By Richard Farmer
The summer of 1946 was an exciting time at Pinewood. The studio had just reopened after the war, de-requisitioned after being used for a variety of filmmaking and non-filmmaking purposes during the conflict. Visitors to the site would have found a studio seeking to face up to the challenges of the post-war world, eager to find ways to create interesting and profitable films despite continued scarcity of many filmmaking staples.
At some point during that summer of 1946 a special hat designed by a ‘top-line’ London milliner, the ‘tall and beefy’ Hugh Beresford, arrived at Pinewood, ready to be placed carefully atop the head of Greta Gynt (Daily Mirror, 22 March 1948: 4). Thus anointed, Gynt would walk out onto the set of Take My Life (1947), a mid-budget thriller directed by Ronald Neame for Cineguild, in which she played an opera singer desperate to clear her husband of murdering a former girlfriend – a crime he she is convinced he did not commit.
Greta Gynt unveils the Philippa, with trim to match her blouse, in May 1947
The hat, dubbed the ‘Philippa’ after Gynt’s character in Take My Life, was simple, ‘a new-trend halo, worn to the back of the head, with a neat flat-topped crown’; the brim eased off at the rear ‘until it is non-existent, thus allowing for any individual hair style to be worn low at the back of the neck’ (Manchester Evening News, 14 May 1947: 1; Truth, 23 May 1947: 510). An important innovation, and one that spoke to an ongoing shortage of fabric, was that different trims could be added by the wearer, allowing women to use off-cuts and remnants to match the Philippa to other parts of their outfit. When Gynt appeared at the hat’s unveiling at Regent Street’s Hungaria Restaurant in May 1947 – just days before Take My Life’s London premiere – her hat’s brown-and-white checked gingham trim matched her blouse: both had been adapted from a child’s frock.
Dalton: ‘very bald’
British milliners were very keen to revive interest in hats. Clothes rationing was still in effect across Britain, and although consumers continued to be subject to restrictions on what they could buy there was a desire among British clothes designers and manufacturers to stimulate a greater interest in fashion after years of Utility clothing and austerity controls. Britons had not needed to hand over any of their precious allocation of clothing coupons when buying a hat, but in August 1942 Hugh Dalton, President of the Board of Trade and the man with political responsibility for clothes rationing, had warned that in order to save cloth ‘I think we shall more and more have to go without hats. Anyone who retains his natural hair ought to go without a hat’ (Daily Mirror, 28 August 1942: 1). It was pointed out that Dalton was himself ‘very bald.’
Take My Life: the many hats of Greta Gynt
With prices rising and supplies scarce, more Britons decided to forego headgear than before the war; the piece that Beresford designed for Gynt was part of a wider campaign orchestrated by the Millinery Information Centre to ‘coax women back to the habit of wearing hats instead of the ubiquitous headscarf or nothing at all on their heads’ (Sunday Times, 4 May 1947: 7). The Philippa was just one of a number of fetching lids worn by Gynt in Take My Life, a film that might have been out under the title Six Hats for Greta. British film producers were willing to help in this regard, both because better-dressed films were thought to be more appealing to cinemagoers and because manufacturers could be called upon to promote the film in which their goods appeared. Around Britain, hat shop windows became billboards for Take My Life.
Wilmslow Advertiser, 27 June 1947
Four hundred milliners around Britain were engaged to make various versions of the hat in a range of textiles, patterns, colours and prices. Although many costume designers worked with an eye on how outfits would look when photographed, it is not clear if Beresford created the Philippa specifically for Gynt to use in Take My Life; it might instead have been selected by the filmmakers from a range put forward by the Millinery Information Centre. Indeed, it seems likely that the Philippa was not the only hat provided to Cineguild, even if it was the only one that went into mass production. Beresford noted that ‘One of the reasons it was chosen is the number of close-ups required in the film – and its off-the-face line gives such a flattering effect’ (Manchester Evening News, 14 May 1947: 1). The design also worked to keep Gynt’s face free of shadows.
Whereas before the war Beresford’s hats had tended to be expensive and exclusive – one of them was worn by the model in Cecil Beaton’s famous ‘Fashion is indestructible’ photoshoot for British Vogue in September 1941 – the Philippa was aimed squarely at the mass-market. ‘Intended primarily for the teenager and the junior miss,’ prices started at just 15 shillings (Truth, 23 May 1947: 510). Younger, less-well-off women were probably the most dedicated cinemagoers in Britain. They were also, perhaps, the least likely to wear hats. The Millinery Information Centre claimed that women watching popular films were considerably less likely to sport a hat than those going to see “highbrow” cinema: 80 per cent of women in the queue to see The Last Chance (Die letzte Chance, 1945) and 75 per cent in the queue for De Sica’s Shoe Shine (Sciuscià, 1946) wore hats, as compared to just 32 per cent to see Ava Gardner in the noir Singapore (1947) and 30 per cent for the 1947 musical I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (Daily Mail, 12 February 1948 p. 3). Putting the Philippa in Take My Life, a film intended very much for the mainstream,made perfect sense in terms of target market.
Hatted and hatless patrons queue to see Yankee Doodle Dandy at the Capitol in Stoke-on-Trent
It’s not clear how successful the Philippa was. The pale green version Gynt wore in Take My Life did not hinder her efforts to solve the mystery at the heart of the film, but I have not been able to find any information about how well the hat sold or how consumers reacted to it. Announced with a fanfare, the Philippa seems to have quickly faded from view (or at least the pages of British newspapers). What is clear, however, is that film studio costume and publicity departments were keen to exploit the continued popularity of the product they made, working with other industries and other forms of consumer culture in an attempt to position film at the heart of British life and fashion.