In 1919, Lady’s Pictorial published an occasional column called ‘Woman on the Wing’, which offered advice for the would-be aviatrix. Probably very few of its readers would ever do more than take a ‘joy ride’ at a holiday resort (usual fee one guinea), but many more dreamed of the freedom, independence and adventure pilots enjoyed as they soared through the skies. ‘Plain, warm, windproof clothes are necessities’, the column advised. ‘The woman aviator must not be heartbroken if she finds smears of grease on her newly bought aviation costume.’ Nearly a hundred years later, the columns remain as vicariously thrilling as when they were written.
Lynn Knight’s route into this evocative detail of social history is the mackintosh button that once fastened a gabardine coat she bought at a second-hand market in the 1970s, which in turn harked back to the 1920s fashion for car coats and protective costumes for potential lady aviators. Just as backdrops for studio photographs allowed ordinary women, unlikely ever to travel in a plane or own a car, to pose with cardboard cutouts of planes, cars and motorcycles, wearing a dust coat or mackintosh allowed them to escape their everyday lives. A button like Knight’s had the power to make them feel that they stood with the open road stretching out ahead of them.
Using the buttons saved over three generations in her grandmother’s button box and handed down to her, Knight explores her own family’s history and, in parallel, the intimate history of women in the 20th century. It’s a lovely device and it leads her down all sorts of fascinating diversions as