‘At Home Glamour’: explaining the housecoat to consumers in mid-twentieth century Britain.

While researching Horrockses Fashions a few years ago I bought a couple of their housecoats. These full-length glamorous garments seemed so far removed from the more mundane dressing gown that it lead me to wonder what kind of women would have worn them, in what circumstances and why had they disappeared from women’s wardrobes? My fascination led to a conference paper on the subject  and during lockdown I finally found time to go back to my research and decided to share my musings. What we wear at home has taken on a new significance recently, maybe you chose to stay in your pyjamas all day or conducted a Zoom meeting in your dressing gown? Maybe this is the right time to rethink what we wear at home and revive the housecoat? Hopefully this rather lengthy piece – will  provide food for thought.



Horrockses Fashions, 1947 (Author’s Collection)

In the 1940s and the 1950s the housecoat (sometimes known as a house gown or hostess gown) was a popular component of a middle/upper-class woman’s wardrobe; it was an elegant, tailored, full length and often voluminous indoor outfit that has no equivalent today[1] . Its meaning and purpose were contested and there was disagreement about what it was for and when it should be worn: was it a more glamorous cousin of the dressing gown; was it suitable for wearing to dinner parties; was it practical for household duties; could one answer the front door wearing one? Its popularity was short-lived and although the term continued to be used for a range of less formal garments worn before going to bed and after getting up, by about 1960 the version discussed in this paper had in effect disappeared.

This paper seeks to understand this very particular category of garment and the contexts for its emergence, development and disappearance.  It examines the life cycle of the housecoat, focusing on its lineage, its conception in the 1930s and its demise at the end of the 1950s. It explores attempts by some in the clothing trade to market what it hailed as a ‘new’ product for a new modern age and uncovers the reasons for the difficulties it had in explaining the product to potential consumers.

At the heart of the study is an examination of the trade magazine, with a particular focus on the journal Corsetry and Underwear.[2]  Trade journals such as this provide valuable insights into the attitudes and preoccupations of manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers. Such publications up-dated their subscribers on technological advances, relevant political and economic developments, the latest news on fashions, fabrics and trimmings, as well as providing information on the purchasing habits of consumers, ideas about selling and developments in markets at home and overseas.[3]  In the case of the housecoat they offer evidence about the development of this ‘new’ garment, the trade’s understanding of it and the strategies used to persuade women to purchase them.

What emerges from this study is a contradictory item of clothing. The housecoat was situated on the threshold of the bedroom and the rest of the house, it was neither outdoor wear nor lingerie, and could even be worn to host informal dinners at home. It also seemed to be simultaneously glamorous and domestic. These oppositions led to confused explanations of the housecoat’s function which were reflected in the advice provided to manufacturers and retailers in the trade journal. The struggle to fix its meaning and function in the middle years of the twentieth century was paralleled by a period of instability and change for women, when new discourses were seeking to reinforce the association of domesticity and femininity, the housecoat can be read as emblematic of that discourse.


The confusion around the function and naming of the ‘housecoat’ begins long before its birth and has its genesis in the development of a variety of dishabille clothing in the nineteenth century. There were numerous variations in this category of garment and they ranged from ‘dressing gowns’, ‘tea gowns’, ‘robes d’interior’, ‘peignoirs’, ‘negligees’ and ‘rest gowns’. Such complexity reflected the fact that women from upper-class fashionable society changed their clothes many times during the day, with specific garments for particular activities. The practice was also driven by manufacturers and retailers as it encouraged consumption. A 1908 catalogue from the Parisian department store La Samaritaine illustrates some of the range of dishabille clothing available.

Brighton and Hove-20121127-00117

La Samaritaine, 1908

An upper-class woman’s ability to navigate successfully the rules of what to wear and when, was a demonstration of her sartorial expertise, and consequently her social standing. The fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki, writing about her aunt Sophie’s in the late 1940s and early 1950s, recalled her frequent changes of clothes during a typical day, this included a flowing pink satin peignoir in the mornings when she applied her make-up and ‘by the evening the tea gown made its appearance … a long garment made of silk velvet, crepe or brocade, somewhere between an evening dress and a dressing gown.’[4] The glamour of both these garments was a contrast to the more commonly worn dressing gown which was not considered to be suitable to wear in front of visitors, probably due to its loose fit and tie around sash that could easily fall open. The dressing gown was worn by men and women and had developed from a male banyan or nightgown in the nineteenth century.[5] They were usually worn over bedclothes when getting up, going to bed, or preparing for a bath. There were connotations of slovenliness if worn during the day, which was highlighted in the 1957 British film ‘Woman in a Dressing Gown’ in which the main character, a housewife played by Yvonne Mitchell, lived in the garment which is used to signify her depression, loss of interest in the world, and general sloppiness.[6]

The direct ancestor of the housecoat is the tea gown rather than the dressing gown. The tea gown was an indoor dress developed in the 1870s, when women’s clothing was tight-fitting and constrictive. It allowed upper-class women to temporarily abandon their fashionable bustles and corsets for a short period from the late afternoon to the early evening before dressing for dinner. Initially the tea gown opened down the front and could be put on without the assistance of the ladies’ maid. Favoured materials were silk, satin, chiffon and lace and tea gowns were often decoratively flounced and trimmed and had elaborate sleeves and collars. They gradually became more fitted, following the fashionable silhouette and were included in the ranges of the most fashionable designers and couturiers. By the 1890s the tea gown had progressed from attire suitable for wearing at tea, to a garment appropriate for informal dining.

Even though corsetry became less restrictive, the tea gown continued to be a popular component of an upper-class woman’s wardrobe into the 1920s and 30s. The American etiquette expert Emily Post, writing in 1922, described the garment as ‘a hybrid between a wrapper and a ball dress. It has always a train and usually long flowing sleeves, is made of rather gorgeous materials and goes on easily, and its chief use is not for wear at the tea-table so much as for dinner alone with one’s family’.[7]  Whilst Good Housekeeping advised its readers in 1936, that ‘No trousseau can be complete without a tea gown of the type which is suitable for informal entertaining and dining à deux at home.’[8]

GH May 36, p63

Good Housekeeping, May 1936, p.63

The garment was not exactly lingerie, but nor was it suitable for wearing outside the house. Examples illustrated in fashion magazines, such as Vogue in the twenties and thirties, were usually placed in glamorous settings: a reception room with a large chandelier, at the bottom of a sweeping staircase, but not usually in the bedroom. By 1930 Draper’s Record suggests it was becoming old fashioned, noting that is was now restricted to ‘the more conservative section of the feminine public’.[9]


Housecoats by Hélène Yrande (left) and Elsa Schiaparelli (right) [Vogue, Oct 18 1933, p.87]

The development of the housecoat can be read as an attempt by the trade to reinvent the tea gown. The first mention of the term appeared in Vogue in October 1933 when it was described as ‘the newest version of the tea gown’.[10] Two examples were illustrated, a deep blue velvet model with an upstanding collar and flared skirt by Hélène Yrande and a red velvet housecoat with a fishtail train by Elsa Schiaparelli. Both examples are close fitting and floor-length, with an accompanying commentary that emphasises their modernity and fashionability. It was proposed that the Yrande model could even be worn outside the house as an evening coat, (here we have a hint of the possibility of multi-functionalism that becomes an issue in explanations of the housecoat in forthcoming years).

As manufacturers attempted to distance the product from its precursor, there were numerous efforts to re-name the garment. This is highlighted in Drapers’ Record in August 1937 with the illustration of a hybrid garment by Horace Corke & Co identified as a ‘house-coat-cum-dressing-gown’.[11] It is described as made from ‘Zenana’ cloth from Courtaulds and has a close fitting bodice, with buttons arranged off-centre that extended from collar to waist. The ankle-length skirt has an off-centre opening, the sleeves are long with buttoned cuffs. However, the tailoring in this example is very different from the loose-fitting wrap around style normally associated with dressing gowns. By the early 1950s when ‘housecoats’ are well established, the term ‘tea-gown’ still appears very occasionally when it was used to describe ‘a rather exclusive part of housecoat ranges’.[12]

DR 28.8.37 dressing gowns

Horace Corke housecoat. Drapers’ Record, 28 August 1937


After its first appearance in Vogue in 1933 the housecoat appeared only occasionally throughout the 1930s and it was not until the end of the decade that it could be seen regularly in the trade press. A feature in Drapers’ Record from October 1937, declared ‘The house-coat is here’.[13] It highlighted the fact that they were designed ‘with an eye on fashion’ and had advantages over the loose-fitting dressing gown as ‘they fasten more firmly, and are more comfortable to lounge in. They are naturally more flattering to the figure; are easier to display, and therefore easier to sell’.[14]

DR 23.10.37 p50 'The House-Coat is Here'

Drapers’ Record, 23 October 1937. p.50

The journal encouraged its retail subscribers to differentiate the housecoat from other similar garments, in 1940 it contrasted the dressing gown – with ‘its straight mannish lines’, with the housecoat, with its ‘fitted top and flaring skirt’. The term housecoat makes its first appearance in Corsetry and Underwear Journal in June 1939 with an illustration of an example by Howard’s Lingerie. This floor-length model has front-fastening buttons extending to the knee, the bodice fits tightly and has a large falling collar, the short puffed sleeves emphasise the shoulders and echo the fashionable silhouette.[15]  All of the early housecoats resemble full-length coats rather than dressing gowns.

The introduction of the housecoat (or house gown) into the product range of the manufacturer Chilprufe in the early 1940s provides an illustration of how one company launched and promoted this ‘new’ garment. The Leicester-based firm was founded by John Bolton who established the Chillproof Manufacturing Company in 1906 producing woollen underclothes for children and by 1930 had added ladies’ embroidered dressing gowns to its product range. The firm became Chilprufe Limited in 1936, by which time it had diversified further, making children’s tailored coats and nightclothes as well as women’s nightdresses, slippers and vests, and later swimwear and men’s underwear. Chilprufe specialised in pure new wool clothing and emphasised practicality, warmth and comfort in its marketing literature. In 1938 the term ‘house gown’ first featured in its sales brochures[16], pictured alongside dressing gowns but distinguished from them by their button fastening, tailored bodices, collars with revers and longer lengths.

In sales catalogues, dressing gowns are always 52 inches long, whilst house gowns are 54 inches and often trailed on the floor, suggesting more limited practicality. The tailoring involved meant they were more expensive than dressing gowns. The wholesale price of the latter was between 33 to 66 shillings, while a Chilprufe house gown sold from 51 to 72 shillings. By the early 1940s the word ‘gown’ had been replaced in Chilprufe’s literature by ‘coat’, probably to distance the product the class-ridden and now old-fashioned ‘tea-gown’.

