In which the author recalls an ill-fated attempt to be a trend-setter in a small provincial town
It was winter 1965, or maybe it was 1966. The passage of time has dulled my memory, but whichever year it was, I remember the incident itself as clearly as if it were yesterday! On the used black and white TV set we had inherited from my grandmother I was watching a show called ‘Ready Steady Go’. For the teenager of the time this was the coolest show on TV, and not to be missed. It featured all the best groups that had emerged from the burgeoning British pop music scene – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and the band who were performing at that very moment, The Kinks. The music was great although I can’t recall which of their songs they were playing. What really had me captivated was their shirts!
At that time, in addition to the flourishing music scene there was a British fashion revival in ‘Swinging London’, centered around Carnaby Street where designers such as Mary Quant were attracting international attention. The Kinks themselves performed a song called ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, a wry comment on the fanatical pursuit of the latest ‘look’.
So, what was it about the Kinks’ shirts that caught my attention?
Well, to a boy growing up in a conservative provincial English small town they epitomized freedom and audacity. They were covered in lace! The cuffs were lace, the shirtfronts were decorated with lace, and they wore cravats made of…lace. They could only be described as ‘frilly’! Had they dared to walk the streets of my hometown in this attire, they would almost certainly have become the targets of comments casting aspersions on their manhood, and they might even have become victims of a sound beating by the locals. London was considered at the best of times an effete and decadent place! But to me, as I watched the flickering images on the screen, they were the essence of cool. I had to have that shirt!
I knew that a search of the staid clothing stores of my small hometown of Durham would be fruitless. I was somewhat more optimistic about prospects in nearby Newcastle, a much larger city with several trendy boutiques. Alas, I was doomed to disappointment. Even there my inquiries about shirts decorated with lace were greeted with perplexed frowns and shrugs of the shoulders. Downhearted, I returned home and poured out my heart to my mother, telling her of my longing to possess such a shirt. By this time The Kinks had appeared in more than one pop music magazine wearing their new ‘get-up’, and I was able to show her a picture.
To my delight my mother, a dab hand at the sewing machine assured me that it would be no trouble for her to ‘run something up’.
After a visit to a department store to buy a quantity of lace, she took one of my white shirts from the closet, and seizing her scissors and a box of pins got busy on the project. I watched with mounting excitement as she cut off the cuffs of the shirt and performed some nifty work around the collar. Then she got busy with her sewing machine. I had always loved to watch her at work. She had made numerous dresses for herself, and I was used to seeing her, pins in her mouth and chalk in her hand, marking out a pattern. Soon the machine was humming as she placed the lace on the shirt and commenced stitching.
It took her most of the evening, but when she was finished and held up the shirt for me to see, I was overcome with wonder and gratitude. What magic she had accomplished, transforming a plain white shirt into a magnificent replica of the costume I had seen on TV and set my heart on! I couldn’t wait to try it on. I stood in front of the mirror, the lace cuffs dangling from my wrists, the lace cravat tastefully knotted at my throat, admiring the effect. It was perfect! When I put on my velvet jacket with a high collar, the effect was complete.
I made plans to wear my outfit at an upcoming school dance. I could hardly wait to receive the gasps of admiration and the plaudits of my friends.
I was convinced I was going to be ‘Mr. Cool’, the man on the very edge of fashion!
I wish I could to tell you that my dreams were realized, but alas I had sadly miscalculated the response of my peers. They had obviously been less impressed by the Kinks’ outlandish gear. My entry into the dance dressed in my lace shirt was received with howls of laughter and derision. My unenlightened friends spent the entire evening cackling and competing to fire their most witty put-downs at me. The girls at the dance to my disappointment were equally unimpressed, and I was hard put to convince any of them to dance with me. I left the dance a sadder and wiser young man. Durham just wasn’t ready for Carnaby Street fashions. I hung up the shirt in my closet and never wore it again.
Copyright Michael Neat, January 24, 2019.