Alastair Morton : designing for Horrockses Fashions

Over the years that I have been researching Horrockses Fashions I have collected examples of the company’s output and probably top of my list of favourites are dresses made from the glorious designs of Alastair Morton who was a key figure in the company’s early success. I thought I should record them here, as soon most of them will be winging their way to the Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston.

'Cotton Concerto' (scrapbook)

Horrockses Fashions’ first collection (pre Morton) [The Drapers’ Record, April 1946]

Like all fashionable clothing concerns, Horrockses Fashions realised early on that acquiring good fabric designs was crucial. It is clear from its business records and interviews with its employees that the acquisition of good designs was considered a priority. When asked to comment on what he felt were the main elements in a successful fashion business, the firm’s design director, James Cleveland Belle replied ‘that there was no doubt that the following factors in the order stated were vitally important. 1. Colour and design. 2. The cut of the dress. 3. The quality’, he went on to comment ‘that if we could get the right colours (i.e. bright colours) we could get away with “murder” in regard to the making of the dresses’.[1] And colour is at the heart of Alastair Morton’s designs.

New ImageThis was my first Alastair Morton purchase – it’s a day dress from 1948 – and is an excellent example of one of his early floral designs. Like many of the designs included here you can see sketches and samples of his Horrockses’ work in the collections of Abbott Hall Art Gallery in Kendal. This wonderful collection shows the different colourways he had for each design, many are just in sketch form (so presumably these didn’t make it onto fabric). There are also a number of drawings which show Morton’s observational skills and his talent for translating these into repeating patterns.

Those who know me are aware I am a fan of the housecoat (I have many and will be writing about them here soon). This one is in a beautiful lilac Morton print. The curving bands of delicate flowers are arranged on a background of stars.

Horrockses purchased designs from a variety of sources including Parisian design studios and freelancers as well as from its own designers. But the engagement of Alastair Morton in April 1947, on a monthly retainer, was an inspired move. Morton had many years’ experience of textile design, being closely involved in his family’s furnishing fabric firm, Morton Sundour, and specifically a branch of the firm, Edinburgh Weavers, described by Nikolaus Pevsner in 1937 as ‘the most adventurous firm in the country’. [2] After the Second World War, Morton worked for Edinburgh Weavers on a half-time basis, allowing him to pursue other activities such as handloom weaving and designing fashion fabrics for Horrockses.

In return for his monthly retainer of  £62.10s, he was expected to provide at least 40 designs each year, which he supplied in repeat and in several colourways. [3] At first he dealt directly with Olive O’Neill who had been brought in by Horrockses as fashion adviser. These early designs were characterized by their bright colours and loosely drawn flowers, often arranged in horizontal coloured stripes, which were to be widely imitated by Horrockses’ rivals. These early designs were reviewed favourably by The Ambassador in April 1948 who commented on their ‘rich clear colours’. [4]

This yellow dress with designs of roses shows how occasionally Morton’s designs were adapted in the company’s design studio. In this case a grid pattern has been added to the ground.

This design below is an interesting example, it shows how the fabric was cut to create a horizontal arrangement of the pattern. This ‘bayadere’ stripe became the signature of Horrockses Fashions and was widely imitated.

The management of Horrockses Fashions agreed that Morton had played a crucial role in the company’s initial success and ‘undoubtedly set a fashion in Great Britain’.[5]

The firm continued to use him into the 1950s, although in 1949 some concern was expressed that its customers had ‘seen too much of the Alastair Morton designs’ and that it was striving to find a new designer with a ‘definite handwriting’.[6] In spite of this comment, the contract with Morton continued until 1955 when, due to increasing commitments at Edinburgh Weavers, he decided to end the arrangement.


Where to see Alastair Morton designs for Horrockses:

Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston (the Museum has many Morton examples in storage that can be viewed by appointment)

Abbott Hall Art Gallery, Kendal (collection can be accessed by appointment)


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

[2] Pevsner, N. An Enquiry into Industrial Art in England, Cambridge University Press, 1937, p.48.

[3] Agreement re. payments to Alastair Morton (LRO: DDVC Acc. Box 12/4)

[4] The Ambassador, April 1948

[5] Horrockses Fashions Limited. Extract from Verbatim Report of the Management Meeting. 27 July 1949 (LRO: DDVC Acc 7340 Box 12/3)

[6] Letter from Alastair Morton to Mr Leadbetter, 29 May 1955 (LRP: DDVC Acc. Box 12/4)

Further Reading

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

Jackson, L. Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers: visionary textiles and modern art, V&A Publishing, 20

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One Response to Alastair Morton : designing for Horrockses Fashions

  1. Pingback: Happy in Horrockses – Original Vintage OOTD – DailyNews Vintage

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