In 1945 Corsetry and Underwear explained that the popularity of the housecoat arose directly out of war-time conditions, noting that an elegant version was able to function as a ‘fitting substitute for war-banished evening gowns’.[17]

An advertisement appearing in its pages in 1941 described the housecoat as an ‘an indispensable item in the wartime wardrobe’.[18] Fuel shortages meant it was essential to wrap up warm at home and the housecoat is recommended as a way of achieving this. [19] Examples made of wool were particularly appropriate. The illustrator Pearl Binder wore wool versions during the war and after, which were made for her by a dressmaker. [20] Air force personnel were billeted with her and her family during the war and her illustration of their arrival clearly implies the acceptability of receiving these temporary guests wearing a housecoat. With clothes rationing a fact of life for several years after the war the benefits of the housecoat as a way of saving on one’s clothes was also highlighted by Good Housekeeping. [21] At the beginning of the war many manufacturers were left with large stocks of evening dresses which they were unable to sell and several converted them into housecoats by adapting them and giving then front fastenings. [22] Such adaptations probably aided the popularity of the housecoat in the 1940s. However, some of the confusions encountered later probably have their origins in this war-time culture of, re-use and multi-function.


By the mid-1940s the term ‘housecoat’ was firmly established in the sartorial vocabulary of the British consumer. As the garment was not entirely new, many consumers, particularly the wealthy leisured class, would have understood it as ‘the newest version of the tea gown’, and would have a tacit awareness of when and where it was appropriate to wear one. But manufacturers were trying to reach a much broader customer base than this relatively small number of women. It was particularly crucial, therefore, that retailers found ways of selling the housecoat to women who had no experience of them. In order to stimulate consumption manufacturers had to persuade women that it was indeed something that they had to have. In its efforts to do this it was important that they explained clearly what the garment was for and when and where it could be worn. This was done initially through messages conveyed in advertising and then later with the help of the trade press through numerous feature articles, including ideas on selling for retailers. For example, a 1953 piece suggested that retailers should ‘approach the fashion writer of your local paper, show her your stock and arouse her enthusiasm … get manufacturers to co-operate with their own advertising. Tie up the promotion with the store’s autumn fashion show’.[23]

As the 1940s progressed the attention given to the housecoat increases. At this time the efforts of manufacturers and the trade press to explain the garment were limited to notions of elegance and practicality, with a general consensus regarding the function of the garment as an item of indoor dress that could be worn for dinners at home with close family and friends, it was recommended as ‘the ideal garment for informal social evenings at home’,[24] or for ‘quiet relaxation’.[25]

There were a variety of companies producing housecoats during the 1940s and 1950s, some were established manufacturers of lingerie including nightdresses and underwear, others specialised in dressing gowns and housecoats, while some diverged into housecoat manufacture via fashionable outerwear. Howard’s (Lingerie) Limited was an example of the first type. It was the first manufacturer to advertise its housecoats regularly in the Corsetry and Underwear.

The firm, established in 1936, explained that its housecoats were ‘warm and comfortable, and can be classified as “good dressing” for informal occasions’.[26]

The elegance of its product was emphasised in its advertising in the trade press. An example from 1946, illustrated a floral printed satin housecoat with long balloon sleeves ending in a deep buttoned cuff, the bodice fits tightly around the waist and bust and the shoulders are padded and follow contemporary fashion.[27] The addition of elaborately dressed hair, ear rings and elegant sandals, with the model resting her hand on a stylish armchair gives the ensemble the impression of sophistication and supports the trade’s message that the housecoat was suitable for evening wear at home.

C&U July 46 p.11

Corsetry & Underwear, July 1946

Specialist housecoat manufacturers included Lydia Moss and Kay Sidney Limited. Kay Sidney‘s output was dominated by styles with full length front closing zips and elasticated waists, designs accentuated practicality and descriptions in advertising noted warmth and comfort.

A number of companies whose chief line was women’s fashion also produced housecoat collections. One such firm was Horrockses Fashions, a London-based subsidiary of the cotton manufacturer Horrockses Crewdson & Co Ltd, established in 1946 as a way of promoting the parent company’s cotton cloth. Horrockses Fashions included housecoats in its ranges from the outset. This was partly a response to the rising popularity of the garment. But as a manufacturer of fashion lines, and particularly seasonal cotton summer dresses, the company needed to make sure its making-up factories were producing all year round, housecoat manufacture satisfied this requirement. Management minutes indicate that the housecoat operation was also useful for using up surplus cloth not needed for the production of dresses, either as the main fabric or as linings. In the late 1940s and early 1950s housecoats made up between ten and fourteen percent of their total production and was acknowledged a significant product in their range of merchandise.[28]


The ideas of elegance and practicality that had dominated discourses around the housecoat in the 1940s continued to be communicated into the 1950s.  But in their efforts to help manufacturers and retailers reach new consumers, the trade magazine also added an array of confusing and sometimes, contradictory messages around ideas of modesty and respectability, domesticity and glamour, and work and leisure. Explaining to potential consumers the appropriate occasions and locations for wearing the housecoat is something often referred to: was it dress or undress, to be worn upstairs or downstairs, could it really be worn in front of guests or to answer the front door? Corsetry and Underwear explained that a housecoat was ‘usually worn direct over underwear’,[29] this is confirmed by women who wore them at the time and implies that it was more like outerwear than lingerie. Concerns over how to categorise the garment were evident when versions of the housecoat first appeared. When Chilprufe launched its house gowns in 1938 they were described as ‘An innovation! An entirely new conception of house wear…ideal for every indoor occasion, for breakfast to informal dining! Gowns eminently smart and practical, with no suggestion of des-habille!’[30] Chilprufe’s attempt to fix its function as all-purpose ‘house wear’ and reject completely any association with lingerie illustrates the importance of explaining a ‘new’ garment to customers.

Page called 'Presents of Chilprufe' n.d (BCH a

Page called ‘Presents of Chilprufe’ from a Chilprufe catalogue n.d (University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections -BCH

In the housecoat’s early history there was a level of anxiety and confusion felt by retailers about its function and consequently how to place and promote it in their stores. This is borne out in an incident recounted by the Nottingham manufacturer of tailored leisure wear, Cyril Myers who explained to the Corsetry and Underwear Journal his initial difficulties in selling his housecoats to some retailers.

He recounted an incident from 1941 when one Scottish customer was horrified when shown a photograph of a Myers’ housecoat, commenting: ‘If my wife came down in the evening wearing such a garment, I’d send her back to dress properly!’. [31] His comment illustrates a middle-class concern about respectability, decency and modesty that was not so evident among the wealthy leisured upper- class in relation to the tea-gown. But as housecoats were being targeted at the masses such concerns had to be addressed. By 1945 it would seem that retailers were becoming clearer about the function of the housecoat as a smart, semi-formal indoor dress, and the Scottish retailer’s initial horror receded and he placed a large order with Myers. The same year Myers was able to move to a new factory in Nottingham and treble its production of leisure-wear, including housecoats.

The early 1950s sees a peak in editorial coverage of housecoats in Corsetry and Underwear. In a 1953 piece ‘Taking Shape: housecoats hit the headlines’, the journal felt the garment was so well established it warranted a review of its history- from ‘a drab duty number’ in 1937, to, in 1953, ‘a garment of grace, style and in many cases beauty of which forms an effectual mask for its essentially functional purpose’.[32] The journal continued to feel the need to reassure women via, retail sales staff, about questions of when it was appropriate to wear the garment, noting that a woman wearing one could, ‘With no embarrassment whatever about whether or not she has that “just right” look [she] may gaily open the door to the milkman, the doctor or the personal friend’.[33]


In seeking to reach a wider market conflicting messages were given suggesting that the housecoat was suitable attire for both domestic chores and for wearing in one’s leisure hours. Such contradictions reflect the fact that women’s roles were facing re-evaluation. During the Second World War large numbers of women had experienced work outside the home for the first time. But the immediate post-war years saw much discussion of their key place in the re-establishment of domestic harmony. There was a renewed focus on the home, particularly in terms of it as a privatised family space.[34] The home increasingly became a site for leisure activity and consumption and at its centre was the housewife, whose role at the time was being redefined and explained in women’s magazines and self-help manuals. For the middle-class woman this new emphasis on the home coincided with the virtual disappearance of the domestic servant, and the growing prominence in her life of domestic housework.  This corresponded with an expansion in the number of women in paid employment who had to fit housework around their jobs. Such factors are reflected in the kinds of messages constructed in order to sell the housecoat.

During the 1940s there was only an occasional acknowledgement in the trade press of women’s changing roles. This is represented in an advertisement for one of Victor Jacobs’ housecoats in Corsetry and Underwear that described its product as suitable for ‘informal occasions when busy women take a well-earned leisure at home’.[35]

C&U Feb 1942 p12

Corsetry & Underwear, Feb 1942, p.12

But by the early 1950s discourses around the housecoat are much more explicit and seem to require the woman to be a leisured society hostess and an accomplished and organised housekeeper, cook and cleaner, and this dichotomy is expressed clearly in Corsetry and Underwear’s discussions of the housecoat. The established description of a housecoat provided by the trade press and manufacturers’ advertising – as a full-length, full-skirted voluminous garment with a tight-fitting bodice – might have been suited to the activities of a leisured hostess, but was highly incompatible for the domestic chores most women were faced with at the time. Particularly impractical were housecoats with long, flowing sleeves and skirts which trailed the floor and consisted of many yards of fabric.

These stylistic features were combined with frequent references to glamour and elegance which found there way into discussions of the housecoat in women’s magazines and mail order catalogues. Kay’s Spring/Summer catalogue of 1956 titled its housecoat page as ‘At Home Glamour, Luxury Housecoats to fulfil your every dream’.


Kay’s Catalogue, 1956, p.49

However, such discourses were sometimes at odds with the realities of life for many. One woman recalled owning several housecoats before marrying. She wore them when staying in hotels and having breakfast in her suite and in the evenings at home. When her parents went out for dinner and brought back visitors, she would meet them in her housecoat. She stopped wearing them once she was ‘married, had children, ran a household, washed nappies, cleaned fires out, came down to earth’.[36]  Although Corsetry and Underwear claimed that some versions of the housecoats were suitable for women who ‘look after the home, collect the coal, wash up the breakfast dishes and light fires’[37] the only kind of housework illustrated tended to be the less strenuous side of homemaking – flower arranging, and serving coffee or cocktails.

There were adaptations to the housecoat to facilitate housework such as examples that allow the sleeves to push up and ‘avoid knocking over cups and saucers’[38] and the introduction of three-quarter sleeves.

Discourses around leisure were frequent and Corsetry and Underwear titled a 1955 article – ‘For Luxury Lounging’.[39] However, the content of the piece concentrates on the housecoat’s general versatility. Women’s magazines and newspapers recommend its suitability as a garment for watching television. An advertisement for Harrods in Vogue in 1951 described the featured housecoats as ‘Here’s leisured elegance in cosy casuals – designed for television or fireside stay-at-home evenings’. [40]

Gwen Robyns writing in the Evening News in 1952 impressed upon her readers the importance of looking elegant during one’s leisure hours. Her feature ‘Are you a tatty viewer?’ recommended a fitted, elegant housecoat for television watching.[41] The association of the housecoat with leisure is also emphasised in the description of some manufacturers as producers of ‘tailored leisurewear’.


