Cravats and suede shoes

Barry remembers his first visit to a 'sweet shop' (gay bar) in the late 1950s and talks about the tell-tale signs of men wearing cravats and suede shoes.

Duration 06:27

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Illustration of Barry on Stories Page from ‘Trailblazing Stories’ a zine created by Kirsty Fife for West Yorkshire Queer Stories.


BB: … when I was 17, it was talk amongst us boys at school that there were gay bars (or ‘sweet shops’, where the ‘sweeties’ went), and so I knew that there were gay bars. I knew where they were, and, and when I was 17 I plucked up the courage to actually go into one (illegally, of course, because I was underage for drinking).

So I went in and I ordered my half a pint of beer, so I could get out quickly without wasting money. That half pint of beer cost eight old pence which is about four pence now. And of course I went in too early and there was maybe a couple of guys sitting on stools talking to the barman. One of the guys had a dog sitting at his feet and I was sort of half-hidden behind a pillar so as not to be seen. But I did it, and I thought ‘Well, this isn’t much fun’. And that was a place called The Mitre, a pub long-since shut down.

And when I went to university in Liverpool –

INTERVIEWER: Were there other people that went into the pub alone or did it seem as though people were in groups?

BB: No, at that time, the time that I went there was only the two other men talking and the barman. The barman actually came over and spoke to me, [unclear] and we had an intelligent, non-gay conversation. So it was probably the wrong day of the week, or too early in the evening.

INTERVIEWER: What was a non-gay conversation? Was it nothing to do with sex?

BB: Well, simply, two people talking, about what rotten weather we’re having, what brings you into town, have you worked here long, and that sort of thing. He did serve me beer even though I probably looked underage and I did go back to that pub with a guy that I knew, maybe a couple of years later. It was much later on in the evening and busy; it was what you might recognise as a gay bar, but in fact in those days most men wore suits and jackets and ties and cavalry tweed trousers and, if you really wanted to advertise the fact that you were gay, you wore suede shoes. Now, a man with suede shoes was definitely a sign that there was something...

So, that was the sort of background that I grew up with and came to explore my sexuality in those days. Cravats were also worn and that was thought to be another sign that you might be...

INTERVIEWER: So do you remember getting your first pair of suede shoes?

BB: No, well, I didn’t want to advertise the fact. Although I do remember getting suede shoes, but that was quite recent, because of the fashion. So, no, I didn’t want to advertise the fact that I was gay; I didn’t want it to be known at work. So I led a very under-the-counter sort of life.

I was good-looking enough to be picked up easily enough by somebody who might recognise that I was gay. So, it wasn’t that I went without sex, but I kept it as quiet as can be, both there and in terms of at home, where I never came out. I never throughout the whole of my life came out to my parents. Except that they were both intelligent people and they both knew that I was gay. They preferred not to discuss it. They would have raised the issue, and I introduced them to... I have had three partners over fifty years, and they knew each one and accepted them as sons, so they must have known I was gay, but it was never discussed or spoken about.