Nostalgia: Who wears the trousers?

Ladies and men in dungarees, building a hayrick in Funtington
Ladies and men in dungarees, building a hayrick in Funtington

Regular Down Memory Lane contributor Eve Willard, of Herald Drive, Chichester, shares her memories on how women dressed when she was growing up...

My grandmother didn’t approve of women wearing trousers. She herself, born in the 1880s, would never have considered it. The war changed all that when women were required to do men’s jobs and they took to overalls and slacks wholeheartedly.

The work women were required to undertake in the 1940s was sometimes beyond their strength and capability, but they did it.

I watched as my mother, all 5ft 2ins of her, size eight, changed from being 100 per cent feminine to accepting tough experience in a man’s world.

She proved to be a poor tractor driver; drove the old Marshall into the ditch. She was better suited to deliver the milk as she was an early riser.

Occasionally I was able to accompany her on the milk round. She was up at first light, walking to Lynch Farm, Funtington, to give Joey the pony his nosebag, then harness him into the milk float. The float was cream-coloured with J Weston painted in green on the sides. The head cowman loaded the silvery churns. It was a delightful ride to clip-clop through Funtington village, down Watery Lane into West Ashling, up to Edith Cottages, down Spring Gardens.

Mum seemed to know everyone we met. She stopped to chat to Mr Noakes and Mr Stares, the hedgers and ditchers, as they stood knee-deep in a ditch, their trousers tied below the knee with binder twine. Mum said it was to prevent rats running up their legs.

It was a cold ride in winter, we put sacks over our shoulders and over the churns. Customers would come to their gate when they heard us arrive, carrying one-pint jugs into which we measured milk.

Mum collected weekly payment in a leather cashbag slung across her shoulders. 
If customers ran into debt the head cowman got on his bike and paid them a visit. 
He broached no excuses.

The only men left in the village during the war seemed to be those unfit for service or essential for farm work, and the blacksmith, the pub landlord, and old men.

My mother wasn’t strong. She suffered from TB in her youth, yet she still smoked dog-ends and had a hacking cough. She worked in the fields, topping sugarbeet and mangolds. She was nervous working alone up at Deadmans, a field at the foot of the Downs. She felt evil spirits lingered there.

Gran worried more about what might happen if mum cut herself with the fag-hook while the mangold-cart was taken to Nutbourne Halt to be unloaded.

All the women enjoyed harvest-time. They stacked sheaves as we kids played hide-and-seek in the stooks.

The threshing tackle team were not called up into the Forces. They went round all the villages with the combine harvester, threshing tackle, gathering grain into sacks and leaving hayricks to be thatched.

The women worked until exhausted – itching and scratching with wheat chaff down their backs. Trousers and overalls made good sense, though not all women took to them. Some insisted men should wear the trousers.

Older women, like my grandmother (pictured, left, in 1928) insisted on a strict code of dress. Nothing too figure-revealing.

Any suggestion of cleavage or wobbly bits prompted them to say ‘It ‘ent decent. It’s unseemly. Where’s her stays?’ Stays being corsets.

Femininity still prevailed as I was growing up. Dirndle skirts, crinoline petticoats, dresses with smocking and collars and cuffs. I was allowed a divided skirt.

After the second world war, men returned to find women had taken over wearing the trousers – literally and metaphorically – as they have continued to do ever since.