The styling of the housecoat paralleled Dior’s fashionable ‘New Look’ introduced in 1947. Housecoats tended to follow the New Look silhouette, with nipped in waists, voluminous skirts and sloping shoulders. In the fashion illustrations and advertising images that were frequently seen in Corsetry and Underwear, the artists tended to exaggerate the size of skirts, the smallness of waists and the general romantic and feminine qualities of the garments. The exaggerated sexuality and glamour that they suggested was perhaps at odds with the more domestic connotations seen in some commentaries.

C&U vol18 52b

Corsetry & Underwear, 1952

For all her roles, the woman was required to be ‘feminine’ which is highlighted in a 1955 article in Corsetry and Underwear titled ‘Cool elegance: housecoat and fabrics for summer promotion’.[42] The piece proposes various approaches to retail promotion, but foregrounds femininity as a feature to emphasise, ‘floor length (in most cases) and full skirted, the housecoat can afford a woman the expression of feminine graciousness’. The role of the housecoat as ‘an indispensable unit in a woman’s wardrobe’ is stressed and it is described both as ‘an easy-to-slip-into garment for early morning wear’ and ‘for informal entertaining at home’. [43] Femininity was also suggested by the dominance of floral fabrics. While some patterns were influenced by trends in fabrics for interiors, which meant that a woman in her housecoat could ‘strike a fresh and original note, and [which] blend well with modern furnishing schemes’. [44] A woman could quite literally become part of the furniture!

The key was to look elegant and attractive at every opportunity. In a 1953 piece titled ‘Fashion in the Home’, retailers were encouraged to ‘make “Beauty at Breakfast” your new selling theme’. Corsetry and Underwear suggested that they were much more aware of the realities of the lives of housewives than the popular women’s magazines, noting that they had been ‘urging married women to make themselves up before breakfast… a housecoat takes only two seconds to put on and with, say, a matching ribbon in the hair can transform the wearer from a sleep-sodden apparition into something that is really pleasing to the early morning male eye’. [45]

Corsetry and Underwear ran endless features on the design and functions of the housecoat and attempted to describe to retailers how they should display and sell it. An article from 1955 encouraged retail subscribers to promote the housecoat as a versatile item in a woman’s wardrobe:

‘When a woman enters a shop to purchase such a garment, she realises that she will want to wear it in the bedroom, in the kitchen, to lounge in it and to do the housework. As it is to be worn in the winter it must protect her against cold draughts when she collects the milk: because she must work in it, it must be strong enough to withstand household hazards, and finally it must be attractive enough to wear in the evenings.’ [46]

The impossibility of one garment being appropriate for such a range of activities is clear, but the mid-1950s saw increasing promotion emphasising the housecoat as an ‘all-purpose’ garment, whilst simultaneously encouraging retailers to persuade women to buy several housecoats in different styles suitable for different activities: ‘one for the practical purposes of a dressing gown and one in which to be glamorous.’ [47]


One of the aims of a journal such as Corsetry and Underwear was to advise its readers on the best way to reach potential consumers and in their efforts to help sales-staff they endeavoured to classify the housecoat. In June 1950 it identified ‘three housecoat style groups – the semi-formals, well-dressed looking casuals and the soft elastic types’.[49] These categories reflected the multiple activities that women encountered in the 1950s, and if sales staff were to be successful in communicating this effectively through displays and interactions with shoppers, the result would hopefully mean a customer might make multiple purchases. The ‘soft-elastic types’ described could be seen in the products from Kay Sidney, the casuals in Charles Lyons ‘Chaslyn’ range and semi- formals in the output of manufacturers such as Hitchcock Williams, a long-established London wholesaler, manufacturing ladies’ outerwear and the ‘San Paula’ range of housecoats which were characterised by smart tailoring:

Spafford-Jones of Newark Nottinghamshire and its competitor Cooper of Newark  both specialised in the ‘semi-formals’ producing fashion-led garments for the middle and expensive market.

The discourse of fashion is repeatedly used, with Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter ‘seasons’ referred to. Again the motivation is the desire to get women to buy more than one housecoat. Different weights of fabric are highlighted as being suitable for particular seasons. Corsetry and Underwear felt that the association of housecoats with the world of fashion was a ‘saving grace’ for the housecoat manufacturer and retailer, presumably as consumers might be inclined to replace their housecoat on a more regular basis. Features on housecoats focus on fashion and tailoring details, and they are usually distinguished from dressing gowns because of they were fashionably styled.  This was particularly the case with the more formal housecoats or house gowns where such fashionable detail had been regarded as a key selling point throughout the fifties. Variations in general shape, sleeve and collar design are mentioned with one journalist referring to ‘important collars.’[50]

In 1959 Corsetry and Underwear reported that the design of housecoats was closely allied to couture and they particularly pick out the trapeze line for comment, claiming it was ‘…a gift to the housecoat designers, and now the up-to-date young woman can rest assured that she is contemporary…’[51]

C&U July 59

Corsetry & Underwear, July 1959

The dominance of discussions of this kind also distances the housecoat from lingerie and connects them more closely to women’s outerwear, specifically coats and evening dresses. For fashion manufacturers that also produced housecoats, such as Horrockses Fashions, there was a synergy between the production of dresses and housecoats. Horrockses frequently borrowed bodice and sleeve styles for its housecoats from its evening and day dress designs. This relationship is also very much in evidence in sewing patterns available to the home dressmaker where the same pattern could be used for housecoat or dress.

repro pattern Etsy

Reproduction pattern (Etsy)

The benefit to the trade of the housecoat being sold as a fashion garment as opposed to lingerie meant that the consumer might be persuaded to purchase a new housecoat more frequently, and at least once a year. But some impatience is expressed with consumers. In 1953 Corsetry and Underwear  noted that of the fourteen million potential buyers in Britain only one woman in fifty bought a new housecoat annually – ‘yet there was no reason why housecoats should not occupy as important a place in the average woman’s wardrobe as separates or her Sunday best’.[52]


The latter half of the 1950s saw formality in housecoat design gradually being substituted by more casual styles. The fitted bodice is replaced by the trapeze, A-line or empire-line styles. In 1957 Corsetry and Underwear declared that  ‘The housecoat of today is an extremely comprehensive garment that covers most of the forms of attire which have been variously styled ‘bathrobes’, ‘negligees’, ‘peignoirs’, ‘wraps’ and ‘dressing gowns’ … in fact anything goes’.[54] The emphasis is resolutely on the practical with shorter three-quarter sleeves becoming more common and easy-care qualities emphasised.  A shorter version of the housecoat by S.Travers first appeared in 1953 and another in 1955, but Corsetry and Underwear report a mixed reaction to them from retail buyers and they appear infrequently until the later fifties.[55] They are usually referred to as ‘shortie housecoats’ and sometimes as ‘brunchcoats’, betraying an American influence.

These versions were felt to be particularly appealing to teenagers and younger customers who were now wearing shorter nightdresses, suggesting they were more akin to lingerie rather than outerwear. Their length was felt to be ‘especially useful to for the busy young housewife and the younger girl who has not yet learnt to manage long skirts gracefully’.[56] In the later fifties nylon is increasingly used for housecoats. Wovenair Ltd specialised in quilted versions – which were promoted as providing ‘comfort while relaxing’. [57]  The practical virtues of nylon are also emphasised: the ease with which it could be laundered – ‘wash, shake and dry on a hanger’; its crease resistance; as well as its light weight making it much easier to pack.[58] Although the longer housecoat continued to be seen, the formality seen in earlier examples had almost disappeared.


This paper has sought to explain the evolution of one specific garment, the housecoat, through the discourses developed by the trade press in order to promote its adoption by consumers. It has demonstrated that an examination of this largely neglected source material can shed light on how various elements of the industry talked to each other and grappled with the problems of developing a distinct identity for specific garment. The characteristic features of a housecoat were established in the late 1930s: full length; fitted bodice; capacious skirt; resemblance to an outdoor coat rather than indoor lingerie; along with its function as a suitable form of attire for informal dining. The confusions surrounding the housecoat’s meaning and function that emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s have their basis in the family of garments to which it was related. Consumers were expected to understand the appropriate time and location to wear each of the myriad of dishabille clothing that was available up to the end of the 1930s. In its efforts to secure new markets the industry attempted to simplify the products on offer to women, who may not have understood the nuances between garments such as the peignoir and the tea gown – their solution was the housecoat. Some claimed it was a brand new garment, but its semi-formal character expressed through tailoring, fit and fashionable styling demonstrates a direct link with the tea-gown, as does its function as a garment for semi-public display.

Once the housecoat was established in the early 1940s, there seems to be only a short period when there was a general consensus about its meaning and use. Suggestion of later confusion is hinted at during the war when there is an occasional mention of the garment’s multi-functionalism, this increases, until by the mid 1950s there is a bewildering array of explanations of the housecoat’s purpose, culminating in the garment being celebrated as ‘all-purpose’ and ‘comprehensive’. The trade’s inability to classify the garment clearly and to fix its meaning, reflected their failure to fully understand the changing lives of their potential customers. The reinvention and modernisation of an earlier garment was part of the problem. The contradictions that emerged in the trade’s explanations of the housecoat in the middle years of the twentieth century reflected society’s difficulty in categorising women – were they – ideal homemakers, glamorous hostesses, busy housekeepers or working wives – as they were variously described on the pages of Corsetry and Underwear? The response was to persuade the consumer that the housecoat was a perfect fit for every role a woman encountered – but this was not possible and the time had long passed when women would buy a different type of garment for each subtly different activity. It was not until the end of the 1950s, when the housecoat was recontextualised into a practical, loose-fitting, shorter garment worn over nightwear rather than underwear and the long, tight fitting, semi-formal version disappeared, that the trade was able to demonstrate that it had recognised the needs of consumers.


Ruth Addison; Andrew Clay; Katharine Short, De Montfort University Special Collections; London College of Fashion, Special Collections; Professor Lou Taylor; Ann Simpson; University of Nottingham Manuscripts & Special Collections

© The copyright for this piece  rests with the author Christine Boydell.       Every effort has been made to seek permission to reproduce the images included within this article – images and text from this article must not be copied or reproduced.


[1] The term should not be confused with the garment worn by women to do domestic chores, confusingly also sometimes called a housecoat.

[2] Corsetry and  Underwear (C&U) (sometimes known as Corsetry and Underwear Journal), formally Knitwear and  Stockings was published by Circle Press in Leicester from 1935 to 1968, it became known as Foundationwear and Corsetry and Underwear and Bodylines from 1976. All issues were consulted at De Montfort University Special Collections.

[3] Whilst fashion and women’s magazines have received ample attention from academics, the trade journal is relatively neglected. The only substantial publication is Breward and Wilcox (eds) The Ambassador Magazine: promoting post-war British textiles and fashion (London: V&A Publications, 2012) which examines a specific magazine that promoted British exports.

