With her cupid’s bow lips, hair set high in lustrous curls and ravishing movie star looks, the bride appears as if she stepped straight off the silver screen.
But this isn’t Ava Gardner and Clark Gable. It’s Renee and Brian Stack, from Stepney, East London, and the portrait wasn’t taken in Hollywood, but in a photographer’s studio in Whitechapel.
“We were so poor we didn’t have a penny to our name,” says Renee, now 90, as she recalls their wedding day back in 1948.
“Everything was begged and borrowed.”
Renee was 17 when Brian whisked her off her feet, and although she might have been working as a shop girl down Petticoat Lane in London’s East End, her story could have come straight from a film.
“Brian was just back from serving with the 7th Armoured Division – one of Montgomery’s brave desert rats – when I met him at a dance,” she says. “He walked over to me and said, ‘I’m going to marry you’.”
Renee’s strict Jewish mother was less impressed. “Wait and see what he makes of himself first,” she advised.
Brian knuckled down to civilian life in local government, and spent three years learning Hebrew so he could convert to Judaism in order to marry Renee at Newbury Park Synagogue.
Renee says: “We had no money so Brian borrowed a suit, and my friend Edie, who worked as a sample machinist, made me my beautiful pale blue silk crepe wedding dress. I said to her, ‘But I’ve no money to pay you’. ‘It’s a wedding gift,’ she insisted.
“That’s the way people were back then, helping each other out.
“I did my own hair and make-up, and the whole family chipped in to pay for the wedding portrait.
“We married on a shoestring, but I was the happiest girl alive –just 21 years old and with so much hope for the future.”
Renee’s heartwarming story shows the pride working-class girls had during the grinding poverty of the 30s and 40s, and their fierce determination for a better life.
In researching my novel, The Wedding Girls, I stumbled upon a lost world of innocence and hope. A time when divorce was never a seriously considered option, girls married for life and weddings were about love, community and family. And also when wedding studios were big business.
The glamour was a reaction to the economic depression which swept across Britain after the Great War.
Combined with the emergence of Hollywood, it meant brides were determined to sprinkle a dusting of romance and escapism over the most important day of their lives.
“There was so much poverty that we all craved glamour,” says 87-year-old Pat Spicer, a former dressmaker, who made
her own floor-length white satin gown, complete with veil and an elaborate cascading bouquet.
“It was our chance to feel like a star for the day and chase away the dark clouds of post-war London.”
For her wedding to gentleman’s barber Bill Spicer in 1948, Pat employed the services of legendary Jewish East End photographer Boris Bennett, whose Whitechapel studio was the place to go for stylish wedding pictures.
Boris was famous for bringing a touch of Hollywood style to a wedding shoot.
Using exquisitely painted backdrops and beautiful lighting, he could transform the most ordinary-looking bride into a sophisticated showstopper. He even employed a uniformed commissionaire to meet and greet the newlyweds.
Eager onlookers would gather outside his studio to catch a glimpse of the bride. Dressmakers would turn up, sketchbooks in hand, looking for inspiration.
Pat says: “We went for the complete set – nine framed photos and a book at 16 guineas (nearly £17, when the average weekly salary was £7). My family had saved for my wedding for years.
“Boris was charming and helped me to look stunning. We posed against a beautiful cream archway with dreamy lighting. He arranged extra tulle around the bottom of my dress and taught us how to pose.”
Half-an-hour after the portrait was taken, it was back down to earth with a bump.
The reception was held at her mother-in-law’s terrace in Bethnal Green, East London.
Pat had to sit at a Salvation Army trestle table for a wedding breakfast of mashed potato, cold roast beef and beetroot, followed by a Thursday-to-Monday honeymoon in Canvey Island.
“‘All top show, nothing underneath,’ as my mum would say,” jokes Pat.
“But thanks to the experience of posing for my wedding portrait, which I still treasure, I felt so special. I even had 22 tiny buttons down the back of my dress to match my 22-inch waist. Bill called me his pocketbook Venus.”
Back in Pat’s day, a formal studio photograph was important across all classes.
To own a beautiful wedding portrait – in a time when few people owned a camera – was a symbol of hope.
For inspiration, brides looked to the celebrities of their day – society girls including Nancy Beaton, whose wedding to Sir Hugh Smiley, a Grenadier Guards officer and baronet, in 1933 at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, was attended by the cream of society.
Her brother, the famous photographer Cecil Beaton, carefully stage-managed the entire wedding. Nancy was tended by eight bridesmaids linked by one long continuous garland, designed by then up-and-coming florist Constance Spry.
The pageboys also looked as if they had stepped out of a fairytale in their white satin breeches. It was pure theatre.
Nancy’s mesmerising wedding photo appeared in all the newspapers and was devoured by brides-to-be eager to bask in her glamour.
When it came to the honeymoon, the most the newlyweds could hope for was a few days in a seaside boarding house.
Henrietta Keeper – now 90 and still singing weekly in her local cafe in Bethnal Green – cut a dazzling figure on her wedding day in 1947.
During the Blitz, the vivacious blonde and her sisters would entertain Londoners in the shelters in the Underground by singing harmonies to drown out the bombs.
After the war, she caught the eye of coal delivery man Joe Keeper. “Hello, Curly,” he’d shout down from his horse-drawn cart.
Henrietta recalls: “Every day he’d throw down an orange for me and some free coal for my mum, to keep her sweet.
“He was so strong he could carry a two hundredweight sack of coal up the stairs of the buildings with ease.
“We married at St Andrew’s church, Bethnal Green. I was in a dress made of lace, which my friend made, and I did all my own hair and make-up. I had two maids of honour and two little bridesmaids.
“The reception was a few sausage rolls in a chilly church hall, and there was no honeymoon. I was back to work two days later, but I was the happiest girl alive.”
Joe was a “good provider”, and they had 50 happy years of marriage and three daughters before he sadly passed away.
Between the wars, stars such as Bette Davis and Carol Lombard were those young girls looked to for inspiration.
Notions of romance and glamour might have got these brides up the aisle, but it was commitment and sacrifice that made their marriages last.
Pat, who was married for nearly 59 years, says: “Back then, the wedding day itself wasn’t so important – it was the rest of our married lives which meant something.
“We never gave up, no matter how tough things got.”
- Kate Thompson is the author of The Wedding Girls, published by Pan Macmillan, out now