03 February 2022

When Bernadette Taylor walked into the design studio at University of East London on the first day of term all heads turned. Not only because, at 71 years old, she was the oldest student by some 50 years – but she stood out for her white pixie cut, immaculate make-up and glamorous attire.

Her fellow BA Fashion Design students knew she was not going to be their average uni classmate. Bernadette laughs about it now - but at the time it was one of the scariest steps she had ever taken in her life.

While most of her friends were kicking back and enjoying the slow pace of retirement, the former palliative care nursing assistant made the decision to realise her dreams and go back to learning. This was no mean feat given that the East Londoner had left school at 16 with no formal qualifications.

"There weren't the opportunities when I was at school," said Bernadette. "Going to university was not something I would have even dreamed about. It just wasn't an option."

It was Bernadette's life-long dream to study fashion. As a working mum with a young family money was tight. There wasn't the cash to spend on luxuries like the latest fashion trends so, not wanting her daughter to go without, Bernadette taught herself to sew.

She learned how to cut patterns, work with different fabrics, even create her own designs and before long she was not only making garments for her daughter and - in the years that followed - her granddaughters, too.

The degree course at UEL built on her existing skills and opened up a whole new fashion vista to her. The design studio became a second home, a place that for the first time in her seven decades she felt she truly belonged. Not only did she enjoy the camaraderie but also the exchange of knowledge she shared with her fellow fashion students.

Bernadette could teach them how to make clothes, the quick tips and tricks that come with years of experience, while they supported her with technical challenges such as mastering Photoshop.

Bernadette Taylor

"Aspects of the degree were very challenging, especially the technology side. When I started the only things I knew about computers was what I had taught myself. But I got to a stage where it was an exchange of ideas and knowledge with the other students on the course. I used to teach them how to sew and they would teach me different things on the computer.

"There was one young guy from Spain. His grandfather owned a company that made leather clothes. For his final piece, he was making leather trousers and a leather jacket. He didn't really know how to work with leather so I showed him how to assemble the pieces, how to glue and hammer the seams.

“He didn't even realise that you needed to put a half-lining in the trousers. When I mentioned it to him, he asked 'why?' I told him it was for hygiene purposes. You can't put leather trousers in a washing machine but you can pull up your half-lining and wash it. Afterwards, he said to me, 'you should teach'. That did make me giggle."

Although initially anxious because of her age, Bernadette had signed up for UEL's 12-week New Beginnings course which prepares people who have been out of education for a long time to embark on a degree programme. Bernadette excelled at all elements of the course from learning how to research and writing essays to delivering presentations and overcoming her fears of technology.

At the end of the course, having discovered a newfound confidence and thirst for knowledge, Bernadette wasted no more time and enrolled to study for a BA in Fashion Design at the School of Arts and Creative Industries.

Bernadette Taylor

"The New Beginnings course gave me the confidence to go forward. The team made it easy because they treated everyone the same, everyone was included, everyone was encouraged.

"Once I got through this stage it was my pathway to go on to do the degree. I thought if I can do this my grandchildren can do this. I wanted to prove to them that wherever you're from, whatever your age, anything is possible."

Now, aged 75, Bernadette has achieved her ambition. In September, she graduated with a BA in Fashion Design from UEL, which she says with a Cheshire Cat-like grin was one of the proudest days of her life.

And more recently she launched her own business, running weekly workshops and courses teaching beginners and improvers in her local Stepney community how to sew and make clothes.

"My degree has given me the confidence to run these courses. Sewing and design is something I've been doing for 50-odd years but because I was self-taught I didn't push myself. I didn’t feel like I was legitimate.

"Now I've actually had people who have never sewn, never used a sewing machine, never done anything like it and by the end of the six weeks' course they have made a garment. I love to see their faces. It makes me so proud for them – and for me."

There's no stopping Bernadette now. The confidence she has gained from her degree is immense. She is on a mission to tell the world that you're never too old to try anything new.

"If you're happy doing what you're doing then that's fine. But if you don't feel you're being fulfilled doing the job you're doing then the easiest way to go and change it, and your life, is through learning.

"Go back to the beginning and take the opportunity to start again. You can do it any age. There is nothing to stop you. If you've got the gumption to get up and do it - then do it!"

Images by  Festival of Learning.