[4] B.Hulanicki, From A to Biba (London: W.H.Allen, 1984), p.33.

[5] M.Swain, ‘Nightgown into dressing gown’, Costume, vol.6 (1982), pp.10-21.

[6] Woman in a Dressing Gown, (UK, J.Lee-Thompson, 1957)

[7] E. Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, (London: Cassell, 1969 [1922]) p.547.

[8] Good Housekeeping (May 36), p.63.

[9] Drapers’ Record (13.9.1930), p.484. Drapers’ Record was a journal established in 1887 to provide the clothing industry, particularly manufacturers and retailers, with news of relevant events in the political, financial, manufacturing and commercial world.

[10] ‘The housecoat is the newest version of the tea-gown’, Vogue (18 Oct 1933) p.87.

[11] Drapers’ Record (28 Aug 1937) p.134.

[12] ‘Autumn gowns are charged with formality’, C&U (July 1951), p.23.

[13] ‘The house-coat is here’, Drapers’ Record, (23 Dec 1937), p.50.

[14] ibid.

[15] C&U, (June 1939), p.29.

[16] Chilprufe catalogue 1938-9 (Uni of Nottingham Manuscripts& Special Collections – BCH/1/6/1/5)

[17] ‘The growth of housecoats’, C&U, (August 1945), p.22.

[18] C&U, (Oct 1941), p13.

[19] C&U (Aug 45) p.22.

[20] Pearl Binder was graphic artist and was married to Elwyn Jones who became a Labour MP in 1945 and later a life peer.

[21] Good Housekeeping, (August 1949), p.28.

[22] Draper’s Record, (2 Dec 1939), p.10.

[23] ‘Fashion in the home’, C&U, (July 1953), p.28.

[24] C&U (Sept 1944) p.21.

[25] C&U (Export Supplement 1949), p.VII.

[26] C&U (Oct 1941), p13.

[27] C&U (July 1946) p.11.

[28] Horrockses Fashions Limited. Extract from Verbatim Report of the Management Meeting, 29 November 1950 (LRO:DDVC Acc 7340 Box 12/3).

[29] ‘Taking shape’, C&U, (June 1953), p.47.

[30] Chilprufe advertising brochure ‘Presents of Chilprufe’ n.d. (Uni of Nottingham Manuscripts& Special Collections – (BCH

[31] C&U, (Aug 1945), p.22.

[32] ‘Taking shape: housecoats hit the headlines’, C&U (June 1953), p.47.

[33] ibid

[34] C. Langhamer, ‘The meaning of home in postwar Britain’, Journal of Contemporary History, 40 (2005), pp. 341-362; J.Giles, The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class Femininity and Modernity (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2004).

[35] C&U, (Feb 1942), p.12.

[36] Interview – Ruth Addison (May 2012)

[37] C&U (July 1955), p.32.

[38] C&U (July 1953), p.28.

[39] ‘For luxury lounging’, C&U, (July 1955), pp.32-41/

[40] Vogue, (Jan 1951) p.5.

[41] G. Robyns, ‘Are you a tatty viewer’, Evening News (18 July 1952) – (Lancashire Record’s Office: DDHs 49/2 1952-1955 Newscuttings Book)

[42] ‘Cool elegance: housecoat and fabrics for summer promotion’, C&U (Feb 1955), pp.44-53.

[43] Ibid., p.44.

[44] ibid., p45.

[45] ‘Fashion in the home’, C&U, (July 1952), p.28.

[46] ‘For luxury lounging’, C&U, (July 1955), p.32.

[47] C&U (June 1950), p.45.

[48] ‘Housecoats are high fashion’, C&U, (July 1959), pp.40-45.

[49] C&U (June 1950), p.45.

[50] ‘Winter elegance’, C&U, (July 1958), p.58.

[51] ibid., p.47.

[52] ‘Fashion in the home’, C&U, (July 1952), p.28.

[53] C&U, (July 1958), p.42.

[54] ‘The housecoat story’, C&U (Feb 59), p.42.

[55] In a feature from July 1959, ‘Housecoats are high fashion’ ‘shorties’ dominate with seven illustrated against four full-length. C&U, pp.40-45.

[56] C&U, (Feb 1957), p.54.

[57] C&U, (April 1957), p.73.

[58] ibid.


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‘Travels with my Tape Measure’ : the fashion design career of Sheila Hughes (Part 2) [1]


This is the second installment outlining the fashion design career of Sheila Hughes (you can find Part 1 here).

In 1970 Sheila was living in Great Torrington, North Devon. Her husband David had secured a job with the Dartington Hall Trust’s Beaford Centre[2] as public relations officer, organising arts and music programmes, courses and exhibitions. Her children were all in school so she was able to get back to designing and making. This was the era of the success of Laura Ashley and Sheila designed and made dresses that had a Laura Ashley look, including these.

She went to London in the hunt for suitable fabric for these creations, finding what she wanted in Brick Lane. Sheila sold her designs in a little shop in Torrington and also created leather waistcoats with fringing that suited the current hippy-style. She made ties, mainly for her husband David, who she describes ‘as very fashion conscious’.


Around this time, she began to think about returning to work for manufacturers and she approached a local firm Robec (founded by Roland Beck). With her experience of working as a designer in London, Sheila was offered a job as a cutter, but she was soon designing and making patterns as well. Sheila recalls that her colleagues were quite wary at first of this person from London! The small company specialised in the manufacture of children’s wear, particularly garments made from knitted stretch fabrics like baby grows, there was one other part-time cutter. Sheila worked for Robec on a part-time basis – three days a week, 9 until 3, so she could pick up her youngest child from school.  While she was at Robec they began the design and production of clothing for older children, up to the age of ten. She remembers jean-type garments made of knitted fabric with some stretch, like ski-pants.


Sheila went on to design children’s clothes at a company called Fletchers in Bideford. Because of her experience of designing children’s wear for Robec, Fletchers were pleased to have Sheila on board. She recalls visiting a big fabric trade fair in Frankfurt with one of the owners, Peggy Fletcher. Fletchers appreciated Sheila’s talent for being able to copy designs, indeed she considered that ability to be a real skill. Copying and adaptation have always been an important aspect of the fashion industry, however, when she once saw one of her designs copied and on display in the window of an Oxford Street shop, she was less than thrilled.

Oliver’s of Barnstaple

In 1973 Sheila moved to Oliver’s of Barnstaple as a designer/cutter. The company specialised in lingerie, specifically knickers. When Sheila started there, she was designing knickers of all kinds for the Littlewoods’ catalogue and for British Homes Stores (BHS).

Olivers design

This involved cutting new patterns to make a good fit, using a small amount of lace to best advantage, she also dealt with reps from lace companies. Many thousands of dozens of pairs were ordered and reordered. Sheila would first go to the BHS store in Leicester to see her work on display. Eventually price competition from the Far East caused Oliver’s to think of another product – swimwear.

Sheila had never designed swimwear before, so she undertook a self-directed crash course and attempted to learn everything she could. Because of the wide-ranging jobs she had done in the fashion industry, she had become an extremely versatile designer. But designing for swimwear was not easy, these garments require that the designer understands stretch fabrics (her experience with knitted fabrics at Robec and Fletchers must have heped), how a material might perform when wet, as well as the impact that salt and chlorine can have – and this research had to be done without the advantage of the internet! The first pieces that she designed for Oliver’s were a real success and BHS bought one of the designs, modelled in the photograph below by two of her daughters.

BHS bikinis modelled by my sisters

Two of Shelia’s daughters modelling her first BHS swimwear, July 1979

In the late 1970s Oliver’s were contacted by IPC Magazines to produce swimwear for an in-magazine offer. Sheila would go to its London office and discuss her design ideas. The resulting swimwear was sold through Woman’s Own magazine in 1979, 1980 and 1981 and in Woman’s World in 1980 and 1981. Oliver’s also manufactured swimwear for Boots and Littlewoods. She travelled regularly to London to meet with retail buyers and she built up a good relationship with Sally Ireland the buyer at BHS. During this period she was working more or less full-time.


The Move to Leicestershire

In 1976 the family moved to Leicestershire, where Sheila’s husband David took up a post as Organiser for Arts in Education. She continued to work for Oliver’s from there – she had a fully set-up studio in the family home in Ragdale, with a cutting table, an industrial overlocker and a lockstitch machine. From here she did all the company’s designing (mainly lingerie and swimwear), grading and liaised with customers.

In her studio Sheila would produce samples and patterns and meet lace reps to choose suitable examples for the lingerie designs.

The designs above were commissioned from Oliver’s by Laces & Textiles Ltd of Long Eaton and were designed to show off a new product they had developed – ‘Traverse’ lace’.

She would travel to Devon regularly to work on the production. This was a side of the process that Sheila really enjoyed, working out the best and most economic ways to produce a design. Part of the job involved travelling to fabric trade fairs such as Iguedo in Düsseldorf, and the DuPont fabric fair in Monte Carlo.

MA Leicester Polytechnic [3]

On one of Sheila’s trade fair trips she accompanied Contour Design undergraduates from Leicester Polytechnic and stayed with them in a hostel. The head of department, mindful of Sheila’s industry contacts, encouraged her to enrol for the recently validated Masters course and as she was offered a bursary – she decided to return to education.

It was quite a transition to return after so long, and Sheila found the no-limits to creativity quite a challenge. She recalls becoming quite frustrated at the amount of fabric waste she witnessed, as the priority of economy had been ingrained in her since she began working in industry in the 1950s. But ever-adaptable, Sheila enjoyed the challenge and also continued to work as a freelancer for Oliver’s. The MA students worked on a number of projects together before focusing on their own personal study.  Sheila’s study was on ‘The Design and Figure Problems of the Fuller Figure’, a neglected part of the market in 1981. The project involved a lot of research and measurement surveys, participants came from all over Leicestershire, including slimming clubs and the Women’s Institute.

She graduated in 1981 and it was around this time that Oliver’s found itself in a position, like so many other firms, of struggling to compete with imports from the Far East. These imports were selling at a price that Oliver’s paid for production alone. She finished working for them in 1982 when she became freelance.

Freelance Design

Sheila’s freelance career involved lots of interesting projects including working for Marks & Spencer’s. She travelled to London to its Baker Street headquarters and on the back of research she had done on the MA on designing for the fuller figure, she was commissioned by its Central Textile Technology Department to produce a report on ‘Women’s Lower Body Measurements’. She believes that the study was commissioned to help resolve that fact that they were getting a lot of returns. The study involved measuring 1400 women who were size 14 or above. Sheila had learned from her MA research that the length of women’s bodies varied enormously and so the crotch measurement was crucial, especially for trousers and swimwear. She believes the report was sent to Loughborough University to be worked on.

Between 1983 and 1985 she worked for the Design Council’s Design Advisory Service on its Funded Consultancy Scheme. She was employed by the Design Council to work with companies who had successfully applied for funding. They would receive advice and design input from someone like Sheila. She worked with several companies during this period – helping them with designs, they included the lingerie and knitwear firms Morley and Kemps of Nottingham

The experience of working with knitted fabrics led to a commission designing uniforms for Leicester Royal Infirmary’s paediatric occupational therapists. The brief was to design a uniform that might be something like mums would wear – so staff would appear be more approachable. She designed made-to-measure clothing (a top, trousers and a cardigan) made from dark green sweatshirt material.


