The Hollywood School of Dressmaking, by Lynley Dear
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When the camera rolls who can tell what is movie script and what is real life? It is 1929 and few people are who they say they are when Hollywood on Tour comes to town to make a movie with a scattering of Stars plus throngs of star-struck locals. So when Hollywood on Tour collides with the innocent young local seamstresses of The Hollywood School of Dressmaking, the consequences of these ten hectic days are both hilarious and tragic.
Real life turns out to be much more complicated than the twists and turns of the plot of this pioneering Talkie. A heady combination of seat-of-the-pants movie making and Art Deco flapper fashions results in a novel, which is an entertainingly fresh colonial take on the stylish age of Gatsby.
From: The Hollywood School of Dressmaking, by lynley Dear
Least said, soonest mended.
An Express train blundered into a small town station. Once it had sighed and settled, the doors burst open and passengers emerged, like seeds popping from pods, to scatter in whatever directions the winds of life were blowing them.
One such Express train from ‘up north’ arrived at one such sleepy station on a late afternoon in the springtime of 1929 and from it, among the dowdy weeds of her fellow passengers, emerged an exotic bloom, a glamorous Young Miss – possibly a Bright Young Thing. Unlike the others, who strode purposefully from the platform to whatever awaited them in the town, she stood irresolute, encumbered by only one blue hatbox. Eventually she made her way to a probably sooty bench and, careless of her glamorous clothes, lowered herself wearily onto it. The Express engine gave a steamy sigh as if in sympathy.
Well I’m here – wherever this dump is. Somewhere at the end of the world if the length of that train ride is anything to go by. I can see the welcome banners and the Committee waving them. See? – down there at the end of the platform?
WELCOME TO ALMA HICKS, STAR OF STAGE & SCREEN
In my dreams! Alma. I’ve never liked my name and I can hardly remember the person who bestowed it. ‘Bestowed’. That’s the word isn’t it? But a bit too grand for Alma. And it’s not as if my mother gave me a second name so I could choose to be known by that one. I think after giving birth to me, she pronounced ‘Alma’ and then simply lost interest in the entire project. Maybe she was just calling to a nurse called Alma and didn’t really name me that at all – and then just couldn’t be bothered to correct the misunderstanding?
And then, thanks to our neighbour Mrs Bloxham, I grew. And then came the school bit of my life. One day the teacher wrote in large chalk letters on the blackboard the word ALM and for a little minute I thought she was going to write my name. It didn’t occur to me that I might be in some kind of trouble; I just wanted to see my name up there where everyone else would see it and notice me. That’s what I still want. But then she went and added another letter, an S, and explained that ALMS were money that rich people gave to poor people. I asked ‘How much money, Miss?’ and the answer was tuppence or thruppence. So my name was about just a little bit of money. Typical.
We were learning about life in the days of old Queen Victoria and that reminded me of something straight away. When I had asked Mrs Bloxham if I had a Dad she had said,
‘Yes, of course you did and you still have one. Don’t you remember him?’ I told her I didn’t even remember my mother and she cuddled me so hard at that, I thought I might break.
‘Of course you were very little when you were left with me, but he had to go away and now he’s in Australia.’ Then she added, ‘in Victoria.’ And in a teary sort of voice she had added, ‘And I think your Mummy must have gone to look for him.’
So remembering what I’d been told as a three year old and connecting the name Victoria, I decided that my absent father was in Australia gathering alms for me, his dear daughter Alma. And my mother was helping him. My name was about money then! And even if alms were just little amounts, they would all add up to lots of money if he was a good alms gatherer and then he would come home and my mother would be with him. And after they had collected me from the Orphanage, they would take me home and my Dad would kiss me and sit me on his knee. Then he would give me my alms in a black tin box with red and gold lines around the lid, with hinges and a handle on top and with a lock on it, and he would give me a pink fairy dress with a skirt like candy floss, all wrapped in white tissue paper as well for good measure.
