Exhibition Archives: Horrockses Fashion – Off the Peg Style in the ’40s and ’50s

Introduction

This exhibition tells the story of a pioneering manufacturer of women’s ready-to-wear and shows off some of the best examples of Horrockses Fashions’ production from the 40s and 50s.

Horrockses Fashions was one of the most well-respected ready-to-wear labels of the late 1940s and 1950s.  It was established in 1946 as a subsidiary of Horrockses Crewdson & Company Limited (the Preston-based cotton manufacturing business founded in 1791), as part of an initiative to establish ‘high-class specialities and branded lines’.

Horrockses Fashions Limited concentrated on the production of quality women’s day and evening wear, beach clothes and housecoats, adding children’s wear to the list in the early 1950s. Although produced in considerable quantities from the start, the company maintained an air of exclusivity for the brand, with their emphasis on good quality fabrics, especially cotton, custom-designed patterns, and excellent fashion styling by its three designers. Horrockses Fashions was steered by the dynamism of its design director James Cleveland Belle, who along with Kurt Lowit, the technical adviser, secured fabric designs from some of the best designers and artists of the day.

The company’s effective marketing and promotion, with advertisements in magazines like Vogue and their creations chosen alongside couture dresses in wardrobes of royalty, helped to ensure their popularity. Horrockses Fashions could be purchased in most towns and cities in Britain, and were exported widely. With a price tag of between £4 and £7 for an off-the-peg cotton summer dress, they were considered expensive.  For many young women this was a week’s wages.  However, they were keen to save up to purchase one, often for special occasions such as weddings and holidays.  By gaining a reputation for the successful combination of practicality, glamour and easy-care, Horrockses Fashions became sought after by women everywhere.

Fashion and Styling

Initially Horrockses Fashions employed two fashion stylists, Betty Newmarch and Marta Pirn. In 1950 a young South African John Tullis, who had learned his trade from his mother’s cousin, the couturier Molyneux, joined them.  They were based at the London headquarters in Hanover Square and each designer had their own cutter.

The designers were encouraged to visit Paris couture shows and to use their holidays abroad as inspiration for their work.  Betty Newmarch produced the best sellers or what were known as the ‘bread-and-butter’ lines, while Marta Pirn could turn her hand to elaborate or simple creations. John Tullis concentrated on the prestige dresses, and those that closely followed couture lines. However, the Horrockses’ customer would rarely have known the names of the designers, as it was the brand ‘Horrockses Fashions’ that was promoted.

Horrockses Fashions produced a Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter collection each year, with 150 and 160 styles per collection made from 70 to 80 different fabric designs. Sample dresses were produced at Hanover Square, and manufacture of up to 1000 dresses per style was mainly completed in their own factories, Ivy Mill in Manchester and at WH Cliffe & Son in Congelton. During busy times work was also contracted out to ‘cut, make and trim’ firms, such as Pollikoff’s in South Wales, or smaller concerns such as M.Howard in the East End of London.

In Search of the Sun

The Horrockses Fashions’ label is usually associated with cotton summer dresses, purchased for holidays in Britain and abroad.  They were practical, smart and colourful with the fabric treated to prevent shrinking, to help retain ‘permanent crispness’ and to aid washing and ironing.

The Horrockses’ cotton frock was regarded as essential holiday-wear. Their popularity coincided with a growth in holidays abroad, to places like the south of France, Spain and Italy.  This was the era of the birth of the package holiday. It was now easier and more affordable for people to travel to foreign countries. 

Many newly married women bought a Horrockses’ dress for their honeymoon, while others who lived abroad found that the cool cotton shirtwaisters and sun dresses with bolero jackets were perfect for permanent residence in a hot climate. Kurt Lowit (technical adviser at Horrockses Fashions) noted that you could tell an English woman abroad by her Horrockses’ frock. They were a favourite of members of the royal family, with Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Kent wearing them on tours of the Commonwealth in the 1950s.

The variety of summer frocks produced by Horrockses Fashions seems endless and is testament to the company’s efforts to limit the production of too many garments in one style, as well as limiting the number from a specific print. Iris Ashley, the Daily Mail fashion editor, reported from Madeira in 1953 that she had counted 41 Horrockses dresses and only three were identical!

Glamorous Evenings

Although best known for their summer cottons, Horrockses Fashions Ltd also created glamorous evening and cocktail dresses in a variety of fabrics. Cotton dominated, but to this they added creations in wool and rayon jersey.

As with daywear and housecoats, their evening dresses were advertised in quality fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harpers, and worn by glamorous models like Barbara Goalen who was better known for modelling the creations of London couturiers. This association with high fashion was a deliberate and successful strategy.

Promoting a brand such as Horrockses Fashions required extensive advertising.  Costs were high and it was estimated in 1951 that the firm had to add 2 shillings per garment to advertise a dress costing an average of £3 to produce.