The 1980s also saw Sheila making bespoke clothing for individual clients (she still had all the equipment that Oliver’s had supplied). She designed for lingerie companies, for Ski Leisurewear and for Dellabond, a London-based company who made silk clothing.

Sheila was able to share her wide-ranging experience of pattern cutting, grading and making-up by teaching a number of different courses for teachers at the Teacher’s Centre in Loughborough. She also worked as a part-time lecturer in the Fashion Department at Leicester Polytechnic.

Sheila characterises her career in the following way, ‘I didn’t design for the “high end” of fashion, my garments were aimed at the mass market – practical with the emphasis on good fit’. She was not one of the small number of designers producing expensive and exclusive fashions for the few, in fact, I would argue that her contribution is far more significant in that her creations touched lives of tens of thousands of people. It is as important to record the stories of designers like Sheila Hughes, and thankfully (although by sheer chance) I managed to meet Sheila before I moved away from the East Midlands. Her archive is now securely lodged in the De Montfort University Archives & Special Collections and is accessible, by appointment.[4]

[1] This was the title Sheila used when she travelled collecting information for a Marks & Spencer measurement survey in the early 1980s.

[2] The Beaford Centre

[3] For information on Leicester Polytechnic see https://library.dmu.ac.uk/archiveslanding

[4] The Sheila Hughes archive


This article would not have been possible without the cooperation and enthusiasm of Sheila Hughes herself. Over a number of visits I recorded interviews with her and she checked both texts for accuracy. All the images have been provided by her. Thanks also to her daughter Charlotte, who took the photograph of Sheila at the beginning of the article and helped with scanning and sending images.

Posted in Fashion Designers, swimwear, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

David Whitehead Limited: printed textiles from Lancashire

When I started collecting vintage fabrics in the early 1980s, they were, unsurprisingly, abundant and cheap. One of my first purchases was a length of David Whitehead’s ‘Flowerpots’ designed by Tom Mellor in 1954. This spun rayon fabric became kitchen curtains in my first house.  In 1993 my home town of Oldham was the location of a major exhibition of the work of this Lancashire firm. The exhibition took place in Oldham Museum and Art Gallery and was curated by Alan Peat who wrote a a useful little catalogue to accompany the exhibition. (1) The show brought together a collection of the company’s output – which helped to reinforce my appreciation of David Whitehead textiles. For me, the appeal relates to the company vision that emphasised modern designs at affordable prices. I have been buying, and more recently selling David Whitehead fabrics ever since.

David Whitehead Ltd was founded in 1927 as a subsidiary of the Whitehead Group (founded in Lancashire in 1815). Pre-war production was generally conservative in nature, but post-war investment in modern machinery provided the potential for greater volume production and the company’s emphasis on contemporary design resulted in extensive and positive press coverage.

It was the appointment of John Murray in 1948 that we see the emphasis of David Whitehead Ltd move decidedly towards modern contemporary designs. He introduced the trade name ‘David Whitehead Fabrics’ in a new modern typeface and invested in a campaign of advertising to publicise the company’s new approach to design. Murray was very critical of the current Manchester textile trade, christening its products as ‘Manchester Monotonies’ and was determined that Whitehead fabrics would be different and appeal to young consumers who wanted bright modern patterns. (2)

The company commissioned designs from young freelance artists and designers. However, they were not alone in this practice, several companies had been doing this before the war – Morton Sundour had a subsidiary Edinburgh Weavers, who had produced the work of a number of artists in the 1930s (including Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth), Warner & Sons and Heals had also done the same. In the 1940s Ascher had commissioned designs for silk head squares and fashion fabrics from a number of artists, including Henry Moore and Matisse. But what marks out David Whitehead’s products was their relative affordability. Murray wrote an article in Design in 1950 – ‘The cheap need not be cheap and nasty’ – where he noted that good design tended to be available at a price, but  ‘My own firm, on the other hand, caters primarily for those vast sections of humanity in which the emphasis is on cheapness and serviceability’. (3) This was made material in the twenty designs chosen for the Festival of Britain in 1951, including work by Conran, Jacqueline Groag and Neville Walters. Modern, bright and practical these fabrics represented the post-war optimism promoted by the Festival.

When Murray left David Whitehead in 1952, he was replaced by the architect Tom Mellor who continued to push the modern, contemporary credentials of the company. He sought out artists who would provide ‘design ideas’, for example, Henry Moore and particularly John Piper who became an important contributor. The work of both artists was adapted for production by the David Whitehead Design Studio.

Rather than buy a painting outright, David Whitehead purchased the right to produce the picture as a textile. Horrockses Fashions adopted a similar approach to its artist-designed fashion fabrics.

This approach saw its apotheosis at the 1953 ‘Painting into Textiles’ exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The Ambassador magazine sponsored the show, commissioning paintings from twenty-five artists and inviting textile firms to purchase a painting and produce a fabric inspired by it.  David Whitehead bought work from six designers – including William Scott, Paule Vézelay and Henry Moore (see above).

Other names who designed for the firm in the 1950s include emigres, Marian Mahler and Jacqueline Groag, several of their designs were printed on spun rayon, which was cheaper than cotton.

Roger Nicholson, John Feldman, Robert Tierney also provided designs. The Sweden-based artists Cliff Holden, Maj Nillson and Lisa Grönwall, known as the Marstrand Designers sold work to Whiteheads.  Maj Nillson’s 1959 design ‘Haddon’ and Cliff Holden’s large-repeat pattern ‘Solstice (1961) are both printed on cotton and represent the bright bold patterns that David Whitehead became so well known for.

Although many of the designers and artists who sold designs to David Whitehead are acknowledged on the selvedges of its fabrics, the company’s in-house, anonymous studio designers were responsible for many of its successful, modern designs.  See the designs and advertising images below.

The practice of working with artists and up-and-coming freelance designers continued throughout the 1960s, although Alan Peat argues that the promotion of the brand was less successful than in the previous decade. Jane Daniels’ name appears on several fabrics of the late 1950s and 1960s, including her 1960 pattern ‘Bologna’ and Campanile (nd) both of these are very painterly designs. Another design which relies for effect on the painter’s palette is ‘Sea Holly’ by Helen Dalby from 1960.

Comparison of prices with other companies is quite difficult. For example, hand-screen printed designs on cotton by Lucienne Day for Heals, in 1951-2 (‘Flotilla’, ‘Calyx’, ‘Allegro’ and ‘Mobiles’) sold for 31 shillings and 11 pence per yard. A design titled ‘Great Reed’ by Hans Tisdall for Edinburgh Weavers was 32 shillings, while an artist-designed hand-screen print by Louis Le Broquy for Whitehead’s was 28s 11d – so, only slightly cheaper. (4) Value for money becomes more significant after the company introduced automated screen printing in 1957. Dan Johnston reflected on the success of David Whitehead in an article in Design March 1958, he notes that, to begin with, patterns were printed using mechanised rollers which involved considerable initial costs to have the rollers engraved and therefore long runs were essential. The relatively high-cost of hand-screen printing that Whiteheads also used allowed for more experimentation. After the introduction of rotary screen printing the company were able to offer new designs at prices of between 9 shillings 11 pence per yard and 12 shillings and 6 pence per yard. In addition, the process allowed for shorter production runs and more designs. (5)

In the 1993 exhibition catalogue, Terence Conran wrote of the importance of the firm to young designers: ‘David Whitehead and its executive Dr John Murray saved my professional life in 1949 by buying some of my textiles designs; they did the same for a few other designers who could find no outlet for their creative energies’. (6) The Whitehead group was taken over by Lonrho in 1970 and it’s heyday as an advocate of young talented designers was over.



  1. Alan Peat (1993) David Whitehead Ltd: artists designed textiles 1952-1969, Oldham Leisure Services
  2. Peat p.11
  3. Peat, p.13
  4. House & Garden, February 1952
  5. Dan Johnson ‘Leadership Reasserted’,  Design March 1958, p.111
  6. Peat, p.7

Further Reading

  • Lesley Jackson (2002) Twentieth Century Pattern Design: textile and wallpaper pioneers, Mitchell Beazley
  • Alan Peat (1993) David Whitehead Ltd: artists designed textiles 1952-1969, Oldham Leisure Services
  • Geoffrey Rayner, Richard Chamberlain, and Annamarie Stapleton (2012) Artists’ Textiles: Artist Designed Textiles 1940-1976, Antique Collectors’ Club
Posted in Artist and Designers, Textile Designers, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘The Textile Studio’: training designers and selling textile designs in the 1950s


My friend Julia (an antique dealer) recently came across and interesting auction lot which consisted of a collection of textile designs, watercolour sketches, letters and pamphlets from the mid-1950s. (1) They all seem to relate to one source, a company called ‘The Textile Studio’, based in Harrow, Middlesex. Intrigued, I set out to try and find out more…

The Textile Studio seems to have been a company that sold designs to the textile industry and trained individuals in design via a correspondence course. It advertised its training courses in various art magazines, including The Artist and The Studio. The business was founded in 1932 by David West and he describes in his pamphlet how ‘You can make money by designing floral printed textiles’, noting he has ‘39 years professional experience in the Furnishing Fabric Trade’. (2)

The surviving material seems to have come from the estate of one of The Textile Studios’ students, a Mr H Waddington of Cirencester (an architect) and it is likely that the surviving designs and sketches are from Mr Waddington’s hand. In a letter dated 27 January 1955 sent to Waddington from The Textile Studio, Mr West explains that ‘If you can paint flowers with moderate skill, you will find designing for Cretonnes, etc., an easy, fascinating way of adapting your abilities to a remunerative purpose’. His sales pitch is persuasive:

‘Your prospective markets are immense, for it should never be forgotten that the Textile Industry is a “staple” industry of this country and that Manufacturers are perpetually purchasing and printing new designs for Cretonnes, Furnishing Fabrics of all kinds and Dress Goods etc. In the home trade alone, there is a constant, increasing demand for replacements of fabrics in millions of existing homes, plus the fabrics which will be required for a vast number of new homes to be built. Add to this the repeated Government drives to increase Exports and you will realise that there is a tremendous scope for the right type of designs made by people who know the Trade’s requirements.’ (3)

Waddington also received from West testimonials from satisfied pupils, and further reviews were included in the ‘You can make money…’ pamphlet’, with an emphasis on successful sales. The Textile Studio acted as a sales agent, operating as an intermediary between freelance designer and industry. A Mr K V R Rogers of Ruislip, Middlesex is quoted: ‘Thank you very much for your cheque for £92.12- in payment of Designs sold by you on my account’; Mrs F E Graham-Vone of Bournemouth notes ‘I was very pleased to receive your cheque for £7.11.0 (Design sold for £8.8.0)  for my Design. I feel very encouraged by having one accepted while only HALF WAY THROUGH THE COURSE’. The Studio’s ‘Sales Service’ was available just to its own students and it charged a 10% commission on designs sold). A Mrs Alcock from Liverpool is also grateful for them selling her first designs and Mrs Elwes of Bournemouth compliments the course as ‘thoroughly practical and beyond praise’.


