Shoulders back…

25 October 2022

Howard Bradley looks back with wry humour to the age of massive shoulder pads and the rather less glamorous donkey jacket craze

In my previous Howard’s Way, I cast a nostalgic eye over my introduction as a youngster to the drycleaning industry in the 1960s and how I saw and personally experienced it as we went into the 1970s and on to the 1980s. Now it’s time to have a look back into my memory banks to recall some of the things that I learned, and yes, it was a learning curve for me as I was not immune to making errors. It was also a time of debatable fashion in my humble opinion.

I well remember the increasingly large shoulder pads fitted to ladies’ jackets as we entered the era of power dressing. None of the manufacturers seem to have given any thought as to whether the shoulder pads would survive the recommended drycleaning process so it was important that I quickly learned how to deal with them, especially those that had been fitted inside linings so we could not get to them.

Some manufacturers fitted shoulder pads externally to the lining with just a few stitches at each end of the pad, and I am sure that I could not have been the only drycleaner to have ended up with a collection of orphan shoulder pads that had escaped unnoticed from their jackets.

I will hold my hands up here and say that I learned the hard way how to clean those jackets. I also remember when going to hang up or steam a ladies’ jacket after cleaning, finding out that some poorly fitted shoulder pads could be found at the bottom of the sleeve lining.

It was of course also the era of the miners’ strikes. We accepted cleaning tokens then and we saw quite an increase in the number of Thames Valley Police ones being presented to us with dirtied and muddied police uniforms. It was an indication that police were being drafted from all over the country to be sent to these strikes.

Cleaning tokens were just an added means of getting a revenue stream from airlines to police forces who would issue these to use as payment to get their uniforms cleaned. They were never profitable, even when the volume increased during these strikes, but for the police officers being drafted to head north, according to a police friend of mine, they made a lot of money in overtime. In fact so much, that one local officer who was into motorcycles, purchased a brand new Laverda Motorcycle out of the proceeds. (Laverdas we’re an expensive Italian make.)

Meanwhile some clever entrepreneurs decided to start selling donkey jackets (or poorly made imitations of them) that the miners often wore and, wow, did these catch on quickly! They were mainly labelled as mixed fibres and dryclean only despite the imitation leather patch being totally non-drycleanable, losing its plasticiser in drycleaning and coming out as stiff as a board. I only cleaned one before I realised that the care label was rubbish, but that was one too many.

There was a young girl aged about eight, who was in the shop with her mother one day, when the subject of donkey jackets came up. Nothing could console the child who believed that these jackets were made out of donkeys.

Fashion, of course, often follows music trends and Dexy’s Midnight Runners were big in the charts in the 1980s, wearing their trademark denim dungarees in their videos and this trend soon found its way on to the high street, although they need not have bothered putting fasteners on both ‘bib’ straps as the fashion was to have one undone and hanging loose. And so I witnessed another trend start up.

Another thing that hung loose in that period were the very oversize, voluminous tee shirts with huge slogans such as ‘Get a Life’ and ‘Frankie Says’. These were inevitably often cheaply made, with cheap transfers and expensively sold and thankfully not usually brought in for cleaning or washing.

Because many of our senior customers had been born into a totally different, much more formal world at the start of the 20th century and were always immaculately dressed and still wore hats, I had plenty of lively conversations with them when the modern youth started to wear designer bleached or acid washed denims.

“Why would you buy such a thing, they are not even fit for gardening duty,” was an oft heard comment.

© Featureflash Photo Agency /
Howard Bradley

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