Friday, 13 August 2010

Fabulous Frocks

Sister dear is in residence at the HenHouse this week and on Wednesday we set off on a mission. We wound our way about the rather less than picturesque areas around London Bridge and the railway arches...

In Bermondsey Street itself, there were some attractive warehouses which have been redeveloped.

Whey hey, a vintage yard!!!

Can you just make out the sign against the sky to see where we're headed?

Well it's here, to this rather hot and funky looking building, home to the Fashion and Textile Museum. Sadly not in Morocco, just London!

The inside is pretty funky too.

We're here to attend an exhibition to which we've long looked forward...

Come on, sister, let's go and see all those beautiful frocks, designed and made in good old Blighty back in the hey day of the 1940's and '50's.

The long entrance corridor leading into the exhibition is promising. We feel somewhat shabby next to these advertising images of impossibly glamorous and svelte ladies sporting stylish outfits!

The exhibition is in sections and each has an information board to tell you more about the famous company. Horrockses Fashions was established in 1946 (a subsidiary of the original cotton business founded in 1791) and was one of the most well-known and respected off-the-peg labels of the '40s and '50s. The company was clever though and despite its frocks being available to purchase throughout the country, the number of outlets permitted to sell the clothes was restricted. The company also produced certain designs for retail only in particular stores, such as Harvey Nichols. In this way, they maintained an "air of exclusivity".

Let me explain that although photography was allowed, no flashes were permitted so the photos may be somewhat less than perfect. Better than none, though. I loved this little pink tulip-printed Summer dress and matching bolero which enticed us along our way into the exhibition.

Into the main exhibition space, the displays were split between two floors and this is a view of the ground floor (as seen from the gallery above). There was something of a Summery seaside-y theme here: the seagulls flying overhead, white sand on the floor underneath the dresses and even some "seagull calls" sound effects!

This was the first large display of dresses which showcased the various designers' work.

I loved this little swimsuit and matching jacket. Each piece had an information board near it and there was often a photo of the original owner wearing the item.

The walls were decorated with more of those super glam adverts. Horrockses were very clever with their advertising. They spent a considerable budget on advertising in the best and most fashionable magazines like Vogue, and used models more suited to working for couture houses. All this helped to raise the profiles of Horrockses' frocks as something above the norm. Their frocks were a favourite of Princess Margaret and indeed, HM The Queen, they would often wear them on trips abroad to the Commonwealth.

Oh to look like this lady!

Glass cases housed very interesting displays of pristine swatches of fabric and the original designers' sketches and paintings which inspired them.

Sketches of pretty frocks and fabric swatches were interesting to see. Horrockses employed both in-house designers, such as Pat Albeck who came to them fresh from the Royal College of Art (she is the mother-in-law of Emma Bridgewater), established artists such as Alastair Morton and also bought one-off designs from freelance designers such as Sir Terence Conran.

The next section, "In Search of the Sun" showcased some lovely Summery outfits.

This dress had a very unusual fabric showing plates of food! It was designed by Pat Albeck.

The final little group of frocks on the downstairs floor had some real stunners. Horrockses were well known for their good quality striped and flowered cottons which they produced in various colourways (the dress on the right came in seven different colours). The cotton was woven in Preston and the printing and manufacture of the dresses took place in Horrockses' own mills and factories in Manchester (with a small amount of contracting out to local firms).

Again, I was smitten by the little bathing suit. Little being the operative word!

Upstairs to the gallery then and a whole wall was dedicated to pattern design.

You can never have too many stripes and flowers...

Yet more pretty frocks. The dress on the right was made from another Pat Albeck fabric which had little nuts all over it and the cute jacket had acorn shaped buttons down the front.

This was the rest of the upper display space...

Horrockses' frocks were said to be infinitely practical, suitable for home or office. However, a typical Horrockses' frock cost between £4-£7 which was about an average week's wages. Girls saved to have a dress for a special occasion such as a wedding and many took a Horrockses' frock on their honeymoon. The frocks were produced in an enormous array of designs and prints. Those who worked for the company and in its offices had the opportunity a couple of times a year to buy dresses at reduced cost.

