“Your Grandmother was a lady, and don’t you ever forget that”! (p30)
RM Downer was a dressmaker working in the first half on the 20th century. Her memoir, ‘A Bygone Age’, tells the story of her life and work from the age of 17, ‘after nearly three years of Apprenticeship’ (p1), to her late eighties. RM Downer’s main focus in her writing is her career, and the relationships and travels that came from it. Her life was shaped by her work as a dressmaker, through which she met her husband: ‘About this time I was married to my girlhood sweetheart with whose mother I was apprenticed’ (p16). RM Downer shows her passion for dressmaking throughout her memoir, devoting long paragraphs to a particular fabric or creation. Her pride in her work is one of the things that first attracted me to her memoir. Every event in her life is accompanied by details of one of her dresses and stories about her clients. RM Downer’s identity is clearly intertwined with her work, and so for me, it makes for a particularly interesting insight into working-class autobiography .
One exciting aspect of RM Downer’s life and writing is her experience of cross-class relationships. Her clients are all clearly much more wealthy than she is. For example, the first commission she describes is her work making ‘some evening gowns for a General’s wife and daughters’ (p1). Despite this social divide, RM Downer speaks affectionately of her regular clients, saying ‘I was treated much like a Companion’ (p3), and that ‘Mrs X’ signed her letters to her as ‘“always your friend”’ (p29). Through these relationships, RM Downer gives her readers an unusual perspective on high society and upper-class social events. Through her work, RM Downer is involved in many bridge parties and balls, including a dance at Sandhurst.
In addition to attending these events, RM Downer is also given many opportunities to travel in her role as a dressmaker. She speaks of taking trips to London ‘to get materials from Libertys , Dickens & Jones and many of the best shops’ and even visiting ‘the late Queen’s milliner in Bond Street’ (p3). RM Downer takes work in various homes, mostly in Southeast England. In her early twenties, she lives and works in ‘a lovely house near the South Coast called Craigwell’, boasting that ‘one of our late King’s stayed there’, as did ‘Viola Tree the actress’ (p4), who RM Downer is compared to. She regularly spends time in Kent, working for ‘Mrs X’ in her ‘delightful house and garden’ (p3). RM Downer’s career gave her the chance to spend time in an upper-class environment, something she seems to feel made her very lucky. She refers to it as her ‘big chance to travel’ (p2) and describes luxuries that she would never have had access to without her work.
RM Downer lived through two wars, and yet this does not seem to be a particularly large theme in her writing. She speaks sympathetically of friends who lost family members in the war, but does not portray it as a large part of her life. She spends more time discussing the outfit she made for her son to wear at the Victory Fancy Dress Dance than she does the entire First World War! This almost nonchalant attitude returns in RM Downer’s narration of the Second World War, where ‘the years slipped by with the air-raids’ (p26). Even the presence of a Morrison table shelter in her home doesn’t phase Mrs Downer. She tells the reader, ‘I made good use of this when I was cutting out my work and found it most useful’. This practical indifference makes for entertaining reading and reveals an unusual perspective on war.
RM Downer reveals few details about her life and heritage. Her first name is never revealed within her memoir, and she frequently conceals her client’s identities, referring to them with labels such as ‘Mrs. X’ or ‘the two ladies from S. Africa’. She never mentions the year in which an event is taking place. This is very intriguing to me and makes me eager to discover why she made these choices when writing. Despite maintaining a certain level of anonymity, RM Downer does give the reader some details about her grandparents’ marriage. ‘My Grandmother’s name was Wimborne’, she says, ‘- an Irish family who were the owners of a big estate and a lot of land’ (p30). Her grandfather has more humble beginnings, the groom in the Wimborne family’s stables. ‘They fell in love and ran away and got married. For this Grandmother was cut off from her family’ (p30). This romantic elopement seems an appropriate part of RM Downer’s heritage. Through her work she is a part of the society that her Grandmother left behind and this story is a perfect example of the way her memoir explores the meeting place between the working and upper classes.
Downer, Mrs R., ‘A Bygone Age’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, West Sussex Record Office, 1:211, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9516
‘Mrs R Downer’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:211
Singer sewing machine illustration, Singer Manufacturing Company catalogue, https://c1.staticflickr.com/6/5589/14580599918_c8534d78a2_b.jpg
Vogue Couturier Design 549; ca. 1938; Evening Gown. Featured in Vogue Pattern Book, February-March 1938, http://vintagepatterns.wikia.com/wiki/Vogue_549
Photograph of Liberty & Co, Creative Review: Liberty at 140, https://creative-review.myshopify.com/blogs/news/52787524-liberty-at-140
Illustration of Viola Tree by John Singer Sargent, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Viola_Tree_1907.jpg