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Faces of Amy Johnson: The Fashionable Flyer

Portrait  by Studio Hugh White 1937
One of our U3A volunteers has been undertaking the mammoth task of looking at less known sides to the famous aviatrix, Amy Johnson. Here is Trish Allen on Amy Johnson’s fashion: 
Amy Johnson is best and, rightly, known for her flying achievements and, in particular, the first woman to fly solo to Australia in 1930 after less than one hundred hours solo flying experience. She had achieved her pilots licence in July 1929 and remarkably the Ground Engineer’s licence in December 1929. Remember she did this only one year after women over 21 were given the vote in 1928! I wonder who Amy voted for in 1929? Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) and Ramsey MacDonald were the two main contenders, with the latter forming a new labour government in June 1929.

 However, perhaps what is not known about Amy is her love of clothes and care and concern about her personal appearance. In a comment to her first love, Franz, she said “I’m not beautiful enough, but perhaps I’d do if I’d very pretty frocks”. Buying clothes was a regular pastime for Amy which

Amy Johnson in the 1920s

at times lead her into debt. When she first came to London in 1927, she worked for a short time in Peter Jones, the Departmental store in Sloane Square. She was initially based in the Silks Department and wrote “It is rather nice to be handling beautiful silks and satins’. 

Amy was also very self-conscious of her teeth, the front one’s having been knocked out when a cricket ball caught her full in the face and had to be replaced by false teeth. According to Myself when Young: 
there was no doubt that my looks were seriously impaired . . . The boys made fun of me . . . I became introspective and withdrew further and further into a protective shell of my own making.

Over the years she spent much time with different dentists. 

Amy in flying kit 1930.
Amy had to campaign long and hard to obtain the financial support of Lord Wakefield, the oil magnate to share the cost of buying a De Havilland Gypsy Moth with her father. She aimed to break the 15 day record set by Bert Hinkler. On 5 May 1930 she set off from Croydon Aerodrome carrying a revolver in case of bandits, a letter offering ransom (in case of kidnap), a cooking stove, medicines, a first aid kit, an extra propeller attached to the outside of the plane and a parachute at her mother’s insistence! Health and safety has come a long way!

This is a photo of Amy in flying kit. Note the fur collar! However, there are also large knee pockets for items such as maps.

When Amy arrived in Australia she quickly became a public spectacle with the press taking photographs of Amy in her glamorous flying outfits and other clothes. Indeed, she could have been mistaken as a film star the way the paparazzi and Australians reacted to her. It was celebrity mobbing! People talked about her hairstyle and requested an “Amy Johnson wave” or a “Johnnie shingle”. (Johnnie was the name her male colleagues at the aerodrome where she trained as a pilot and engineer had given to her).

Shortly after this Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli embraced plane travel as an opportunity to express her modernist aesthetic and designed a collection for Amy Johnson to go on her flights so she became even more of a fashion icon.

Blouse in the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
This is a blouse said to be originally designed by Schiaparelli for Amy Johnson printed with a whimsical postage stamp design!

Women by now generally felt more confident and girl power had definitely arrived. Schiaparelli’s designs were influenced by Surrealists such as Salvador Dali. In fact in 1927 she created the Lobster Dress inspired by Dali which was later worn by Wallis Simpson shortly before her marriage to Edward VIII. She also designed the divided skirt, a forerunner of shorts, which shocked the tennis world when worn by Lili de Alvarez at Wimbledon in 1931. Serena Williams would have been impressed! 

In many ways Elsa Schiaparelli and Amy Johnson had much in common. Both were extremely determined from a very young age. For example, Schiaparelli’s parents sent her to a strict Convent boarding school which she loathed and rebelled by going on a hunger strike until her parents brought her home! At her school, Amy attempted to start a revolt over the much hated straw hats and was seen in the park in the company of a boy, whilst in her uniform! 

Amy (in a very similar blouse) with Jim Mollison, surrounded by police and crowds after the Cape Town flight, 1936

Throughout their careers they demonstrated bravado, creativity and vision. Then there were the men. Elsa was engaged to a man on the next day after their meeting (known as William Wendt but with several aliases); Amy was proposed to by Jim Mollison after they had only known one another for a week! Amy and Jim married in 1932, less than three months after meeting. Both men on the surface were charmers. Both marriages turned out to be disasters. 


Constance Babbington Smith (1967), Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson (1933) ed. Margot Asquith, Myself when Young

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