But that didn’t ‘come to pass’ as they say in churches, and one day, after I must have been with Mrs Bloxham next door for what seemed to be my whole life but which was probably about three years, she became ill and the next disaster befell me.
Then came the orphanage bit, but as they say in novels, we’ll ‘draw a veil’ over that.
So, here I was, all grown up and having never seen my mother again (let alone my father). I was stepping from the train onto the platform of this hick town railway station. A hick town for Alma Hicks. No, no. Banish that thought! This was my town of opportunity. That’s what he had told me.
I knew I was looking good. That much had been obvious from men’s admiring glances when I’d boarded the train and then all during the journey. But I’m accustomed to that and I have the ability to look them over without them realising it – quite a simple technique involving an absent-minded gaze out the window, or some page turning, and always eyelashes. On this tedious journey I had decided that in my carriage there wasn’t one male worth the bother.
Very few passengers alighted. I set the blue leather hatbox down on the platform and snapped open my handbag for the address I needed. It was then I realised that my small amount of change probably wouldn’t hire me a taxi. I had no idea where a bus stop was, no idea where this lodgings address actually was. Mr Wilson had paid my first week’s board in advance, assuring me that I would be earning more than enough to pay the subsequent days until filming ended. I picked up the hatbox and crossed to a bench at the far side of the platform. Doubtless my velvet-clad derriere would pick up some soot but I just had to sit and review the situation.
I propped both elbows on the hatbox, now resting on my knees, and gazed from beneath the brim of my cloche at the silver track that had brought me here. Little would anyone guess that beneath the round blue lid was not ‘un chapeau’, but my wardrobe in its entirety; four pair of panties, my stays with attached suspenders, a cotton dress, a cardigan jacket with a belt tie, a nightie and spare stockings … and a set of lacy unmentionables that Mr Wilson had given me. Well, they weren’t exactly for free but we’ll draw a veil over that bit too. And everything was no doubt seriously crushed by now. What I stood up in, or strictly speaking, what I at that moment was sitting down in, was all the clothing I possessed in the world. I’d been promised that a suitcase with the clothes I would wear in the film would be sent down for me. And yet, with my excellent fashion sense, I knew I looked the part in my garçon style crêpe de chine chemise with the tunic top, my stockings rolled just above the knee and held with black garters (very provocative!) my cloche with its suggestion of the tiniest brim (an adjunct to my eyelashes for peeking out from under), and my wraparound velvet coat with its tubular roll of fur collar. Just one item each from the wardrobes of the various women whose houses I had cleaned would never be missed. But my collection of ‘haute couture’ had taken a devil of a long time because some of my employers had been two axe handles across the backside and bulged alarmingly everywhere else.
As for my hatbox, there was a problem with it that only now occurred to me. In gold on its lid were the initials S.A. My last employer had been Mrs Anderson (Susan? Shirley? Sarah?) – probably Sarah. It matched her elegant house. I traced my finger across those problematic letters.
And it was then that I became aware of a pair of two-toned tan and white shoes topped with smartly pressed pin-striped trouser cuffs. I followed those trousers up and took in (beneath my lashes of course) a handsome man standing there, leaning over me politely but not threateningly. I noticed that, apart from him, the platform was deserted now.
‘Excuse me, Miss? Madame? I couldn’t help noticing that you seem a bit lost. Are you waiting for someone? Your husband perhaps?’ Then without giving me a chance to reply, he removed his hat and with a little bow, ‘Allow me to introduce myself. Arden Church at your service if you have need of me.’
And I was looking into a pair of laughing brown eyes. Laughing with just a hint of mockery in them. Well! What I could have said there and then was that yes, I was indeed waiting for my husband and d’you know something? I think I’ve found him, right here on this railway station platform. And did I have need of him? Yes Sir! I had a need of him and, what’s more, a huge wedding with bells and bridesmaids, a honeymoon in a faraway place, a deflowering on satin sheets (well not a deflowering exactly), a beautiful bungalow with a garden (and a gardener) and two children one of each – oh, and a nanny to look after them while I, Alma Church, wife of millionaire Arden Church, pursued my career as the famous star of moving, talking pictures.
