Thursday 21 April 2016

Class in "Nine Till Six"

Nine Till Six is a 1930 play by Aimee and Philip Stuart with an all-woman cast, set in the cloakroom and office of an upmarket dress and hat shop. The proprietors, Mrs and Miss Pembroke, are gentlewomen struggling to keep the business afloat. They’d probably be much better off working for someone else and drawing a salary – but would that be hopelessly déclassé? They seem to spend a lot of their profits on employing young girls to run about with messages (and clothes).

Two young girls turn up the shop wanting a job: a working-class girl (Gracie) and an aristocrat down on her luck (Bridget). Mrs P takes them both on.

Clare Pembroke: Lots of girls of good family are learning to do something these days... Why did you send Pam (her sister) to the best school you could find? You sent her because you wanted her to come in contact with girls like Bridgit Penarth, instead of girls at a Council School.

They agree that the point of going to a “good” school is so that you can marry the brother of a well-heeled schoolmate. Clare reveals that when she was at a “good” school she never revealed that her mother ran a shop, but “times have changed” as they keep saying. The fashion for felt hats means that nobody will pay five guineas for the kind of fussy, elaborate headgear they used to make their money on. “We said short hair would never go out. It’s going. We said long dresses would never be worn again. We’re wearing them now.”

The resentful Freda tells Bridgit “You’re not the daughter of a lord without having things made easy for you. You’ll be first every time.”

There’s a “Mam’selle” who’s brought on so that we can laugh at her accent and giggle over her having a husband and a boyfriend (she’s French, of course!).

Bridgit gives the two mannequins (they swan about the shop modelling the clothes so that customers can see how they look “on”) a talking to about their futures: You two ought to be working where you can be seen by eligible men... With this surplus of women, someone’s got to get left. Why let it be you? (They quit to become cinema usherettes.)

The play ends with home truths being spoken right and left. A girl who has stolen clothes explains that she wanted to look good enough on holiday to get off with someone “who had enough money to give me a good time”. The workers demand to be paid a living wage, and the proprietors explain that they’re terribly sorry but that is impossible and they’re the ones who should be pitied.

In 1930, West End plays were also fashion shows – it must have been a shock to see beautiful gowns worn only by “common” shopgirls sitting around eating sticky buns. The play may have raised awareness of the plight of women workers, but I couldn’t help wishing the Pembrokes had employed a manager to rationalise their working practices.

Other all-women plays:
The Women, by Clare Boothe Luce (filmed with Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford)
The Ladies of the Corridor, by Dorothy Parker, set in a residential hotel for ladies (ordering now)
Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling
Stage Door by Edna Feber and George F. Kaufman (The film stars Katharine Hepburn intoning “the calla lilies are in blewm again”.)

More on the play here at Clothes in Books.