies. Recreating the Forties is, in fact, something of an industry. Terry and Marion Elliott, for instance, are heavily involved in "living history" recreations - one in Beltring, Kent, had 2,000 military vehicles and 15,000 visitors, 4,000 of whom stayed on for the "hangar dance" in the evening.
One of the principle organisers of living history events is Alex Scott, a theatre design student at St Martin's College of Art, who was responsible for the giant English Heritage WWII reconstruction at Dover Castle last August bank holiday. During that weekend, everything within the castle walls was returned exactly to how it would have been during the last years of the war, using authentic vehicles, weapons, tents and uniforms. American GIs offered nylons to local girls. The delivery boy chatted to the tea lady. Nurses tried to rescue a shell-shocked soldier from the battlements. Squaddies enjoyed a cuppa from the tea wagon. And guards played football in the yard with German POWs. A big band was drafted in to play for the troops, and, at night, the mournful sound of a Polish airman's harmonica floated across the ramparts.
The idea of social reconstructions was dreamt up by a Swede, as long ago as 1873, Alex Scott explains, but the Americans developed it to include military re-enactments. It found its way to Britain in the mid-Sixties with the birth of The Sealed Knot, which re-enacts the English Civil War. It was considered somewhat cranky, but living history is increasingly popular, particularly with museums and schools, which view it as a powerful educational tool. Recognising this trend, English Heritage have set up a special events team. For Scott, too, this is an exciting way to deliver insights into our recent past. His job is to co-ordinate the various groups and "regiments" from around the world.
One such group is The Essex Regiment, composed of people who spend their lives in libraries, attics and junk shops, writing to regiments and interviewing veterans in order to make their reconstructions as historically accurate as possible. Some groups, particularly in Europe, are meticulous to the point of obsession. Princess Irene's Guards, from the Netherlands, are a complete infantry, even down to their authentic ration boxes.
Each European country has its own angle. The French, for example, are most interested in the Resistance, and, in their trench coats and berets, they flock to dance halls that haven't changed since the Nazi Occupation - the Balajo in Bastille, or the Guingette de Martin Pecher, which is on an island in the middle of the River Marne (during the War, both band and audience had to punt across on a raft). In Germany, an Anglo-American movie called Swing Kids, about the underground dance movement in Nazi Germany, has become a cult amongst hip Germans ignorant of that part of their history - although it flopped in Britain, despite the presence of Kenneth Branagh. Scott sees nothing strange about impersonating a German POW. "It's no odder than wanting to be a cavalier in the Sealed Knot and losing all the time." But it is an eerie feeling watching a lone sentry on the battlements light a fag in the last minutes of daylight. "It can be creepy," he admits. "I've been scared shitless battlefield-walking in France."
He combines living history with his passion for 1940s hot-rod cars: "I fell in love with the Ford V8 (Bonnie and Clyde's getaway car.) The one I've got now has been in a barn since 1950." But, for anyone trying to recreate the Forties, an increasing problem is the lack of original artefacts. Radio Days, a shop in Waterloo, south London, is a Mecca for pilgrims seeking 1940s ephemera. Old movies show continuously on a 12" television as customers try on beaded evening gowns, surrounded by period items: a 1945 Picture Post, an old tin advertisement for Lucky Strike, a pair of elbow-length, gold lame gloves, or a Utility A-line skirt.
It's the brainchild of Nik and Chrissie Sutherland, and, as with all things that grow from a hobby, their lives revolve around the shop, which one could be forgiven for mistaking for someone's living room. And, in a way, it is - the one they have no space for in their own modern flat. It is a constant struggle, they confess, to part with things. "Chrissie is the hard one," admits Nik, "otherwise, I'd never get rid of anything. It was probably the most depressing era, but, even though they were dark days, there is such a romantic image."
Attractive though the era may seem, he says he wouldn't have liked to have lived through it. "I like hot running water and videos too much." And on that everyone agrees. "You wear what's appropriate," says Alex Scott. "If I'm trying to create something, I like to make it as right as it can possibly be. I might give a penny h'apenny for a cup of tea and a bun at the tea wagon - the public note that and they like to see it. But I don't need 1940s underpants. On the continent, they're more strict. I once went out with a German girl who listened to jazz `in secret' because it was banned in Germany in the 1940s. Now that's odd"
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