Tigerlily in Cambridge

Tales of Tigerlily no.1

Does Tigerlily refer here to Rupert Bear’s chum, the charming daughter of a Chinese magician? No – it was the name of my vintage shop in Cambridge, purveyor of period clothing and other delights.

I opened Tigerlily with a friend in the autumn of 1974. I’d had my second baby only six weeks before, and although it seemed madness to go ahead at such a time, I’d been seized by a rush of energy after an exhausting pregnancy. It was the strangest and yet in a way the best time to do it. I was ready for some new adventures of my own, especially while the baby was portable and could come with me. Helen and I signed the lease of a Victorian two-storey shop on Mill Road, Cambridge, and hastened to open up as soon as possible.

For the previous year, on and off, I’d been nibbling around the edges of such a project, learning where to find vintage clothes, and how to sell them. Students and younger people were desperate to get their hands on Victorian nighties, collarless shirts, 1940s crepe flower-sprigged dresses, and ‘30s chiffon ball gowns. My friend already had a market stall selling these, and I’d load my small haul onto my bike and trundle it down to the city centre, for her to sell on commission.

We had the large upstairs of the shop for vintage clothes, along with bags, scarves and some period bric-a-brac. We also had the damp and dingy cellar for storage, but it wasn’t wise to keep things in there for too long! Helen took up residence in the flat at the back. Both the cellar and the flat were the source of future problems, but for now we went with it, while my friends Paul and Arunee Denison sold jewellery, largely from Arunee’s native Thailand, in the small ground floor shop.

The shop was spacious, cheap, dilapidated, but serviceable. From London rag trade wholesalers we bought cheap clothes rails; from an old-fashioned haberdasher’s shop which was closing down in Mill Road itself, we acquired tall cupboards with glass -fronted drawers, a counter, and a wooden till which pinged when opened or closed. We found a fabric covered screen to enclose a changing corner, a few mirrors, a heap of clothes hangers, and that was that. A sophisticated touch (we thought) was to bend wire coat hangers slightly, thus giving the dresses a more stylish look. Within two weeks of signing the lease we were up and running on an astonishingly small outlay. Yes, we were forever contacting the landlords about water running down the inside wall and fungus growing in the back corridor, but we made it work, and also made it look surprisingly attractive.

The only photo I’ve been able to find of our shop in the 1970s, when I was running it. You can see it squeezed in between Boots the Chemist and Hunts, where they sold sports trophies. Here’s a close-up from the same photograph, making it apparent that our shop sign was rather amateurishly painted!

However it was getting harder to find the prize items – there were very few charity shops back then, and some had already wised up to the potential of vintage, or ‘period clothing’ as we called it. Jumble sales were unreliable, although could yield up a few items. And now we needed a steady stream of stock to keep a shop going – it soon became the ‘go-to’ place for students and a whole range of clientele. New grandmothers came looking for antique christening robes for the babies born across the road in the old Maternity Hospital. Antique costume hunters came up from London to – they hoped – snatch a treasure from under our noses. Young men attending May Balls got their vintage dinner jackets from Tigerlily. We kept prices on the low side, and turnover was therefore high.

I bought a 1950s peach coloured ball gown with a label in it from a shop in 5th Ave, New York that I wore to a May Ball in circa 1980. Plus plenty of other vintage clothes besides, which I wore as daily outfits. Happy days! – Helen Balkwill, via ‘Cambridge in the good old days’ Facebook page.


Vinatge American baseball jacket – there was quite a craze for them in the ’70s

In this niche business, sources were everything. You didn’t tell your rivals where you found that 1920s flapper dress, or the velvet smoking jacket. You might even put them off the scent with vague chat about bric-a-brac shops and bequests from a late elderly aunt. London already had some prize vintage clothing stores, such as Cornucopia in Pimlico, where you could drool over extraordinary treasures, selling for sky high prices.

Below left are some examples of the elegant 1930s evening wear that came our way – the bias cut adopted in the period looked gorgeous when silk or satin was used, though must have been devilishly difficult to sew. Day dresses were cheerful, and still showing the influence of the Deco style.

So with a shop to fill, we obviously had to keep up the stock levels and find reliable sources for our supplies. Much of the fun of running such a business, of course, is discovering unexpected caches of clothes (you can see how my love of ‘the cache’ comes in here!). But nevertheless, you can’t keep a half empty shop going on promises of future surprises.

