I have a confession to make. Although my characters are very good about checking out charity shops and mixing modern with vintage, I am usually pretty rubbish at it myself. It’s not that I don’t try. I do, I really do. I follow the blogs. Digs Frocks and Books is one of my favourites. I know all my local charity shops and I’m sure they know me: the girl who comes in, can’t find anything that fits or works, goes home again. And proper vintage can be so expensive.
So if I need something nice, I normally take a deep breath and try Topshop. Not cheap, but oh so pretty. Meanwhile, my cupboard is littered with charity ‘finds’ that I never quite got round to fixing so they didn’t look like some 1940s showgirl’s undies. (Or that I did fix, and which now look like some 1940s showgirl’s undies with diamante buttons on.)
Then I was staying with my parents in Shepton Mallet over Christmas. Shepton is near Glastonbury, and seems to lie between some magical Somerset leylines, because strange and unexpected things always happen there. The Mulberry factory shop is there, for a start. (Yes, I have more than one Mulberry handbag. And no, they weren’t vintage. But they were RELATIVELY CHEAP, considering.) The first Micro scooters I ever saw came from the toy shop round the corner. This was ten years ago. Now every toddler in Wandsworth has one. Shepton, of all places, has my favourite antique shop, Number 21. It was there that I met Hilda Haggie, who in her late eighties told me stories about escaping the Nazis with emerald bangles up to her elbows, hidden under her clothes and, later, hiding from robbers on her African farm and becoming the frozen food queen of South Africa.
It was there – Shepton, not South Africa – that the BBC chose to film Turn Back Time – The High Street, which was on over the autumn. It was a lovely series to watch (my parents were in it …), but it didn’t quite manage to capture the real difference that the programme makers made to the town: bringing people together, changing their attitude to the local shops and giving them a new sense of local identity.
One of my favourite characters in the programme was Gill, the seamstress. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras she handmade stunning corsets and dresses. In the 1960s they made her open a hairdressers and she managed to transform the look of all the local ladies with beehives and Lulu-like flicky curls. They looked fantastic and nostalgic and I wished we could all have ‘dos’ again. Hair makes more difference than almost anything you can do to yourself. Check out Cheryl Cole. She knows.
Anyway, in the 1970s episode Gill opened a shop called Woo Hoo. It’s still there, selling vintage. I popped in after Christmas to do my usual look around, find nothing that fits, or nothing nice under £100 and disappear. Except that … I found several things I loved. I tried them on. They fitted. Something strange was happening. That Shepton effect again.
First off was a soft, supple black leather skirt. I thought Zoe, who was running the shop that day, said it cost £50, which seemed reasonable. But she didn’t. She sad £15. I asked her to put it in a bag for me. Next came a rich, turquoise Chinese silk top – one of my favourite colours ever. Fitted perfectly. £5. In the bag. Finally, I tried on a 1930s gold silk Chinese jacket. It was exactly the sort of thing Eileen Atkins would have worn on Upstairs Downstairs, which we’d just been watching on the BBC. Despite its age, it was in perfect condition. And it turned out to be reversible. The rust silk lining had pockets and could look just as stunning on the outside. I could probably wear it to every book reading and festival I ever do.
Nervously, I asked how much it was. Nervously, Zoe explained that it was a bit special. She took a deep breath. So did I. £30, she said. I asked her to add it to the bag.
So there you go. I now have a wardrobe littered with vintage stuff that I can’t wait to wear, and that was collectively cheaper than a Topshop jumper. I can look my characters in the eye at last. And if you ever see me in a gold silk jacket, you’ll know where it came from.