Designs by Mrs C Elwes and Mrs M E Alcock

Evidently Waddington was ‘persuaded’ of the merits of enrolling on the course and in a letter dated 14 February 1955, West (who signs himself ‘Principal’) acknowledges receipt of a cheque for the full fee of £9. 17 shillings. For this, Waddington received a ‘Manual’ which set out general instructions on designing, including information of materials required, a glossary of trade terms, information on printing methods, repeats, colour theory, conducting research and an extensive list of ‘do’s and don’ts’. He also received the first two exercises to complete with instructions to return and criticisms would follow.

img723Exercise 35aDiagram 6

The watercolour sketches in the collection show that Waddington was a competent flower painter.

However, in West’s letter of criticism sent in response to Waddington’s first design submissions there is clearly room for considerable improvement! (4) For Design No. 1 West provides extensive criticism and notes:

B5474 Design No 1

Design number 1

‘…you give a good variety of subjects, but I am sorry that you have made such a feature of the pointed leaves…’, there is ‘a total affect of crowded fussiness, which is not desirable’. ‘Next, try and give more true-to-life subtlety and refinement in the painting of the silhouettes, and in the placing of your touches of shadow and highlight, because frankly these are rather too simple and sometimes too crudely done, to come up to Trade standards, or to make the subjects look lifelike. Take, for instance, any of the flowers in the group I have circled in pencil. They are not good studies, and they are crude and clumsy’

On the ‘Criticism Chart’ provided, Waddington is advised to revisit specific information provided in the Textile Design Studio manual, such as point 16 ‘ The size of your groups is too large for the size of the repeat and the six-colour Duplex type f pattern. Please see the Sample and Paragraph 18, pages 43 and 44.’

The detail of the criticism provided illustrates that West was always considering the trade’s requirements and tastes. It is clear that this was quite a conservative taste – with flowers dominant and traditional treatments preferred.

David West’s attitude to more modern approaches is outlined in the notes that accompany Exercise No 3. (See earlier image). As a lover of 1950s contemporary style I found his comments particularly interesting and what follows is an extended passage:

‘Due to the increasing demand for ”modern” furniture, a new style of Cretonne pattern which is generally termed “Contemporary”, has come into vogue and, although there will always be a market for a certain number of this style of design, it is the general opinion of the Trade that they will never replace the realistic Florals, which still sell in far greater than “Contemporaries”.  However, in order to bring the Course up-to-date, I am attaching a Sample of what I call “Manchester Modern” because, instead of the design being an “all out” purely abstract or modern type, such as “mobile” types of designs, as one see in patterns Featured by D Whitehead Limited, it is a compromise.’ (5)

Waddington’s response is illustrated below, unfortunately David West’s criticism of it does not survive.


This focus on the activities of The Textile Studio and one of its pupils is a tiny snapshot of the world of textile design in the mid-1950s, but I would argue, an important one. Such material is frequently dismissed as worthless and inconsequential, especially when it is of a traditional nature. Even though the ‘mobile types of designs’ referred to above, might be my designs of choice, it is easy to forget that the majority of patterns produced, manufactured and sold in the 1950s were the floral patterns that West was encouraging his students to design.


A dining room from the 1950s with the more typical designs seen in homes of that decade.


  1. lloydellis.co.uk
  2. The Textile Design Studio ‘You can make money by designing floral printed textiles’, Harrow, c.1955
  3. Letter from D.West to H.Waddington, 27 January 1955
  4. Letter from D.West to H.Waddingtom, 23 March 1955
  5. Exercise No 3

Further Reading

  • Conran, T (1957) Printed Textile Design, The Studio Ltd, London
  • Jackson, L (2002) 20th Century Pattern Design: textile and wallpaper poineers, Mitchell Beazley, London
  • Schoeser, M (1986) Fabrics and Wallpapers, Bell & Hyman, London

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Julia Lloyd-Ellis for lending me this collection.

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Horace Brooke: commercial artist


Horace Brooke self-portrait

The following article is a departure from my usual emphasis on fashion and textiles, but it does continue my interest in recording the lives of creative individuals who have been hidden from history. This is the story of my husband Andrew’s great uncle Horace Brooke. As the unofficial family archivist, I had been fascinated by Horace’s artistic talents and knew he had been to Leeds School of Art. I always had a little fantasy that his studio space may have been sandwiched between Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth’s – little did I know…

In 2017 Andrew and I visited the ‘Ravilious & Co: Pattern of Friendship’ exhibition at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne. In the first section that covered Ravilious and friends at the Royal College of Art [RCA] in the early 1920s, I was drawn to the  photograph of the Royal College of Art Convocation, from the 18th July 1924 that included Ravilious and Edward Bawden’s future wife Charlotte Epton (top row fifth from the left).  Charlotte was next two interesting individuals who stood out amidst a sea of female faces, one very tall

2017-09-09 22.35.18

and the other short and from the Far East. As I had recently been scanning family photographs I recognised the tall young man as Horace! I hadn’t realised he had been at the RCA and had studied in such illustrious company. So as a result I have been trying to find out as much about Horace Brooke as I could and what follows is the results of that research.

Horace was born in the village of Gawthorpe, near Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, on the 11th April 1898, the second son of milk dealer Lionel Brooke and his wife Mary. His older brother was Leonard, and then came his sister Ada, then brothers Albert, Ernest and Gilbert. Two other siblings had died in infancy. (Click on the images for captions)


left to right: Leonard, Ada, Horace c. 1907

The village was a thriving community and dominated by the mining industry. The Brooke family were staunch Methodists and attended the Bethesda United Methodist Church where Lionel was a preacher. Horace and his siblings attended the village school. It is said that Horace showed artistic talent from an early age and according to the Dewsbury & Batley Advertiser (24 Dec 1953) he was taken under the wing of local artist Arthur Oldroyd. Wilfred Gledhill was his teacher when he attended the Ossett Municipal Technical School as a part-time student between 1910 and 1913, he appears to have also have been working as a farm hand during this period.

Between 1913 and 1915 Horace attended Leeds School of Art, Horace’s granddaughters still own a substantial collection of his artwork – there are sketchbooks, prints and paintings from this period which illustrate his aptitude.

But his studies were interrupted when he enlisted in the Green Howards at Richmond on the 18 November 1915. Fortunately, his service papers survive, although his age is wrongly recorded as 19 years and 7 months.

Horace Brooke 1916

Horace in 1916

Horace had a rather up and down career in the army. On 8 June 1916 he was promoted to Corporal, two weeks later he was a Sergeant. He transferred to the Machine Gun Corps the following month. However, the next year, in March, he was tried in Aldershot for ‘neglecting company orders’ and ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline’ and was found guilty – the sentence was a demotion to Corporal. But Horace bounced back with a promotion to acting sergeant on 23 October 1918 and the following week to full sergeant.

Horace Brooke Sketchbook

Life in the trenches, a page from Horace’s skethcbook

These promotions were undoubtedly related to the acts of bravery that won him the Distinguished Conduct Medal. It is worth reproducing the citation in full:

‘For consistent bravery disregard of danger and devotion to duty during operations near Le Cateall. On the morning of October 20th he led his section across the River Selle under heavy fire and in very bad weather, and by skillfull [sic] leadership got them into position with the infantry on the final objective without loss. When the enemy were reported to be preparing for a counter attack he went out alone in front to reconnoitre, and personally knocked out an enemy machine gun killing the crew. On his return he brought two of his guns to bear on another enemy machine gun – which he had noticed annoying the infantry – and silenced it by knocking out the crew. Having been informed by the infantry that a large party of Germans were assembling for a counter attack near Amerval he took a gun out on the flank opened fire and scattered the rest in all directions. By his prompt action and watchfullness he effectively protected the left flank of the division when the situation on this flank was obscure.  (Recommended for D.C.M. (immediate) signed by R W Goldsborough Capt: D Company: 38th M.G.C. 24th October 1918)’

In contrast to Horace’s war, his older brother Leonard, serving with the King’s Own Light Infantry, perished in a trench in Normandy on 12 February 1917, aged just twenty-one.

When he was demobbed in February 1919 Horace returned to Leeds School of Art where he studied for the next two years. He was in illustrious company, fellow students included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Edna Ginesi and Raymond Coxon.

Horace’s nickname was ‘Buggins’ and this is how he is referred to by Henry Moore in a letter to Horace from the 1950s, it seems that the two kept in touch. Moore’s background was similar to Horace’s, both were from working-class backgrounds and both had served in the First World War.

In 1921 Horace was awarded a County Art Scholarship to attend the Royal College of Art in London. He was there with several of his Leeds colleagues, including Moore, in fact there were so many students from Leeds that the common room had what was known as ‘the Leeds table’.

At the College Horace’s main study was painting, but he also studied architecture, drawing and engraving. His reports record that he was ‘an excellent student’, ‘an able draftsman’ and ‘a hard worker’, although one dissenting voice describes him as ‘an earnest student, not very gifted, but improving’! He contributed to the RCA’s student magazine and provided designs and decorations for the common room socials. When he graduated with a diploma in Drawing and Painting in July 1924, he was photographed (see image earlier in this article) with fellow students who included Eric Ravilious, Albert Christopherson, Charles Tunnicliffe, and Douglas Percy Bliss, who all went on to have distinguished careers in the arts.


Horace at his convocation in July 1924

One of his close friends at the college was fellow student Ba Nyan, who had travelled from Myanmar (Burma) and had a key role in promoting western painting techniques to Myanmar artists when he returned home. Ba Nyan visited Gawthorpe with Horace and stayed with the family and once he had left England he kept in touch.

In May 1925 the Yorkshire Post reported that Horace was represented in an exhibition at the Royal Academy, his work was shown in an open competition for scholarships for the British School in Rome, the newspaper noted ‘Among the engravings the work of Mr Horace Brooke has much to commend it, “Grassington Bridge” is particularly well done’, this was a subject he returned to many times.  The following paragraph in the piece mentions Barbara Hepworth’s entry.

img289 (2)

Grassington Bridge, 1953. A subject Horace returned to many times.

His annual RCA admission forms record his desire to become a ‘Painter and Black and White artist’ (printing) although on his last form, in 1924, a perhaps more realistic future as a ‘Teacher or Black & White artist’ is recorded. He was fond of self-portraiture and there are several examples of his talent for ‘black and white’ art in these examples.

When Horace left the RCA in July 1925 he set up a design business with fellow RCA students E Sutton and W Twibell .

The business was known as The Regent Studio and was based in Knightsbridge and the trio focused on ‘Design, engraving, illuminating, lettering, decoration, stone carving, illustrations, posters etc’.

