Sunday 9 August 2020

Mrs Exeter, television star

(Well, more of a supporting role really, but on television nonetheless.)

Thanks to, among others, Lynn of American Age Fashion, I'm familiar with Mrs Exeter. Between 1948 and the early 1960s, Vogue's fictional older reader appeared semi-regularly in both Vogue Pattern Book and Vogue itself; even appearing on the cover of the latter, shot by Cecil Beaton. But her television career is an entirely new discovery to me.

Mrs Exeter (centre) on the small screen

First of all, a bit of history to explain the context. The Independent Television Authority began broadcasting commercial television in Britain on 22 September 1955. Initially it was only available in London and the surrounding area, which was served by the broadcasting company Associated-Rediffusion. The service in the Midlands began five months later, with other regions following over the next six years. The advent of a rival to the BBC was big enough news, even before the service was available beyond the south-east, for it to feature in entirely unrelated advertisements such as this one.

Advertisement for Calpreta cottons in Vogue Pattern Book, published in January 1956

The October/November 1955 issue of Vogue Pattern Book went on sale on 14 September, and the editorial and contents page included a less-than-subtle reference to television.

Can you spot it?

Here it is

As the national state broadcaster, the BBC has always had to avoid commercial associations with any specific companies. This is why a programme such as Clothes That Count, although featuring dress patterns which could be bought in shops, was careful to cover a wide range of pattern brands. Commercial television did not have such restrictions. The information about this new dressmaking programme makes no secret of the companies involved: Vogue Patterns; Moygashel; Tootal; Singer; Dewhurst's Threads; Lightning Fastenings and Kenwood Irons.

Information about the programme

The copy states that the programme contains, "good ideas for beginner and experienced alike, covering all aspects of dressmaking, presented monthly in an entertaining and instructive manner", and that it will enable viewers to see Vogue patterns "brought to life, individually explained, and worn by someone of your own age group, whether you are fifteen or fifty".

Just in case you missed the sponsors' details on the previous page

All of the associated firms also had full page advertisements in this issue of Vogue Pattern Book, each with the 'Fashion in the Making' logo. Many of the illustrations featured Vogue patterns.

Moygashel and Vogue 8666

Tootal and Vogue 8642

Singer Sewing Machines

Dewhurst's Sylko and Vogue Couturier Design 859

Lightning fasteners and Vogue 1257

Kenwood irons and Vogue 8657

I'm intrigued that the programme was only on once every four weeks - I wonder what was shown for the other three?

By the time that the December/January issue of Vogue Pattern Book came out on 9 November, the first two 15-minute programmes had already been broadcast. Only Tootal, Dewhurst's, Singer and Lightning advertised in this issue, and Lightning used the same advertisement as previously, with only the broadcast dates and channel number changed.

New adverts from half of the sponsors

What the magazine did include was a two-page article about the series.

All about Fashion in the Making

Unlike later dressmaking programmes such as Clothes That Count and Dressmaker, which were purely instructional, Fashion in the Making seems to have been structured more like a soap opera; with characters and a storyline of sorts. The main character was Mrs Scarsdale, aged 36 and a skilled home dressmaker. She had a 13-year-old daughter called Ginny, and an 18-year-old niece called Barbara. Barbara was keen to learn dressmaking, in order to both save money and impress a young man she had recently met with her new clothes. The final character was a "very elegant" old friend of the family, who was in her fifties and also wanted to economize by making her own clothes - Mrs Exeter! (Given that Mrs Exeter was 'approaching 60' when she was introduced by Vogue in 1948, she had clearly mastered the art of stopping time.) The characters were obviously chosen to tie in with the idea of showing patterns for different age groups.

Mrs Scarsdale with Ginny, Barbara and Mrs Exeter

The 'plot', such as it was, was clearly designed to revolve around the products of the various sponsors. In episode one Mrs Scarsdale admired the Moygashel fabric and Vogue patterns which Barbara had brought along (all four characters wore clothes made from Vogue patterns), and advised her how to press the hem of a circular skirt - presumably with a Kenwood iron. Then Mrs Exeter arrived with some Tootal fabric, "having left her antique shop in charge of her assistant". Leaving aside the questionable grammar, I love the idea that Mrs Exeter owns a business. Mrs Scarsdale took her friend's measurements (over her clothes - a complete no-no) to check what pattern size she needed, and recommended that she used Sylko thread and a Lightning zip when making her garment.

Mrs Scarsdale, Barbara and Mrs Exeter

In episode two Mrs Scarsdale fitted Barbara's new dress, they both admired Mrs Exeter's new sewing machine, and Mrs Scarsdale offered various dressmaking tips - some of which were illustrated in the article.

This, and all of the advertisements, seemed like a lot of publicity for something which was only available to readers within the Associated-Rediffusion broadcasting area, but there was another reason for the article. It served to introduce readers to 'Mrs Scarsdale'; a dressmaking agony aunt. Readers were invited to write to her for advice on dressmaking.

The February/March 1956 issue of Vogue Pattern Book included the first Mrs Scarsdale advice column, all about choosing the right size of pattern. (It all depends on your measurement, which apparently should be taken over your foundation garments - clearly a case of 'Don't do as I do, do as I say'!).

Mrs Scarsdale on pattern sizes and alterations

Of the Fashion in the Making sponsors, only Tootal, Dewhurst's and Lightning had advertisements. These show that the next two episodes were to be broadcast at 4:15pm instead of 11am.

There is no reference to Fashion in the Making in the April/May issue of the pattern book, nor could I find any suggestion that it came back for a second series. By today's standards it sounds rather odd; more like an extended advertisement than a television programme - perhaps this is why it only ran to six episodes. I can find no reference to in online, so will never know if Barbara impressed her young man with her new clothes, or how Mrs Exeter's dressmaking skills developed. Mrs Scarsdale's column in the pattern book became a regular feature however. In 1961, in keeping with the more casual mood of the time, she became 'Helen Scarsdale'. Then in autumn 1965 Vogue Pattern Book was redesigned, moving to a larger format with four issues a year and introducing colour photography. Mrs Scarsdale, like Mrs Exeter before her, was quietly dropped.


  1. How thrilling! I'm pretty certain that no similar venture existed in the US, so this is another example of how the British and American Mrs. Exeters diverged! How I wish Vogue Patterns (or whatever conglomerate owns them now) would bring out all of the Vogue Pattern Books online--in both versions. What a treat that would be for historians of fashion and sewing.

    1. I know, it's so frustrating, isn't it? Even though the Vogue archive is online, it is limited to the American edition of the main magazine - it doesn't include the pattern books from the years when it was still a Conde Nast publication.