A vintage collection of clothes

Tina Walsh / 21 July 2015

Now in her 80s, Audrey Watson puts her brilliant collection of 60s and 70s glad-rags under the hammer.

Something of a trendsetter in her home county of Lincolnshire, Audrey Watson, 86, redefined the term ‘avid shopper’ and amassed a clothing collection that ran into thousands of items. She’s kept the lot – 26 suitcases’ worth – most of which is in pristine condition and about to go on sale at auction.

It’s a cache that defines a generation, encompassing clothes that any one of us might have seen on a hanger, shopping in our youth. The collection has caught the eye of designer Wayne Hemingway, co-founder of Red or Dead, quite apart from the younger members of her family – great-granddaughter Carlie, pictured here, especially.

Kings Road and Carnaby Street

During the Swinging 60s and early 70s, Audrey made regular trips to London and became a familiar face in the boutiques on the King’s Road and Carnaby Street. Two of her favourites were I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, where she might have spotted Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles perusing the rails, and Mr Freedom, whose clientele included  David Bowie and Elton John.

‘You could get your photo taken in a booth in Lord Kitchener’s, and it was part of the whole experience,’ says Audrey, who is wearing the white furry coat she bought for £100 in 1972 from the Mawer & Collingham department store in Lincoln. I’m with Audrey and her daughter Helen, 57, who has spent months cataloguing every item of Audrey’s collection, in one of the store rooms at Tennants Auctioneers in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, where it is still being sorted into lots. Among the hundreds of outfits on the rails, there’s a green velvet jumpsuit with marabou-feather trim by British designer John Bates, who traded under the name Jean Varon and is considered by some to be the inventor of the mini skirt, and a pale green and coffee-coloured dress from Twiggy Dresses.

She's got soles

There are also dozens of pairs of platform shoes from the likes of Mary Quant and Sacha, countless pieces of costume jewellery and hundreds of perfume bottles and magazines, including every issue of  Cosmopolitan from its founding year in 1972.  ‘It’s probably the largest collection of its kind we’ve ever sold,’ says Sarah White, of Tennants Auctioneers.

Although Audrey did treat herself to a few designer dresses and trouser suits by Ossie Clark (which she sold a few years ago), she mostly bought  from high-street chains such as Chelsea Girl. ‘I went for clothes that stood out and were unusual rather than a particular label. I didn’t want to look like everyone else.’

Born in Navenby, near Lincoln, in 1929, Audrey had her first child Elaine at 16 after a short relationship with an American GI. While she was pregnant she was sent to a home
for single mothers called the Priory, where she worked in the laundry.

A couple of swells

Afterwards, she moved with her new daughter to Sleaford, renting a cottage next door to her parents, who were relaxed about the situation. Her mum provided childcare while Audrey went out to work. She had a variety of jobs, including one delivering school meals by horse and cart. Later she had two sons Geoffrey and William and a daughter Helen. She had met garage-owning businessman Ronald Watson at a dance and they married in 1955.

A sociable couple, Ronald, who sadly died in 1997, took Audrey – always decked out in something fabulous – to dinner dances, hunt balls and motor traders’ balls. ‘He had very traditional dress sense but he liked to look smart and he loved to be photographed with me when I was dressed up to go out.

 ‘We weren’t a wealthy family, but Ronald was able to give me the money to buy the clothes. One of my favourite outfits was a sequined crepe turquoise harem pantsuit with a cropped top. I used to wear it to go out dancing to a nightclub in Lincolnshire and to the Ashby Country Club. I think it caused quite a stir there. I also had a gorgeous soft leather raspberry-pink coat and a denim jumpsuit that I wore a lot.’

To complete Audrey’s eye-catching ‘look’, Ronald also bought Audrey a metallic green Ford Capri just before her 40th birthday.  She would drive in it to the local college, where she was training as a beauty therapist, and – of course – to go shopping in Nottingham and Grantham. ‘There was a man who had a shoe stall in Grantham market. He sold all the London styles you couldn’t buy anywhere else, and always put things aside for me that he knew I’d like.’

So many clothes, not enough time

One outfit per occasion was rarely enough. Audrey used to put several in the car boot in case she changed her mind halfway through the evening. ‘There wasn’t enough time to wear everything because I had so many clothes. Every room in the house had a wardrobe full of them.’

At times Audrey would go abroad on her own, sometimes for months at a time, picking up the language as she went. There are pictures of her in Spain, wearing a bright yellow midi skirt, another of her with friends in Calais, sporting a short brown suede jacket with spotted trousers and matching sweater. In another, she looks relaxed and tanned in a daring, midriff-baring, red-and-white dress, in Baghdad, of all places.

Letting go of such a beloved collection, with all its associated memories of a life lived to the full, hasn’t been easy. ‘It’s been a huge emotional tug and I’ll be sad to part with it. All my clothes have memories attached.’ However, a flood last year in her garden shed where she kept some of them made the decision for her. ‘Some of the clothes got damp and we only just caught them in time. It was heartbreaking and I couldn’t go through that again.’

Earnest Hemingway

When they first thought about selling the collection four or five years ago, Helen got in touch with Wayne Hemingway. At the last minute Audrey couldn’t go through with it, but Helen contacted him again last year to let him know the clothes would be going to auction.

‘It’s such a personal collection and I like the fact that Audrey has worn the clothes and there’s a human story to it. It’s not just some rich buyer’s collection,’ says Hemingway, who started buying second-hand clothes as a teenager in Burnley, Lancashire. 

Hot-look hand-me-downs

Nowadays, Audrey, who has 12 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren, doesn’t buy as many clothes as she used to but she hasn’t lost her love of fashion. ‘I like looking in charity shops for vintage clothes and I still go for eye-catching designs and fabrics.’

Helen still wears some of her mum’s clothes – ‘the ones I can fit into’ – and runs 40s- and 50s-inspired tea dances in York and Goole, where she lives with her husband Jeff.

Audrey’s granddaughters and great-granddaughters used to spend hours dressing up in her clothes when they came to visit. Her great-granddaughter Carlie Ward, 28, who still wears the mauve high-waisted crepe dungaree suit her grandmother gave her, says she’s ‘never seen Audrey in flat shoes’.

Granddaughter Claire Porter, 45, says: ‘I remember her wigs on polystyrene heads, and us trying them on. She also had a blue flying suit with lots of zips and wore it with high boots and a mink jacket. She’s one of the funniest, trendiest grandmas in the world.’

As legacies go, Audrey Watson’s is one of which any dedicated follower of fashion would be proud.

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