The outfit I am wearing in the picture on the left is the gala-dress of the Newhaven fishwife. It belonged to my Grandma, Esther Liston, who was the last Newhaven fishwife, only retiring in 1976 aged 80. The gala-dress was worn on Sundays and for festivals such as the Harvest Thanksgiving, which in Newhaven naturally included an emphasis upon the harvest of the sea, and for concerts given by the Fisherlassies’ and Fisherwomen’s choirs. A more practical navy blue costume was worn while actually carrying the fish in the creel around the streets (see picture of Esther Liston, bottom right).
The costume itself is a fankle, to use the technical term, to put on for the beginner, having not a single button or hook, being held together by ties and many pins. First of all there is the shor’ goon, a long blouse with short sleeves, one side carefully laid in place across the other. Then comes the first of the cots, or petticoats, red and white striped and with a tape to tie it around the waist. Next is the yellow and white cot, which gave the Newhaven fisherwomen the name ‘yellow butterflies, their Fisherrow counterparts having a blue one instead. I find the use of the term ‘yellow butterflies’ intriguing, as the only British yellow species, Brimstones and Clouded Yellows, are not often seen that far north.
This cot too is tied around the waist. The cots are heavy material, flannel I think, and are good at keeping the draughts away from the nether regions as I have found, though getting them dry before the days of tumble-driers must have taken some time. There is a cotton apron of blue and white stripes, also tied on, and a pooch matching the shor’ goon, which always makes me think of the sort of pocket worn and lost by Lucy Locket.
So far, so good. Now comes the tricky part. The apron, pinned inside the yellow cot, has to be kilted up over the red one, and pinned so that it hangs neatly in place. My poor husband, who was completely unacquainted with this garb, was commandeered to assist, and somehow got it right, guided only by a small doll and my vague memories of being dressed up in it twice in my teens; a friend is definitely recommended to help the unpractised. Not only are the cots thick, the yellow one has a sort of bustle, which was actually to help support the creel rather than to enhance the figure.
Once the skirts are properly kilted and hanging correctly in a neat point and the muttered imprecations from the assistant kneeling on the floor are over, a broad satin ribbon is tied into a bow with nice long ends and inned with a brooch on the bosom, also holding together the shor’ goon; remember there are no buttons. I use my St Andrew pilgrim badge, as what could be more appropriate than the patron saint of fishermen?
The outfit is crowned with a shawl, in this case a beautiful Paisley one. Not everyone could manage to put their own on, and prior to a choir concert Grandma was much in demand for tying them. I’ve just about got it right, but the shawl does tend to slide off my straight hair. The outfit is completed with black shoes and white hosiery. Thank goodness for modern tights; traditional stockings would be far too draughty!