Summer Days Gone By: Horrockses: Off the Peg Fashions in the 40s and 50s

Horrockses Fashions advertisement in British Vogue June 1950

I accept it as a symptom of my own fashion fickleness, that all summer long, I yearn to wear my woolens and velvets, and come winter, I wax nostalgic for lightweight summer frocks.  Since the winter is now officially upon us, I thought it would be a perfect time to treat our readers to a frolick through the exhibition Horrockses Fashion: Off the Peg Style in the ‘40s and ‘50s that was hosted by London’s Fashion and Textile Museum earlier this year.

Curated by author and design historian Christine Boydell, the exhibition traces the history of one of post-war Britain’s most well-loved and remembered ready to wear fashion companies.  Known for their iconic full-skirted cotton dresses and alluring print designs, Horrockses Fashions Limited launched in 1946, as war time restrictions were being eased and British women sought affordable and practical fashionable clothing in greater numbers.  Horrockses was no newcomer to textile production, having been founded in 1791, as a cotton mill.  Their venture into the production of high quality ready-to-wear fashion, and especially their commitment to innovative textile design was a recipe for success that has become legendary.

Horrockses 1950 summer dress, Hulton Archive

The exhibition’s introductory section provides a clear and concise overview of the company history and is illustrated with early company advertisements, editorial photographs and dresses from their early collections. A graph explaining the Horrockses pricing structure was particularly interesting, and showed that at £4-£7, Horrockses day dresses were “affordable luxuries,” which would today be a cost equivalent to £80-£130.

The main gallery space opens up into a carnival of festive summer wear, complete with sounds of the sea playing and white sand surrounding some of the displays. Mixed with the track of seagulls and gently crashing waves are some tunes of the times, evocative of the genteel world of casual fashionability and leisure that Horrockses sought to conjure.

Horrockses employees wearing dresses from the collection on a company picnic

Alongside a multitude of Horrockses “honeymoon frocks” are photographs of women proudly wearing their dresses at home and at play.

In addition to the impressive collection of actual dresses on display, are original print design artworks, design sketches, and range books, which were handmade look-books featuring black and white sketches of the collection alongside swatches, colourways and photographs of design samples.  The exhibit focuses particularly on Horrockses fruitful collaborations with artists and textile designers, and emphasizes their whimsical and modern use of print design in harmony with dress design.

In successive sections entitled: Fashion and Styling, Glamourous Evenings, Sophistication at Home and From Kitchen to Office, we learn more about Horrockses expansion into the production of evening, lounge and career wear.  Throughout the exhibit a range and variety of materials, most on loan from the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, ensure that visitors get a true feel for Horrockses history and philosophy.  Satisfied and inspired by the exhibition’s presentation of the story of this pioneering brand, I found myself wanting something more – a day a the beach in a marvelous cotton frock.  Sadly, it will be a few more months before I can satisfy that urge, but until then I will console myself by looking over the accompanying catalog published by the V&A, and written by curator Christine Boydell, and hope that I may be lucky enough to come across a Horrockses dress in one of my favorite vintage stores!

Horrockses: Off the Peg Fashions in the ‘40s and ‘50s was on view at the Fashion and Textile Museum from July 9 – October 28, 2010.

All exhibition view photos by Jenna unless otherwise credited.

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1 Comment

  • liza December 23, 2010 07.25 am

    Gorgeous. Wish I could see it in person. Do you know more about the first image? The painting of the girl in the Horrockes dress? I’m going to put it on my tumblr, and want to cite. Will link to this post, of course. Thanks


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