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High Heels, Low Heels

A photograph of Head Office staff taken on the steps of Savoy Hill in November 1924 shows ranks of men in suit-and-tie, some wearing spats, and a scattering of tastefully dressed women most with bobbed hair, several with long strings of beads.[1] The clothes worn to work were clearly important. They were not only a signifier of status and personal style, they also reflected the ethos of the work environment. Sally Alexander has written about the importance of dress in asserting a woman’s femininity and self-esteem which would have been particularly important when she started her first office job.[2] The ‘Secretary to the Editor of a Leading London Newspaper’ who was called upon, in 1932, to give careers advice to girls about office work, was adamant that it seemed ‘hardly necessary to say that neatness and an entire lack of anything conspicuous are the essentials of business dress’. This did not mean dowdiness either of colour or style, she insisted, ‘well-cut tailored dresses, immaculate shirt jumpers and simple frocks are the right clothes to wear’.[3] Certainly in the early years of the BBC staff wore clothes that demonstrated a strong sense of respectability. Later a touch of glamour was added, reflecting, perhaps, the Corporation’s association with celebrity.[4] Decorum was always expected of both male and female staff but women, particularly weekly waged women, were subject to more petty rules and requirements.

Dress was one of the areas keenly watched over by the WSA. Clare Lawson Dick, who started as a filing clerk in 1935, recalled how ‘anyone who came without stockings on a hot day would be spoken to at once’.[5] Mary Lewis, a checking clerk in Duplicating in the late 1930s remembered that ‘ladies were expected to wear hats and gloves in coming to work’.[6] Dorothy Torry, who became one of Reith’s junior secretaries in 1936, was appreciative of the advice she got from Miss Freeman’s office about how she should do her hair and make herself look respectable.[7] There was an expectation that women would be well-turned-out, and this applied to both the weekly waged and monthly salaried staff. A photograph of a cheerful group of charwomen leaving Broadcasting House in 1934 shows them to be smartly dressed; many in decorous hats and calf-length coats, all in polished Mary-Jane shoes, at least one sporting a fur wrap.

In their manners and dress, women staff represented the dual image of the BBC—a serious organisation dedicated to public service but one that was also touched with modernity and allure. ‘Millivamps!’ was one visiting engineer’s remark in 1931 on the ‘bright young ladies’ of the General Office.[8] Maurice Gorham was captivated by what he saw as the glamour of BBC secretaries, ‘high-heeled, sheer-stockinged, beautifully made-up, clutching their furs around them’.[9] An alternative view is given by a Daily Express staff reporter in August 1937. Hiding in a doorway, he watched the BBC secretaries ‘chosen for their looks as well as their efficiency’, as they came out of Broadcasting House. Commenting on their appearance he noted that, ‘most of them wear two-piece suits and felt Homburgs and flat shoes, all very good and very plain’.[10]

Gorham, who confessed to shocking his superiors by wearing flannel trousers and a red tie when he joined the Corporation in 1926, qualified his statement about dazzling secretaries with the addendum that he was surprised ‘so many of them were keen on their jobs’. This viewpoint that a voguish woman could not be serious about her work is pertinent to the BBC and appears to have been adhered to by many women staff, in particular those who were salaried.[11] Photographs of the time show that those who were waged were more likely to dress glamorously—and wear make-up. As Carol Dyhouse has shown, the use of cosmetics in the interwar years was seen as a quick and easy way to create glamour, particularly pertinent in an era that was dominated by a passion for cinema and the worship of film stars.[12] The Daily Express reporter, in his secret survey of BBC secretaries, noted that not one left the building with a cigarette, ‘and there was only an odd one with too much make-up on her face’.[10] Although the use of cosmetics was widespread by the mid-1930s, many still saw it as unrespectable. Cecil Graves, a senior BBC executive, was caustic in his condemnation of the fair sex ‘who like to dye their hair, make their nails hideous and generally obscure their natural beauty by paint and other atrocities!’[14] This viewpoint was not shared by the BBC Governor Mary Agnes Hamilton who wrote of the contemporary young woman’s mouth ‘exceedingly well-defined in scarlet’ as the symbol of a generation who had grown up accepting female emancipation as the norm.[15]

That many BBC women wore cosmetics is apparent from a four-page spread in Ariel in December 1937. Headlined ‘Is there a BBC Type of

Feminine Beauty?’ the photographs of 29 women staff reveal that most have plucked eyebrows and use lipstick; a few even have exquisitely made- up eyes.[16] Yet, the notion that to be taken seriously career-wise women should not use cosmetics is suggested by an earlier Ariel photographic feature where pictures of nine of the BBC’s most senior secretaries (all salaried) show them to be fresh-faced.[17] Salaried women staff’s distaste for cosmetics is also evident from their staff photos; those who use makeup immediately stand out. This was partly true of elite women staff, for example the only embellishment Hilda Matheson appears to have used was powder.[18] [19] Mary Somerville and Isa Benzie, on the other hand, were definitely aficionados of lipstick, their status perhaps permitting individuality. The fact, however, that most of the BBC’s salaried women chose not to wear make-up suggests that it could be viewed as frivolous and unbecoming in a woman who held a higher status job, particularly among the women themselves.

