Ah, the American GI. Bringer of sweets, romance, nylon stockings and a dance that was like no other.
Upon their arrival in Britain, each of the 1.5 million American soldiers who were to take up residence here during WW2 were issued with a copy of A Short Guide to Great Britain. This handy volume was full of invaluable advice and observations that would ensure no GI was left in any doubt of the British ways.
The following extract, I imagine, offered particular comfort to those who were shocked by the look of the British:
If British civillians look dowdy or badly dressed, it is not because they do not like good clothes or know how to wear them.
All clothing is rationed and the British know that they help war production by wearing an old suit or dress until it cannot be patched any longer. Old clothes are GOOD FORM.
Indeed! Goodness knows what a traumatic experience the war would have been for those poor Americans if they believed the Brits to be as tasteless as they looked. I’ve no doubt that without the reassuring words of this booklet, they’d have taken one glance at the inhabitants of their new residence and have booked a ticket straight home. They would have then spent the following years regaling family and friends with tales of British women wearing last season’s dresses and educated men who spoke with cut-glass accents yet who had patches on the elbows of their jackets. Golly – A Short Guide to Great Britain – thank you for justifying our dowdiness.
And whilst the British were doomed to six years of dressing like frumps in the pursuit of constant ‘good form’, the GIs brought some transatlantic glamour to a luxury starved nation.
Sounding and looking as though they’d jumped straight out of a Hollywood movie, the American soldiers not only wore fine clothes but were handsome, polite and generous too. They were renowned for sharing their American-imported bounty with the locals and would often be trailed by hoards of excited children, each hoping to get a taste of some American candy or gum.
The ladies did well from the soldiers, too. Nylon stockings were a devil to get hold of during the war. As we all know, bare legs were certainly not the done thing and many amusing measures were taken to re-create the stockinged look. In bringing stockings over from the states, the GIs saved many a girl from taking measures her own hands and no doubt earned many a favour too…
(Taking measures into ones own hands usually meant painting something onto ones legs to give the appearance of a stocking – top of the amusement chart would be the use of gravy-browning mixed with water to achieve that, er, nylon look. There are worse things to smell of than a roast dinner but I think I’d have found myself a GI with a suitcase of stockings instead… )
And now to dancing. For the Americans were GREAT dancers. Dancing was, of course, very much established as a popular leisure time activity in Britain – we weren’t THAT far behind – but whereas the Brits were Fox-Trotting and Quick-Stepping about the ballrooms, the Americans were on to something new: the Jitterbug.
Full of energy, fast paced and wild, this dance wasn’t for the faint-hearted. The American soldiers were young and fit and the Jitterbug was a feat of athleticism. Soon, girls who were used to poise and elegance on the dance-floor were being thrown in the air, slung through legs and flipped over the shoulders of their partners. And they loved it.
This crazy new dance didn’t please everybody though and before long, ‘No Jitterbugging’ signs were to appear in dance halls around the country. But these signs would prove little barrier for a dance that was fast developing into a national obsession. Such was the craze for the Jitterbug that even when the GIs left in 1945, the dance remained. It’s still thriving today – although it now calls itself the Lindyhop.
And it was into this world of vintage inspired Lindyhop dancing I tumbled last summer. Since then, like the girls during WW2, I’ve been hooked. It ticks all the boxes – providing lots of interesting people, being tremendous exercise… and the music! Oh what joyous music! There’s even still the odd American coming over – adding a touch of glamour and romance. And the Americans are still GREAT dancers. One can only hope we Brits have now upped our game on the clothing front…