late 1982 or early 1983
THE STRAWBERRY FASHION SHOW
More Noise! Hacks take a look into the high-flying world of haute couture fashion. This time Andrea Miller, words, and Peter Stanway, pix, sidle into the private boudoir of Strawberry Switchblade. Whoops Scotties!
These must be the sweetest girls. Their Strawberry is gentle songs with a delicate na´vety, written, played and sung by Rose McDowall (12 string guitar) and Jill Bryson (electric/acoustic guitar). Not so long ago they were an unknown foursome, now, as a duo, they've been enjoying a lot of critical ranting and raving plus tucking under their belts two Radio One sessions with Peel and Jensen vying for the privilege of having them on their shows. The missing two girls have been temporarily replaced by session men James Kirk ex of Orange Juice on bass, and Shahid from Glasgow band The Recognitions on drums.
Their Switchblade is the macabre image, their polka dotted, Egyptian eyed stage appearance. They look rather like two dressed up dolls gone weirdly wrong, but it goes further than that, as I found when I unwittingly stumbled across a lifestyle that goes much further than fashion. The Switchblade girls are often to be seen in dark clubs north of the border watching their friends playing and, in these circles, turn heads only because of who they are, rather than what they wear. There are a few weak imitations but none done to the extremes of the real thing.
And extreme is the word. To talk about their clothes I ventured out to Rose's flat and was ushered into a box like room painted in bright glossy pillar box red, green carpet and literally stuffed with things to look at. A rack of glaringly coloured, dotted, spotted and flouncy clothes takes up half of one wall. A door is covered with postcards of Spanish flamenco dancers, stacks of polka dot plates and dishes are in one corner, another wall is decorated with hats of all descriptions, ropes hang heavy with jewellery, gloves, ribbons, there's even a polka dot couch... even polka dot bloomers!
'Jill's flat is just like this too,' Rose explained. (She could see I was stunned into gaping silence). 'We were going to get a flat and put everything together but it would be so much! We could have a whole wall full of earrings, and another one of clothes... we could even charge admission!
Once over the shock of seeing even half of The Switchblade Collection two things become obvious. Firstly, these girls are fanatics, and secondly, they can make almost anything from bits or pieces they pick up.
Rose and Jill started collecting clothes when they were seventeen immediately after their brief punk phase but long before Strawberry Switchblade.
'We get them mostly down at Paddy's or at jumble sales - the material that is,' explains Rose. (It should also be explained that Paddy's is THE original flea market in Glasgow with a history all of its own too long to be explained here).
'Usually we just get big dresses or bits of material and make something out of that. It's great when you get things fully made. But that hardly ever happens, so we make most of it ourselves. So the bigger the dress the better'. Jill interrupts with, 'I've got a friend in London who goes round all the jumble sales and brings me back sacks of stuff!'
Rose: 'After a while you get used to picking up clothes, and if you walk past a stall with a polka dot thing on it then you don't even have to look for it, it just jumps out at you, dazzling!'
Jill: 'We used to spend ages looking for something that would fit and look nice before we got sewing machines, but now it doesn't matter what it is because we just use the material'.
Polka-dots are bright, bold and well-loved by the Strawberries. Around the room are signs of an almost childish fascination with kids things from a 'Cut Out your Own Strawberry Switchblade Doll and Dress Her' poster to the polka dot rag doll on the window sill.
'I remember when I was wee,' says Rose, 'I had a red dress with white polka dots on it. It was my favourite and I always wanted another one, so I made one'.
Did you both start making and collecting clothes at the same time?
Jill: 'Obviously before we met we were making things, but we've evolved together. It took ages, we didn't just suddenly start wearing stuff like this. But if you get one idea everything just grows from it'.
How much would you say you spend on all this?
Rose: The most I've ever spent all at one was £2.50 and that was for a ready made dress. In the jumble sales you could expect to pay only five or ten pence for most things. Jumble sales are the cheapest'.
Strawberry Switchblade fashion may be cheap in money terms but in time it must be expensive. The girls collect and make almost unconsciously now (they've been doing this for five years) and their friends contribute a lot to the bulging boxes of as yet untouched materials that they both have in their homes. So the Strawberry ribbons come from Canada, the 'Polka Dotted Lady Washing 7" singles' poster is from France and Rose has made a couple of trips to Spain, the country which stimulates the base for their original designs. Both are fascinated by flamenco dancers, the ruffles, the colours - the whole idea of dressing up, and it is from this that they take their ideas for their dresses.
Materials can be of any type (as long as it's a bold, or even better, a polka dotted pattern) although they favour stretch materials because, 'more things can be made from it like gloves and tights'. They tell horrific tales of spending a whole day sewing tights, trousers or cat-suits by hand in their pre-sewing machine days!
Fashion, of course, is nothing without accessories, and I soon found out that Rose and Jill make most of them too. Shoes can be bought cheaply or second hand, re-heeled, re-soled, painted or dyed and then decorated with - you guessed it - polka dots. Boots, Rose tells me, can be made from old shoes (changing the heels if necessary) with leggings of preferably stretch material (sometimes reinforced) and then stitched or glued on either around the sole (and then re-soled) or onto the top of the shoe. Ribbons are easily found, or belts de-buckled and used, or made from scraps.
The hats on display are mostly for decoration although they sometimes wear the small, veiled ones on their wildly back-combed hair. Tights and socks are made from stretch material or lace and fitted with a single seam up the back. Don't ask me how they make gloves - it's too complicated!
Their jewellery is predictably gaudy, subtle jewellery with boldly coloured polka dot clothes would be completely overlooked. Most of it is picked up from even stranger sources than their clothes, 'under jigsaw puzzles of the Queen in newspaper shops,' says Jill. In other words, kids jewellery, strange dangling earrings from Indian shops, lurid green plastic rings from lucky bags.
Rose's favourite earrings fluctuate between long red pom pom ones to 3" black plastic hearts. Jill, because she has to keep her nails short to play guitar, occasionally wears dazzlingly false nails, at last sight painted with an orange day-glo paint!
They have extravagant tastes in colour and style. And so are quite used to being stared at, although, as Rose explained, it can be irritating.
'All the old women in my area say 'What is she dressed like THAT for?' and the kids say 'I like your dress' but that's only so they can talk to you. I'd rather not get any reaction because sometimes it makes me really mad'.
Jill butts in with 'Kids up the West End (where she lives) don't even notice! Anyway, we've been dressing up for so long we don't even talk about it and so you don't feel self-conscious, We dress, to some extent, like this all the time. During the day we wear things that used to be 'good' and keep new things for night time. Neither of us owns a pair of jeans!'
Even after all this they still don't feel they are fashionable in any sense. As Jill explained, 'We could still be dressing like this when we're eighty whereas fashion is something that is constantly changing. If we happen to look fashionable at any time it is pure coincidence!'
Maybe fashion will copy them, maybe it won't. Maybe before Strawberry Switchblade get anywhere near eighty we'll be seeing spots before our eyes...