A 1940s crepe dress. Brown was a popular colour for the background, and the crepe hung well, while it was still relatively new. During wartime, clothes were rationed and new dresses scarce, so some of the dresses that we found from that period had become worn and baggy, and were almost unwearable. Some had been darned and mended over and over again. (And, by the way, it’s a myth that in those days everyone sewed beautifully. We saw many clumsy and careless attempts at stitching!) But there were still plenty of dresses which were in good condition, and easy and attractive to wear.
Genuine examples from the 1930s – the textile of the dress on the left includes gold lame thread, which gave a sumptuous look and feel. Such items sometimes came our way. The one on the right has panels made of chiffon , a fragile but ethereally beautiful fabric, creating here the look of an Edwardian train which had come briefly back into fashion.

Helen and I were independent traders, in that we kept our own stock and did our own accounts. We used coded labels and sometimes – I wince to think of it now – stapled these onto garments. OK, it was before the days of the plastic threaded tag, but even so! But we did pool some resources, and she did me a great service even before we opened the shop by sharing her prized destination with me. This was the rag market around Cheshire Street and Brick Lane in the East End of London, where she showed me the ropes. I had the car, she had the expertise, so we would drive down from Cambridge in the middle of the night, getting there in time for dawn, whatever the season. I’ll be writing about this in a later post. But I needed something more than the Brick Lane market, and the story of how I filled the gap will be told too in future posts.

A till similar to the type that we used

It wasn’t just a simple matter of filling the rails with our finds though. We had to sort, check, wash, mend, iron and price the items of clothing. Some might have to go to the dry cleaners. At that time, in what I call the ‘First Wave Vintage’ era, no one really bothered to re-make or re-shape clothes. Either they’d find a buyer, or not. The exception was turning patterned headscarves into ‘handkerchief skirts’. I wonder if that brief fashion will ever come back? And clothing could be smelly, fragile, or reveal unexpected holes, including moth damage. Once, in a second-hand clothes dealer’s attic in Inverness (not my usual geographical area!) I caught a human flea. Believe me, the usual fleas that might jump off our cat or dog and nip us are nothing compared to the insatiable, vicious attacks of the human flea, which I understand is now a rarity. I did suffer for my calling. And as someone who is allergic to dust, perhaps it wasn’t the perfect profession for me!

I should add here that I do think of my main profession to be that of a writer, but I have always enjoyed having another occupation too. I’ve inherited trading genes from generations of shopkeepers in various branches of the family, and have always found the best balance for me is to combine writing and research with a more outward-looking activity. Searching for treasures combines it all, since it’s what I do with my research in order to re-present them in my writing work, and it’s what I did in stocking both Tigerlily and my later Russian arts business.

We roped our friends in to help out in the shop, paying them a modest but fair wage to (wo)man the till, and I had my very own mending and ironing lady who coped beautifully with the jobs that I hated.

I was one of the friends Cherry roped in to help at Tigerlily! I had just moved to Cambridge and met Cherry through mutual friends – so working part-time in her buzzy and post-hippy shop suited me very well! The shop was a great meeting point of town and gown – students enjoying the wonderful clothes and bric a brac that Cherry seemed to have a real knack for finding. It was such fun going through the new stuff after one of Cherry’s shopping sprees: peasant blouses, chiffon dresses, lacy and embroidered delights, even fur coats (we were allowed in those days) some which I have happily passed on to my daughter. – Briji

And overall, Tigerlily was a great financial success, because it was run on a low budget and we could be flexible in how we ran it. I had never heard of a business plan, but it was in profit within the first month. Much later, in the 1990s, when I started Firebird Russian Arts, I knew that there would be no such easy rides this time. I found that I would have to work for three years without taking pay, run proper accounts and learn how to handle financial forecasts. (I leave you to guess how casual my Tigerlily book-keeping was). No more hippy-style set-ups! But it did give me a measure of freedom, at a time when I had small children, and it brought much fun as well as a healthy cash injection into our family life. My children have distant memories of running round the shop and climbing through the clothes rails. And if I felt like closing up early, why not? I smile today when I see the note ‘Back in 10 mins’ on the door of a small shop. I know what that means.

Why ‘Tigerlily’? Well, we played around with various names for the shop, which had to suit not just us but also Paul and Arunee’s jewellery shop below. I wish I could now remember some of the dreadful ones that were put forward! But then Tigerlily came into my mind, and everyone liked it. Later, in the 1990s, I called my Russian arts business ‘Firebird’. Perhaps there’s a pattern here, of two such juxtaposed images creating an identity – the tiger and the lily, the fire and the bird? The Firebird is a mythic Russian creature, and Tigerlily is a striking orange flower. Let’s just say, I wasn’t relying on Rupert Bear annuals for my choices!

Stories of Tigerlily still to come:


Tigerlily and the Rag Mills
Tigerlily at the Posh End
Tigerlily down Brick Lane

You may also be interested in:

Suzani from the Silk Road

A Tale of Two Samplers

And – as it’s May Day about now! – my post from last year on May Day in Padstow – ‘Summer is a-Coming Today‘.