Shopping through the Barricades: Buying Clothes during the ‘Troubles’

By Rachel Sayers

When you think of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, clothes shopping is not something you would generally consider in the narrative of the conflict. Indeed, you could say that concentrating on such matters is frivolous when compared to the lives lost and irreversible damage wrought by thirty years of inter-communal conflict. However, I argue that fashion and shopping are important to consideration of a broader, alternative appraisal of the ‘Troubles’. Despite the bombings and killings that dominated headlines, it is often neglected that everyday life continued during the conflict. This blog post will look at the lived experience of shopping in Belfast during the height of the ‘Troubles’ in the 1970s and 1980s, paying particular attention to how women shopped for clothes.

Whilst looking at photographs of Royal Avenue in central Belfast in the 1970s your eye is drawn to the metal barricades and the queues of people, mainly women, waiting to have their belongings and bags searched. However, if you look closer you will see that these shoppers are wearing fashionable styles of the 1970s with flares, platform shoes and wide lapel collars along with the ‘Farrah Fawcett Flick’ hairstyle of the women. These images suggest that women were just as interested in fashion as their counterparts in Great Britain and Europe, albeit their shopping trips were more carefully planned. My own mother, a Belfast resident and avid follower of fashion in the 1970s, told me that you couldn’t just ‘nip down the shops’ to buy the latest pair of flares. Shopping for fashionable clothing was a strategic affair planned around the threat of a bomb scare or shooting and the very real possibility of injury received whilst innocently shopping.

One strategy was to go as far as Dublin to shop, as it was safer and had more variety than Belfast. It is interesting however to note that Belfast’s Royal Avenue had large shops such as Burtons, Marks & Spencer and C&A that continued to do roaring trade throughout the 1970s and 1980s despite the ever-increasing security threat. Indeed, staff at Marks & Spencer’s Royal Avenue shop (which opened as the first Marks & Spencer in Ireland on 7th September 1967) received ‘bomb bonuses’ if they came to work during a heavy period of bombings or bombing threats. We may think that it is incredible how people continued to work with the real threat of death within the workplace. However, we must remember that daily life continued as normal as much as possible since bills still had to be paid and children and families still had to be fed. The only way of doing this was to put yourself in danger regularly to make sure your family had a decent standard of life. Shop workers as well as shoppers took daily risks in the environment of the conflict.

This assessment of everyday life through the lens of clothes shopping helps us to address the daily lived experience of the ‘Troubles’ years, away from the army and paramilitaries central to the usual discourse of the conflict. By re-appraising what life was like for the average citizens of Northern Ireland we can begin to garner what effect the ‘Troubles’ had on a larger majority of the population. What could be more everyday than shopping for clothing for yourself or children? Or going to Belfast with friends to buy the latest pair of platform boots?

An English TV clip from the aftermath of a bomb in Strabane in 1974 highlights how everyday life continued in spite of the destruction. The clip highlights the plight of a dress shop whose original premises were damaged in the explosion only to re-open two days later in a rented apartment. Presenter Peter Taylor asks the owner of the dress shop why he continues and the owner responds that he will ‘Carry on…..even if I get bombed again and again.’ This reflects the ethos that people in this time did not have any option but to continue working to provide for their families whilst facing danger daily. Additionally, graffiti that states ‘shop fast while shops last’ is also featured in the TV clip as an eerie reminder that your favourite shop could be there one day and gone the next.

My late aunt, Kathleen Stewart, remembers going on a strategically planned trip to a very ‘exclusive bridal shop in Belfast’ to buy her bridesmaid dresses and wedding dress for her wedding in 1974. The constant threat of destruction facing shops pressured my aunt into buying quickly. Stocking up on several garments at one time was normal, as the next time you went to the shop it might have been destroyed in a bomb. My mother’s favourite shop was Wallis, and she saved up wages for several months in the early 1980s to buy a beautiful black coat with two buttons to the centre that was worn over full-skirted 1950s dresses. On one occasion, my mother was anguished at being forced to leave behind her prized coat when her workplace building received a bomb threat and she had to immediately evacuate with the rest of the staff. This anecdote shows how much ordinary possessions mattered to people, even as they navigated the daily life or death situations of the conflict. Thankfully the bomb threat was a hoax and my mother retrieved her precious coat that she kept and passed on to me, which I now wear during cold Irish winters.

The fact that I am wearing an object with a ‘Troubles’ legacy, albeit a completely different legacy to the established norms of ‘Troubles’ legacies, went unnoticed until I was composing research for this blog post. To be able to use this post to re-assess the ‘life’ of my mother’s coat gives a new resonance to the item, in terms of its place in my personal family history and what it can reveal about the conflict more broadly. The everyday history of the conflict has a special part to play in constructing an ‘alternative’ narrative of the ‘Troubles’, and anecdotes and items from the lives of ordinary people are the source materials that illustrate this. In this case, they demonstrate how everyday life continued amidst the daily threat of bombs and shootings. It highlights how the normality of shopping and going to work are things we now take for granted in a post-Agreement world where we do not have to worry about the constant threat to our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

(Image: Royal Avenue, Belfast, Wikimedia Commons)

Rachel Sayers is an early career dress historian specialising in 20th century Irish dress and the effect that domestic and social history had on clothing choices. Rachel is currently working for the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland as a Curator and has previously worked for The National Trust for Scotland and the HMS Caroline amongst other museums. Rachel is also a member of the Costume Society’s Organisation Committee and a junior committee member of the Association of Dress Historians.

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