Beyond Belief

Sometimes you spend a while wondering whether to write a particular blog post. This is one of them. It’s darker than usual – skip it if you’re not in the mood.

I’m not generally a true crime person, but I recently finished reading “One of Your Own,” (2010), Carol Ann Lee’s biography of Myra Hindley. Her name may not be familiar to readers outside the UK, but in the 1960s Hindley and her lover, Ian Brady, committed a series of murders that shocked Britain and the world. The five victims, who ranged in age from 10 to 17 years old, were buried on moorland overlooking the city of Manchester, and so the two culprits became known as the Moors Murderers.

Hindley and Brady were sentenced to life in prison in 1966, and they spent the rest of their lives there. Had they been caught just a few years earlier, they almost certainly would have hung for their crimes, but as it happened, the bill abolishing capital punishment in the UK was passed shortly before their trial. I was born a few months after this and have no direct memory of the TV coverage, but, even decades later, my mother would shudder when she recalled the events of those years in the mid-sixties. For many people, the Moors Murders represented a loss of innocence that went hand-in-hand with the wider social changes of the time.

Some of these changes have already been discussed in this blog, and are covered in more detail in the book of Made for Walking, but by now you may be wondering what a pair of sadistic child murderers have to do with the generally sunny subject matter of this blog. The answer is that, in reading the book, I was struck by a comment made regarding Hindley. In 1963, as her relationship with Brady intensified, people who knew her began to notice a change in her appearance. The peroxide blonde hairdo, instantly recognizable from her arrest photographs, was the most obvious one. But she also adopted new styles of clothing; ditching pencil skirts and ballet pumps for short skirts, tight trousers, leather jackets. And knee-length boots.

What struck me was how many times this observation came up, in different books, and from different eye-witnesses. In one sense, it’s not surprising. One of the peculiarities of Brady and Hindley was that after the murders had taken place they would revisit the graves of their victims on the moors and pose for (seemingly innocent) photographs. Those photos became a key piece of evidence that enabled police to recover some of the victims’ bodies. And in one of the most infamous images, Hindley, holding her dog wrapped in her coat, kneels above what turned out to be the grave of 12 year-old John Kilbride. She is wearing slim-fitting trousers, tucked into low-heeled black leather knee boots.

The two murderers had developed a shared fascination with Nazis, and Brady had an obsession with the female concentration camp guard Irma Grese, who was tried and executed in 1945 for her sadistic abuse and murder of prisoners. Grese was notorious for wearing high jackboots during her time at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen; Hindley took to carrying a photograph of her in her handbag, and may, bizarrely, have been trying to use Grese as some sort of ghoulish style icon to please Brady.

1963 was the year when fashion boots for women first began to attract widespread attention. So you could argue that Myra Hindley was merely reflecting the cutting edge of style at that time. But popularity in the fashion press does not necessarily equate to widespread acceptability. If you were riding the bus in the mid-1960s, it’s likely that you and most of your fellow passengers would be dressed in clothes that would not have looked out of place ten years earlier. Clearly there was something about Hindley’s dress that really bothered her contemporaries, albeit that the comments originated after her crimes were exposed. As already mentioned, the references to the boots turn up in multiple books, and from multiple sources.

In the chapter on boots in the massively encyclopedic fashion volume A Century of Shoes (1997), the claim is made that the gap in the history of the fashion boot from the Russian boots of the 1920s to the early fashion boots of the late 1950s was because tall boots became too closely associated with fascism during the 1930s and 40s. I’d always been a little skeptical about this comment, but I now wonder whether there wasn’t something in it. Hindley would have been too young to remember the war first hand, but many of her older acquaintances in Manchester were old enough that the memories were still quite fresh. Perhaps blonde hair and black leather awakened some uncomfortable chilling recollections.

References:

  • Lee, Carol Ann. 2010. One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley. Edinburgh, Mainstream Press.
  • Pattison, Angela, and Cawthorne, Nigel. 1997. A Century of Shoes: Icons of Style in the 20th Century. New Jersey, Chartwell Books.
  • Williams, Emlyn. 1992. Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and Its Detection. London, Pan Macmillan.

One thought on “Beyond Belief

  1. You touched on something I’ve been thinking about (fascism and bootlessness in the 40’s and 50’s) and something I read approx 30 years before the publication of Century of Shoes (in a far less respectable publication).

    I reprinted it in a Blast From the Past on thighboots.com-

    “The war years saw another swing towards the boot, but this time, the motivation was practicality, not fashion. Women found themselves working on assembly lines doing men’s labor, and thus found it necessary to adopt some of the male attire. Boots on women did not have great appeal because of their war-like symbolism and the use that Hitler made of his jack-booted legions. Women turned in the opposite direction, away from the hard look and the domination symbolism of the boot. A Betty Grable or a Rita Hayworth would never wear boots. Men wanted to come home to the exact opposite from what they had been dealing with in Europe and the Far East-no regimen, no authority, strictly feminine women. ”

    I scoffed at the idea when I first read it in the late 70’s, but theatrical boots (esp in Westerns) were much lower shafted in the 40’s and 50’s than they were in the 20’s and 30’s. There’s a telling scene in The Producers (1967) where Roger De Bris is describing his vision of jackbooted chorus girls and says in an aside “very S/M.” I think that encapsulates the post-war opinion of boots as a symbol of both fascism and forbidden sexuality.

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