I opened the tool drawer and pulled out the hammer. The dog took one look and did a runner, hiding under the desk with a mixture of laughter and wariness in her eyes. This, I thought, was rather unfair… I am good with a hammer. My first, full-time job was as a window dresser, in the days when it was our task to re-line the window bays, create the themed displays… and, as it was menswear that we sold, use heavy board, hammer and panel pins to remove every hint of a crease from the gaudy, tear-drop collared shirts, flared trousers and suits. It was the seventies, after all…
I loved that job. Every day a new town, travelling around the country to all the branches the company owned. Even though, being the smallest and the only female on the team, I was usually the one lounging on the huge rolls of felt in the back of the van, uncomfortably close to the big guillotine.
The worst part of the job was the first thing we did after emptying the windows of the mannequins and displays… cleaning the inside of the glass. Back then, we used Windolene, a cleaner somewhere between a liquid and a paste, that dried to a powder that you had to buff away. It is bad enough cleaning household windows with the stuff, when you can pick your time. For us, there were plate glass sheets forty feet long and ten feet high to be cleaned… always under the glare and heat of a battery of industrial spotlights and usually in the full heat of the sun.
But, like all lousy tasks, it had its moments. Children were always a delight… they always seemed to find it funny that a live person was in the window. It was a good time to people-watch too. Coming eye to eye with the ‘dummy’ in the window took people off guard and their reactions were telling. There were the poseurs, the embarrassed, the flirtatious… although I learned early that skirts, especially in the days of the mini, were not a good ida in that profession. And I lost count of the number of times people jumped when I moved. Peripheral vision must have told them I was what they expected to see… a mannequin. Movement caught them off guard and their reactions were priceless.
Those were not the days of elegant, minimalist window displays… they were a time when you nailed swirling displays of psychedelic shirts to the walls, nailed trousers and suits to the models and crammed as much of the stock in the window as possible in the hope of attracting customers… especially those lines that were not selling well.
Although it was a big company, with several chains, back then it was all low tech too. Price tags were handwritten… in copperplate lettering, in white correction fluid on small brown boards for the upmarket branches and in bold black marker on huge fluorescent roundels for the discount stores. Every shop was different, from vast, swish stores to tiny boutiques. We shared ideas, pooled our skills and outfitted the lot before they opened, designed their layout and styled their displays, making all the props and décor from scratch.
We worked for the most part, quite literally, on the shop floor. Working to a tight deadline, we seldom looked up from what we were doing until we had to lift a mannequin into the window. You had to lift them carefully, by the crotch, so as not to disturb the pristine and stretched material. On one never to be forgotten occasion, I learned to check before I grabbed… and can only hope the customer was not too traumatised…
I hated having to leave that job though and never thought I would return to it. Yet, as with many things, what I learned there in my teens served me well in later life. Engaged as a temporary salesperson to ready and open a large new jewellery store one Christmas, by the time the six weeks’ contract was up, I had been hired and put in charge of the windows, displays and stockrooms as well as shop-floor sales and in store repairs. A few years later, I found myself Head of Retail for a charity, designing and fitting the new stores, upgrading the image of charity shops and their displays… even opening a recycled furniture warehouse and setting trends within the industry.
Such things are never achieved alone, it takes teamwork and a willingness to share ideas, whether you are the one knelt in the dust or the one wearing the suit. The hammer blows as I reassembled the gale-blown fence today brought it all back. But, without the lessons I learned in those early years of work, none of that would have happened… and I would have missed an awful lot of fun.
The dog, however, was less than pleased. Not just about the hammering… but because now she has lost what one more gust of wind would have made into an escape route from the garden…