Late 1930’s summer in colour

This was another surprise when we first saw the standard 8 films; some of it is in colour, and quite early, too. This is a pre-WWII sequence showing my great-grandparents and my grandmother at their summer house in Bredsand.

They have lunch or dinner in the garden. My great-grandmother Gerda does gymnastics and smells the roses in beach pajamas, great-grandpa Einar or possibly his friend Henning sternly tells the dog Tollie to stay out of the flowerbed, and then the grown-ups go for a picnic by boat with another friend of Einar’s, IP, with wife and daughter. My grandmother is in her late teens and stays behind with a friend. I think my grandma is the girl in the yellow bathing suit playing badminton later on, but it’s hard to tell. There are a couple of boys playing with toy trains who may be my grandma’s cousins, a male friend of hers in a stunning bathing suit and a short end sequence featuring a tightrope walker. It’s summertime in Sundsvall in the late 1930’s.

My great-grandmother wears two different beach pajamas in these films, one of them has a lot of screen time here, and by the late 1930’s she was in her mid-40’s. I always assumed that beach pajamas were worn by fashion-forward young women in the 1930’s, not middle-aged women in provincial Swedish towns, but clearly they were. Great-grandma was affluent and comes off as quite stylish in all of these films, but she is not that young here, and I really enjoy seeing that. Women were expected to dress their age to a much higher degree in those days than we are today, but clearly, there were options to retiring into conservative old lady styles – at least if you had the kind of money and leisure available to these people.

The large, merrily patterned bathrobes also show up an awful lot in these films. Einar seems to have spent a lot of spare time around the summer house wearing a bathrobe and Panama hat; it’s one of two summer leisure uniforms worn by these men over and over. The other one is worn for fishing, hunting and hiking, and we’ll get to that later.

Einar was self-made, he grew up as a penniless orphan with relatives who didn’t want him, became an electrician around WWI, founded an electrical appliances store with a partner and made money. Gerda came from a middle-class background, her father was a sea captain, she had two sisters who never married and worked as switchboard operators for the national telephone company their entire adult lives. Einar and Gerda were sort of nouveau riche, and they seem to have been determined to enjoy the good life they had built for themselves. My grandmother was a spoilt only child who adored her parents.

Kesudalen, around 1950

It’s weird how surprising it is that things sometimes look almost exactly the same 70 years later. This is the first time Kesudalen shows up in the 8mm films, and for some reason it felt very surreal that it hasn’t changed more than that when I saw it the first time.

It’s rather wonderful too. And, of course, the potty makes an appearance. Some day I’ll make a complete collection of all the potty jokes on these 14 rolls of film.

Vintage reading: Sally Bowles

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. She was dark enough to be Fritz’s sister. Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows.

I like to read books written in my favourite eras. This is about the temporal goggles again; I like all the small things that tell you something about the author’s time and place. Historical fiction isn’t the same, it’s always coloured by the writer’s own time and place. So I read a lot of older fiction, especially from the first half of the 20th century, and I gravitate towards writers who are women or queer. We are all familiar with the dominant perspective already, that of straight, cis and white men. It’s unavoidable.

Jean Ross, early 1930's.
Jean Ross, early 1930’s.

I have just finished re-reading my favourite Christopher Isherwood novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains. It was published in 1935 and set in early 1930’s Berlin, where Christopher Isherwood, then 25 years old, went in 1929 to visit friend and occasional lover W. H. Auden. He stayed on and lived in Berlin until 1933, writing and working as an English tutor. The volume also contains Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of short stories about people he met in Weimar-era Berlin and the basis for Cabaret, not least the novel these quotes come from, Sally Bowles. The character Sally Bowles is based on a woman Isherwood met in Berlin, Jean Ross, who was British, a politically engaged Communist and worked as a cabaret singer. She herself felt that Sally Bowles was more reflective of some of Isherwood’s flamboyant male friends.

‘Hilloo,’ she cooed, pursing her brilliant cherry lips as though she were going to kiss the mouthpiece: ‘Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?’

As someone who thinks a lot about clothes, style and how people present themselves, I’m always interested in passages about how people look, how they dress and groom themselves, how the author chooses to portray that and what it says about the character, the author, the story and the time and place they are wearing it in. It’s fascinating. I thought I’d share quotes with you when I come across them, and Isherwood was a sharp observer who wrote these wonderful, very visual character studies.

Sally laughed. She was dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head: ‘Do you mind if I use your telephone, sweet?’

A few days later, Isherwood goes to tea in Sally Bowles’ lodgings.

She was wearing the same black dress today, but without the cape. Instead, she had a little white collar and white cuffs. They produced a kind of theatrically chaste effect, like a nun in grand opera. ‘What are you laughing at, Chris?’ she asked.

Sally Bowles is a 19-year-old cabaret singer in Weimar-era Berlin, and not a highly paid one; Christopher Isherwood is a young novelist who makes ends meet by working as an English tutor, as close to openly gay as you could be in those days. It makes perfect sense that Sally has one good day dress that she wears frequently and changes up with different accessories like this, lots of women did, perhaps especially during the Depression. There’s a great article about that over at Witness 2 Fashion. But they both came from solid British middle-class backgrounds; there’s a sense that they are slumming it in Berlin, there’s always a certain assurance that they have someplace to go if things go really wrong. Later in life, Christopher Isherwood was well aware of that distinction between him and the many working-class Germans he met in Berlin. He could leave when the Nazis made Berlin too unsafe to stay in. They couldn’t.

 

On the 8mm films

I will try to produce lighter content that 1000-word posts on World War I too, I promise. More of this, for example; this spring my mother had 14 rolls of 8mm film digitalized, filmed by her father, her maternal grandfather and a friend of his between 1935 and 1952.

Not all the films were dated, but some were, and the rest can be inferred. The Standard 8mm format and the first 8mm film camera was released by Kodak in 1932, so 1935 is early on. My great-grandfather was an electrician and ran a successful electrical appliances store, he was something of an early adopter in his day and may have bought it to try it out for the firm. The guy who digitalized these said that they broke his earlier record twice; the oldest films he had digitalized before these were from 1939, two of these were dated 1935 and 1937.

It was incredibly exciting to watch them for the first time. They had been sitting in a bag in the cellar for years and years, and none of the people who had seen it are alive today. My great-grandmother died in 1953, when my mom was seven, and great-grandfather passed only four years later in 1957, so she doesn’t remember very much of them. We hadn’t the faintest idea of what the films would contain or how they would have held up.

So this was surreal, to say the least. The first one, dated 1935, contains footage of my great-grandparents and friends on a bike vacation in Germany, the Netherlands and possibly France or Belgium. This is the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, an electric suspension railway that opened in 1901. It is still in use.

On zeitgeist, transitional fashion and the 1910’s

I’ve been dabbling in 1910’s fashions the last few years, collecting a ton of images, reading, making some garments and experimenting with a few different systems of drafting patterns from the decade. I really like the styles of the latter half of the decade, especially, the WWI years and what little fashion there was going on between 1918 and 1920, in the wake of both a devastating war and a pandemic. The influenza of 1918-19 is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 millions of people worldwide, 3-5% of the world’s population at the time. WWI resulted in the death of about 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians, in comparison. Clearly, the late 1910’s were a bleak time to live in, why is that so fascinating?

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