In this week's blog, CS Ambassador Connie Slater explores the history of one of the most famous postwar British ready-to-wear labels, Horrockses.
Established in 1946 by Crewdson and Company Ltd, Horrockses Fashions took the post-war clothing market by storm. Known for their quality, reliability, and artistic prints, the fashion house built its empire, appealing to both housewives and royalty. But how did a cotton manufacturer, formed in 1791, most popular for their cotton sheeting and towelling become a recognised fashion house? And how did they ensure brand exclusivity and unique designs at a time when prêt-à-porter was becoming increasingly mainstream?
Horrockses Fashions was born as a means for its parent company, Crewdson and Company Ltd, to sell more of their household cottons. It also enabled them to have direct control over the garments their cottons were being made into. To form brand originality and exclusivity, Horrockses used a combination of in-house textile artists and well-known artists to create their prints. When one thinks of Horrockses, oversized floral motifs, organised among rows of nautical stripes spring to mind – indeed summery fabric prints used on clothing nowadays seem heavily influenced by these designs. Artist Alastair Morton was the man responsible for popularising these sorts of prints and worked with Horrockses until 1955 when it was decided that the Horrockses customer needed something new. Alongside Morton, Horrockses Fashions also worked with Artists Eduardo Paolozzi (whose Horrockses cocktail dress can be found in The Harris) and Graham Sutherland (whose portrait of Winston Churchill was infamously burned in 1955) to create unique pieces.
Each season around “70 to 80 fabric designs” were “used for a collection of 150 to 160 dress styles” , the idea being that if the designs were spread across more clothing items, the dresses would appear exclusive, rather than the outcome of mass-production. This was especially important given the popularity of Horrockses clothing, particularly in honeymooning and holiday destinations. Although the colours and prints became the signature of Horrockses Fashions, Crewdson and Company’s original venture, cotton, also became a selling point of the brand. During the 1940s in Britain, cotton had become a fabric associated with practicality, lesser in value and desirability than silk. However, the creation of the Cotton Board in 1940 meant the industry in Britain had a “central body” . As such, Horrockses Fashions entered the market at a time when the craftsmanship and manufacturing process of cotton was regarded as a governmental issue. Horrockses cottons came from the cotton sheeting of its parent company, as it boasted a good-drape, (essential for the often-gathered skirts used in Horrockses designs) washability, and softness. These are perhaps some of the reasons why Queen Elizabeth II opted for several Horrockses dresses on her 1953 Commonwealth tour. Horrockses Fashions reinstated the popularity of cotton at the time, showing that it could take on many silhouettes, and held colour and print admirably.
The popularity of Horrockses, and particularly their dresses, came in part as a result of the media attention they gained. As well as having yearly catwalk shows, Horrockses would make their usual ‘off-the-peg’ styles up, specially fitted for “favoured customers” , while also providing the wardrobe for several British films (It Always Rains on Sunday, Where No Vultures Fly).As well as Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret was also spotted wearing several Horrockses dresses, providing fashion inspiration to many women throughout Britain. Indeed, in emulating their celebrity idols, women would spend £4-£7 on a Horrockses dress, which, at the time would have been around a weeks’ worth of wages! A Horrockses frock was considered a ‘splurge’ item for many women, who were seeing the advantages of the post-war boom. Certainly, Horrockses designs, with their billowing gathered skirts, bright patterns, and expensive price tag mirrored the consumer habits of the time as all social classes enjoyed a more disposable income, with the excesses of money reflected in the excesses of fabric. Exclusivity was also maintained via supply: Horrockses would only allow certain, upmarket department stores to stock their clothes, and would occasionally create ‘specials’ for the likes of Harvey Nichols, which were unique to the shop.
Today Horrockses is lesser-known, but still around, with the research of Dr. Christine Boydell bringing awareness of the brand to an entirely new generation. Not only is there an ever-increasing market for ‘vintage’ Horrockses dresses, but the brand has recently brought out collections with ASOS, and there is talk of Horrockses producing fabric available to buy by the metre through their website https://www.horrockses.com/. Probably the largest collection of original Horrockses dresses available to see are held at The Harris in Preston, alongside a considerable amount of material from the company’s design archives.
 Boydell, Christine. “Horrockses Fashion and Cotton Ready-to-Wear in the 1940s and 1950s.” The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 - the Present, no. 33, 2009, pp. 16.
 Boydell, Christine. “Horrockses Fashion and Cotton Ready-to-Wear in the 1940s and 1950s.” The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 - the Present, no. 33, 2009, pp. 13.
 Boydell, Christine. “Horrockses Fashion and Cotton Ready-to-Wear in the 1940s and 1950s.” The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 - the Present, no. 33, 2009, pp. 22.
 Horrockses Fashions: Off-the-Peg Style in the ‘40s and ‘50s by Christine Boydell.
 Visit The Harris’ collection: https://www.theharris.org.uk/collections/fashion-textiles/
 The Courtauld has a blog about Horrockses. The blog, titled "Horrockses Fashions: Fun, Feminine, Fifties", is available to read here http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/tag/horrockses/
Sign up to receive occasional updates