As I drove home from work on Whit Sunday, I passed a family walking in the sunshine. They were all female, and looked to be from around four years old to great-granny in her eighties. It took me back to my own childhood and similar outings when members of the four generations would gather at Whitsuntide, all in our ‘Whitsy clothes’.
From talking to people locally, it seems the idea of Whitsy clothes never made it this far south. I, however, was born, and spent most of my childhood, in Yorkshire, in the north of England… where tradition said that there must be a new outfit for ‘Whitsy’. The rest of the year clothes came as necessities and were often home-made or hand-me-downs, or both, so the ‘Whitsy frock’ was an exciting sartorial adventure.
Whitsuntide celebrates the Christian feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended ‘like a dove’ on the disciples of Jesus. Somewhere along the line, it gathered some of the aspects of Beltane in popular culture and became a celebration of spring. In practical terms, especially in the chilly and none-too-affluent north, it meant that we all got a new summer outfit. The name means ‘White Sunday’ and, in spite of the fact that ‘white’ usually means ‘holy’ in these old names, when it came to Whitsy clothes, we took that literally.
My mother was an elegant woman. Her style revolved around kitten heels, wasp waists, wide skirts and the bullet bra. She loved hats too and could wear all shapes and sizes. To this day it is that combination that speaks to me of feminine style… even though I tend towards the long skirts and comfort of hippydom myself. Only the posture remains, and the memory of the long hours we spent together, balancing books on our heads to get that right. But I remember the Whitsy outfits well.
The first step was a visit to Clark’s shoe shop, where feet were duly measured for length and width… then forced into something the shop assistant assured us would fit, with a bit of ‘growing room’. They never did and, with comments like ‘well, she has such high arches…’, I would go home clutching a box that held instruments of torture.
They were always the same shoe, winter and summer… the infamous Clark’s T-Bar that we all wore through the sixties. In winter they would be navy, brown or burgundy, but summer turned them white… until we scuffed the toes on bikes and footballs. They always started way too big and we wore them till they were way too small. But they were always new for Whitsy.
Next came the accessories… new white socks to replace those turned grey in the twin-tub washing machine, short white gloves, a small white handbag and a white ‘straw’ boater trimmed with flowers. For mother, it would be new nylons, white heeled sandals and a bag, always the gloves and whatever millinery confection took her fancy at C&A. I have mixed memories of hat-hunting trips throughout my childhood and teens, when I watched in admiration as she tried on every hat in the shop and, with a tweak and a twist, looked amazing in all of them, from the tiny pillbox to the huge creation made entirely of pink roses. I, on the other hand, could never wear hats.
Being England and the north, the weather played a part in our choice of outfits. ‘Never cast a clout, until May’s out’ was the watchword, so a Whitsy coat was usually made by my grandfather, a sculptor and pianist turned engineer and electronics wizard. The dress was sometimes bought, but more often made by mother as a matching pair. One year, the ‘pair’ was literally that… of white, floral print curtains that made a wide-skirted dress for me and a voluminous skirt for her, all held in place by net petticoats.
On Whit Sunday morning, my hair… wild and unruly even then… would be brushed to within an inch of its life and tied with white ribbon. Spotlessly attired, we would go to visit the grandparents and great-grandparents. This was a profitable venture for a small child, as they could be counted upon to slip silver into handbag and coat pocket for luck, because everyone knew it was bad luck to wear either item new and have them empty! These were the days when sixpence could by enough sweets for a week, and if each of the Bramley grandparents gave me half a crown, that would be ten shillings… and that meant I could take a trip to W.H. Smith to buy books!
There would be other visits to make in the morning, then usually an afternoon picnic or a trip to Kirkstall or Bolton Abbey or somewhere equally fascinating.
I still look at white dresses and think of Whitsuntide. As a more widespread affluence came to the north, the tradition of Whitsy clothes receded and I wonder if anyone still bothers these days. Clothes have become cheaper, almost disposable. Comfortably stretchy fabrics mean that few mothers will stand with an iron and the Robin’s starch, stiffening cotton skirts until they crackle. I wonder what else we are losing as these traditions disappear, along with the extra work for mothers and the horrid Clark’s sandals? We were subtly being taught a sense of value and I still remember my Whitsy clothes in great detail. I wonder how many of today’s childhood outfits will be remembered fifty years or so from now?