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‘I want a baby and a column’

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Changing fashion journalism
Katharine Whitehorn Writer
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David Astor thought that nobody who could do fashion would have enough gravitas, those were his words, to do all the other side of it. And George... we all put in to be women as editor of The Observer, and nobody seemed to fit the bill. So George said would I like to come... he’d admired the column I was doing for The Spectator, would I like to come and do the gravitas bit. And I didn’t want to leave The Spectator, I was having the time of my life, marvellous people there. So I said, 'No'.

And then Anne Scott-James was supposed to be doing the fashion bit. And then Anne... I now realise putting the bits together, Anne was offered a column similar to what I ended up doing at The Observer, for the Daily Mail. So she backed out of doing the fashion. And George said, 'Well look, would you like to come and do the fashion, because...' he said, 'You could do that part time. And therefore stay with The Spectator'. And I thought, well do I know anything about fashion? Well not much, but I’d done the fashion... the Paris collection for Picture Post. I’d actually apparently done them for the Sunday Dispatch once. And I had taught in the charm school so... oh well, let’s give it a go.

So we did. And it actually changed fashion pages because I wasn’t going to write about, you know, what the collection said and what this... I wrote about... well real clothes. I mean, I remember one which my mother rather treasured called Trousseaus for Him. I said, why is it that girls arrive with this mass of fearfully wonderful clothes and a man arrives with a huge carry-on of disused RAF thing... RAF implements and uniform. And you know, one and a half pairs of pants and no idea how to get them washed, and you know...

So it was called Trousseaus for Him. Why don’t we have trousseaus for men? And it was huge fun and we changed it... and it’s worth recording that it was enormously popular with the readers.  But the advertising, who... we normally had Marshall & Snelgrove and Harrods, which were the top of the range. And they complained bitterly and they said, you must take this girl off fashion. The advertisers don’t like it. And this was one... for example, you know, ten days before Christmas, you haven’t got any money, you realise you’ve got a party. So I featured a wonderful little black velvet suit from C&A that cost 6 quid.

This was not what Marshall & Snelgrove wanted. And David was about to move me from fashion and Anne Scott-James, who talked to him about lots of things, they were great friends, said, 'Don’t be stupid, if the readers like her the advertising will come round'. And of course they did.

A distinguished journalist and renowned author, Katharine Whitehorn has written for The Spectator and Picture Post. She was the first woman to have her own column in the Observer and was their star columnist for the best part of 40 years. Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, she is recognised as someone who has transformed 20th century women's journalism. She takes a keen interest in social welfare issues, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and was the first woman rector of the University of St Andrews.

Listeners: Bob Bee

Bob Bee is a Scottish documentary maker who has made many films on the Arts and Science for ITV, BBC and Channel Four.

Tags: The Spectator, Daily Mail, The Observer, Paris fashion week, Harrods, Marshall & Snelgrove, Sunday Dispatch, Picture Post, Trousseaus for Him, David Astor, Francis David Langhorne Astor, Anne Eleanor Scott-James, George Seddon

Duration: 2 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2010

Date story went live: 16 February 2011