Whitsy clothes

Mother and me, circa 1963

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?

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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68 Responses to Whitsy clothes

  1. jwebster2 says:

    I shared it on facebook, see if anybody else remembers


  2. Mary Smith says:

    Oh, I remember the torture of Clark’s shoes. In my case they were bought for the start of the school year. Do you remember they had an Xray machine to measure children’s feet. What were they thinking?


    • Sue Vincent says:

      They just used sliders and tapes at our local Clark’s, thank goodness! Lord how I hated those shoes…and even most of the boys wore them till high school!


  3. fransiweinstein says:

    Lovely story Sue. I think it’s a shame that we’ve lost certain traditions. I remember always getting a new outfit, also with a hat, for Easter. And we used to go to New York, combination business trip for my father and to visit family (my mom and her twin sister were born there). My grandparents moved to Montreal but my grandfather’s family stayed in New York. I loved those trips, loved New York and counted the days all year.


  4. I can’t remember Whitsy clothes, just Sunday Best or changing out of school uniform to play clothes, which were usually our old Sunday best. Clark’s shoes were the norm for us too, especially at one stage when they were the only stockist for grammar school ‘regulation’ footwear (read not much choice other than black or brown). Mine were always comfy though, especially as I was an EE fitting and Mum and Dad never skimped on shoe quality for us kids.
    These days my clothes are Ts and joggers, though I will wear jeans to darts (haven’t got much else actually), and footwear trainers or cloggies for the garden.


  5. Darlene says:

    What interesting memories and so different to those of us not from the UK. Like something from a Masterpiece Theatre series. I have never heard of Whitsuntide. My mom sewed most of my outfits and later I sewed my own. Mom and the women of her generation had one strict rule and that was absolutely no wearing white until after Victoria Day (the third Monday in May) or after Labour Day (the first Monday in September.) To this day I feel guilty when I break this rule!


    • Sue Vincent says:

      Now, I’ve never heard of Victoria Day, so it works both ways 🙂
      The older ladies generally stuck to dark colours most of the time (apart from great-great-aunt Annie Beatrice who had a penchant for hot pink with bows ), all covered with a paisley pinafore. But on high days and holidays, they crackled with starch 🙂


  6. Adele Marie says:

    I loved this post, Sue. I asked Becca, she is from Dewsbury, if she remembered getting new clothes for Whitsy, she said that she remembered everyone getting dressed up. xxx


  7. Having grown up in the States, this was a brand new tradition to me. Love the photos, and wonderful descriptions of a different time in life.


  8. Anne Copeland says:

    We did not have Whitsy clothes, but in my youth, my grandma and I used to board the bus and go downtown, where we would try on hats and gloves and purses, and look at the dresses in the Mode O’Day store. Matching shoes and purses were a definite thing, and we did not have plastic in those days, but could make our purchases at the stores with layaway, which was a wonderful thing. Yes, we did get our school shoes and “best” shoes that we also wore for a year. We got most of our clothes at the thrift stores, but I learned how wonderful that was; it seemed as though every piece of clothing must have some sort of story behind it, and that made it magical for me. I remember that one of my aunts or perhaps my grandma made me a “coat of many colors,” sort of a crazy quilt coat of many corduroys from scraps. I wore that until it became a rag literally. I should make myself another one for it holds so many good memories. Thank you for this wonderful post; I enjoyed looking back at my own youth as well as reading yours and seeing all these things that brought to mind so much history.


    • Sue Vincent says:

      I still shop at thrift stores to this day… I can’t afford the prices for good stuff elsewhere and would rather know my cash was going to a charity, whilst recycling unwanted clothes 🙂


  9. acflory says:

    This post made me smile. We didn’t have a Whitsuntide tradition when I was growing up, but being raised a Catholic meant dressing up for Sunday mass – stockings, gloves, hat. We had to wear the same combination for school – stockings, gloves, hat – so I don’t miss them, but I do feel a certain nostalgia for the pomp and ceremony of the era. Oh, and I remember the Clarks shoes as well. Horrible, horrible things.


  10. dgkaye says:

    What a fantastic story Sue. Makes us really wonder if ‘the good old days’ fifty years from now will say the ‘good old days’. Loved the photo too. ❤


  11. Widdershins says:

    I can’t remember clearly but I think we got new clothes at Christmas (in the middle of summer in OZ) that were ‘put away’ for ‘good’. ‘Good’ meaning only to be worn when there were no, or very little, chance of them getting dirty.
    That picture though … your mum’s shades and your hair are memorable! 😀


    • Sue Vincent says:

      There were ‘best’ clothes and ‘party’ clothes that seldom saw the light of day, but the Whitsy clothes I got to wear though sumer, once the crispness had gone 🙂
      And yes, those shades (the hair is about the same, minus the ribbon 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

  12. When I was in High School, there was a “dress up” day in Senior Year, right before we graduated. My friends mother had a set of those dresses in their attic and I wore one for a day. What was amazing was that thought they had long sleeves and long skirts, they were the lightest most comfortable dresses I ever wore … like the brush of a feather.

    The same date for Jews is Shavuot, which has languished a bit as a major festival. For reasons no one has explained to me, we didn’t wear white. instead, we all ate cheese cake.


  13. I enjoyed your article, Sue. I feel this way about Christmas presents. Modern children get so many presents all your round that nothing is memorable for them. I remember when I got a rag doll for Christmas. It is a very distinct memory for me, I don’t believe my boys will have that.


  14. Jennie says:

    I love this story, Sue. I have many similar memories. Thank you!


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