It’s not clear when Horace ventured out on his own – but by 1931 he had established himself as a commercial artist in St Albans. He hadpreviously married his long-time sweetheart Elsie Lovell and in 1924 they had a son, Howard.

Like all commercial artists, Horace worked on a mixed range of projects for a varied array of clients. Work ranged from a small bookplate, to illustrations to promote art paper produced by the paper company Balston.

During the Second World War Horace served his country again  and also produced drawings for the local paper to promote the purchase of a spitfire on the front cover of The Herts Advertiser in August 1940.

Although Horace had made his home in the south, he was very attached to Yorkshire. He travelled to see family including his birthplace, Gawthorpe, where his sister lived, and he went on camping trips to the Dales, especially to Grassington. He later took his caravan north for holidays.

He took a regular job for the Yorkshire Woollen District Transport Company of creating the covers its staff magazine as well as its company Christmas cards. Horace continued painting and printmaking and exhibited in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions in the 1950s.

After retirement, Horace and Elsie returned to their beloved Yorkshire and he taught art at Heckmondwyke Senior School before opening a sweet shop at Daisy Hill, Dewsbury. Elsie died in 1958 followed seven years later by Horace.

The stories of Horace and his brother Leonard Brooke illustrate the contrasting fates of two soldiers who fought in the First World War, Leonard cut down in his prime at the age of twenty-one and Horace who went on to marry, have a family and enjoy a successful career building on his artistic aptitude. Horace’s story is also of interest as he is one of many art-school-trained individuals who did not reach the heights of his fellow students, Moore, Hepworth and Ravilious – however, he is more typical of the many whose talent was recognised and then nurtured at art school allowing them to earn a living from their talents.


Many thanks to Horace’s granddaughter Jacqueline Smith for her help and permission to produce his artwork, thanks to Mary Clay (Horace’s niece), Andrew Clay (Horace’s great nephew), Kate Gilliland (Leeds College of Art), Keith Rowntree (Leeds Beckett University) and Neil Parkinson (Royal College of Art).

Unless stated otherwise all the images are owned by and reproduced by kind permission of the family and must not be reproduced without permission. 

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‘Travels with my Tape Measure’: the fashion design career of Sheila Hughes. Part 1 [1]

Sheila Hughes, 2019

As I write this article the Dior exhibition has just opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum and is the latest in a long list of blockbuster shows devoted to the great names of couture fashion. But what of those thousands of designers (mainly female) who worked in the fashion industry but who remain anonymous? What stories can they provide about their training and the experience of designing for small manufacturers during the second half of the twentieth century, what was it like to work in the more everyday world of fashion? This is the story of just one of those designers and I hope it will encourage others to record the experience of others. 

Last summer we put the house we had lived in for twenty years on the market. One of the prospective purchasers asked me what I did for a living and I explained my research on fashion and textile history and the exhibition I had curated on swimwear. She mentioned that she had a neighbour in the next village who had been a designer of swimwear. Intrigued, I asked if she could put us in touch, and in July last year I had my first meeting with Sheila Hughes. What a shame that I was just about to move from Leicestershire and that we hadn’t met before even though we lived only two miles apart!

Chatting to Sheila, I realised that her long and varied career in fashion was worthy of sharing. She had held onto lots of documents relating to her education and career and it is hoped this collection will be kept together and placed in some repository where others can access and study it. This article is the result of three meetings with her – she listened patiently to my numerous questions and did her best to recall her training and early career.

Education 1948-1950

She was born Sheila Cooper in Surbiton, Surrey in 1931. Her father Eric Cooper was a factory manager for a firm producing buttons and buckles in Wandsworth.

Her mother Kathleen had worked in a bank until her marriage in 1930. Her maternal grandmother had been a dressmaker, and Sheila explained that she ‘had always done little bits and pieces’ herself. At the age of sixteen she was unclear about what career she wanted to pursue. Her father’s connections in the rag-trade led her to a decision that she would go to the Barrett Street Technical College [2].

Barrett Street was one of a number of trade schools founded in the early twentieth century to train girls in skilled jobs for the needle-trades. After the war such schools tended to be transformed into technical colleges. Barrett Street was at the centre of the West End fashion trade and the principal was Miss E E Cox. Sheila attended Barrett Street between 1948 and 1950 and studied for a Senior Technical Diploma in the Theory and Practice of Dressmaking. She attended full-time, but the College also offered part-time courses and evening classes in subjects ranging from hand-embroidery, dressmaking, ladies tailoring, cutting and modelling, to elocution lessons and hairdressing. The course she attended was designed to prepare girls for work at all levels of the clothing trade, including the very best couture houses or mass production firms.

Many of her fellow students came from families who ran clothing businesses. She recalled that students ‘learned a lot of stitches’ and techniques that were used in haute couture, including the skills of making hand-made button-holes, modelling on the stand and flat pattern cutting. From her time at Barrett Street, Sheila has held onto sketchbooks, sample folders, notebooks, fashion illustrations, drafting books, grading sheets, photographs and the College prospectus.

She showed me a book of samples that she produced which demonstrates the variety of techniques that students were taught. For example, samples include buttonholes and fastenings, seams, pockets, plackets and numerous decorative techniques.

The book also contains partially made garments, that combined more than one process.

Fashion drawing and English were also included in the curriculum, as well as Physical Education.


According to Sheila, studying in post-war London involved a lot of walking! Barrett Street had been affected by bombing and so students travelled from building to building. The map that appeared on the back of the 1948 prospectus illustrates the various locations that the College was using temporarily [3]. She remembers travelling between Bolsover Annexe on Great Portland Street, St Thomas’s in Picton Place, Cavendish Annexe on Cavendish Street and Whitefield Annexe (Whitefield St).


Back cover of the Barrett St prospectus 1949/50

Part of the curriculum involved learning about the history of fashion. Sheila has kept an A3 folder that consists of a chronological survey of fashion, with information on the social and cultural context of each period. Students were required to make a scale pattern of garments from the different periods studied which would have been particularly useful students who were destined for a career in theatre costume. Sheila remembers finding producing the scaled-down patterns quite fiddly, but she appreciated the background knowledge she gained by studying the past.

I asked Sheila if she felt Barrett Street had prepared her well for a career in the garment trade, she commented ‘Well no, so you think you know it all but then I found out when I went to work I didn’t. So, you know you have to learn pretty quickly once you’re out’. However, she felt that there were some skills that her course taught her, modelling on the stand was important when she worked at the couture level and flat pattern cutting was invaluable too.

The Fashion Industry in Post-war Britain

For Sheila leaving Barrett Street and finding job was relatively easy. The wholesale ready-to-wear trade was well-established by the outbreak of war, and wartime circumstances meant the clothing industry generally was forced to be better organised, more efficient and as a result more prosperous. Better mass production techniques, sizing and costing practices also contributed to what Margaret Wray has described as a very prosperous period, between 1946 and 1950 [4]. She also reports that the largest section of women’s clothing industry was based in London and made up largely of small producers [5]. There were large numbers of workers employed in the clothing trades with the higher-class products being made in the West End of London and lower class in the East End.

Posners Ltd 1950-1951

It was in this context that Sheila applied for her first job. She had particularly enjoyed learning pattern cutting at Barrett Street, which was to prove crucial for her first job as a cutter and grader at Posner Ltd. She saw the job advertised in the trade magazine Draper’s Record and wrote to the company. She was interviewed by Mr Posner, the owner, and his son known as ‘Mr Claude’. Still living at home with her parents in Surrey, she travelled into London each day. The company’s business was the wholesale manufacturer of evening dresses. Her main role was as a junior cutter, with two cutters working above her. The small factory employed about twenty machinists, who occupied one end of a large room, with the finishers in the middle and the cutting tables at the other end, the room included presses. There was a stockroom onto the street with Mr Posner’s office to the side. In a time when fabric was still rationed the rolls of cloth were allocated carefully and there were limits on how many yards could be used for a dress. At the time Sheila worked for Posners it seemed to be thriving, as she can remember more and more rolls of cloth arriving and nowhere to store it, so it was hung from the ceiling. Generally, the dresses produced had a taffeta slip underneath and a net covering – perhaps spotted, sometimes it was drawn up at the hem like a cinema curtain. Sheila didn’t stay very long at Posners – like others she kept a close eye on opportunities listed in Drapers’ Record, and there seemed to be no shortage.

Black & Chilton 1951-1953

In 1951 she spotted an advertisement for a designer/pattern cutter at Black & Chilton who manufactured women’s afternoon dresses. The publication of a report on Design and the Designer in the Dress Trade by the Council for Art & Industry suggested that the supply of good designers was limited and helps explain why Sheila found it relatively easy to gain employment [6]. Black & Chilton were based in Dering Street and had a factory in Croydon. Here Sheila had a sample-hand working for her and she had to come up with methods of making specific garments which were written down for the machinists. Sheila remembers on one occasion a machinist had got it all wrong and it turned out she couldn’t read and was unable to follow the instructions. The firm had a designer and one of Sheila’s jobs was interpret her designs and turn them into a workable pattern. She also spent time at the Croydon factory where she would do the lays – working out the most efficient use of fabric by careful positioning the pattern pieces.

Whilst Sheila worked at Black & Chilton the garment industry experienced a slump. The firm had to put many of its workers on half-time, fortunately Sheila was not one of them. Her father was now running a small factory producing hand-made buttons and his business was also hit quite badly, he eventually moved out of the trade completely.

Lorraine & Chadley 1953-1955

Sheila moved again in 1953, this time to Lorraine & Chadley, they were housed ina modern building on Little Titchfield Street and made teenage party and evening wear. She was employed as a designer and pattern cutter and focused on clothes for the teenager, while another designer concentrated on younger children’s garments. The fashion in children’s wear at the time was for lots of smocking which was sent out to be completed by outworkers. Sheila was tasked with creating dresses such as the one shown here, described as a ‘debutante dress’, which was part of show put on for buyers at the Dorchester Hotel.


Whilst at Lorraine & Chadley she was involved in a competition run by the Daily Mirror aimed at teenage girls who were invited to submit designs for a dress. The prize for the winner, Edna Brown, was to have her dress made up by the firm – which was described in the paper as a ‘top girl’s dress salon’. Here we see Sheila photographed with the winner in her finished party-frock.


Another memorable project for Sheila was the design of the outfit for the Leeds May Queen in 1954. For this creation, she felt like she ‘could go to town’. It was during this period that Sheila married David Hughes, who, at the time was a Subaltern with the Royal Engineers.

Perlmutt & Co Ltd 1956-1957

Sheila’s final London job was for Perlmutt & Co Ltd who produced model couture gowns and wedding dresses and sold in up-market departments stores like Harrods and Marshall & Snelgrove. For her interview she wore a black coat that she had designed and made herself, this walking advertisement for her skills impressed her interviewers and she got the job! Perlmutt, like the majority of the firms where Sheila was employed in the 1950s, was Jewish-owned and many of the machinists who worked there had survived the concentration camps of Poland. The company had a show-room and resident model who would come in to show off Perlmutt’s creation to visiting buyers.