As if everything we'd already seen wasn't glamorous enough, in the corner we find some rather lovely evening dresses.

The red velvet dress is thought to be a showroom sample which was never actually retailed. The sweet little yellow dress is for a young girl. The lilac dress is a later item, made from synthetic fabrics (unlike the usual cotton) and intricately printed in a toile de jouy style pattern, as technology advanced.

The last section showed us that these super-glam ladies were as stylish at home as they were on the streets! An area dedicated to...the housecoat.

These had very full skirts which would have made doing any housework impossible. However, it was thought perfectly acceptable to wear these housecoats in the home when accepting visitors.

The housecoat on the left here has maps of the British Isles on the fabric along with quotations from Shakespeare. The housecoat in the middle belonged to a lady who lived in the Tropics. It was common for English ladies who lived overseas to return to England to buy their wardrobes and Horrockses' dresses were a favourite in tropical climes as the cotton was treated so as to resist creasing and be easy to wash and iron, and the colours stayed fast. This housecoat had been worn in the sun and washed many times yet the colours and design were perfectly vibrant.

If you find yourself in London and have the chance to visit this exhibition, (running until 24 October this year), we highly recommend it. This book, published to accompany the exhibition, is also wonderful. We warn you though, you may possibly leave feeling a tad dowdy!


  1. What a fantastic day out, I must go and change out of these beige trousers straight away !

  2. What a fab exhibition! When I go to vintage fairs I always wonder if anybody has a waist that small now a days or is it just me with my middle age spread!!! Oh my god, I can't believe I have just admitted to being 'nearly' middle aged. Love the frocks and fabric tho.....Happy Rachel xxx

  3. Wonderful frocks, from days gone by when women were women and knew how to dress, not the mainly scruffy "I'll throw the first pair of grot jeans/leggings and too big T-shirt that I can fine on". Bring back feminity I say, I know I'm showing my age now ah well...loving the mid 50's te he!!!

  4. Showed this post to Mother-in-law - who will be 92 next month. She remembers having several of these dresses and one made from the red poppy material - she was quite well-to-do in the 40s and especially the 50s. (I think my mother had one of the striped ones, but probably came by it secondhand as they would have been beyond her purse new). M-in-law was in fits of laughter about the housecoats, and couldn't imagine why they all thought them so chic, but she loved the dresses. Thank you for the pics, they made her day, we're going to get the family slides out and see if we can find any that match the exhibition.

  5. These are my absolute all time favourite dresses and I LOVE the 40's and 50's. My local librbary is putting on a Horrockses' event in september and Lecturer (can't remember which university!) is coming down from London to discuss these fashionable dresses. i was very happy to but th elast 2 tickets for a friend and myself.

    Thank you so much for this eye candy xox

  6. Fabulous! I love the fashions from that feminine and glamourous..and what a tiny waist that lady has in that poster!Your post brought back a lovely memory from my chidhood.
    My mother would always change into a nice dress to greet my father when he came home from work.How times have

    Bellaboo :o)

  7. I am completly jelous! What a wonderful exhibit. Thank you for taking so many pictures. I am in love with the house coat as well. Looks like a fabulous house dress! I would wear that all day every day if I could :D Just beautiful!!

  8. I've had to skim through this post and all the lovely photo's as my daughter, my sister and I are going up in two weeks time to see the exhibition. I hope we have as good a time as you did.

  9. Terrific! My faves were the grouping of blue ones. I am getting quite the education(red cars, vintage dresses), so thank you!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have seen the book in the local bookshop but it is sealed in cellophane so I could only guess what lovelies were inside.

  11. I went with Fan My Flame last week - it was fab wasn't it? Although I wasn't drawn to the bathing costume! Did you find the vintage clothes and everything else shop Radio Days about ten minutes walk away - that's REALLY worth a visit.
    Gill x

  12. Thanks so much for sharing about your fun trip with Sis. It was great!!!!

  13. I went here too, took my husband, niece, her boyfriend and my two daughters, the elder one wearing an ORIGINAL HORROCKSES DRESS, I tried to get her in free as really she was a walking exhibit, she got photographed by lots of Japanese fashion students.

