Humans logo

Tits and Tupperware in 1980s England

by Richard Douglas 10 months ago in vintage

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there ~ L.P.Hartley

Image by Martin Parr

My childhood was one long string of parties. Trouble is they were my mother's parties and as she was a 1980s housewife living in suburban Oldham they weren't the kind of social events you or I would think of now.

The parties my mum went to were ostensibly for home shopping, usually fashion or homewares. They were tame affairs in comparison to the French knickers and dildo parties that were, at that time, about a decade away from the grasps of Oldham housewives. In 1981 the Ann Summers party was a brand new concept and not something you'd find in small town England.

TV shopping channels hadn't yet made it over from the states and the internet was a thing of the future, an article on Tomorrow's World perhaps but certainly not an option for shopping.

Home parties flourished and my mum's social life was, for a number of years, intricately bound up in them. These sorts of home retail schemes often bring to mind Tupperware Parties with their cut-throat pyramid selling and ever so useful kitchenware but mum wasn't big on household chores so her drug of choice was the Pippa Dee Party.

For those not initiated in the Pippa Dee Party scene, what would happen is each woman in a circle of friends would take it in turn to host; they'd put on tea and biscuits, possibly wine and peanuts (there were no rules surrounding this), bung the kids in bed then the others in the group would pile in to their sitting room and watch Dulcie, a local sales rep, go through the latest high street fashions. She'd inspire her audience with three different ways to wear the same culottes and wow them with the versatility of a two piece suit.

There would be much discussion, a little chitter chatter about the issues of the day, then the party goers would have an opportunity to try the garments on and if they wanted to, they could place an order with Dulcie. The host would get some kind of kickback - a discount or a free cardigan perhaps - Dulcie would fill her order book and everyone had a great time.

Our family business had, by this time, moved to Inskip, a tiny village in Lancashire, slap bang in the centre of a triangle formed by Preston, Garstang and Blackpool - much like the Bermuda triangle but on a smaller scale and less given to killing mariners and bringing down aeroplanes. The distance from home meant that my dad would often be back late and my brothers and I, unable to be left alone at home, would escort my mum to the Pippa Dee extravaganzas.

In case you were in any doubt there's nothing very appealing to a seven year old at one of these events, apart from maybe the biscuits, and I'd often find myself wandering about someone's house aimlessly looking for something to entertain me. On one such occasion, when Jennifer (auntie Jenny even though she wasn't my aunt) was hosting, I had the misfortune of wandering into her dining room while taking a short cut from the sitting room to the kitchen.

It was one of those houses where you could walk through all three downstairs rooms and come out back where you started. With hindsight I really ought to have paid more attention to what was going on that evening and gone to the kitchen via the hallway, for without realising what I was doing I walked straight into the room which was being used as a dressing room.

The sight of a room full of bare chested women and somewhere between six and twelve breasts, wobbling away at just above eye level is still burned on my brain. Some of them had still had their bras on, some just out there for the world to see.

As I gasped and turned, in a panic, to make a hasty retreat I heard one of them cooing to me.

"Aw look at 'im!" the Oldham accent elongating the double O and dropping the H, "Come 'ere love, haven't you grown?"

A silent shriek of terror in my head was followed by a mad scramble for the door handle, and I was out of there. It was a mistake I only made once but one that could possibly have influenced my sexual orientation years later.

There were other parties I was dragged to which were less prone to the horror of ladies' boobs. You'd never see a bare tit at an aromatherapy party after all, and even when mum did take me to the odd Tupperware Party the group would be far more concerned with buying their make-your-own ice lollies kit than flashing their knockers, however unintentionally, at an impressionable child.

My favourite events by far were only loosely connected with shopping, they were the market research parties. It wasn't the party itself that I loved but the run up to it when our family would test newly launched household products. We might be given three boxes of breakfast cereal for example, all slightly different in taste and texture, and all delivered in mysterious white boxes with a number or letter on the front.

It was our job to try the product and note down which we preferred (mum would do that) then on the day of the party we would gather with the other guinea pigs, present our results and discuss them. It's difficult to explain the thrill of eating unidentified chocolate biscuits and being responsible for choosing which was the best tasting, but thrilling it was!

Another gathering I was often hauled along to was Weight Watchers. This was the least fun of all but thankfully I was unlikely to be faced with any bare bosoms. Instead, after the dreaded weigh-in at the front of Oldham Parish Hall on Rock Street, Esme, the head Weight Watcher, would hold court. She'd begin by congratulating those who'd lost weight and offering words of encouragement to those who'd not done so well.

"Brilliant work Helen over there," Esme would reveal Helen, who was sitting on the third row, like she was the star prize in a game show. The speedboat that someone was going to take back to Rochdale and park on their drive.

"Three pounds this week and I see you've got your two stone ribbon. Well done love. Everyone give Helen a well deserved clap."

Esme would beam at Helen as a ripple of resentful applause was issued from the group. All the while Helen blushing with self consciousness yet barely concealing a smug smile.

"And Janice... What went wrong love? You were going in the right direction. What happened?" Janice would sink back into her hard, plastic stacking chair, suddenly aware of forty sets of eyes now trained on her.

"Was it the cheese and onion crisps again? Oh a funeral you say? It's no excuse though is it? Your husband? Oh love, I'm sorry to hear that but look at it this way, you're back on the market now, all the more reason to shift those last few pounds eh?"

Once the name and shame was over Esme would invariably begin doling out slimming tips and parading dried up, crusty old dishes she'd made that week for her ever suffering husband.

"Look at this ladies," Esme naturally employed the Oldham long 'OO', "I made it for our Jack on Tuesday and he absolutely loved it!"

Esme would turn and from beneath a tea towel, unveil a dehydrated blackberry crumble with a corner missing where Jack had been given his ration. "It's in the book," another OO, "page 47. Try it with a bit of low fat custard."

Years later, rumour had it that Esme had met an untimely demise when she fell down the stairs at home. Those inclined to gossip even suggested that her emaciated husband Jack had something to do with it, no doubt sick of having to use pickled beetroot to add moisture to her desiccated 'tater hash.

I did a bit of digging on a Facebook group last year and learned that Esme hadn't actually fallen down the stairs and she'd lived on for years. A far less interesting conclusion to her life than I had hoped but all the better for her I dare say.

NB: Dulcie, Helen, Janice and Esme's long suffering husband Jack are all figments of my lockdown imagination but are absolutely based on real people.

vintage
Richard Douglas
Richard Douglas
Read next: 'Chocolate Kisses'
Richard Douglas

I'm a writer based in Manchester, UK. I write plays, I blog, I'm writing my first novel (and looking for representation), I'm the written voice of a chatbot that helps kids understand their cancer treatment and I'll turn my hand to anything

See all posts by Richard Douglas

Find us on socal media

Miscellaneous links