Whether to wear cosmetics was not an issue for BBC men. Here dress was more about authority and the dress-code remained largely dark suit and tie although, as the 1920s progressed, spats and pin-stripes gave way to the more up-to-date lounge suit. Photographs of senior men in Ariel in the late 1930s show almost all attired in formal jacket and tie. The exception was creative men, those who worked, for example, as producers and executives in Variety or Drama. Here, Gorham observed, the trend was towards ‘high-necked sweaters, corduroy trousers and spongy shoes’. 1 07 The BBC also had a policy of appointing ex-military men as House Staff, for example as commissionaires and receptionists. They were encouraged to wear uniform and medals which would have given those entering Savoy Hill or Broadcasting House an immediate impression of propriety and discipline.

In a few areas of the BBC, a ‘uniform’ was expected. Announcers, as the embodiment of the BBC, were required from 1924 to wear full evening dress. For her job as night hostess, Caroline Towler wore an evening gown largely because this is what the artistes and guests she chaperoned to the Broadcasting House studios would have been wearing. Technical research staff and maintenance engineers would have worn clothes appropriate to their duties, a white lab coat for the former, overalls for the latter. For the women in the Duplicating Section, a floral pinafore was provided to protect their clothes from ink while waitresses had the perk not only of a smart black dress, apron, collar and cap but also shoes, stockings and free laundry.[20]

BBC women wore clothes that reflected their self-assurance but also defined their status. For some it was a sober pullover and skirt, for others a polka-dot frock, for still others a stole or a fur. The glamour and prestige of work at the BBC, coupled with a requirement for decorum, established a mode of dress that was formal yet feminine. It also reflected the appropriateness and responsibility of the work. Seated in the front row in a 1932 photograph of the BBC Catering Department are the two women restaurant supervisors at Broadcasting House, both soberly and respectfully dressed. One of whom is Mrs Dubarry.

  • [1] Briggs, The Birth of Broadcasting, p. 225.
  • [2] Sally Alexander (1995) Becoming a Woman and Other Essays in 19th and 20th CenturyFeminist History (New York: New York University Press) pp. 213-15.
  • [3] J.A.R. Cairns (1928) Careers for Girls (London: Hutchinson) p. 37.
  • [4] See Carol Dyhouse (2010) Glamour: Women, History, Feminism (London: Zed Books)pp. 41-54.
  • [5] The Oral History of the BBC: Clare Lawson Dick interview, 30 March 1979.
  • [6] The Oral History of the BBC: Mary Lewis interview, 13 December 1978.
  • [7] Dorothy Torry interviewed by Kate Murphy, 28 June 2006.
  • [8] BBC Year Book, 1932, p. 90.
  • [9] Gorham, Sound and Fury, p. 23.
  • [10] Daily Express, 6 August 1937.
  • [11] See Catherine Horwood (2005) Keeping up Appearances: Fashion and Class between theWars (Stroud: Sutton) pp. 53-6, 67-9.
  • [12] Dyhouse, Glamour, pp. 64-5. For Alexander the use of cosmetics was a symbol of ayoung woman’s independence and defiance at this time, Sally Alexander, Becoming a Woman,pp. 219-24. See also Lucy Bland (2013) Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in theAge of the Flapper (Manchester: Manchester University Press) pp. 108-9. Fiona Hackney haswritten about the growing importance of cosmetics to women’s magazines in terms of articles and advertising revenue. Fiona Hackney (2011) ‘“They Opened Up a Whole NewWorld”: Feminism, Modernity and the Feminine Imagination in Women’s Magazines,1919-1930’ (Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London).
  • [13] Daily Express, 6 August 1937.
  • [14] BBC/WAC:R51/397/1a: Talks Policy, Graves to Maconachie, 14 July 1937.
  • [15] юз Mary Agnes Hamilton, ‘Changes in Social Life’, in Strachey Our Freedom, pp. 233-5.Young working women as a symbol of modernity is also discussed in Adrian Bingham (2004)Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press)pp. 64—5.
  • [16] Ariel, December 1937.
  • [17] Ariel, October 1937.
  • [18] Hilda Matheson Letters, 20 December 1928.
  • [19] Gorham, Sound and Fury, p. 16.
  • [20] BBC/WAC:R49/73/1: Catering Staff, Conditions of Service, Wade to Nicolls, 11January 1934.
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