For those new to My Beauty, here is a quick recap. I started the project (in my head at least) way back in 2011 when in Margate working on a project called Cachetabout youth subcultures in the town. The idea was to get working class locals into Turner Contemporary while recording their important part in the area’s cultural history. This worked surprisingly well.
While doing my research I kept meeting ladies of a certain age who would stroll up and proudly announce themselves as Miss Margate 1972, Miss Cliftonville 1964 or Miss Lido 1958. At first I was confused. Then I was hooked. What was it that was so important about these contests? What was it about the beauty shows that had stuck with them? And just who were they?
As I dug a little, I found out that the contests were as varied as the women I met. Some shows were about civic pride and evening gowns, others were about swimsuits and cash prizes. Sometimes the cash prizes were life-changing. A flat and a sports car life-changing. A Way Out. In the same way that boxing was for young working class men. For me, this is working class history, told from a working class perspective. These are untold stories, refreshed and not moderated through the same old lens.
Fast forward five years and I spent the summer back in Margate, interviewing and photographing 25 women. Quizzing them on class, feminism, beauty, family, local pride and just about everything else I could think of. They were ALL wonderful, ranging in age from 50- to 84-years-old.
Now for more hard work, putting it all together as a book and exhibition. More soon!
I shall be appearing on Radio 4’s Making History show tomorrow (Tuesday 6 September) at 3pm. I will be talking about my own work, the Miss Black and Beautiful show at Autograph ABP, 1st Century queens and even music hall star (and lost part of history) Gus Elen.
When you undertake a project like My Beauty, you are reliant on the generosity of others. So it really touches me when people want to take part and really get involved. The women who have been in touch via phone, online or face-to-face at events have been fantastic. They have enthused about the project, about their past and about Margate.
I have been invited into homes, loaned precious photographs and shown amazing pieces of Margate’s history. There have been crowns, hand sign-written sashes, programmes and trophies. There have been peals of laughter, happy memories and ‘I wonder whatever happened to her’ tales. Thank you all.
Events at Batchelors Patisserie and the Tom Thumb Theatre have brought large numbers of beauty queens and interested parties along. Some of the photos that have been shared with me have been stunning, with many coming from the Sunbeam Studios. Sunbeam was once based in Sweyn Road and their archive is now held by SEAS at Canterbury Christ Church University.
The next event up is at Dreamland this Saturday, the 18th of June. This marks one year since the park re-opened and is also the first day that the site will be free to enter for all. So do come along and say hello, bring memories to share and encourage your mum, aunt or nan to come and do the same. I shall be somewhere just inside the entrance. Ask at reception if you can’t find me. I’ll be there from 1-5pm.
Tomorrow (Monday 13 June) sees the second My Beauty event in Margate. This is a special screening of a surprise beauty queen feature film at the wonderful Tom Thumb Theatre, 2A Eastern Esplanade, Margate CT9 2LB.
I am told that the former-owner of the Tom Thumb was a beauty queen. So it’s great to have a venue with a link to Margate’s beauty queen past.
The bar upstairs opens at 7pm, with the screening beginning at 7.30pm. Admission is free for any woman who was an entrant in Margate beauty shows, from Westbrook to Cliftonville and Miss Socialist to Miss Rovex or even Miss Lovely Legs at the Lido. Bring your photos and your memories as My Beauty takes over Club Hydropathe film club at the Tom Thumb for one night only.
If you can’t make this event, then there is another at Dreamland on 18 June, from 1-5pm. You don’t need to pay to get into the part where I will be (inside the main entrance on the seafront). But former-beauty queen contestants will be given free admission to Dreamland itself.
Last week’s event at Batchelors was a great success, with lots of beauty queens coming along.
Looking at the local papers in Margate from the 1960s and 1970s, it seems the town was very backwards in its taking up of female equality in the workplace or elsewhere. But I doubt that things were much different in the rest of the UK. After all, the Sex Discrimination Act did not come into law until 1975.
This was a time when many factories in the area had their own beauty shows, including Klinger and the famous Rovex factory in Westwood. Even local trades unions held their own beauty show, as did political parties.
Rovex, who made Hornby trains and Scalextric racing cars, appealed to women with their ads referencing the ‘model world’, workplace safety and half-day Fridays (so you could go to Dumpton Market and pick up the latest knock-off fashions). There was also the chance to win the title of Miss Rovex at the company’s annual dinner and dance each December.
I am looking to find any Miss Rovex, Miss Klinger or any other workplace beauty queen from a time when that was a seemingly normal thing to happen. Similarly, I would love to speak to any judges from that time. Please pass the message on to your mum, nan, aunt, sister or friends. The workplace shows are as much a part of the Margate beauty queen history as any show at the Lido or Winter Gardens.
