Sunday, 9 September 2012

Off The Peg

"Off The Peg", an exhibition of 1940s and 1950s clothing from Horrockses Fashions Limited, was first staged in the Fashion and Textile Museum in London in 2010. Sadly I missed both that, and a subsequent showing in the south-east of England last year. In the meantime I had bought the book, and drooled over the images of the full skirted 1950s cotton dresses for which Horrockses were best known. So when I discovered this was to be the 2012 special exhibition at the Scottish National Museum of Costume in Dumfries, I was determined that it would be third time lucky. Fortunately for me, Mr Tulip was quite happy with the idea of a holiday in the Scottish Borders, and a day trip to Shambellie House.

The exhibition poster. This image was an advertisement which appeared in Vogue, June 1950

The exhibition is attractively laid out in three rooms. The first room contains day wear for both work and leisure, mostly dresses but also a skirt, and two sunsuits with matching jackets.

A selection of day dresses

Sunsuits with matching jackets

There is also some information about the company and its designers, plus a timeline. From this I learned that in 1949 the company purchased levelling machines, to enable skirts to be measured and trimmed in a single action. Given the amount of skirt to be hemmed on some of the dresses, this must have saved a great deal of time!

A typical, full-skirted Horrockses dress, with bolero

The second room focuses on fabric design. Horrockses, Crewdson & Co Ltd was a firm of cotton manufacturers, and established Horrockses Fashions in 1946 to provide a market for its cotton cloth. From the beginning the emphasis was on good quality fabric and custom-designed patterns. The company used fabric designs created by some of the best designers and artists of the day including Eduardo Paolozzi, Graham Sutherland and Alastair Morton, and also employed its own designers.

More dresses. The green dress is an Alastair Morton print, while the fabric of the red dress
on the far right was designed by Graham Sutherland

The third room features areas of Horrockses production about which I knew very little; housecoats and evening wear. In my ignorance I have always thought of a housecoat as a form of dressing gown, but in fact it was quite acceptable to receive guests at home wearing one. Certainly the models displayed had a distinctly glamorous look to them, although I couldn't help feeling that the offset pockets of the housecoat on the far right would make it quite a strange garment to wear.

Glamorous housecoats

Although Horrockses did make evening dresses from a variety of fabrics, they also worked to establish cotton as a prestigious fabric suitable for evening wear. Sadly the elegant red cotton velvet evening gown with satin trimming on display was never worn outside Horrockses London offices; it was probably made as a one-off piece for one of the company's seasonal fashion shows.

Cotton evening dresses

The garments are not displayed behind glass, so it is possible to get close enough to look at (and, happily, photograph) construction details. When I have looked at 1950 dresses for sale at vintage fairs, I have often been struck by the fact that the construction is complex by today's standards, but the quality of finish is very poor. In contrast, the garments on display here are all finished to a very high standard.

In the case of some of the day dresses, there is also some information about who purchased the dress, and when. Despite the fact that many of the dresses were favourites of their owners, and consequently were worn a lot, they show no signs of wear or fading; testament to the quality of the fabric and the construction. This quality came at a price however; cotton dresses cost between £2 and £4 in 1952, the equivalent of £165 and £219 today.

The Horrockses brand maintained an air of exclusivity, and this was supported with advertising in up-market publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar. The advertisements had limited text, and concentrated on the dress. The exhibition includes some of these advertisements, along with other publicity materials.

Advertisement and publicity photograph

Sadly although a number of the feature in the book, the exhibition does not include any dresses with the bodice cut on the bias, like the one featured in the exhibition poster above. I have always been intrigued about how the bodice was cut and constructed to take the bias cut into account. Vogue pattern 8789 has a bias-cut bodice, so I may have to make my own 'Horrockses' to discover this for myself.

Fabulous though it was, there was far more to the museum than just this exhibition, but that will have to be another post.

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