I was 18 when I joined Vogue in 1947. I was hired as a messenger for the photographic studio – the first girl to hold that position. The studio was a warehouse that, in today’s climate, would be considered a health and safety hazard of the first order!
It is hard to imagine now the state of London in the immediate aftermath of the war. There were queues for food, and people were only interested in getting through the day. It was the same at Vogue: there were shortages of basic necessities, including make-up and hair products, so we did a lot of improvising, and we worked hard for long hours. Although the end product was glamorous, the making of it was not.
Cecil Beaton had an immense reputation and had been working for Vogue for 20 years when I arrived. In the studio he was treated with respect and affection: he was always ‘Mr Beaton’. At first, I had little to do with him, but that changed when he realised my training in a hair salon meant that I could help with a model’s hair before a shoot, and that I was a seamstress.
One day a dress needed its zip altering prior to a shoot, and I did it so well that no one could spot my stitching. After that, Beaton knew he could rely on me. I found him delightful. He has been portrayed as difficult, but all of the photographers would lose their tempers from time to time and he was no different.
Beaton was a great favourite of the Queen Mother, who often looked to him for advice. I once organised for two of his young assistants to go to the Palace early in the morning to set up a photo shoot. This was a time when the royals were treated with reverence, so there was surprise when I asked them to provide tea for the boys. It was quite unheard of to make such a request.
On one occasion, Princess Margaret kept Beaton waiting for an entire day. She was going back and forth with her dressers, and had her hair re-done at least three times. It was ridiculous. I complained, which caused a bit of an uproar at the studio. Beaton also complained, very politely, to the Queen Mother, who made Princess Margaret write to him to apologise.
There was great excitement amongst my age group in the build-up to the royal wedding, in November 1947, of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip of Greece. The princess was a year or two older than us, and we could identify with her down-to-earth approach.
Beaton photographed all the royal bridesmaids before the wedding. They came with their dresses, which I helped to clean. Dry cleaners had six-week waiting times, and girls of that background did not know how to clean frocks. We used a sponge with water and white vinegar.
The story of Elizabeth saving her clothing coupons to buy material for her wedding dress is well known. What is less known is how the Queen Mother would recycle and alter her dresses, rather than buying new ones. I was at Hardy Amies’ salon one day when someone from the Palace arrived with an armful of evening dresses and was told, ‘No, we just cannot alter those dresses again!’
Audrey Withers had been editor of Vogue for seven years when I arrived. She was a remarkable woman. The boys in the studio referred to her affectionately as ‘auntie’. If you can earn the respect of a group of young, working-class men, that says a lot about you. She had started at the bottom and worked her way up. To me, she was someone to revere, but also very human. Audrey promoted me from the studio to Merchandising Manager in Vogue’s editorial offices in Golden Square.
The bitchiness of the fashion room at Golden Square was legendary, but the individual women who worked in it – Pat Cunningham, Lady Clare Rendlesham – were extremely talented.
We had emerged from the most terrible war in history and Britain was on its knees. Even so, we managed to bring out a glamorous magazine month after month.
Years later, I was at the opera when I bumped into Cecil Beaton again. He was with the Mountbattens when he saw me across the foyer and shouted: ‘It’s little Pam!’
He rushed over, cloak flapping wildly, and gave me the biggest hug. He might have been one of the greatest photographers but, to people who gained his trust, he was warm and intensely loyal.
You can buy Dressed for War, the story of Audrey Wither’s British VOGUE editor extraordinaire from the Blitz to the Swinging Sixties, by Julie Summers for a discount at the Saga Bookshop.