For around the past four years I have been madly obsessed with the fashion label “Horrockses fashions” The company began in 1946 and was hugely popular throughout the 1950s being the big name in cotton fashion and promoting the luxury and glamour of cotton. Almost as soon as I started at the museum service I hunted for any Horrockses in the collection to add to my database of prints and styles. There was one dress at the time that particularly stood out to me, a simple blue and white cotton poplin day dress, it interested me because it contained not only a Horrockses label, but also a Harvey Nichols cotton shop label. This was obviously an expensive piece when new.
Dress accession no: C1999.146.2
Contrary to popular belief Horrockses did not produce all of their fabrics themselves (this was especially the case with dresses made in jersey, silks or satins). Most of the cottons were produced by the Horrockses parent company, but some types of cotton still were produced elsewhere. One such example was cotton poplins. Cotton poplins were used for more expensive garments, particularly evening wear. Poplins tended to be bought in from Ashton’s or from Holden’s.
I then forgot about this dress for a good few months. I t wasn’t until march when I went to the designing the decades: 50s talk at the Victoria and Albert museum that the dress came to the forefront of my mind again. At the talk the textile designs of Lucienne Day were discussed. I had always liked the abstracted prints of Day, but the talk gave me a whole new appreciation of her work. When I returned to the museums service the next week I mentioned to my boss about how much I had enjoyed the talk, and she told me that there were two dresses originally owned By Day in the Hampshire Museum Service collection. I search on the Modes record and couldn’t quite believe it when one turned out to be the Horrockses dress which I had been so interested by previously! It was amazing to find out that such an iconic dress had been owned by such an iconic lady.
I continued to research a little further and turned up trumps by finding a John French fashion photograph of the dress via flickr, which was attributed to the V and A. This really allowed me to see how the dress would have looked on and appreciated how the relatively stiff cotton pique would have created a very distinctive silhouette.
John French regularly photographed Horrockses fashions. He has quite a distinctive style where the dress is allowed to do the talking which perfectly suited the style of Horrockses dresses. Horrockses often advertised in Vogue, and their advertisements (which often used French’s photos) tended to be very simple featuring just the dress and Horrockses in Serified font. This was meant to draw associations to luxury labels such as Dior etc which often advertised in a similarly simple way.
Then a few weeks ago my research came to a somewhat surprising and pleasant end. I decided to re read my Horrockses book by Christine Boydell, and lo and behold again there was the John French photograph in front of me, with more details about the styling of this dress and French’s photographs.
After re reading the book I have come to the conclusion that this is probably a design by John Tullis due to the relatively complex construction of the dress. Tullis was renowned for the complex cut of his dresses, which many of the seamstresses complained were a nightmare to stitch! Tullis got his training at Molyneux the couturier in Paris. This couture training could be one of the main reasons for the complicated cut of many of his garments. If you spot a Horrockses with a particularly complicated bodice, or details like pockets on the outside of a dress, then it will be probably be a Tullis design! The fabric suggests that this may have been one of their “specials” dresses. This is further suggested by the fact that Harvey Nichols was one of Horrockses biggest customers, and one of the main suppliers of Horrockses garments in London. There was a special relationship between Horrockses and Harvey Nichols. It is known that Horrockses produced special dresses which were exclusive to the store or used particular fabric designs fro them.
If you look at the pictures you can see the interior construction of the dress. I assume that the dress has been altered at some point. Day was quite petite so it was likely the dress was taken up to suit her frame (this has bee hand done, most other cotton pique Horrockses dresses I have come across are machine finished)
So there you go, not only is this dress a beautiful piece which is totally evokes the mid 50s but it is a piece with an interesting and varied history which links a number of different areas of design history together.