Lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic hit Susan Simms very hard. Just a week before it was imposed, she had moved into her own flat after sharing with her friend Bev Francis for two years.
A charismatic singer known as Sister Suzie, she and her Right Band had performed widely across the UK and in Europe over the past few years. They had attracted an enthusiastic following at major festivals and this year were scheduled to play the main stage at several of these events.
The cancellation of festivals because of lockdown was a huge blow to Susan and since her cleaning work close to home as a ‘scrubber’ for several regular clients was also ruled out for the foreseeable future, she found herself alone in her new home, feeling rather aimless and ‘useless’.
That all changed in late March, however, when she and Bev had a brainwave. They decided to dive headlong into the world of social media, setting up a small group to encourage people whose lives had suddenly become restricted to lift their spirits by dressing up one day a week.
With its attention-grabbing name, Frock Up Friday was launched on March 27, with Susan and Bev hoping about 50 like-minded folk might join them.
On that first Friday, they were amazed to find they had several hundred ‘frockers’, of all ages and from widely different backgrounds, keen to join the party and strut their stuff in their Friday best, sharing the uplifting experience with their new virtual friends.
The momentum has continued to build up ever since and now the group has 13,500 members. It has also inspired Susan and Bev to put together an impressive coffee table style book that tells the tale of Frock Up Friday, packed with stunning images of frockers from far and wide.
The group includes many from Lewes and Seaford, a big contingent from Brighton and others from all over its East Sussex birthplace at Susan’s home in St Leonards, but it is now a global phenomenon, something its two founders could never have imagined.
“For me, being a singer – and a scrubber – lockdown had left me stranded, not able to do the things I love doing. I thought that Frock Up Friday would give me at least some kind of outlet for my enthusiasm and energy but neither Bev nor I could have imagined our lives would be taken over with it – it’s insane,” says Susan.
Both she and Bev brought their own individual flairs to Frock Up Friday, and these, together with their warm personalities, have proved key to its success.
As a down-to-earth and naturally friendly Northerner, even when Susan was working in London, where most people tend to be distant with strangers, she couldn’t resist telling people she saw on the Tube how much she liked their outfits, jewellery or make-up, often startling or even frightening them.
Bev is very fashion orientated – after studying fashion at college she became a milliner and then had her own shop. She loved the punk era.
“The idea that sparked it all off came from Bev when she decided to form a group, inviting a few friends from Brighton to get dressed up for a virtual night out,” Susan explains. “It was a public group so people invited friends and it just took off from there. On the very first day we had a few hundred members and within only a few weeks there were 10,000!
“It was all going well but then we had a couple of weeks when there were some unpleasant comments from people who thought it was just a vanity project. So at that stage we had to start checking profiles before we allowed anyone to join.
“We were determined the group would stay the way we wanted when we originally set it up, to show solidarity for people sitting at home in their pyjamas, encouraging them to dress up one day a week. It’s a safe place, a very inclusive space where people can be themselves and, if they want to, share their stories.
“It’s really surprising how many people are active. A lot have been with us since the first week, some perhaps following us for quite a while before posting anything themselves.
“The beautiful thing about the group is that we are so inclusive. Everyone from an 89-year-old to my little four-year-old age niece. There’s a vast range of different things that members have gone through.
“We have widows whose husbands died just before lockdown and several people who have had cancer. One lady had to ring the bell to show she had completed her cancer treatment but her family couldn’t be with her on the day because of lockdown. She decided to make it a special occasion and went to ring the bell dressed in a blue sequined ball gown. When she posted it, she received 2,000 love hearts and said she felt surrounded by hundreds of hugs.
“We’ve had members sharing their graduations with us and even a newborn baby a couple of weeks ago – we’d already seen the scan.
“People feel very safe sharing their stories with the group. One man had been trying on different women’s outfits for several weeks and eventually felt ready for the first time to go out in women’s clothes, wearing a wig. Another guy is too shy to post pictures of himself but he tells us about what he is wearing.
“In the first instance we encouraged people to get dressed up and out of their pyjamas, but then people started opening up and sharing really deep issues with everyone because they trust it as a safe space to do that. Dysmorphia, overweight, old, cross dressers, trans, non binary, bereaved. But it isn’t a sad place, it’s stuffed with joy because of the support that is shared and the liberation people have got from doing that.
“We looked at members’ locations when we were at the 10,000 mark and at that stage 41 per cent were East Sussex based but the rest are from all over the place. We have gone global, it’s crazy, absolutely phenomenal. I just don’t know how it has all happened.
“We hope Frock Up Friday shows people that social media isn’t all bad, nor is there anything wrong with being exactly who you want to be. And that the joy of flattering people is amazing for the whole world to see.”
The next challenge was to create a book charting how the group had evolved and attracted such a huge following.
“We reached a point where two admins came forward to help us out so there are now four of us running the group,” says Susan. “We put out a message asking if anyone knew how to make a book and one of the admins said she had been a publisher with Penguin for many years and so we were able to get the ball rolling.
“We costed it at £14,000 and at one point I thought we would never get the money we needed, but we managed to get very good prices from a paper supplier and a designer and support from local businesses so we raised £11,500 which was enough to go to print.
“It looks amazing, very professional and a real coffee table book, full of wonderful photos of frockers. We’re hoping to have a launch party in September, with a local celebrity, and that a lot of members will be able to attend.”
For Susan, Frock Up Friday has provided the lifeline she needed when the reality of lockdown was really starting to hit her. A Northumbrian, at an early age she developed a fascination for the 1950s rock’n’roll scene thanks to an aunt who had a passion for Elvis. Susan loved big frilly dresses and when she saw the film Grease, it was her ambition to be a Pink Lady.
After travelling around for the past 12 years, she arrived in Hastings five years ago because of rock and roll and stayed there.
“I finished a degree in Social Sciences at Hastings uni last year, but I have always worked to support my music habit and I am still a scrubber. It fits my life, keeps me fit, and I love the clients I clean for – I have a big bond with them all after holding their house keys for four years. If I’m not gigging I go out and see bands and live to dance and be surrounded by like-minded people.
“Lockdown broke me man! I was supposed to play in Sweden, Portugal, Glastonbury, main stage at Lindisfarne and, and, and…
“As Sister Susie, my year has been devastated as an artist – last summer I was seriously never at home. As an artist, it has been heartbreaking but I appreciate what Frock Up Friday has brought me. The joy I get from performing is huge but bringing people together has given me a lot of joy as well – it’s almost been like one big gig.
“Being a cleaner I’m in lycra a lot but lockdown has seen me buying a lot more daytime dresses and dressing like my Sister Suzie self rather than Susan the Scrubber, which just puts a whole new meaning to your day.” •