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Fashion archive: My clothes and I: the art student

Susan Willett is a post-graduate student at an art school. She is small, with a gentle voice, dark blue eyes and waist-length, corn-coloured hair which she wears looped round her face in a fashion softly reminiscent of Queen Victoria.

She lives with her family in Surrey and is noted, in the visually sensitive world in which she works, for the elegance and charm of her appearance. At this interview, in a Kensington coffee-bar, she wore trousers – narrow home-made grey striped ones – a straight brown marl Shetland sweater, sand suede boots and bright blue socks, a purple mohair muffler and a big olive-green plastic mackintosh.

I sometimes dream (she said gravely) that someone has given me a large cheque and I’ve thrown everything away and started right from the beginning again – though I suppose I ought to spend it on something gorgeous for the flat, because I’m getting married next year.

Cotton Always Comes Out so Clean
I’d start with underwear, all white, and get everything right from there. I love cotton underwear – I love cotton; you always feel you can get it so clean. But I wear nylon in the winter because it’s better under straight skirts and things.

Then I’d get shoes. I adore shoes, very long and pointed but not with those high, straight heels because I think they look all wrong and out of proportion from the back. Sometimes I wander round just looking at shoe shops – especially Dolcis or that heavenly place in Bond Street, Fanchon – and then I see some I like and can’t bear not to see what they look like on me, so I go in and try them on. If it’s the beginning of the term I think “Well, I’ve got the money now” so I buy them. Once, when I had a holiday job in France, I bought the most beautiful purple pair in Paris. It was before thin heels and pointed toes had come in here and I just saw them in the window and spent nearly all the money I’d earnt, about £7, on them.

Julian helps a customer try on a new pair of shoes at a shop in Surrey. Photograph: Rosemary Matthews/Getty Images

I can’t really plan my clothes, though. I haven’t got enough money. I get a grant, £40 a term, and with season tickets and all that, there’s not much left for clothes. My father sometimes puts something towards important things like a winter coat. But I hate cheap things. I can’t bear to climb down from anything I really want.

I’ve got this mackintosh: it’s called a Highland Hunting something and I got it at Millet’s Surplus Stores. It had horrible green baize lining the collar, so I put this green jersey there instead. Then I’ve got a black-and-white coat my sister gave me. I cut the collar off that. I hate collars, at least for me – I’m too short. I’d never buy a coat or anything with a great shawl collar.

I make most of my clothes really, or alter them from my sister’s. I hate doing it but I have to. I’d much rather climb into something someone else has had to make.

But even if I was terribly rich I don’t think I’d buy from couture houses: it must be lovely, but they’re so expensive and somehow I don’t think they ought to be encouraged. But I suppose Balenciaga would be worth anything.

I find it awfully difficult to make myself face scissors and patterns when I do get home. And I have to do everything, fitting and all, myself, because, although my mother’s perfectly willing, she tends to pat at the bulges and say, “It’ll be all right, dear, when it’s had a good press.” Generally it takes a special occasion to provide the incentive.

The Observer, 12 April 1959.
Click to see full article.

From a Tablecloth to a Skirt
I don’t really go to many parties, but when I do I wear a bell-shaped skirt – there wasn’t enough material for a full one – made out of some old baize stuff I got from an aunt. I was having tea with her one day and I said: “What an absolutely wonderful tablecloth. It would be marvellous for clothes!” And she just whipped it off the table and gave it to me. I wear it with a white tucked Victorian blouse that I got in the Flea Market. It cost about 3s.

I got another wonderful thing there, too – it’s an impossible place not to spend money in – but I don’t quite know what to do with it. It’s a long white, (dark grey when I got it) cotton sort of tunic with millions of tiny tucks and frills and buttons down the front. I suppose one could wear it with a long bright satin skirt in the evening, but I haven’t yet. Otherwise I wear a straight blue-and-black striped dress made from material my sister brought back from Sweden, with rows of beads. I love beads, especially wooden ones in browns and blacks.

Trousers are Like a Uniform
I never know what I’m going to wear in the morning. I just try and put on what comes to hand to avoid thinking too much. If it’s really bad I put on trousers. They’re like a sort of uniform and you don’t have to bother about a suspender belt. I’ve got three pairs: this one, some very washed-out pale corduroys and some white summer ones.

I don’t think I’m exactly fashion conscious, though I love Balenciaga and Givenchy. I can’t be, because I’m not going to change over to nipped waists and full skirts now. I don’t think the straight waistless look has run itself out yet, any way. But I don’t like ballooning, cocoon shapes. I think you have to be immensely tall and lean for them, like Kay Kendall.

I find it terribly depressing on the whole walking through Knightsbridge and Chelsea – when you get to Woollands and places like that and they have lovely things in the window. At that place called Prêt à Porter in the Brompton Road they’d put the most beautiful hat in the window the other day and idiotically I went in and asked how much it was. It was £16. And when I started to walk out the man said: “Oh well, if you’re not going to buy it, you might as well try it on.”

When Men Offer an Opinion
I think I dress to please myself more than anyone. Men don’t seem to have much idea on the whole and even when they criticise or approve something it doesn’t seem to mean a lot in the long run. I like them to be well dressed, though, and always tell them what I think if I know them well enough. I’m quite confident in my own taste and only like people along for a second opinion when they’re the same kind of people as me. Looking back to when I first went to art school and went through all those extraordinary crazes and long jangly earrings, I think my mother must have been very good. She never said a thing.

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