Horrockses Fashions: Fun, Feminine, Fifties

Vogue UK February 1949. Image courtesy of lancashirebusinessreview.co.uk

If the thought of summer dressing makes you think of cotton floral frocks with full swingy skirts you may have Horrockses to thank for that image.  One of the most popular dress lines in Britain and in America in the late 40s and 50s, Horrockses Fashions was known for its cotton prints manufactured in their own mill in Preston, Lancashire.   The mill dated back to 1791 and by the early 20th century was established as a trusted manufacturer of cotton goods, mostly household linens.  To expand their sales of manufactured goods into the lucrative fashion market, the parent company Horrockses, Crewdson & Co. Limited launched the Horrockses Fashions ready-to-wear line in 1946.  Horrockses had the goal of increasing desirability for their fabrics and then satisfying the demand with their own products.  Their vertically integrated business model ensured commerce at multiple points in the market.

Horrockses dress, 1957, V&A

Horrockses dress with bows, 1951-58, Bowes Museum

Horrockses Fashions were best known for their day dresses though they also produced housecoats, beachwear, and evening dresses.  As these examples show, there came to be a distinctive Horrockses silhouette for the dresses consisting of full skirts, tailored bodices, and defined waists which shows the influence of Christian Dior’s New Look that debuted in 1947.  Floral patterns, particularly roses, bows, and bands of print or bayadere, were signature motifs repeated every season which also borrowed heavily from Dior’s aesthetic.

Horrockses dress with bayadere design, 1953, V&A

To mitigate against the low-end connotations of mass-produced clothing, Horrockses carefully followed the lines, silhouettes and trends of the couture collections shown in Paris and London.  Cottons were accessible fabrics that had the weight and drape to create the New Look silhouette but with a softer, more casual result.  The dresses were made of high-quality cottons which were washable much like synthetics on the market.  Horrockses thus combined the easy-care of sportswear with tailored, sophisticated cuts associated with couture to bring the consumer “the best of both worlds.”

Horrockses evening dress featured in Vogue, January 1956

Horrockses Fashions differed from Dior and other couture houses in their frequent use of bright, playful prints which were generally highly stylized and abstract.  The company avoided unsophisticated connotations with their prints by aligning them with art, using exclusive designs by leading British artists including Eduardo Paolozzi, Graham Sutherland, and Alastair Morton.

pp. 96-7 of Horrockses Fashions: Off-the Peg Style in the 40s and 50s showing a design by Eduardo Paolozzi

At the symbolic level, voluminous skirts signalled plenty while the summery florals bring associations of vacations, resort, and weekend leisure which put the dresses at a clear remove from workwear.  Instead, Horrockses dresses correlated escape, fun, and exuberance with style, elegance, and femininity.  In the British post-war context, with rationing still in place into the early 1950s, Horrockses dresses were viewed as a splurge for an occasion such as a honeymoon.  In the American import context, however, Horrockses Fashions fit in perfectly with the broader cultural landscape of social change in the 1950s when the country prospered economically and disposable income increased across class strata.  The economic boom brought increased choices in manufactured goods which in turn increased consumerism.  An accompanying urban out-migration led to the rapid development of suburbs and the American dream of home-ownership became a reality for many.  Suburban houses came with front lawns and backyards where barbeques, pool parties, and gardening took place, providing a lifestyle scenario complementary to the look of Horrockses dresses.

Horrockses advertisement, Vogue, June 1950. Image from Christine Boydell, Horrockses Fashions: : Off-the-Peg Style in the 40s and 50s

The colourful aesthetic of Horrockses Fashions reflects the circulation of intensely saturated color images in print and film due to Kodachrome and Technicolor processes.  The wide scale of the skirts, too, abundant with fabric, seem to reflect the various widescreen film formats that enticed audiences into movie theatres and drive-ins to see historical epics, westerns, and melodramas.  Full-skirted, brightly-colored, patterned dresses such as those of Horrockses are like costumes for living life as it was depicted on screen: monumental, colourful, dramatic.

