“Aunt Freda is on the left – she was the oldest of 6 children and mother is on the right,” says Louise MacFarlane, “Aunt Dor [Doris] in is the center.”
Louise MacFarlane is the daughter of 1930s model Florence Elaine Wiberg, known as Elaine. She was perfectly placed in 1930s Hull to be spotted and snapped up by The House Of Mirelle to model their clothing. From how good she looks in this dress at the garden party she attended with her sisters, you can see why.
Elaine was spotted by the owner of The House Of Mirelle Mira Johnson – also known as Mrs Mountain. When living north of The Avenues on Beverley Road Mira established ‘her fashion house’ at The Church Institute on Albion Street and she looked out for stylish, tall, slender women who could model the clothes for her customers.
Elaine Wiberg was just that girl. “She was quite beautiful and tall at 5 foot 10,” says Louise, “all through her life she loved clothes, particularly special occasion clothes.”
There is something quite magical, luminous even, about the photo that draws you in. It casts one’s mind back to a time in the glorious pre-war era when Mira and Elaine would have known each other socially, because people did then.
“Aunt Freda knew Amy Johnson,” continues Louise, “everyone who lived in The Avenues knew everyone else, apparently.” The Avenues was an area of outstanding Victorian housing built in the late 19th Century and is now a conservation area.
There is more in this photo than the familial and social. Louise talks about the middle sister Aunt Dor never being seen without a tan as she was such a keen sailor and adds that her Aunt Freda was almost certainly married at this point. I have a growing interest in this family and the more I look and listen, the more questions unfold in my thinking.
Wiberg, her mother’s family name, originates in Denmark – Louise’s maternal grandfather came from there and Florence Elaine Wiberg preferred Elaine to Florence, which she used throughout her life.
There are many descendents of a Scandinavian population in Hull and if you trace your eye from The Humber outwards you can see how immigration was fuelled by proximity to the North Sea. It was the same proximity that brought The Blitz to Hull.
The conversation continues; I write with questions and Louise answers.
We muse about when the photo was taken, “not earlier than 1935 and no later than 1937/8,” says Louise, “it was before she was married.” Elaine married John Webber-Walton in March 1940, leaving Mirelle’s shortly afterwards. We do not touch on where it was taken, but it is summer and the broad smiles on the faces of the 3 sisters say that it is a joyous occasion.
Objectively though, I also regard the photo from the perspective of a fashion historian.
I see a young woman flanked by older sisters. I see they are dressed in classic 1930s formal party wear – from right to left the outfits are more formal and that fits their ages and single or married status.
I also see a good photo – not just a snapshot. The photographer has an ‘eye’ and the entire image has a quality to it.
My attention is drawn by Elaine’s white short-sleeved dress. I return to its significance later.
I admire the silhouette and long and lean lines of the era; one of the women is wearing a dress in a floral fabric, so fashionable in mid to late 1930s. I find myself approving of them wearing hats, because everyone did at that time.
My approval mirrors others. In the 30s women wore what was expected of them and to accessorise properly with hats and gloves was expected. Women of the Wiberg’s social status would do so for precisely those reasons.
Each of them are standing with their hands behind their backs and despite the tops of hers showing on Elaine’s arms, I will never known which gloves they were wearing. I wonder if that’s the reason for it – they decided in the heat to roll them up or go without that day.
But I return again to Elaine’s dress; it is unmistakably white. It is also very different in design from the dresses her sisters are wearing. It is more frivolous and a la mode for the years Louise has suggested it was worn.
I am reminded of a dress in the film Letty Lynton  where silk organza ruffles run in rivers around the neck, arms and hem.
White was a colour with meaning for a young girl of this era. It signifies that Elaine may have been part of the debutante circuit in Hull because white was the colour expected to be worn by debs, as we call them these days.
“Was that the reason for the photo,” I ask myself, “was it a special occasion for her on the deb circuit?”
“I’m sure my mother and her sisters would have been part of the Hull debutante circuit – they certainly knew everyone and my grandfather could have afforded it at the time,” says Louise, “and they lived in a big house in the Avenues which was perfect for parties – I remember it well, though by the time I was taking any notice my grandfather lived alone.”
This echos with my research. As she says this I recall the long society articles about other young women of Hull who married around the same time as Elaine.
Their social circuit included York races, dancing all night at hunt balls and announcing long trips to London with their mothers. From the photo and talking to Louise, though, I feel that Elaine is not the same. She seems more characterful and down to earth, rather like her daughter.
Louise answers all my questions in an intelligent, considered way and chooses to do so entirely by email. Her responses are enriched by her knowledge of art history, history and fashion and before long the conversation widens.
In the 1980s Louise owned Flounces, a shop in Cottingham where she designed and made clothes. She has a City and Guilds in Fashion, took a history degree and has a research interest in wartime fashion. She has a collection of what museums call Costume that in the past she has exhibited at The University Art Collection.
My conversations with Elaine’s daughter are detailed, inspiring and imaginative and they span over 50 years of Hull’s history.
As I look at Elaine’s smiling face in the photo it seems to me that she knows what’s to come and is enjoying every single minute of her expectations.
© Carrie Henderson 2016