Seventies State of Mind: The Story of Calico Casa

I love the Seventies. That’s pretty much a given for me as a writer for The Peachiest, or for you as a reader if you’ve made your way to this site. We’re a collective of people that adore everything Seventies-related in all its ochre-hued loveliness; and if you’re anything like me, have become attuned to spotting traces of the decade in most elements of modern culture.

Of all the industries that borrow from the Seventies on the regular, fashion has arguably shown itself to be the most enamoured with a retro volte-face, as new season collections periodically revert to Seventies silhouettes, crochet a-plenty and camel-brown suede. Our cultural reference points are set firmly to nostalgia, and our romanticisation of the ‘feel good’ era shows no signs of abating.

As fashion continually merry-go-rounds and autumn unfurls in a Mamas-and-Papas ‘all the leaves are brown’ kind of way, my thoughts turned to James Laver’s theory that fashion looks back in a 30-40 year cycle; a concept truly evident in fashion’s propensity to look back to times past. But the idea of an industry doing a roaring trade in memories holds a special level of significance for me.

My style connection to the Seventies is a little different, I suppose, to channelling Farrah Fawcett with a retro jumpsuit, Breton tops in the manner of Jane Birkin, or beaded shawls a la Stevie Nicks, much as they have and continue to inspire me. My style muse hails a little closer to home; to my Mum in fact, who lived, breathed and sewed her way through the Seventies. If style is self-expression, and taking pleasure in visual creation is inherited, then I learned everything there is to know from her.

From the very beginning my Mum was immersed in a family tradition of creativity, which nurtured within her a degree of sensitivity to the appearance of things around her. She inherited artistry from her mother and a sound business sense from her father, the combination of which made for a young woman full of creative verve.

In 1968, after graduating from Northampton School of Art, my Mum took her first job as a junior graphic designer for the London Electricity Board in London. But after a year or so, she returned home to Northampton with seedling ambitions of running her own business. Fizzing with teen spirit, and harboring dreams of becoming a dress designer, my Mum was compelled to start looking to establish herself as an independent artist. By 1970, she had leased shop premises in an old but exquisite Emporium Arcade, founding what for the next twenty years was to be known as Calico Casa.

The shop originated as a one-woman enterprise, as my Mum set about making frilled skirts, crocheted tops and chiffon dresses for twenty-something year old women. There was, as my Mum tells me on good authority, barely anywhere that sold fun fashion for young women, which is why so many resorted to twee pleated skirts, knobbly socks and knitted cardigans. Calico Casa was filling a much-needed gap in the market: designing, producing and selling beautiful garments that provided a spirit of careful elegance, whilst maintaining the special feeling of personalisation that comes from skilled tailoring.  

After one successful year of running Calico Casa from the tiny Emporium Arcade, my mum moved premises to York Road, a main thoroughfare that runs through the heart of Northampton. My mum, at the ripe age of 21, fought off fierce competition for the high street shop, in what remains to me as one of her best business negotiations to date. The local bank manager was impressed by her creative enterprise and savings hard-earned from her first year of business – not least for the fact that all his staff were wearing Mum’s dresses – and miraculously, she secured 29 York Road as sole proprietor. 

Over the next few years, Calico Casa grew, and catered exactly to the pendulum of Seventies style that swung between tastes for laid-back ruffled skirts and tie-tops for the lithe, honey-limbed creatures just beginning to holiday abroad, to more elaborately wrought evening wear comprising of tailored Victoriana bodices, pillowy sleeves and pearl embellishments. The house aesthetic remained constant in the spirit of exuberant femininity; each garment delicately tailored, every frill, fuss and fancy just so. Mum’s sensuous fashion went down a storm with the young women of the town, who gravitated towards York Road for boho elegance, frills spilling over each other as they sashayed down the street. The shop windows soon filled with evening gowns, christening gowns of stiffened silk and children’s dresses, kept in plentiful supply by her team of machinists. Fabrics frequently matched the seasons – burnished florals in plum, gold and brown. Exquisitely fashioned bodices, carefully trimmed buttons, precise applique – these were the hallmarks of my Mum’s dressmaking.

Calico Casa rode out the Seventies in style and most of the next decade too, until 1987, when my Mum moved to a new county and started a new business; one that took inspiration from the verdant Norfolk countryside. By the time I was born in 1992, English Country Garden Dresses was fully established. As a child, I’d sit in my Mum’s country workshop listening to the thrum of sewing machines and fevered buzz of the overlockers, watching scraps of fabric fall from my mother’s lap as she whipped up made-to-measure orders for customers. Often, I’d peek through the workshop door during a fitting, and glimpse customers standing in their underwear, lifting their arms high above their head as they slipped on wedding dresses for their big day, or evening gowns for a special occasion. 

The legacy of Calico Casa continued to crop up in my life, not least because of anecdotes acquired second-hand from my Mum which I carefully stoppered one after the other in my mind’s eye to create a vision of what the old shop and its customers looked like. Calico Casa was a memory, substantiated by a couple of blue frilled to-the-floor skirts that my sister and I would play dress-up in; the only pieces that remained, to the best of our knowledge, from the golden days of the mid-Seventies.

One day, as I volunteered in the local charity shop, surrounded by bags of second-hand clothes and a hissing steamer, I happened across a black bolero with pink flowers appliqued across the front. Even as I picked out the garment from the black plastic bin liner, I recognised the covered buttons and handmade loopholes – little pieces of identity capital that I knew at once belonged to my Mum. My instinct proved true; a label at the nape of the neck read ‘Made Expressly for Calico Casa’. My stomach turned flips and somersaults – a Calico Casa creation from the early 1970’s had somehow ended up in my hands some forty years down the line. 

The generational leap of Calico Casa garments continued as I discovered other pieces on eBay, which would emerge unsuspectingly during routine perusals of the vintage section, and see me poised with maximum bids until all hours of the day (and night). I also posted on a memories site to ask if anyone remembered my mum’s old shop back in the Seventies, and was delighted to hear from several old customers who shared their memories of my Mum machining in her shop, dressed head-to-toe in blue with blonde hair shellacked back in a beehive. People remembered the Calico Casa days, and fondly too; proving to me how creativity has the power to embed itself deep within our psyche.

All of which is to say, really, that the Seventies have real sticking power, and not just because I am now the proud collector of several Calico Casa garments which I can touch and marvel over with my very own hands, instead of imagining what they looked like in years gone by. As Laver attests, ‘clothes are rarely a frivolity: they always mean something, and that something is to a large extent outside the control of our conscious minds’. And to me, Calico Casa clothes embody the ideals of the era – romantic femininity, expressive freedom, female independence – as well as reflecting the workings of the mind that made them; joy in creation, artistic flair, and above all, a love of making others look and feel their best self.

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