Model Barbara Gaolen in a Horrockses evening gown, Vogue October 1952

Horrockses dresses typically were produced in runs of 1,000-1,500.  Despite being mass-produced, the Horrockses ready-to-wear line had an air of exclusivity established through use of select retailers, exclusive prints, quality fabric, and well-cut and designed garments.  The image of quality always tied back to their own cotton manufacturing.  Horrockses Fashions advertisements regularly featured the sub-heading, “in fine cotton” under the brand name, underscoring excellence in their product.  The eminence reserved for couture was also accorded to Horrockses dresses in some measure by its royal selection.  Images of Queen Mary at the Horrockses showroom in Hanover Square and of Princesses Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret wearing the dresses cemented the company’s image as respectable, feminine, and desirable.  Editorial features in top fashion magazines also buoyed up Horrockses reputation as fashionable.

Though the name Horrockses might not be familiar to many today, their legacy is alive and well in contemporary fashion.  In a Telegraph article by Katherine Rushton on April 20, 2013, the impending sale of the Horrockses company was discussed.  The article states, “Horrockses vintage dresses had tapped into a growing demand for prom outfits, and that there was strong demand for newer versions…’These dresses are going on eBay for £250 each, they are part of Britain’s heritage.’” Hit television show Mad Men also likely whetted consumer appetites for mid-century style.  It is not surprising then that in the past year, ready-to-wear line Maje featured lace dresses with “puff-ball” skirts in a bayadere style and Ines de la Fressange’s S/S 2017 line for Uniqlo featured full-skirted dresses in floral and gingham patterns, similar to what it has done in recent seasons.  The Horrocks label was briefly resuscitated as a housewares line that sold at House of Fraser.  Exhibitions of Horrockses Fashions have been mounted at the Harris Museum, Preston (2011) and the Fashion and Textile Museum, London (2010).

Maje’s Rayela dress from the A/W 2016-17 season featuring a full skirt and bayadere design, image from uk.maje.com

Further reading:

Boydell, Christine.  Horrockses Fashions: Off-the-Peg Style in the 40s and 50s. London:  V&A Publishing, 2010.

Burden, Rosemary and Jo Turney. Floral Frocks: The Floral Printed Dress From 1900 to Today. London: AAC Art Books, 2007.

Arnold, Rebecca, ‘Wifedressing: Designing Femininity in 1950s American Fashion,’ in Glenn Adamson and Victoria Kelley, eds., Surface Tensions: Surface, Finish and the Meaning of Objects, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp.123-33.

Fashioning Eva Perón’s Rainbow Tour

French foreign minister Georges Bidault (R) greets Eva Perón as she arrives at Orly Airport. © AFP/Getty Images

Eva Perón, immortalized in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Evita, was just as much a superstar in real life as her fictional counterpart. A rural girl turned actress turned First Lady of Argentina, Eva cultivated her image throughout her life as a symbol of the potential for descamisados (underprivileged people) to succeed. Her 1947 European Rainbow Tour marked a turning point in Eva’s sartorial evolution, as she stepped out for the last time in celebrity finery before refining her style.

Fresh off the win of her husband Juan Perón in the presidential election, 28-year-old Eva visited Spain, Italy, France, and Switzerland as a sign of goodwill between Argentina and Europe. While she had been dressing to impress the Argentinian people for years, the Rainbow Tour (so named after Eva, dubbed the ‘Rainbow of Argentina’) was her chance to dazzle the leaders and people of the European continent. Argentinian fashion houses Paula Naletoff, Henriette, and Bernarda most likely designed her clothing for the tour.

Eva Perón listens as Spain’s General Franco gives a speech in Madrid. ©Popperfoto/Getty Images

Eva’s clothes displayed the splendor of Argentina to a continent still reeling from World War II, and she dressed to fully exploit each moment of her tour. When General Franco welcomed her to Spain, she wore a carefully tailored suit, a spray of flowers on her lapel, and a towering black hat atop her perfectly coiffed hair. Her suit communicated the formality of her position, while its light color softened her appearance.

From L to R: Eva Perón during a visit to the Commercial Exhibition in Milan. ©Hulton Archive/Keystone/Getty Images; Eva Perón wearing a floral print dress and hat as she leaves a building during her visit to Paris. ©Archive Images/RDA/Getty Images; Eva Perón attending a reception at the Palace of Justice in Rome. ©Hulton Archive/Keystone/Getty Images.

