Along with fellow federations like the Shoreditch Sisters and Borough Belles, the Darlings represent a new era in the WI, with young professional women making their mark on one of the oldest and most respected women’s organisations in the country.
It’s almost a century since the Women’s Institute came into being in Britain, a First World War initiative with a focus on getting more women involved in producing food. A hundred years and several reincarnations later, it’s a rather different story. Armed with exotic group names, a sassy professional membership and edgy style-drenched events, the WI’s focus has moved on considerably from jam-making and cauliflower cheese.
The Dalston Darlings are riding the wave of this transformation, part of a trend across London of inner city boroughs establishing their own WI federations. The Darlings burst onto the scene after two friends, president Harry Sprout and vice-president Charlotte Hotham, decided Dalston needed a forum for its inspirational women to meet.
“We both know so many inspiring, creative women, we wanted to have an opportunity to get them all in one place,” says Charlotte. There was also a faint sense of nostalgia, of homage paid to a national institution – “our mums and grandmothers have all been members of a WI so it’s nice to be able to carry on a tradition.”
Dalston’s eclectic collage of inhabitants is reflected, unsurprisingly, in the makeup of its WI group. “In Dalston we have a multitude of venues, the arts, designers on our door step”, points out Charlotte. “There’s definitely a mix of women from high powered businesses to young girls who have just moved to the area. People who are friends and people who are interested enough to turn up”.
From DJs to full time mothers, from journalists to club promoters, the Darlings come from all walks of life, with a definite strand of creativity running through the group. Members tend to be in their late 20s to 40s, with a significant number working within the media.
Despite being part of this new wave of WI groups, it is pleasing to see the Darlings don’t look back at their predecessors with a dismissive attitude. There is no anarchic rejection of the WI’s history and heritage, but rather a desire to build on the established platform. “I’m sure if you think of the traditional activities that the WI do, it’s baking and sewing. That’s definitely something that we’ll cater for at Dalston Darlings,” says Charlotte. “But we’ll also try and reflect Dalston for its diversity, multiculturalism and creativity”.
An energising rebirth for the WI is of real importance for the organisation, which risks fading into obscurity if it fails to attract new blood. Blockbuster Calendar Girls, itself based on a true story, portrayed the jaded routine a WI federation risks falling into without a jolt of innovation to keep it fresh. Nevertheless, the film also depicted the significant influence and public affection the WI can generate with a rush of creativity and an interesting idea.
Innovation has been key for the Darlings right from the start, when its founding members sought out new additions through websites such as Facebook and Twitter. They now enjoy a Twitter fanbase of 136 followers as well as a fast-growing Facebook group. The use of social media hopefully conveys the message that the WI is very much an organisation for the tweeting, iPhone-loving generation. “It’s not just about the over 60s,” says one member. “It needs a shake up, it needs to bring in a new generation.”
Nowhere is this shakeup more evident than in the Darlings’ choice of events. The traditional WI themes are there – cooking, grooming, socialising – but with a radical twist. The next event will see the girls take over Dalston’s Wah Nails salon for free nail treatments and a talk from owner Sharmadean Reid, an enterprising local businesswoman.
You can forget your dry Victoria Sponge lectures too. The December event will be hosted by the enviably successful freelance food stylist and writer Annie Rigg, who will be offering insights on breaking into the industry, as well as leading members in an interactive cupcake masterclass. Participation is central as far as the Darlings’ events are concerned. “We want to have a talk from an inspirational woman every time but we also want there to be something properly interactive so people come away feeling like they’ve got something out of it”, says Kirsti, the federation’s secretary.
Charity sample sales with top Dalston fashion designers and WI fundraising club nights are also in the pipeline. The girls’ high-flying professional contacts have allowed them to line up some impressively noteworthy guests. Fashion designers, style editors, sex therapists and chefs are all on the cards as potential future speakers – “we’re going high end!” admits Kirsti.
They may be going high end, but their roots remain firmly planted in the community. The Darlings hope to raise significant amounts for local hospices and, naturally, for women’s shelters. “It’s a real chance to be able to put something back into the community,” says Charlotte. “Also, if the Dalston Darlings can provide a meeting place for young women to come, relax, learn and make new friends, we’ll be very happy.”
‘Inspiring women’ remains the powerful national slogan for the WI, and one that the Dalston Darlings subscribe to completely. “The WI is basically all about education, about women educating themselves, inspiring women”, concludes Kirsti. Whether through cupcakes, nail art or entrepreneurialism, the emphasis remains firmly on empowering women within the community. “We’re here to help keep Dalston on the map,” says Charlotte. One has the feeling they might just manage it. And not a jam jar in sight.
The Dalston Darlings meet on the first Wednesday of every month at Dalston Darlings WI, C/o FUSEbox, 4th Floor, Shacklewell Studios, 26 Shacklewell Lane E8 2EZ.