She was employed as a pattern cutter and modeller (on the stand) on a substantial salary of £12. The firm had a designer called Miss Jay, they employed two or three girls who did beading and there were two sample hands. Here Sheila had the opportunity to design high-class gowns, including copies of Paris couture models. Perlmutts purchased toiles from couture houses in Paris for reproduction. Sheila adapted a toile of a dress bought from Pierre Balmain for Perlmutts and produced a version for herself and still has it, it has been worn many times by her and members of her family. The version she made for herself was slightly adapted and the boning omitted. The images illustrate the complex nature of the pattern, with the pleats stitched on the inside and the hem completed with netting. The fabric was by Sekers – who were one of the premier firms producing silk designs for the fashion industry and was bought by Sheila in the West End.  

During her time at Perlmutts, Sheila’s husband was completing his national service printing maps in Dortmund, Germany. She spent some extended periods with him and they lived in Goering’s flat.

As was the custom in the 1950s Sheila left Perlmutts to have her first child, Alison, in 1957. Three more children, in 1959 (Joanna), 1962 (Christopher) and 1964 (Charlotte) kept Sheila very busy – so we see a temporary break in her fashion career until 1970, this second chapter will be continued in Part II…


1. This was the title Sheila used when she travelled collecting information for a Marks & Spencer measurement survey in the early 1980s.

2. Reynolds, H Couture or Trade: and Early Pictorial Record of the London College of Fashion, Chichester, Phillamore & Co. 1997.

3. Barrett Street Prospectus 1949-50, London County Council, 1949.

4. Wray, M The Women’s Outerwear Industry, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, London, 1957.

5. Wray, p.63.

6. Council For Art & Industry, Design and Designer in the Dress Trade, HMSO, 1945.

Further Reading

Barrett Street Prospectus 1949-50, London County Council, 1949.

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

Ewing, E. History of Twentieth Century Fashion, London, Batsford, 1974.

Reynolds, H. Couture or Trade: and Early Pictorial Record of the London College of Fashion, Chichester, Phillamore & Co. 1997.

Wray, M. The Women’s Outerwear Industry, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, London, 1957.


This article would not have been possible without the cooperation and enthusiasm of Sheila Hughes herself. The majority of the images have been provided by her. Thanks also to her daughter Charlotte, who took the photograph of Sheila at the beginning of the article.




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Hans Tisdall (Aufseeser) 1910-1997


In his 1937 publication British Textile Designers Today H G Hayes Marshall described Hans Aufseeser (later Tisdall) as a designer ‘whose careful attention to detail and his real ability to design for any technique has placed him in the front rank of British Designers for Industry’.

Tisdall was born Hans John Knox Aufseeser in Munich to an Anglo-Irish mother and a German father, Ernst Aufseeser (an artist and designer). He adopted his mother’s maiden name Tisdall in the 1940s. He studied at The Academy of Fine Art, Munich in 1928 and was apprenticed to the sculptor Moisey Keegan. He lived in Paris and Ascona, Switzerland before settling in London in 1930. He began his professional life in Britain working for an advertising agency – but he soon abandoned this to concentrate on a career as a painter. However, the economic climate of the thirties meant he had to diversify and became well known during the decade as a textile designer producing patterns for some of the best firms of the day – including Warner & Sons, Edinburgh Weavers, Donald Brothers and Allan Walton. Hayes Marshall describes how he was the only designer submitting his patterns on rice paper which allowed a prospective buyer to appreciate the design when gathered up.

His work was extremely wide-ranging and he also worked as a muralist, including on a commission with Edward Bawden and John Armstrong for the Michael Rachlis’ International Building Club in Park Lane just before the outbreak of the war. His large scale work was further developed in 3D form in 1951 when he designed plaster centaurs for the Festival of Britain Pleasure Gardens at Battersea in 1951, alongside a cockerel mural . He revisited the cockerel motif in this 1957 design for Edinburgh Weavers.

In 1941 he married Isabel Gallegos the daughter of a Spanish painter who worked as a stylist for Edinburgh Weavers. She set up her own firm Tamesa Fabrics in 1964 and Hans provided many of the designs.

His textile patterns are often large in scale and owe much to his experience as a mural painter – such as his design ‘Pheasant Moon’ for Edinburgh Weavers, 1960. This design has an enormous repeat (220cm).


‘Pheasant Moon’ Edinburgh Weavers, screen-printed Ravel Satin (authors’ collection)

The large scale patterns he designed for Edinburgh Weavers are particularly effective and were perfectly suited for the prevailing fashion in architecture for floor to ceiling windows.

Tisdall was an extremely versatile designer and  was also well known for his graphic work, particularly book jackets.

Like many artist-designers of his generation he worked across a number of design disciplines, and added twelve large scale designs for the Edinburgh Tapestry Company between 1959 and 1974 to his expanding catalogue . He is pictured here checking the colours of his tapestry ‘Space’.


As well as continuing to practice as a painter he also taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts between 1948 and 1975 initially in textiles and later in painting.


Further Reading

Marshall, HG Hayes (1939) British Textile Designers Today (Leigh-on-Sea, F Lewis Ltd)

Jackson, Lesley (2012) Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers (London, V&A Publishing)

Powers, Alan – (7.2.1997) ‘Obituary of Hans Tisdall’, Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/obituary-hans-tisdall-5581928.html

Robertson, Bryan (1990) Hans Tisdall: Paintings 1960-1997, (London, Albermarle Gallery)

Schoeser, Mary (1992) Influential Europeans in British Craft and Design, (London, Crafts Council)

Victoria & Albert Museum


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Coasters for Christmas

FESTIVAL OF PATTERN – catalogue for customers April 2018.docx

I have been sorting through fabric and making up coasters for Christmas orders. The designs above are new (in acrylic casings) and many of the fabrics are now also available in glass casings (below).

You can see the full range with details of how to order – just click on the link below:

FESTIVAL OF PATTERN COASTERS – Catalogue -APRIL 2018 FESTIVAL OF PATTERN – catalogue for customers April 2018.docx


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Marion Dorn: Illustrations for William Beckford’s Vathek, 1929

Back in the 1980s I was working on my PhD on the American textile designer Marion Dorn and was in New York where I interviewed Yvonne McHarg, a food stylist, who had known Dorn back in the 1930s through her sister Madge Garland. Garland was a fashion journalist and the founder of the first fashion course at the Royal College of Art, she and Dorn were good friends. On that trip Yvonne gave me her copy of Vathek. The book was a re-print of William Beckford’s 1782 gothic novel – which tells the story of Vathek, a caliph, who builds five palaces, each devoted to the enjoyment of one of the five senses. The book was published by the Nonesuch Press in 1929 with illustrations by Marion Dorn. In this article I would like to draw attention to the relationship between Dorn’s  textile design and these illustrations.

Dorn’s eight full-page illustrations and two vignettes were printed by the Curwen Press. There was a limited print run for the volume with 1050 copies produced in the UK and 500 in the US. The printing process used was lithography and each illustration has a pastel-like quality. At the time she produced these designs she was starting to become a very successful textile designer and was gaining a reputation for her batiks which she had been designing since she settled in London in 1923 with her partner and fellow American, graphic designer, Edward McKnight Kauffer.

When Dorn arrived in London she continued to develop the batik work which she had begun when she lived in New City, New York with her, then husband, the ceramic artist Henry Varnum Poor. The fabrics she produced in England in the 1920s ranged from  large-scale bespoke pieces, to smaller items such as scarves and handkerchiefs and occasionally dresses.

Dorn’s pattern-making skills are evident in both the illustrations to Vathek, in her batik patterns and the increasing number of carpet designs she was starting to produce by the late 1920s. In her  first illustration for the book (see image shown next to book’s binding, above) one can clearly see the geometric composition of the floor of the palace that derives from her batik work and was developing in her rug designs, especially the important commission she received for the 1932 extension and redecoration of Claridges Hotel, London by Oswald P Milne.

The second full-page image in the book illustrates the area described in the text where ‘a hundred groves of sweetly scented shrubs’ were situated and where Vathek went to breathe fresh air and drink the pure water. Dorn’s treatment of the trees was intended to represent the range of different species found there, she intersects them with a flowing stream. The way she handles the depiction of the various leaf forms relates to her skilled rendering of leaf and plant forms in both her rug and fabric designs.

Vathek constructs an observation tower with 1,500 steps on the top of which a fire is built and a sacrifice made. In a further episode in the story tigers attack a group of travellers. In both these illustrations Dorn’s drawing is accomplished and her composition and pattern-making skills obvious.

In some of the illustrations we see motifs that recur again and again in Dorn’s textile work, particularly leaves and birds.

Dorn’s abstracted treatment of birds was developed in several textile designs in the 1930s. The surreal treatment of the disembodied hand and heart was adapted for a design she did for a screen print ‘Hand & Poppy for Warner & Sons in 1935.

Vathek is the only book that Dorn illustrated, probably because her career as a textile designer really took off in the 1930s. Her name appeared regularly in the art and design press and in 1934 she set up her own limited company – unusual for a designer at the time.

She did occasionally produce works on paper, these included cards, wallpapers and embroidery transfers – but her real talent was working with fabric and fibre, whether that be for printed textiles or more textural weaves and rugs. Writing in 1939,  the writer and interior designer H.G.Hayes Marshall described Dorn ‘ as one of the most prominent and successful designers of our time’. (1)

(1) Marshal, H.G. Hayes (1939) British Textile Designers Today, F Lewis.


Boydell, C (1996) The Architect of Floors: modernism, art and Marion Dorn designs, Schoeser

Boydell, C (1996) ‘Batik in America and Britain 1920-1930: The Early Career of Marion Dorn’, Text, 24: 4-8

Boydell, C (1996) ‘The Decorative Imperative: Marion Dorn’s Textiles and Modernism’, Journal of the Decorative Arts Society, 19: 31-40

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Antique Textile Fair, Manchester Sunday 30th April, 2017


I am getting ready for the 25th Textile Society’s Antique Textile Fair. I think I must have been to most of them and sold for the first time last year. It’s a fantastic event. I have some gorgeous vintage clothing and fabrics for sale. So here’s a preview of what you will see. Come and say hello, my stand is #48 on the first row on the right near the entrance.

I specialise in mid-century fabrics and clothing – but I have a few older pieces this year. The 1920s brocade coat is a real gem and I have a couple of beautiful embroidered silk shawls and a fine woven wool example.

I love these two little linen aprons. The one on the left is by Liberty’s.

In terms of vintage clothing, there will be a few Horrockses’ pieces (of course!) as well as some dead stock 1950s hats.

And a huge range of high quality mid-century furnishing fabrics, from manufacturers such as David Whitehead, Edinburgh Weavers, Bernard Wardle and Heals.

I will also have a good selection of magazines from the 1950s through to the 1970s.

In addition to original vintage pieces there will also be a selection of coasters and key rings made from vintage fabric available.

Hope to see you there!



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