Given that the Rainbow Tour took place in June and July of 1947, most of Eva’s dresses still followed the boxy silhouette of the mid-1940s. Eva updated her wardrobe to suit the New Look through the use of belts and further feminized her outfits with flowers. Photographs from her time in Italy and France show a preference for floral headdresses/hats and floral pattern dresses, appropriate for the summer season.

On one of her last nights in Paris, Eva stepped out with the Argentinian ambassador to France in a striking metallic gown. The figure-hugging cut of the dress, elaborate hairstyle, and sparkling jewels reflect Eva’s origins as an actress. Her desire for a glamourous life was made manifest not at an award show, however, but on a diplomatic mission as the most powerful woman in Argentina.

Eva Perón and Julio Roca (Argentinian ambassador to France) in Paris. ©Hulton Archive/RDA/Getty Images

After the Rainbow Tour, Eva fully embraced the New Look and dramatically toned down her style, transitioning from flashy actress to fashionable and refined First Lady. She smoothed her hair into a low chignon, adopted a clean makeup palette with a bold red lip, and filled her closet with clothes by Dior and Jacques Fath, both of whom had mannequins with Eva’s measurements in their ateliers. Her stock of Parisian couture suits, gowns, and other outfits would be biannually replenished until her death at 33 from cervical cancer.

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked: Fashion, Violence and Obsession in Leave Her to Heaven

Hello,

Here’s another PDF for you to download!

Film poster for Leave Her To Heaven

This is an essay Rebecca Arnold co-wrote with film historian Adrian Garvey about the amazing 1945 melodrama Leave Her to Heaven , directed by John M. Stahl. The wonderful Marketa Uhlirova, founder and Director of Fashion In Film commissioned this piece for If Looks Could Kill – a festival and book on the theme of crime and violence in film and fashion in 2008.

Cornel Wilde as Richard and Gene Tierney as Ellen

The essay considers the psychological drama of this incredible 1940s film, and the stylish wardrobe worn by Gene Tierney, who plays Ellen, a dark and troubled character, who nonetheless epitomizes contemporary fashion and beauty ideals.  We should warn you that there are lots of spoilers in the essay – so watch the film first if you don’t want to know what happens!

Gene Tierney as Ellen

With many thanks to Marketa Uhlirova for granting permission for us to post this, and for her imaginative and inspiring work for Fashion In Film.  If you want to read the other essays she commissioned for this season, look at the book she edited, If Looks Could Kill, Koenig Books with Fashion In Film Festival, 2008.

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 1

Sometimes the Truth is Wicked Part 2

‘”Chic” Was To Art The Same As Sex Appeal Is To Love’: Four Things I Learnt While Reading Cecil Beaton’s Memoirs of the 40s

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One of the many delights – and distractions – of research is the things you read along the way to your real goal.  While my focus is on Beaton’s wartime photography, for a forthcoming paper at the Museum of London, delving into his diaries and memoirs reveals far wider dress gems.  Since these probably won’t make the final edit, I thought I’d share some of my favourite insights with you here – skimmed from the pages of his 1940s memoirs, and, in these examples, from his time spent in post-occupation Paris between 1944 and 1945.

No. 1 – Parisian style during the war was about resistance – to German torment, restrictions and morality, and to imposed ideas of respectability and beauty:  

The British Embassy’s Guests, Sunday, October 29th – Paris, 1944 

‘The women were a curiously dressed bunch in a fashion that struck the unaccustomed eye a strangely ugly – wide, baseball player’s shoulders, Dureresque headgear, suspiciously like domestic plumbing, made of felt and velvet, and heavy sandal-clogs which gave the wearers an added six inches in height but an ungainly, plodding walk.  Unlike their austerity-abiding counterparts in England these women moved in an aura of perfume.’

