Bloomers and Bodices: November Short Story
Ambrose had the feeling that the Extraordinary General Meeting of the Board of Grace Emporium was spiralling out of control. In all his years as Chairman, this was a first. Must be getting old, he thought as he listened to the increasingly angry exchanges between his two sons. Miss Phelps had abandoned her scribbles and looked hot and ill at ease as she gazed helplessly in his direction. He mimed raising a cup of tea, and was relieved when she slammed her shorthand pad on the boardroom table and fled the room.
They were still in full flow when Gladys, pushing a trolley through the heavy oak door, shouted “Tea’s up gentlemen, and by the way, Miss Phelps sends ‘er apologies. She’s gone ‘ome, she came over all poorly again.”
Ambrose’s eyes were inexplicable drawn to the end of the table and to the new garment which his younger son was proposing to add to their range of ladies’ corsetry. Frankly, in his eyes it was an abomination, so unstructured and flimsy; it seemed to him to stand for all that was wrong in today’s society. Gerald was actually serious, he realised. Fresh back from his buying trip to Germany, he had presented this garment to his father and brother as the latest thing for young ladies, especially those of a nervous disposition. Now the whole concept of unrestricted female flesh was shockingly immoral to Ambrose, whilst he also admitted to a frisson of titillation, imagining the garment on the well upholstered form of Miss Phelps, who having reached the age of forty was still a fine figure of a woman in his opinion. Admittedly she was prone to fainting fits at the most inconvenient moments.
The thunk of the pneumatic message delivery system, another on of Gerald’s innovations, thankfully interrupted this train of thought, and he extracted a message from the shop floor. It would appear that someone, probably Miss Phelps before she succumbed, had the forethought to arrange a replacement stenographer, who was due within the hour.
The tea and biscuits did the trick, so moving on from the Liberty Bodice, they passed an agreeable hour listening to Gerald’s tales of Paris and examining the samples of exquisite silks he had collected from Madame Coco Chanel’ s Paris salon. Moving the wilting floral arrangements of garish chrysanthemums and dahlias, kindly provided by the absent Miss Phelps, Gerald was about to open his bulging portfolio of sketches for the proposed new range of ladies’ gowns. Another thunk, and reaching across, he retrieved a message announcing the arrival of the replacement stenographer.
The wooden door opened again, and the young lady strode confidently into the boardroom. Ambrose, stood, replaced his tea cup carefully in the saucer, with only a slightly shaky hand, and gazed enraptured at the vision standing in the middle of his boardroom.
“May I introduce Miss Woodham-Smith, Papa?”
Miss Florence Woodham-Smith inclined her bobbed and shingled head gracefully, sank into the chair which Gerald held out for her, crossed her long silk clad legs and waited, composed.
Now Ambrose couldn’t help but notice that Miss Woodham-Smith shimmered as she moved, her slight figure was shockingly unconstricted by any corsetry obtainable in the Grace Emporium, and moreover, she did not appear to possess a waist! Nevertheless she was beautiful, if a little underdressed, to his frame of mind.
Ambrose cleared his throat, and suddenly aware of the silence, indicated that the gentlemen should be seated and Gerald should continue. He couldn’t help but glance at his elder son, who looked for all the world as though the devil herself had just appeared in the boardroom. Indignation, moral outrage and anger, had thus far thankfully rendered him speechless. He really is turning into the most awful prig, Ambrose thought sadly. “A loose corset is always the sign of a loose woman” was one of his favourite, oft repeated platitudes.
“Gerald, do continue, and Miss Woodham-Smith, our thanks for standing in at such short notice.”
“Papa, before I continue, and please forgive the subterfuge, Miss Woodham-Smith and I are not strangers. We were introduced at Madame Coco’s Salon in Paris, and although she is here under slightly false pretences, I crave your indulgence. In fact, the sketches I am about to show you are hers. I would ask you imagine this young lady so attired. She is the epitome of the emancipated women of today; educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and St Hilda’s Oxford, she is the future.”
“Gentlemen, may I be permitted to voice an opinion?”
Ambrose nodded his assent, but although the young lady articulated this in a pleasant and respectful tone, he was inclined to think that it was not actually a question!
“Thank you, Mr Chairman. Gentlemen, although we are regarded as the weaker sex, we are fighting for the right to vote and we yearn to have a voice in matters regarding our position in contemporary society. How are we to speak if we can scarcely breathe? We are not in need of canvas, whalebone or steel to protect our moral standards. These cruel, uncomfortable and restricting garments are a thing of the past. We need freedom of movement; our bodies should no longer be fettered when our minds are not.”
Well of course, Ambrose did look at the sketches and did imagine the gowns gracing the form of the eloquent young lady, and the motion to sell both the liberty bodice and the new line in gowns at The Grace Emporium was carried. Gerald escorted Miss Woodham-Smith back to her parent’s house in Wilton Crescent and in due course arranged to speak with her father. As it turned out, her mother was also present, but Gerald was becoming used to these well educated and forthright females. They were married the following year with the blessing of both families.
The business prospered, Florence was now on the Board, and thus it was that the Grace Emporium became the recognised supplier of undergarments for Cheltenham Ladies’ College: bloomers and bodices in a tasteful shade of green!
Yes, the business prospered but things change. The war, of course, accelerated this. Grace Brothers responded. Their workforce sewed parachutes and uniforms; women were now in need of practical clothing for their work on the land, and in munitions factories. Florence and Gerald, with Ambrose’s blessing, threw themselves wholeheartedly into the war effort. The elder Grace Brother had long ceased his involvement in the family business and his offspring, whenever they visited, talked of crystal sets and Bletchley Park.
The war ended finally, but Gerald mourned two sons who would never return. The Grace Emporium foundered in a new world, and Gerald knew just how his father had felt, it was all too strange, but the old man had embraced this change; Gerald and Florence were too heartbroken to care.
Little wonder then, as television followed wireless, Grace Brothers became the inspiration for a popular comedy series written by his nephew. Although he and Florence knew what an anachronism their business had become, they couldn’t find it amusing. On the other hand, thought Gerald, life was good, watching his wife in her study at home in Wilton Crescent, surrounded by books. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Florence had finally returned to academia, and was happily engaged in the production of her next biography. Their only surviving child, a daughter, had produced a son, who was brimming with enthusiasm for computers. Yes, it sounded like an interesting investment opportunity.