Sunday 6 November 2011


Edward Barber, Half Moon Photography Workshop, Camera Work, No8 work shirt, naval clothing

A portrait from the 70s, shot as a lighting test for a community project in the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  We were a collective of photographers, ideologues, academics and politicos - Half Moon Photography Workshop - producing a magazine called Camerawork and touring exhibitions all over the UK. This particular project was shot exclusively on 10x8 colour Polaroid material. Rare and expensive back then. Extinct now. Just like this blue No.8 naval work shirt that you see here.

At the time, government surplus stores were commonplace - especially in naval towns like Portsmouth - Ben Grubb's in Commercial Road, Welton's in Fratton Road come to mind immediately. They always had that same dank smell of clothing that has been in storage too long - and needed, what my Mum would have called, "a good airing". Or in many cases a serious wash and press. Buried amongst the piles of RAF great coats, olive green combat jackets, fish tail parkas and submariner roll-necks lurked the occasional No.8 work shirt. What a brilliant piece of design. Form meets function? Yes indeed - a highly resolved piece of utility work wear. Durable, yet soft, blue cotton twill (in a shade of blue that is difficult to find these days). Relaxed fit with roomy, and very handy, breast pockets (echoed a decade later in some of Katharine Hamnett's best shirts). Plus some especially handsome plastic buttons.

Sadly this triumph of rationalised design was replaced by a simpler polyester and cotton version - until the Falklands War when the shirts adhered to sailors' skin in extreme heat conditions. Easy care/drip dry cotton was then introduced along with an even more basic design. Corners as well military budgets were being cut.

The shirt in the picture has long since worn out. There's just one treasured No.8 left in the wardrobe - it's in a delicate state, but every so often it gets an airing!

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