No. 2 – Necessity breeds innovation, hybridity and style: 

Stocking the Cellar 

‘Diana [Lady Diana Cooper] wearing trousers, yachting cap, and biscuit-colored fox coat…’

 Churchill’s arrival, November 10th 

‘Diana, in pants and bandanna…’

 No.3 – Never be too quick to judge who is best-dressed:  

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas 

‘During the years of cold and shortages, Gertrude and Alice became friends with a neighbour at Aix, a simple young man named Pierre Balmain, who had a taste for antiques and a natural bent for designing women’s clothes.  In fact he made with his own hands heavy tweeds and warm garments for Gertrude and Alice to wear during the hard winters.  Now he has opened a shop in Paris.  At first showing to the press Gertrude and Alice arrived with their huge dog, Basket.  Gertrude in a tweed skirt, an old cinnamon-colored sack, and Panama hat, looked like Corot’s self-portrait.  Alice, in a long Chinese Garment of bright colors with a funny flowered toque, had overtones of the “Widow Twankey,” a comic transvestite from the vaudeville stage.  Gertrude, seeing the world of fashion assembled, whispered: “Little do they know that we are the only people here dressed by Balmain, and it’s just as well for him that they don’t!’

No. 4 – Fashion and Art = Sex and Love 

Bébé Bérard and the Jackals, British Embassy, Paris 

‘Bébé inspired, proceeded to illustrate with his pencil the fashions of the new dressmaker Dior.  These, he says, have the same sense of sex appeal as Chanel created after the First World War.  A theory was put forward that fashion was anti-art, that “chic” was to art the same as sex appeal is to love.’

Perhaps later I’ll share what I learnt about New York … But for now, I must get on with what I supposed to be researching …

Source:  Cecil Beaton, Memoirs of the 40s, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1972

Midcentury Modelling Techniques

Matthew Dessner, 'So You Want To Be A Model' (1942) 7b. Scenes of model training

Matthew Dessner, ‘So You Want To Be A Model’ (1942) 7b. Scenes of model training

The model agent Matthew Dessner wrote that modelling had ‘something of the spirit of the dance’ because models could express ‘their personalities in its graceful accentuated steps, its swirling turns and pivots, its musical timing.’ Dessner here attempted to imbue the relatively new and commercial profession of clothes modelling with the artistry of a more historic discipline, the dance. Indeed, an accompanying photograph to Dessner’s 1943 manual, titled So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living shows a procession of girls walking ‘rhythmically and femininely’ in satin slips as they balance books on top of their pin-curled heads and are surveyed by the eagle-eyed gaze of Barbizon School of Modelling’s Director, Rosilyn Williams. In the vignette above, trainee models in mid-thigh-length skirts were further required to demonstrate a dancer’s sense of rhythm and spatial awareness, when they practiced walking and turning to foxtrot music. With the exception of sportswear, where skating and tennis skirts were cut above the knee, American mid 1940s skirts worn for more formal occasions were uniformly below knee-level.  The shorter skirts worn by modelling students evoked the brief garments worn in both ballet and contemporary dance studios, and enabled model instructors to view and correct their pupils’ natural bodies.

The trainee model was also expected to condition her figure through diet, exercise and in some cases, a little bust padding, until it approximated the preferred standard size 12  (34 inch bust and hips; 24 inch waist). Ideally, she should measure between 5’4 and 5’7 inches tall, however, smaller girls were selected to model Junior (teenage) clothes, while the more statuesque specialised in coats and eveningwear.  This sense of varied body types within a specification of uniformity was also common in classical ballet, where dancers were generally expected to have petite, toned figures, but were cast in line with their physicality. For example, smaller dancers often played ingénues, while taller dancers who towered over their male partners created femme fatale roles.

After she improved her figure, posture and walk, a trainee model had to develop a repertoire of professionalised gestures, which included subtly showcasing the ‘smart lines of a frock’, or causing ‘all eyes to focus on you when you make an entrance into a room.’ Olga Malcova, another model agent, professed that over time, a model’s quotidian movements would ‘naturally’ merge with the ‘gestures and mannerisms which are part of the profession…’and called ‘business’ by the industry insiders. Interestingly, while Malcova advised that the ‘business’ should be acquired ‘naturally’, rather than being copied from another model, Dessner stipulated that aspiring models should copy the poses they saw in magazines before a full-length mirror and ‘originate others they never thought about’. Striving for a balance between imitation and improvisation was common to dancers and models alike, as a young woman’s success in either discipline depended upon her ability to execute the required gestures seamlessly and differentiate herself from her peers.

