Book Review: Horrockses

There is a particular dress in my costume collection that has always intrigued me. There is something about the way the fabric falls, how the print meshes perfectly with the cut, and how this simple cotton dress from the 1950s still looks like you could step right into it and feel perfectly stylish. After reading Horrockses Fashions, I know why. Horrockses dresses, mostly designed between 1946 to 1958, are of lovely quality and, not surprisingly, have been cherished by their original owners and collectors alike. The company showed its first clothing collection in 1946, based on the strategy of providing ready to wear clothing with an exclusive “up-market” allure. The signature look for the line was influenced heavily by Dior’s Corolle line in 1947: soft shoulders, nipped-in waist, and full skirt.

Christine Boydell, the author of this book, is a force to be reckoned with. She curated the Horrockses dress exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her work is meticulously researched, obviously a labour of love, as she passionately demonstrates how the company achieved their goal of creating an air of exclusivity combined with high quality, and how devoted their clients were to these special dresses. (There is a terrific interview with the author at the Fashion and Textile Museum of London in front of the Horrockses exhibit that she curated, which allows those of us who missed the exhibit to sneak a peek.)

Boydell also gives us a succinct history of the company, beginning with John Horrockses and his cotton mill in 1791. In the 1880s, in order to control the reputation of their high quality fabrics, the company began manufacturing shirtings and bed linens, which were the choice of young brides for their wedding trousseaus. It was a natural leap for Horrockes to create a line of cotton dresses in the 1940s, as the company was bolstered by their experience using mass manufacturing techniques to churn out military uniforms in World War II. However, before these dresses were embraced by legions of women, there were two negative public perceptions to overcome: that cotton is a “cheap” fabric best suited to utilitarian clothing, and that large-scale manufacturing resulted in shoddily made products. Both were essentially true in the post-war context, and Horrockses can be credited with changing them.

As a V&A publication, the book itself is luscious. The pages are thick, and beautiful colour illustrations abound. It’s a treat for textile junkies, since many spreads are devoted to close up views of Horrockses fabrics. Even the covering of the hardback book appears to be made out of actual Horrockses fabric! The illustrations are lovely, running the gamut from design sketches, fabric swatches, and finished dresses both on actual clients and in publicity stills. Truth be told, in my regular life, I would be more likely to flip through this beautiful book than to read every word of text. At the same time, I am very happy to have been introduced to the magical Horrockses dresses, and feel a genuine nostalgia for a company whose heyday ended in 1958.

And by the way, I now know that the special dress from costume storage is a Horrockses original.

Horrockses Fashions: off-the-Peg Styles in the ’40s and ’50s by Christine Boydell. V&A Publishing, 2010

Reviewed by Catherine Bradley

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