    The girls at the door said lots of people had told them they owned originals, but my Harriet was the first person to turn up wearing one. I do hope she's not the last!

    I was disappointed they didn't show any of the iconic labels.

    I though the exhibition could have had a bit about the Horrockses family who were very important to the Lancashire textile industry, not just for the dresses, there was nothing about the girls who sewed the dresses.

    My aunts worked in the mill during the 50/60s and would but the fabric and make their own dresses. they still talk about the more than full circle skirt that took forever to hem as it was about 5 yards 'round then got chewed up in the working parts of a motorbike. (Piece together a ''polo mint'' circle then gather the middle into a case you were wondering.)

    My childhood dressing up box was full of their old dresses as a child, I wore them as a teenager and now my daughter wears them. They have an amazing finish to them and need no ironing if you let them blow dry on the line. Over the years I have bought them whenever I saw them in charity shops or on market stalls, now they are very collected and expensive, so I won't be buying any more and I have grown too fat to fit any of mine.

    Love that you wrote about this.

  14. Thanks so much for this in depth review, it looks fabulous and I felt like I was actually there, with you just doing a commentary! I try to avoid going to London so it's really nice having a chance to see these exhibitions that I wouldn't go to.

  15. It looks wonderful - thanks for sharing your visit with us!


  16. i am lucky enough to work for an associated company of the FTM so have seen this wonderful exhibition......they do fantastic shows so keep an eye out....this one was certainly wonderful.....the fabrics designs were lovely weren't they?

  17. wow some beautiful dresses there... love the swimsuits too but could never fit in them!!! :) x

  18. It looks so lovely. Thank you for sharing your trip and such an indepth review.

  19. What gorgeous dresses and a lovely exhibition - well worth going to see. Such glamour was around then wasn't there? Your pictures are a treat. Your post was very interesting, as I didn't know half of what you have just told us. I didn't know just how expensive some of these dresses were, that's for sure! But worth every penny. Fascinated by what karenjane added too. Siobhan

  20. I enjoyed your post so much - I must hop over to London before Oct 24th to see the exhibition for myself. A nostalgic trip for me as I live in Paris, but I'm originally from Lancashire, near Preston. Our town had a Horrockses shop selling clothes but also fabrics - my summer school uniform dresses were a blue and white knotted seersucker cotton from Horrockses. I can even remember where the shop was, what it smelled like and the big old-fashioned brass till (this was in the late 50s / early 60s)I now collect French vintage dresses but sooo wish I'd kept my 50s and 60's Horrockses school dresses - and my collection of 70s Biba (Barbara Hulanicki) clothes !

  21. Neat! I'm in love with the dress on the left in the 'evening' photo. So nice! Thanks for sharing!

  22. Love the Horrockses frocks, am going to visit the exhibition myself soon, I would like the book, is it for sale there (or cheaper perhaps on good old amazon).
    Talking Vintage Hen, whilst surfing webwise today I came across a pix of a very familiar lady with a little munchkin boy, at Goodwood! This featured on Vogue Blog no less! Check it out!
    Missed Goodwood - shame!
    Also have just subscribed (naughty another mag subscription) to Vintage Life - looks like your type of mag! I take Best of British which keeps OH happy (steam trains etc etc) but this one looks for girlys!! vintage compacts, clothes, hair etc, anyone else take it yet???

  23. Those dresses are gorgeous, I would quite happily wear those even today!

    Victoria xx

  24. I really enjoyed your review - it felt as if I was at the exhibition!Such a wealth of fascinating fabrics and dresses - I especially liked seeing the Pat Albeck plates-of-food on green one! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  25. wow i'd never heard of this til i stumbled upon it on the net the other week, looks fab but umm tad expensive to camp? great for a special treat tho, thought the posh wigwam tents or gypsy caravans looked great if you could afford it!! We saw kitten the burlesque dancer at beltring, she used to be volumptuous and dark haied, this year she seems to have lost weight and now blonde. Prefered her old look!


You are warmly encouraged to leave a comment here. Your comments are emailed directly to me so rest assured I read and treasure every one. Thank you for supporting my blog with your comment. X