Twice yearly fashion shows were held at Horrockses Fashions’ London headquarters where buyers and the press were shown their latest designs.  Whilst most of these would be available off the peg (an evening dress retailing from 7 to 15 guineas), two or three examples from every season’s collection were regarded as prestigious gowns and remained one-off creations, used mainly for publicity purposes.

Artist – Designers

Ideas from rising contemporary artists such as Graham Sutherland, Eduardo Paolozzi and Louis le Brocquy were purchased and translated on to cloth. James Cleveland Belle, the design director of Horrockses Fashions, understood the publicity value of engaging such artist-designers.

One designer regularly used was Alastair Morton. He was a well-know abstract artist and textile designer. Morton produced numerous designs for the firm in the 1940s and early 1950s  He was responsible for the fresh stylised flower designs combined with stripes for which Horrockses became so well known.

Cleveland Belle’s previous position was at the Cotton Board’s Colour, Design & Style Centre in Manchester. He brought with him his interest in the work of artist-designers. This effort to keep fabric designs fresh meant that patterns were bought from a variety of studios and individual designers. Horrockses Crewdson’s managing director HH Mallot commented in 1951 that: ‘Although we have some artists on our staff, the large proportion of our designs are purchased outside and by adopting this method we do get quite a variety of handwriting’. 

Horrockses Fashions’ practice of collaboration between manufacturer and artist illustrated the company’s commitment to innovative textile design.

Pattern Design

The relationship between the design of the fabric and the style of the dress was crucial to Horrockses Fashions’ success.  Cleveland Belle and production manager Kurt Lowit (based in Manchester) believed that good design boosted appeal, but it was also costly adding 2d a yard on the price of the cloth.

In the early 1950s when Alastair Morton’s designs were not doing so well Cleveland Belle and Lowit looked for new talent.  They saw the work of student Pat Albeck at the Royal College of Art, who joined Horrockses on graduating in 1953.  Based in London but designing at home she worked closely with the stylists producing a variety of vibrant designs, along with some flamboyant patterns created specifically for John Tullis. Another Royal College graduate, Joyce Badrocke, was also employed.

A few designers based in Manchester prepared designs for the printers, particularly those purchased from design studios and freelancers.  While the basic cotton cloth was provided by Preston, the printing was contracted out to a number of printers based in the North-West, for example Bollingtons, Calico Printers Association and J&H Bleakley. Designs intended for bread-and-butter lines tended to be printed by the roller method (with a minimum run of 7,200 yards per design), others would be screen printed (3000 yards being the minimum for this method).

To supplement the work of its salaried designers and occasional purchase of design ideas from artists, Horrockses also sought out quality work from design studios and from freelancers, including Sheila Chalmers, Joyce Morgan, James Morris and Joyce Storey. In 1950 Terence Conran sold twenty designs to the firm and Brooke Cadwallader, a New York-based designer supplied them with designs for cotton and jersey fabrics.

Sophistication at Home

Housecoats from Horrockses Fashions combined practicality and glamour.  They were more than functional garments and it was quite acceptable to receive guests at home wearing one.  Advertisements of the fifties suggested that they could even be worn as informal evening wear. 

Housecoats represented 5-10% of the company’s total production and in 1948 Horrockses Fashions sold 3,500 housecoats. Unlike their summer dresses they were able to produce them throughout the year.  They were made from printed cotton, quilted flannelette, jersey and cotton-lined corduroy.

The effective promotion of the Horrockses’ brand was vital, whether it was for a summer dress or a housecoat, and extensive advertising was considered essential. Their housecoats often featured in fashion articles on what the well-dressed housewife should be wearing, as well as in sophisticated advertisements depicting glamorous lifestyles.

Many of the Horrockses’ cotton housecoats were made of the distinctive printed flower designs so typical of the company’s style.  These ranged from large, freely drawn flowers to small all over patterns.

From Kitchen to Office

The practical nature of Horrockses Fashions meant they were considered ideal for everyday wear. Cottons ranged from soft and draped, to heavier poplins and cotton corduroys, woven in Preston. The arrival of the New Look in 1947, with its full-skirted exaggeration of the female form, was quickly taken up by ready-to-wear manufacturers and was perfectly suited to Horrockses’ crisp fresh cottons.

Although cotton was regarded as Horrockses’ trademark, their factories needed to be busy all year, therefore a limited number of other fabrics were incorporated into Autumn/Winter collections, including wool, rayon and wool jersey and nylon.

Horrockses Fashions could be purchased from a variety of retailers, from small high street ‘Madame’ shops, to large department stores or multiple chains. The company would produce ranges exclusively for some of their important customers such as Harvey Nichols and the Cresta chain, which were then advertised by the retailer.

Whilst it was possible to purchase Horrockses Fashions from most high streets in the country, they were only available in a limited number of outlets. In order to maintain some sense of exclusivity (and retailer loyalty) the company would limit the number of outlets in any one town selling their products.

Our thanks to the Curator of Riviera Style and author of the above, Dr. Christine Boydell.


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