My Beauty is a project about the beauty queens of Margate’s past, but it is very much one that concentrates on the photography of the time, too. After all, the SEAS photographic archive at Canterbury Christ Church University is a partner in my project.
Most of the images I am finding are those that will have been taken by professionals. The candid shots by beauty queens’ families are fascinating, but some of the unused and discarded shots by the pros are simply outstanding. Some packets show the editor’s pick marked up for print in the local press, but the throwaways nearly always show more history.
The above shot is of women waiting to take part in the 1960 Miss Margate competition. It is from a set of colour negatives in local historian Suz Foad‘s archive, with most of the other shots being standard beauty show material. Shots of the winners, shots of the line ups and shots of the judges. But this shot recalls the work of English photographer Tony Ray-Jones (who sadly passed away in 1971 at the age of 30).
Ray-Jones shot in black-and-white (and did shoot in Margate), but the colour image is certainly one you can image him taking . The photographer is capturing the moment and perhaps telling you more than he thinks. Ray-Jones may have composed it better, but you can judge for yourself by looking at one of his own candid beauty queen pictures in an article about a retrospective of his work curated by fellow-photographer Martin Parr in 2013. It is one of my favourite images by him.
Below is another shot from the same set of Margate negatives. It may be by the same photographer, although it is from 1968. Do remember to contact me if you spot any relatives in the photos (you may not have much luck with the below unless you know them very well!) I would love to hear from them, as well as from any of the photographers. Full contact details are in the About section, or you can just email on email@example.com.
My Beauty feels like it has been under way for some time, from meeting the beauty queens who inspired it (back in 2011) to receiving Arts Council England funding and setting up this website. But yesterday (Tuesday) felt like the first proper day of the project, as I was out meeting and photographing former-beauty queens.
I had a tentative contact from Rosalyn last week, telling me she lived a long way from where I was concentrating my actions. She also told me that she would be leaving the UK again soon. With time being of the essence, I quickly arranged a meeting with Rosalyn in Dorset. The sun was out and the train timetable was kind. Although the café where we had arranged to meet had closed down.
Worried that we may never meet, I had a look around the station and was relieved to find Rosalyn. I was even more pleased to find that she had her sister Evelyn with her.
As we sat and chatted over coffee, I learned that Rosalyn was Miss Dairy Maid 1960 in Margate and that both had entered Miss Margate 1958. Evelyn was runner-up in that contest and often appeared in the Miss Margate sash, as the competition winner was regularly unavailable for the public engagements that went with the title.
The sisters – whose parents used to run the Rhonallea Hotel in Edgar Road, Cliftonville – were a delight to be around. They were exceedingly generous with their time and their anecdotes of Margate and beauty shows past. I think they’d both had a crush on a young Reg Varney, who was performing in summer season with Benny Hill when they were teens.
I look forward to meeting more amazing women like Rosalyn and Evelyn. So do let me know if you, your aunt, sister, mum or nan ever took part in any beauty contest in Margate, Cliftonville or nearby. The more I explore this untapped history, the more I find. And that will just keep driving me on, recording history, telling stories and making sure those voices are heard.
I was pleased to have the chance to write an article about My Beauty for the Thanet Gazette last week. It has already paid dividends, with several beauty queens getting in touch after reading my call out for anyone who has taken part in beauty shows in Margate.
The article also detailed my first event, which will take place at Batchelors Patisserie at 246 Northdown Road, Cliftonville, from 1pm-4pm on Thursday the 9th of June. I’m offering free cakes and coffees for any beauty queens who come along. I wanted to use Batchelors as it is somewhere that still exists in Cliftonville from the area’s heyday. Hopefully some former-Miss Cliftonvilles will be enticed in.
So if you know any former-beauty queen contestants from any show in Margate (from the Lido contests to Miss Westbrook) who may like a bun or a doughnut, then do send them along. Or just come along and say hello and see how I am getting on with the project. It would be great to meet you.
I am seeking to collect memories, photographs and items such as programmes, judging cards and sashes. Everything will be returned and I can always visit people at home and pick items up. I’m also interested in hearing from judges, photographers, sponsors or promoters of shows.
More to come soon, including details of an event at Dreamland, Margate.
My Beauty is now live. I am seeking former beauty queen contestants from the hundreds that have taken place across Margate’s history. I am seeking to create a new exhibition and book from the photographs, memories and ephemera of those who took part in the shows, which peaked in the 1960s. Prizes could be life-changing (some enough to buy a house with) and the shows were a feature of the town, its press, its image of women and local pride.
Such a history has never been attempted before, leaving these contestants missed out of the history of a town that is on the rise once again. My aim is to correct that, looking at the fashions, attitudes, desires and culture of this important era in Margate’s history. Please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org you were ever a contestant in a beauty show in Margate, Cliftonville, Westbrook or anywhere in the CT9 postcode, from your workplace to the Winter Gardens or Lido.