A life at Calypso: ‘It never felt like work’

  • A career in fashion: Joan Talbot has retired after 67 years working for Calypso clothing store, a fixture on Front Street (Photograph supplied)

    A career in fashion: Joan Talbot has retired after 67 years working for Calypso clothing store, a fixture on Front Street (Photograph supplied)

The old saying “if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life” has certainly proved true for Joan Talbot.

She spent 67 years with Front Street clothing store Calypso, and never felt like she was working. “I was happy and I loved meeting people from around the world,” the 83-year-old said. “It never felt like work.”

But after almost seven decades with the store she was finding it difficult to stand up all day.

After the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown she felt it was time to pack it in. She was 16 years old when she started at the store.

Growing up on Spring Hill in Warwick, she and her older sister loved making clothes for their dolls.

“I loved designing the clothes,” she said.

As a teenager, she studied at Mildred Lee’s Sewing School on Middle Road in Paget and loved making outfits for herself.

One day she was out in the community when Polly and John Hornburg, founders of Calypso drove by.

“They stopped and asked me where I got my outfit,” Ms Talbot said. “I told them I’d made it myself and gotten the material from a local store called Bamboo Gate.

“They asked for my surname and then drove off. I never thought that a year later I’d be working for them.”

She had to go out to work when her parents split up. Her mother, Frances Calder, was on her own and needed help.

“I had to get a job and get some kind of money coming in,” Ms Talbot said.

She was shocked when the Hornburgs not only accepted her application, but wanted her to work at the front of the store, serving customers.

At that time, Calypso’s clientele were mainly wealthy white people. “I said I have never seen people [of] my colour working in the store,” she said. “There was a lot of prejudice and unrest in Bermuda in those days.

“You couldn’t go to this restaurant and you couldn’t go upstairs of the theatre. All that was going on when I started.”

But she was given two weeks to try the position.

The Hornburgs were a forward-thinking couple.

Mrs Hornburg, a Bermudian, designed most of the clothes sold in Calypso at that time and was famous for designing a style of women’s trousers called Polly Pants.

Ms Talbot started at Calypso Custom Boutique, as an assistant to Hope Bowker.

Ms Bowker became a mentor to her, encouraging her to grow and become more confident. They are still good friends.

Mrs Hornburg often used Ms Talbot as a model for store advertisements. Ms Talbot remembers one photoshoot where she wore pants and a top designed by Mrs Hornburg, while playing baseball with the late Quinton Edness.

She was very surprised when a customer came in one day and said he’d seen the photo on a billboard in New York as part of an advertisement for Rheingold Beer.

Mrs Hornburg also encouraged her to take part in fashion shows in local hotels.

“My first show was at Elbow Beach,” Ms Talbot said. “I was the only black person there.

“The other models were wonderful to me, but the hotel itself was very prejudiced.”

Black people were not supposed to come through the front door of the hotel.

Most of the time when she went there she just walked through with the other fashion show participants.

One day, however, a staff member stopped her.

“He stood in front of me and said you can’t come in that way,” she said. “I said ‘why?’, and he said, ‘you know why’.”

Ms Bowker tried to intervene.

“She said Joanie, come with me. I don’t want you to back out of the show,” Ms Talbot explained. “I will walk with you. I said if I can’t walk through the front door with these girls, I don’t want to do the show. It makes me feel bad.

“Mrs Hornburg came to me and said she heard what happened. She spoke to the manager and said I should walk through that door.

“If anyone says anything to me, I was to tell her. I continued walking through.”

But the trauma of the experience stayed with her.

Decades later she remembered going to dinner in the hotel one night, and pausing at the front door.

“There was a guy on the front door,” she said. “I said, ‘I feel strange’. And he asked why and I told him the story. He said, ‘come along, don’t worry about it’. I said ‘I’m not worried’, but it stays in my mind a little bit.”

As time went on she took on more responsibility at the store, managing the second floor at Calypso and running the store’s outlets at the old Bermudiana Hotel and at the Hamilton Princess. She was also display manager.

“I never knew I had an eye for that sort of thing until I started at Calypso,” she said. “Mrs Hornburg always said she believed in me, and saw something in me.”

Ms Talbot is divorced and has one son, Del Talbot.

Now she is looking forward to spending more time on her hobbies, gardening, sewing and baking. Looking at her life she is proud that she enjoyed the things she did.

“I got to know a lot of nice people,” she said. “Calypso has changed and the world has changed, but I am glad I have my nice memories.”

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Published Aug 19, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 19, 2020 at 7:41 am)

A life at Calypso: ‘It never felt like work’

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