Stockings and suspender belts

Today at the shops, I saw a young woman with a tattoo that brought back a few memories. The tat was of seams up (or down) the back of her legs finishing at her ankles in a pretty scroll.

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In the days when women wore nylon stockings with seams, it was a battle to get the seam to run straight up and down (or down and up) one’s legs. Add to this the likelihood of snagging the sheer nylon fabric – usually on a rough nail thereby starting a ladder. Quickly, out with the colourless nail-varnish to stop the run from ruining the stocking. Do you remember?

One benefit of stockings was, if you did ladder one, you only had to replace one. That was if you happened to have one in the same denier and the same shade. Nylon stockings were expensive so this was seldom the case – hence the use of nail-varnish at both ends of the run. Naturally, the nail-varnish went through the stocking and the stocking then stuck to your leg.

Stockings stayed up, most of the time, because of a suspender belt. I’ve just Googled ‘suspender belts, images’ and I have to say the modern suspender belt looks nothing like the chastity belt style that we used to wear! The fashionable suspender belt now is, possibly, only available from an Adult Store. They still don’t look very comfortable and the feminist in me says they are more for the “male gaze” (as per John Berger, Ways of Seeing.) Nevertheless, I found this image and if you can extrapolate a thick, unattractive cotton instead of the rather fetching lacy garment pictured, you’ll get the idea.

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At the girls-only Anglican Church school that I attended in the 1950s, we were required to wear thick lisle stockings, the colour of toffee, especially on a Sunday. Lisle stockings are not particularly suited to the subtropical climate of Africa. They were decidedly uncomfortable and invariably sagged and bagged around the ankles. Indeed, these were not the ‘sexy’ fashionable nylon stockings beloved by the women during the Second World War. Neither were the suspender belts attractive or even comfortable. They were inconvenient and, for the most part, we loathed and detested having to wear them. Add to this the regulation school bloomers, made from a thick, unforgiving cloth and, if memory serves, dark brown in colour. Tight elastic at the waist and at the top of the legs didn’t help either. If you happened to have your periods, and being an all-girls-school most of us menstruated at the same time, you then had the belt that held your sanitary napkin in place under your suspender belt and your bloomers over the top. There is no way the bloomers would fit under the suspender belt! The strategically placed hooks, front and back, on the sanitary belt were incredibly uncomfortable.

Lisle stockings also had to have the seams straight. Many times, lining up for chapel, a student would be pulled out of line by an officious prefect because the seams of her stockings were crooked. Somewhere between 1957 and 1961 we were allowed to ditch the lisle stockings and wear nylons instead. Of course the seams still had to be straight. Rules were easily breached and punishment often followed – usually out of all proportion to the misdemeanour. Punishment ranged from demerit points, writing lines, learning by heart the most boring chapters in the King James Bible to whatever else the prefect could think of to humiliate you.

Once, I was caught reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover – although carefully covered in brown paper, I was sprung. At that time the book was banned in Rhodesia but I had somehow managed to get a copy. My punishment was to read one of the chapters aloud to a group of prefects. I do believe, in retrospect, that they were more embarrassed than I was. I’m not sure why the book was not confiscated but it wasn’t and I still have it to this day!

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Stockings and suspender belts

Methods of Assimilation

This is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote in collaboration with Assoc. Prof Jenny de Reuck and Dr Sharifa Ahjum. The chapter is published in Postgraduate Research Supervision: Transforming (R) Elations. Edited by Alison Bartlett & Gina Mercer. Publ. Peter Lang (2001). I’m blogging it here because it segues into my previous post, “Letters from School”, and gives some background as to why I was at boarding school so young. OK, so here goes:

My Grandmother was Russian. When she spoke English it sounded like Russian— unless you knew her well. “You must speak English without an accent” my Bulgarian Grandfather instructed his children. I only know English for we only spoke English at home. This was one way of assimilating into the British Colonial society that dominated central southern Africa. Thus, when Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia, and Harare, Salisbury that’s when and where I was born.

Another way of assimilating was to send me, at six years old, to a Church of England Girls School as a boarder. After the glorious freedom of farm life, after being the fourth child and born to a mother already in her late thirties—and the benign neglect this conferred, boarding school was hell. As an outsider with the ‘wrong’ name (Bulgarian), the ‘wrong’ hair (frizzy) and the ‘wrong’ accent, I discovered my ‘otherness’ within the dominant white minority. In retrospect, poor health brought on by recurring bouts of malaria saved me staying a boarder after the first year, although I remained a pupil at the school. All through school I was a rebellious and disruptive pupil who questioned everything at a time when unquestioning obedience was presumed mandatory. I was perpetually in trouble, sometimes serious but usually for infringing some petty rule like running in the quadrangle. On the strength of my unhappy school experience I vowed never to send any child of mine to boarding school.

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Methods of Assimilation

Letters from School

I remember, when I was at boarding school in the early 1950s, every Saturday morning we had to sit down and write a letter home. In those days we were only allowed to go home two or three times in a twelve-week term. In retrospect, the strict rules and punitive punishments were dreadful to inflict on any child. My letters generally followed this format:

Dear Mummy and Daddy,

How are you? I am fine.

The film was called Lassie Come Home. It was sad and I cried.

I got detention for running in the corridor. I got a credit for art.

I hate school please can I come home?

Love from Eleanor xxx ooo

The letters were carefully written on Croxley Cambric paper – in pencil until we graduated to ink. Royal Blue Quink Ink was the favourite. Some lucky pupils had fountain pens; otherwise we used a dipping pen. I can’t remember addressing the envelope but I do remember we were not allowed to seal it. This was not a ‘reform’ school but an upper-crust church school (Anglican) and all the correspondence was vetted. Hard to believe in this day and age! I have no idea what was censored – or censorable in an eight-year-old’s letter!

From week to week the only change in my letters would be the name of the film; how many ‘order-marks’ (bad) I got and how many ‘credits’ (good). Three order-marks equalled one detention. The top punishment was being ‘gated’: in other words, not allowed home for one of the Sunday Exeats. Major punishment was not being allowed home for Half-term. I was gated once for pulling a tongue at the matron. The fact that I was terrified of her and licking my lips to moisten them was not a valid excuse! Anyone who has lived through a winter in High-Veld of Africa will know how cold and dry the atmosphere can be.

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Letters from School