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Shirley Mason, Office staffer, Committee, Social Coordinator. Joined 2009
At seventeen I couldn't wait to escape from the staid Derbyshire town where I grew up. I managed to persuade my parents to let me go to London to become a model, or mannequin as we were called in the 1950s. Unfortunately I was neither sufficiently thin, nor photogenic, nor dedicated enough to reach the top of this precarious profession and I had to settle for ‘Wholesale’ (showing new ranges to blasé store buyers) and restaurant modelling. This was very hazardous as it was the time of the New Look when full skirts were re-introduced by Dior, and squeezing between small vulnerable tables was an art form. The photo shows me modelling an outfit in 1959.
In Harrods, Dickens & Jones and other expensive department stores, ‘ladies who lunched’ admired our trim figures and hauteur. Although we were not supposed to speak to the customers, I would always react when a chubby middle-aged lady sighed that ‘she wished she looked like that’. I would usually suggest that she meet me after lunch in the Fashion Department and I would find her a flattering outfit. I enjoyed these challenges very much and the regular sales staff knew that if I went missing I'd be helping the customer find matching bag and shoes for her new dress. Eventually I moved into selling full-time and at 23 became the youngest department manager at the John Lewis Partnership group of stores.
Marriage and motherhood put an end to this career path, apart from a brief stint as a boutique owner in the swinging 60s. But when my two children became teenagers in the 70s, I found myself back in the rag trade. In partnership with my husband we had two shops, two franchisees, and a share in a modelling agency. Here the most popular course was one that taught confidence and poise to ladies from 17 to 70. Every year we staged at least one fashion show for charity and we were lucky enough to be featured fairly regularly by the media in both East Anglia and London. Just before I sold the business in 2009, I provided the dresses and tuxedos for the Cambridge BBC radio and TV presenters to wear in a televised charity version of Strictly Ballroom.
My daughter moved permanently to Melbourne just in time for the millennium and my husband and I visited her several times over the next few years. When she married an Aussie in 2005 we knew she would never come home again to live. My husband died in 2008 after a long illness and my daughter and son-in-law asked me to move to Melbourne. After a family conference with my son, based in England, I decided to take the opportunity and became an ‘aged, single-parent’ immigrant. This was only possible because I have a child in each country; it would not be applicable if I had more children in England than Australia.
At a one day course at CAE I met Erika Martens who told me a little about U3A. The next day I found Ross House where Virgil Gill made me very welcome and filled in the details. I joined immediately and decided to volunteer for office work – although I had very little knowledge of computers and had never worked in an office before. However the other volunteers kindly put up with me. I made mistakes, I still do, but now I know how to fix them (well mostly). Eventually I felt confident enough to agree to become Events/Social Coordinator at the start of 2011 and I am finding this both enjoyable and challenging. I am learning about Melbourne constantly and I love it. Thank you U3A for making me so welcome.
Shirley Mason, August 2011