THEIR dresses added a touch of glamour to austere times. Now a new exhibition in Scotland shows why Horrockses became the byword for high fashion in the UK in the 1940s and 1950s
YOU have to admire their ingenuity. Horrockses, Crewdson & Company Limited, a cotton manufacturer based in Preston, Lancashire, hit upon a cunning promotional plan: Why don’t we make fashionable, desirable dresses from our cotton? Every woman will want one, and we’ll sell even more bolts of our fabric.
You know what? It worked! Not only did Horrockses dresses fly out of the shops, they became much-photographed wardrobe staples beloved of women from every strata of society – from the working class on up to royalty. The vibrant print dresses were at fashion’s cutting edge, and characterised by the same full skirts that Christian Dior introduced with the New Look, which redefined the female silhouette in the post-war era.
Off The Peg, a new exhibition at Scotland’s National Museum of Costume, celebrates the company that became one of the most sought-after, ready-to-wear labels of the Forties and Fifties. Christine Boydell is one of the show’s consultants. She’s principal lecturer in Design History at De Montfort University, in Leicester, the author of a book about Horrockses and curated two earlier exhibitions of their garments for English museums. She’s a fan, knowing all there is to know about the label’s unique appeal.
Horrockses were smart, and they were lucky, she tells me. “They succeeded because they were fashionable – they were looking at what French couturiers were doing – and also because of the quality of the cotton, and the quality of the patterns they put on their cotton. That, plus their marketing strategy.”
Almost from their first collection, in 1947, Horrockses made sure popular movie stars were photographed wearing their frocks. They hired now-legendary photographers to shoot their ad campaigns, including John French – who gave David Bailey one of his first jobs – putting them on the likes of Barbara Goalen, a supermodel of that era. They advertised in upmarket publications, such as Vogue, and held twice-yearly fashion shows in their London headquarters to which they invited the country’s most-influential fashion buyers.
Their day dresses were priced between £4 and £7 (when a pound was worth roughly £30 in today’s money). Since that might represent a week’s wages, they were considered expensive frocks. The company capped the number of dresses they made from each fabric, and chose their retailers carefully – all of which fostered the sense that these dresses were special.
Boydell says: “In Scotland there were just over 60 outlets, including Dalys, on Sauchiehall Street. They were sold at Jenners, too. The kind of places where they were sold were classy department stores and what were known as ‘madam shops’ in the Forties and Fifties, which today we’d call boutiques. They were quite fussy, and it really worked! Women felt like they were exclusive, and they would sell out very quickly. Their marketing was clever.”
Her research started at home, by quizzing her mum and her mum’s friends about their sartorial histories. “I’m interested in the stories of ordinary people and their clothes. One of my first questions is, ‘What labels did you wear,’ and the first brand everybody mentioned, every single time, was Horrockses. Not all of them had one, but that was what they aspired to have. We’re talking about working and middle-class women. The working-class women would save and save and just have one, while women with a bit more money would have lots.”
Horrockses fashions were a cheerful antidote to the dour, drab war years, with textiles that were vividly alive with flowers and modernist motifs. Some of the designs are playful – giant lobsters, depictions of foods you might eat on a picnic – but their signature was something they dubbed the Bayadere, consisting of a floral repeat printed on top of a horizontal stripe, or flanked by stripes on either side. They offered customers a range of shirt waist dresses, sun dresses – often teamed with matching jackets – housecoats and evening gowns. In the 1950s they introduced children’s clothes.
The use of cotton really only came into its own during the Forties and Fifties. Prior to that, rayon and silk were the textiles of choice for high-end fashion. But Horrockses stressed that what they were doing was every bit as sophisticated as the effects you could get with costlier fabrics, though they did employ them for some of their evening wear.
“Cotton was the ideal fabric to make those waisted, large-skirted dresses,” says Boydell. “One woman I interviewed said the dresses weren’t very easy to pack, because of the full skirts, but the company spent a lot of time on the fabric, trying different crease-resistant treatments. It was also important that the fabrics were supposed to be non-fade, non-shrinking, and durable. One woman wrote to the company saying that when she travelled in the Middle East her dresses were washed by being beaten against rocks. All her other fabrics fell apart, but the Horrockses dresses carried on. Women also say that their dresses improved with age.”
And cotton travelled well, making the dresses perfect for a population that was back on the move thanks to the invention of the package holiday. Kurt Lowit, a technical advisor for the firm, once said that you could tell an English woman abroad by her Horrockses’ frocks. In 1953, when the Queen toured the Commonwealth, she packed several unique Horrockses frocks, which were subsequently made available to members of the public. Boydell reports that the company’s measurement book also included data for Princess Margaret, the Duchess of Gloucester, the Countess of Harewood and the Duchess of Kent, who wore their distinctive dresses during tours of the Far East, Canada and America.
If one person deserves the lion’s share of credit for Horrockses’ roaring success, it would be James Cleveland Belle, who took over as design director in 1948. Boydell writes that Belle, “pushed the company to the forefront of progressive ready-to-wear design and the use of avant-garde fabrics”.
He ensured that they worked with the best people, and brought in artists to design their textiles – including Graham Sutherland, Alastair Morton, Ben Nicholson, even Eduardo Paolozzi – while regularly attending diploma shows to source fresh talent. He sent his fashion designers to the couture shows in Paris, and encouraged them to travel for inspiration. He worked closely with chemists to refine the printing process and the quality of their finishes. “I don’t think Horrockses would have gone in the direction they took if it wasn’t for him,” says Boydell.
Women were so attached to their dresses that they were loath to part with them when they wore out, and were known to reconfigure them, says Boydell. “One lady had a sun dress with a matching bolero. The dress became a skirt, and then an apron. I heard lots of stories like that.
“And one lady had two dresses, a shirt waist and a sun dress. She bought them deliberately, knowing that she could make them into skirts and they could have another life after the dress, but in fact they never wore out and she kept wearing them!
“After the war, women were ready for a bit of glamour and a bit of colour, and Horrockses dresses were desirable objects.”
• Off the Peg: Fashion from the 40s and 50s runs from Sunday until 31 October at the National Museum of Costume, New Abbey, Dumfries DG2 8HQ. Find out more at www.nms.ac.uk/offthepeg. Horrockses Fashions, Off-the-Peg Style in the ‘40s and ‘50s by Christine Boydell is available from V&A Press, priced £24.99.
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