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.