But of course I said none of this. I extended my gloved hand. Actually I didn’t. Already he had reached out and lifted it from the hatbox lid to hold it in his. A cool draught was snuffling paper and discarded cigarette cartons along the platform and a piece of silver chocolate paper wrapped itself across his shoe. He did an elegant little flicking kick, almost a dance step, to dislodge it, and into the lengthening silence I put aside the hatbox and stood up. My, he was tall! I came not quite to his shoulders and that was in my heels.
‘And I have the honour of meeting … ?’
Well, I had a real predicament now. Even in my brief fantasy, my name Alma Hicks didn’t seem to fit and any moment now he would notice the initials on this confounded hatbox. Those wrong initials on that damned hatbox lid seemed to bounce accusingly up at me. In confusion I glanced down. The silver chocolate wrapper still lay by his shoe.
‘Sylvia …’ I gleamed at him.
Just then, a plug of ash fell from his cigarette onto my coat.
‘So sorry, Sylvia,’ and he was brushing it from my shoulder. Even through the fabric, the caress of his fingers gave me quite a jolt.
‘Ashley … Sylvia Ashley. Pleased to meet you.’ (And who wouldn’t be? remained unspoken).
‘Well, Mrs Ashley …’
‘Miss Ashley. Sylvia.’ And I gave him the full force of my smile.
‘Well, Sylvia. I’m getting a taxi. We can share if you like.’ He bent to pick up the hatbox. I could hear his unspoken question.
‘The rest of my luggage was sent on.’
And that wasn’t a lie. Mr Wilson was choosing items personally, ‘glamour items for the film’ he had called them. Mind you, I’d ‘paid’ that rich creep for them. But here I was, just a few minutes since I’d hit town and walking with a handsome young man out of the station and to the street where a taxi, as if conjured up, was waiting. As he climbed into the back seat beside me I snapped open my clutch purse and read from the piece of paper, 15 Foveaux Street. Arden Church gave a start of surprise.
‘Well, I’ll be – that’s where I’m headed too. Can you believe that? It’s a boarding establishment.’ Then giving me a lingering appreciative stare, ‘It looks like we’ll be seeing quite a bit of each other.’
I responded with a tight, prim smile, though I don’t act prim very convincingly. My mind was doing zigzags but my hands were clasped demurely in my lap. I chanced a sideways peek at him. A low sun was shining through the small oval of the rear window and his upper face was in the shadow of his hat, but I saw a firm square jaw, generous mouth and what looked like a garnet stud in his burgundy tie. Then with a ‘Forgive me,’ he removed his hat and placed it over my hands on my lap. His left hand slid quickly under the brim to take one of mine, turn it over and hold it firmly there. The gaze I then turned on him was suitably startled. He met it with a smile I could only describe as mischievous and began to move his hand, still holding mine, across my lap. I felt I was being tickled somewhere unmentionable with a feather. And then I felt cheated when the auto swung left and, not far from the corner, stopped outside number 15. It was a large house with two buxom bay windows facing the low west sun.
As we walked up to the front door, Arden Church, carrying my hatbox under his arm and a surprisingly small suitcase of his own, placed his free hand low in the small of my back. This fella has electric fingers, was my delighted thought and then the front door was open, our landlady advancing upon us and, while I was scrabbling through my memory for my new identity, Arden Church was introducing me as Sylvia Ashley and I felt as if my name was up in lights already.
For the second time that week Edna was having trouble with her bicycle chain. She had leaned it up against the brick wall of the alley behind the workshop and was struggling ineffectually with it. She’d removed her gloves but already there was oil on the right one and the jolly thing had just slipped for the third time.
The chaps were leaving the Garage now. Down the alley they poured like lumpy porridge, heading for the lean-to where the overalls were stored. In their haste to be away, most of them were stripping while they walked, slipping the broad straps from their shoulders, pushing down the khaki coloured bibs and, with a couple of expert wriggles, stepping out of the trousers, hardly missing a step in their haste to be away into cars, onto bikes and motorbikes, into their after-hours lives. Nobody noticed Edna viewing the passing parade through the spokes of her bicycle wheel.