However, unlike contemporary dancers, who wrote about their experiences in memoirs and left personal archives, models’ voices have been obscured over time. This discrepancy between the model and dancer’s trace suggests that although modelling techniques had much in common with dance, the former profession was associated with contemporary commerce above the posterity of art.

Sources

Matthew Dessner, So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living (Chicago: Morgan-Dillon & Co, 1943), 12.

Olga Malcova, Wanted: Girl With Glamor, (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941), 25.

From Rationing to Ravishing: The Transformation of Women’s Clothing in the 1940s and 1950s

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Photographs by Alberto Ferreira and Lucy Moyse, with permission of the Museum of Vancouver

The Museum of Vancouver’s current From Rationing to Fashioning exhibition thoroughly and exhilaratingly takes its viewers through a turbulent interval of history. The glitter and roar of the 1920s had come to a sudden and catastrophic cease, with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and subsequent economic depression. Beforehand, women ‘s newfound freedom and fun was reflected in looser fits and higher hemlines. However, after the crash, the sartorial mood turned towards sentimentality, and the traditional feminine figure began to re-emerge. Women’s dress of the 1930s delicately navigated changing ideals, later taking on designers’ nods to masculinity and the need for practicality during the Second World War. Peacetime instated the womanly silhouette once more: elaborate amounts of fabric countered wartime shortages, and sloping shoulders, full busts, cinched waists and full, long skirts glorified the female form and took it to new heights.

Guest curators Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke display the complexities of these changes with thought and flair. On show until March 2015, the exhibition highlights the intrinsic connections between fashion, those that wear it, and the society that surrounds them. The underlying driving force behind the curatorial rationale is clear: fashion reflects, responds to, and helps to drive change. The exhibition expresses the way clothes had to be adapted according to changing conditions, availabilities, and moods, but also how they affected and constructed views of the women who wore them, from the diligent wartime worker to the immaculate housewife.

The exhibition is neatly divided into two main spaces. The first pulls visitors into a comprehensive overview of 1940s fashion. It slickly demonstrates transitions, whilst maintaining the range of styles available within them. Rainbows of both day- and evening-wear reveal fashion’s determination to thrive even during wartime, whilst also making clear the practical and aesthetic limitations imposed. The dual role of the idealised woman’s wartime appearance is revealed: soothing society involved a juggling act between putting her best face, and dress, forward, and cleverly working around restrictions such as rationing, all the while emanating a sense of pragmatism and tactful restraint. A 1943 blouse by London designer Anita Bodley, for example, demonstrates simultaneous practicality and frivolity. Its comfortable fit and short sleeves allowed movement, and a high, Peter Pan-collared neckline maintained modesty, while its silk fabric and assorted bright colours were enlivening.  Most poignant of all are the spirited written messages that make up its pattern. Inspired by propaganda posters upon a brick wall, it includes phrases such as ‘-Go! –to! –it!’: one example of several wartime pieces that were especially designed to boost morale and brighten wardrobes.

The second main space leads the viewer to the eventual exultance of the post-war years, but not before an enchanting and specialized interlude: a select display of specifically Canadian clothing. For example, a pair of Boeing Vancouver overalls, displayed with its cuffs turned back to reveal red underneath, and the mannequin’s hand jauntily placed on its hip, exemplify both women’s active agency, and the modernist style and nationalist pride through which it was executed. Indeed, throughout the show, there is an equal emphasis on both internationality and the Museum’s own heritage in Vancouver, with objects originating from almost all of the powers involved in the conflict. In this spirit, an inter-disciplinary approach was taken: German ration books, Elsa Schiaparelli’s signature scrawled on a fashion student’s notepad, a bottle of Chanel perfume and ‘Victory Red’ Elizabeth Arden cosmetics imbue the exhibition with an enriching sensory dimension, which underlies and unifies fashion’s all encompassing interconnectedness.

Just a step away, the final room is a visual delight. Pigmented pinks and reds mingle with elegant whites and dramatic blacks, converging into intricate party concoctions. With the war effort over, and a return to notional normalcy allowed indulgence and amusement and girlishness was prized. This revival, explosion and celebration of full-skirted femininity reached its peak during the 1950s, and culminates the exhibition on an appropriately triumphant note.

References

www.museumofvancouver.ca/exhibitions/exhibit/rationing-ravishing