Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

Back in time – through a certain department store in Plymouth.


Two weeks ago I spent a day in Plymouth on my own – just strolling round the city and keeping a look out for a hat to wear to Tom and Jenn’s wedding. I have only been to Plymouth alone on one other occasion – the day exactly thirty-five years ago when I went to buy my wedding dress.

The memory of that day came back very clearly as I walked into the same department store and asked where the wedding hats were to be found. Back in 1981 this store had a large collection of bridal wear, and I was feeling very excited as I stepped into the sumptuous room with its racks of billowing white gowns.

A sales assistant came over to me immediately, running her eyes over my jeans, t-shirt and flip flops. I explained that I was getting married in a few weeks and had come to find my dress. She didn’t smile, just raised the corner of her lip and shook her head. “We don’t allow just anyone who comes in off the street to try on our gowns.”

I repeated that I was getting married and needed a dress, but she pointed behind me to the door, and gestured for me to leave. “Girls are usually accompanied by their mothers,” she said. And clearly they were. I glanced at the other bride-to-be in the room, who was currently receiving a huge amount of obsequious attention from the other sales assistants. Not only was her mother with her, but also her aunt and a posse of small cousins, all inspecting bridesmaids’ dresses with great enthusiasm.

As I left the wretched shop my first feeling was fury – how dare this arrogant woman refuse to treat me as a customer just because I was wearing jeans? And motherless? But within seconds my rage was completely overcome by a deluge of grief for my absent mother. I have always missed her, usually with a steady, daily sadness, but on certain occasions the pain has been deep and raw. That day was one of the worst.

I flip-flopped down the street and into Dingles, which has now disappeared, and jumped on the escalator to the wedding department. When this sales assistant came over to meet me I told her that I had been thrown out of the Other Store, that I genuinely needed a wedding dress, and that my mother was not with me because she was dead. And then I burst into tears.

Well – the fuss! Two ladies were instantly clucking round me, exuding kindness. They mopped up my tears (so I wouldn’t drip on the gowns) and spent a long time helping me to find the perfect wedding dress.

All this was at the front of my mind when I walked back into the wedding department at the Other Store. Perhaps it is the same room – I couldn’t be sure – but the racks of beautiful gowns are long gone, as are the sales assistants, There were a few mother-of-the-bride outfits on mannequins, a display of frightening supportive underwear, some fussy fascinators and three or four hats. One of these seemed to be vaguely the same colour as my jacket, and I wrestled it from the awkward hat stand and tried it on. It looked like an unwieldy dinner plate stuck to the side of my head, and was held in place by a band that was so tight I felt as if I was undergoing some uncomfortable medical procedure.

I did not miss my mother on this occasion, but my beautiful daughter-in-law to be, who had made choosing the rest of my outfit such a magical experience. I knew she would NOT like the dinner plate, so I wrestled it back onto the hat stand. There was a very pretty white hat, but Jenn had advised not white and besides, it had a forbidding notice on it that began HYGIENE… I left it alone and made for the door.

At that moment a sales assistant hurried in, looked at my jeans, t-shirt and trainers, then cast her eye around the room to make sure I hadn’t stolen anything. Some things haven’t changed then. Perhaps I should go shopping in a suit and high heels from now on…

This is me at the time.

This is me at the time.