Glad rags to riches

Audrey Watson is about to put her entire wardrobe up for auction after a lifetime of dressing the part. Ahead of the sale, Lucy Oates rummages through the 85-year-old’s collection.

A sale of vintage clothes owned by 85-year-old Audrey Watson is under the hammer
A sale of vintage clothes owned by 85-year-old Audrey Watson is under the hammer

To borrow a line from the hit single of the same era, Audrey Watson was a “dedicated follower of fashion” from the mid-1960s through to the end of the 1970s. While the housewife and mother-of-four did treat herself to the occasional designer purchase, most of her buys were from the popular boutiques and high street stores of the day and much of it has survived intact and in pristine condition.

Audrey, now 85, recently took the difficult decision to part with her vintage clothing collection and, together with her daughter Helen Smith, of Barmby-on-the-Marsh, near Howden, in East Yorkshire, she has spent months carefully cataloguing every item. This is no mean feat when you have more than 26 suitcases and trunks to sift through, not to mention hundreds of pairs of shoes. In all, more than 1,000 items of clothing will be sold off by Tennants Auctioneers of Leyburn later this year, along with a vast collection of fashion magazines and perfume bottles.

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Audrey, who divides her time between Helen’s home and her own house in Lincolnshire, said: “Although we were not a wealthy family, I was able to afford to buy from a wide variety of shops. As my two youngest children, Helen and William, got older and more interested in fashion, we would have shopping expeditions to London. It was bigger and brighter, and I could find clothes there that I couldn’t find in other places.”

A sale of vintage clothes owned by 85-year-old Audrey Watson is under the hammer

Audrey frequented the iconic boutiques of Carnaby Street and Portobello Road that earned London its reputation as a vibrant fashion scene during the Swinging Sixties.

She explained: “We particularly enjoyed shopping at I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet; it was an exciting and quirky shop that sold men and women’s fashions, as well as clothes for teenagers. I can remember buying South Sea Bubble shirts for William, and Helen and I both had Mr Freedom jeans from this shop.

“I remember hearing Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain there for the first time – there was a constant soundtrack of the latest hits by T. Rex, Elton John and Mott the Hoople playing loudly.”

Audrey has already sold a number of dresses and trouser suits by Ossie Clark, who was eponymous with the era and other labels include Bus Stop, Simon Massey, Miss Impact, Chelsea Girl, Dolly Dolly, Clobber and Kenneth Kemsley.

A sale of vintage clothes owned by 85-year-old Audrey Watson is under the hammer

Audrey admitted: “There have been a few tears. It will be sad to see it all go. Clothes are a huge part of my life and there are so many emotions intertwined with them. Every outfit and dress I own has a memory of a good time, an event or a holiday with my husband and children.

“I think the fact that I was a teenager in the war years had a huge impact on my attitude to looking after things and making them last. I still have a dress I made in the early 1950s, which I wore the night I met my husband.”

Audrey’s sense of style earned her a “glamorous gran” award at Butlins many years ago and Helen recalls how, as she and her siblings grew up, their mother transformed from a mousey housewife into a glamorous fashionista: “My mum’s love of fashion has definitely influenced me. I’d love to wear more of her clothes from that era but they were cut differently then – they’re so small across the shoulders.”

Audrey’s great-granddaughter Carlie has enjoyed modelling items from the collection for Helen to photograph and create an inventory in preparation for the auction.

A sale of vintage clothes owned by 85-year-old Audrey Watson is under the hammer

Many of Audrey’s choices would have been considered quite daring at the time, especially when she wore them to accompany her businessman husband to social events in rural Lincolnshire. She chuckles as she recalls: “One of my favourite outfits is a turquoise crepe harem suit with a cropped top. The trousers and top are trimmed with silver sequins. I remember wearing them to go to the local country club – I think it caused quite a stir. People used to say they loved seeing me there because I would arrive in one outfit and, halfway through the night, I’d change into a different one. I always had a spare set of clothes in the boot of the car.”

One of Audrey’s greatest fashion indulgences was shoes, and some of the pairs in the collection have six-inch heels and three-inch platforms. “There was one particular stall in Grantham Market with lots of shoes that no-one else in the area had. I think they were one-off samples. The stallholder used to get things especially for me because I was such a good customer. I’d buy at least one pair of shoes or boots from him every week because they were cheaper than in the shops.”

Unsurprisingly, there has already been interest in Audrey’s clothes and shoes from designers and collectors, including Wayne Hemingway of fashion label Red or Dead.

Sarah White, valuer and vintage costume and textiles expert for Tennants, explained the significance of the collection: “It’s a wonderful group of iconic costume from the late 1960s through the 1970s. It includes inspirational fabric designs and contemporary fabrics to the period, produced in a variety of styles and colours. I’m hoping it will be a trip down memory lane for many people.”

Audrey, who still enjoys buying clothes, said: “I feel I’ve had the responsibility of caring for the clothes all these years and it had almost become a burden to me. I would like to think that they’ll be bought by someone who will enjoy wearing them and value them as much as I have done. I love fashion and, although I don’t buy so many clothes these days, I still go for outstanding colours, designs and fabrics.”

• For more information about the auction, which is due to take place in early May, contact Tennants Auctioneers of Leyburn.