Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Becoming Ellen: A 'What They Wore Yesterday' Heroine

"Ellen Wilkinson, I am told, has red hair. But this, my chivalry takes for granted, is not her fault. Neither is it her fault that she was educated in Manchester. Manchester can happen to anybody."
Ellen Wilkinson and I have a lot in common. 

History is at the root of these stories we tell. Stories about the National Trust, the 1950s New Look, and the nostalgic wandering through tiny Devon villages in 1930s dresses.
   So, it might come as a bit of a surprise that our latest What They Wore Yesterday muse is somebody who has sort of been forgotten by history. I say sort of- her name is etched on buildings, printed occasionally in text books. If I'm honest, I didn't know her story until my recent stint of being buried in the archives of the People's History Museum, where four boxes hold everything you could want to know about her- almost. 

   Her name was Ellen Wilkinson, a formidable, fire-haired, 4ft10 northern politician, famous for walking the Jarrow March in 1936 alongside her impoverished constituents, and for taking on the political world at a time when women were still supposed to be staying in the kitchen. Oh, and she started out as a student suffragette. Brilliant. 

   In all the newspaper cuttings that were written about "the spinster of Westminster", at least a third of them were written about the vibrant colours she wore, or how she was doing her hair. She loved wearing bright things- she said it was to counteract the dull colours of her working-class childhood. One journalist even described her as the "best dressed lady in parliament".  Great reading for the thirties fashion fan side of me- not so great for the feminist in me, roaring to be heard. Does it really matter what she wore?

She may not have always followed her head- sometimes she downright followed her heart- but what isn't refreshing about that? One of the best things about her was her energy, and her passion, and her determination. She was different at a time when women weren't supposed to be different, but she didn't care. 
I believe that Ellen was so aware of her fashion tastes being publicised, she used it to add to her distinctiveness, and to gain more attention for her politics. She gave them what they wanted, but played them at their own game. 

This blog documents what people did- and wore- in the past, and how we can bring it into modern day. Most of the time, remembering what they wore isn't as important as remembering what they did, but here, wearing Ellen's signature green, I hope I do her some justice. 

   There's one red-headed fire-brand in Manchester yet.