She heard the sound of water gushing, quite close and to her right, glanced across and was mortified to see Joe relieving himself against the brick wall. In the moment she recognised him, he registered her, hastily zipped up then grinned, shamefaced and pink to the roots of his ginger hair.
‘Caught short there Eddie. Sorry about that. Didn’t see you. Anything I can help with?’ and without waiting for a reply, he was crouching down and had taken over in a wonderfully capable and manly way.
‘Tell y’what, there’s a chance it could slip again …’
‘It does! It has!’
‘… but I can fix that with something I’ve got back in the workshop if Monday would do?’ Joe had stood up and was holding her lame bicycle out to her with a grin. ‘If I had something with wheels – that’s a car I mean, not a bike – I’d give you a lift home Eddie.’
She felt tongue-tied and then he added,
‘Um, Edna. You probably don’t enjoy getting a chap’s name all the time round here.’
‘Well it’s sort of a chaps’ place, a motor garage, isn’t it? I don’t really mind. It makes me feel I fit in, sort of.’ He was looking at her very seriously. ‘But thank you Joe for fixing this – and for calling me Edna,’ she added in a rush, looking hard at the handlebars of her bike.
‘It’ll get you home and back then after the weekend I’ll do a real good job so it won’t happen again. Be seeing you,’ and he was off round the corner of the alley, whistling.
Edna set off possibly a bit more wobbly than usual. She rounded the corner and was at once in the midst of the going-home traffic. She looked carefully both ways before crossing the tram lines, then, at the pedestrian crossing opposite M.& N. Mills Department Store, she put her foot down and studied the stream of shop girls while she waited.
They were nun-like in their uniform black but that impression was belied by the glamorous, heeled shoes with the fashionable instep straps that had been lurking in draw-string bags all day in the ladies’ locker room. And you could be certain that every girl was wearing gloves. Edna glanced down at her own, rather grubby, on the handlebars, hand knitted by her Mum and one of them now with an oil stain on the thumb. So very different from the navy fabric ones the Mills girls had to wear, or else! It was well known that if a female Mills employee, shop or office, were caught in public by Miss Frobisher without her gloves on, she could be severely reprimanded by the General Manager, have her pay docked or even be dismissed. The hard cases called it ‘mentioned in dispatches’ but even the hard cases wore gloves.
Maybe Pearl and Rose would be among the Mills girls on the crossing. But no, Rose would have been collected after work by her fiancé in his adorable little Morris Cowley car with its ‘side valve, four cylinder engine and three speed gear box’ as Rose recited, understanding nothing she was saying. Edna, with her automotive experience, understood very well, hugging to herself the unaccustomed feeling of superiority. It had just two doors so when you were given a lift, the front seat passenger, the uncomplaining Rose, had to get out, tip the seat forward and wait while you poked your bottom in the air, hoping your suspenders weren’t showing, then did a sort of headfirst plunge with a sideways twist until you landed in the back seat. Then away Robbie would go through the gears and there you sat behind the happy couple feeling a bit like piggy in the middle except you weren’t in the middle but sort of spying from behind them. So, entirely to remove that impression, you talked far too much and poor Rose had to twist her neck to reply to you.
By now the flow of shop girls had passed and Edna pedalled on until she came to Foveaux street and turned left. A taxi was parked near the corner so she slowed to swerve out past it, then had to brake to avoid hitting the couple who were crossing over to Mrs McConnachy’s boarding house. At the sight of them, Edna felt like a lower life form and wished for a sudden hole in the road to swallow her up, bicycle and all. But she need not have worried. Neither saw her as they crossed the pavement opposite and walked up the path to the front door. Their clothes told her that they must be Stars! Edna didn’t go to every new moving picture for nothing and she knew Hollywood when she saw it!